The Hardness of Happiness

“People don’t just walk around IMG_0371being happy all the time,” I barked and snarled in response to my boyfriend at the time. He had told me that he wasn’t happy and wanted to be happier in life.

“Impossible,” I thought. It hurt to even consider that anyone would want to be happy. That wasn’t what life was for. Life was supposed to be hard. It was my heart center that I can remember now. When I hurled this response at him it burst forward at the sides in attack while at the same time shrinking and shriveling in the middle. Caving in. I wanted the same thing and believed it couldn’t happen for me.

I used to see people who smiled all the time and I wanted to smack them. It didn’t seem authentic. I mean who were they kidding? “Wipe that smile off your face,” isn’t that what we’re told. Don’t be happy – especially when you’re getting away with something.

Early in my yoga teacher training we sat for a meditation where we were invited to bring a happy moment to mind.

Nothing came.

Nothing came and I froze, holding my breath, and stuck my focus on the pain that in the black hole where I could see there was no hint of happiness. All I could feel were hard edges. I wasn’t allowed to be happy. Because of what I’d done? What I’d “gotten away with”? It had set in long before that but now… never.

And I started to cry because I couldn’t find a single happy moment. Just blackness. Emptiness.

Life is hard.

People don’t just walk around being happy all the time.

I don’t get to be happy – especially because of what I had done.

My long-held beliefs (apparently even as a child I would walk around saying “life is hard”) were so thickly set they were all I could fathom. At that time all I felt was pain. I was comfortable in pain – it’s hard. There’s no happiness in it. I was used to it. I believed that’s all there was and so that’s all I found as I made my way through life, adding experience after experience to this way of seeing the world. Fitting them all in.

Except in that invitation to see a happy moment a seed had been planted. I was, on some level, aware of this absence and aware that I wanted to be happy too. Not being happy was also causing pain. I wanted to find this seemingly fictional state I had hidden from and pushed away for so long.

It was about a year and a half after that initial meditation that I found the practice of yoga nidra. Part of the practice of yoga nidra is the pairing of opposites. For example you might be invited to become heavy then light or hot then cold to move between these two states a few times. At first the different states always felt extreme to me. I’d become so heavy I’d sink way down into the earth and so light I felt as though I was floating way up on the ceiling.

I was in a weekend-long training and the first time happy was paired with sad I had no problem finding the sad moments and feeling sensations of sadness. I could stick with them and pile them one on top of the other. Bring it on.

This time the happy moment didn’t come but I could feel my brain buzzing and searching. Reaching across space and time and trying desperately to connect, to rewire, and then the feeling and sound like when a heart monitor flat lines. There was blackness and there was movement.

The next day it happened. The first time a happy moment appeared. Soft and powerful and clear – it was the memory of the first time I held my little brother. I was nearly twelve and he was a few hours old. The smallest baby I had ever held. That was my happy memory. It appeared and sensations of happiness flooded my body. Tears, different than the ones of loss and desperation from before streamed out, as I stayed wrapped up in the moment.

I had one! I had the most perfect fitting happy moment appear. I was thrilled. It happened. And if I found it once, I could find it again. And I did. For a while that was my go-to memory every time I was asked to find a happy one. Some times it took a while to appear and then it would float up and bring the memory of all that happiness with it.

The sad, painful memories still came more easily. Of course they did – it was a lifetime of me believing that was all there was. And yet there was this beacon of light and reprieve. This moment of happiness in that vast sea that would so constantly overwhelm me and drag me down.

In the yoga nidra practices that followed I found it difficult to find the happy place more than once. We would go into happy and it would eventually come. I’d leave it to go into sad and then that’s where I would get stuck. When alternating back to happy again I couldn’t go. The familiar sensations of sadness held me in place.

Until one day there was more movement.

I was laying on the floor and the happy moment came and then the sad moment that appeared showed me an entire trauma – that thing I had “done”. And for the first time ever I could move away from it. I could feel my brain letting go and unsticking like tendrils languishing for a bit before releasing. I could move away and back to the sensations of happiness. Not right away but it didn’t take long.

I was allowed to feel happiness.

Life wasn’t about being hard. It wasn’t all about only being in pain – whether I was “getting away with” anything or not. It wasn’t about being stuck in one place unable to be happy.

I could move between both.

I could move between both and the more I practiced the easier it became. The easier it became to go in and out and over and across from happy to sad.

I no longer sink into the floor in heaviness or float up on the ceiling in lightness. The two opposites have started to feel similar. It’s the same for happy and sad. I’ve built up a similar strength in happiness (there’s so much!) to what I used to have only in sadness. Now, in some ways, they seem to have combined. Infused with the emotional charge of one another so they aren’t so absolute. I can feel and tolerate both at any level of extremity without it feeling extreme and without get stuck in either.

So no, people don’t just walk around being happy all of the time. That is true. Happiness doesn’t work in that absolute kind of way. Neither should sadness or pain or any other emotion. I was so afraid to let go of the beliefs and control that I had within pain and sadness that no one could be happy, least of all me. I had to make it all fit.

Now I know it can’t be contained. It can only be felt and the more freedom I have to feel and move between these (and other) states the less “hard” life becomes.