The problem with bliss

I have a problem with bliss. I don't mean to say that I don't like the Savasana after-glow or that I will pass up a genuinely happy moment because – like any good Buddhist – I feel the need to acknowledge that life is suffering. I'm not a pessimist. However, I have serious issues with people trying to make you believe that life is just pure bliss and all rainbows and unicorns. You only have to be willing to see it that way.

Selling bliss has become a profitable line of business. A lot of yoga teachers make a living like that: “Come to yoga and feel the bliss of inhabiting your body, of being totally relaxed, of feeling more lithe and bendy, feel how everything looks, feels and tastes better!” And these are just a few of the marketing slogans.

A place to simply feel

I'm not saying that yoga doesn't have these positive effects. But this is only one side of the story and just one of the possibilities. Yes, you may experience pure bliss in Savasana (deep relaxation at the end of class). But you may also find yourself shaking with sobs in pigeon pose (intense outer hip stretch) because the physical pain awakens some deep buried emotional wound.

To me, that is the beauty of yoga. Sometimes it helps us feel better, lighter, more optimistic after a long day at work or an argument with a loved one. Sometimes it also makes space for our emotions to come through (see last post). And those emotions may not exclusively be of the pleasant, cheerful kind. Sometimes our yoga class is the only place where we can drop our guard and stop being so fully functional. I think in our day and age we all need a place where we are allowed to soften or even fall apart. This gives us a chance to find out that we have what it takes to put ourselves back together again. Don't we all need a space where we can bawl for no apparent reason and feel the tension release without there having to be a solution right off?

Only the above mentioned storyline doesn't sell so well. People are bliss junkies. If you want to sell something, you better promise something pleasant or in the very least, sensational (in every sense of the word).

You must be blissed out

As I experience pregnancy for a second time, it strikes me how the same marketing strategy is applied here. Countless books have been written about how magic these nine months are. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that, yes, probably for most women, there is at least some magic. But certainly not for all pregnant women. However, the pressure to be over the moon is at least a fewcenturies old: You must be so excited about becoming a mother, you must feel like a fertility goddess, you must feel your maternal instinct stirring, you must take pictures of your bulging belly, you must decorate the nursery. You have no choice but to be the epitome of bliss.

For the longest time the shadow sides of pregnancy and early motherhood were taboo. Now at least, professionals acknowledge that there are such things as postpartum depression, crybabies and mothers (and fathers) that struggle for many other reasons. But even if you don't have an obvious reason to struggle, those hormones are no joke. The immensity of the change in your life, especially with a first baby, is something the mind has trouble grasping. It can feel overwhelming. Becoming a parent requires a huge amount of adaptability and confidence. Still society's unspoken message is that it's not okay to struggle, or even ask questions, because parenthood is a blessing.

It isn't always a blessing. Last week, a friend's new born daughter died. She only lived for a week. The complications right after her birth were fatal and the parents eventually had to let her go. Being pregnant myself, I don't have the words to say how this news affected me.

The tendency to narrow the bandwidth

It might have been easier to look away, but I felt compelled to feel the sorrow. Just like joy and sadness are sides of the same coin, so are life and death. A yoga teacher of mine with a degree in psychology once said: “If we constantly try to narrow the bandwidth of our experience and try to exclude the negative, we numb ourselves for the positive as well. We need to be open to sadness to feel joy as well.”

Yoga is not just about bliss, it's about the whole spectrum of experience. And so is life.

I feel it's a slap in the face of a mourning parent to pretend that having children is just pure bliss. It is limiting to say that yoga should always make you feel good about yourself. Sometimes that's true, sometimes it's not.

No mud, no lotus

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book with the title No mud, no lotus. A lotus can only grow in the mud and through the muck. Most of us don't welcome the muck, we want the lotus right away. Yet it is the experience of suffering that often acts like humus for positive states of mind. Pain softens us and makes us receptive for impulses of gratitude, compassion, empathy, maybe even a fundamental trust in life. If we keep up the resistance and only want bliss, we can never truly develop resilience.

No one is excited about the suffering we encounter. Still, it's a good thing to have the whole bandwith. Then from the dirt, a flower will unfold.