We pay so much attention to negative emotions like fear, anger, anxiety, etc… that we rarely reflect to the same extent on enjoyable emotions that uplift us. Of course, it makes sense to focus on that which causes suffering to try to diminish it but if we could choose between pleasure or pain, what would we choose? Definitely, pleasure. Specially, at this time of the year, when the first Spring shoots are appearing timidly in the soggy soil, is this not a good reason to celebrate and be optimistic?
As biological beings we have two basic survival mechanisms at our disposal: approach and avoidance. The rules are pretty simple: pain is to be avoided, pleasure is to be pursued. From a spiritual point of view, however, as long as there are likes and dislikes we are in a state of bondage, subject to our basic survival drives. Both the avoidance of the unpleasant or the attachment to the pleasant are impediments to the realization of our true nature described in Yoga as Satchitananda: existence, knowledge and bliss absolute, a state that elevates us from an instinctual condition. The key word here is attachment or identification with either the pleasant or the unpleasant. But as long as we are alive life will present us with pleasure and pain, so we are not talking here about eradicating pleasure and pain but not identifying with them. So by this process of non-identification we can eventually realize the truth of Satchitananda. In the meantime, the masters of all traditions tell us to cultivate those qualities that define a liberated being: wisdom, compassion and bliss.
This means we don’t have to wait to realize that we are bliss in order to experience it. Because we are all endowed with this true nature, in principle, we are all capable of experiencing bliss, joy or happiness right now. Of course there are degrees of bliss just as there are degrees of enlightenment but we have all experienced moments of great joy in our lives. Remember how you felt last time you were in love? When experiencing bliss it is impossible to miss it because we feel it in the body. It changes our cardiovascular rhythm, improves our immune system and brightens our facial expression giving shine to our eyes. From a neurological point of view joy releases the neurotransmission of dopamine that has the power to send us on a euphoric trip. It makes us focused, motivated and creative. But long before neurology came into the picture, poets have known the effects of pleasure, specially the connection between love, the heart and the eyes. Jacopo de Lentini (1210-60) expressed it this way: “Love is a desire that comes from the heart through an abundance of pleasure. The eyes first generate love, and the heart gives nourishment.”
In moments of happiness, and not just when being in love, we have all experienced how the vision of the world changes. Simple pleasures like listening to a favorite piece of music can send chills up our spine sharpening our attention and delighting our heart. So the question is how can we be under the rapturous spell of bliss in our everyday life so that our preoccupation with fear, sadness or anxiety subsides under the power of pleasure? Of course, pleasure when indiscriminate and immoderate will turn into its opposite, pain, and so we must always use our judgement in choosing wisely our pleasurable activities.
For example, rising early has tangible benefits. Yes, I said raising early… There are precious pleasures to be enjoyed in the morning like doing stretches, pranayama, chanting, meditation but also, to break the routine, going for an early morning walk, just taking in the early sounds and light of the morning, greeting neighbors and perhaps stopping at the local bakery to buy some croissants. When confined within the close boundaries of repetitive habit we become in a sense blind to our surroundings. Our mental gaze is projected to a distant purpose and we overlook local opportunities for delight. Joy or even a small pleasure gives us better eyes and nails down fear. It pushes it down towards temporary oblivion so that we can make room and look at everything with renewed optimism. Full eradication of fear can only happen after full enlightenment or total freedom, but remember that we are talking here about cultivation of positive qualities and cultivation means practice.
The discovery of the simple pleasures of life entails attention, to be present in everything we see, hear and do filling every moment with meaning and value, without just letting life occur to us, as if we did not believe in it. What else is there to do but to participate fully in each moment of life? If I write these lines, if I make some tea, if I do the dishes, if I listen to a friend, I want to fully enjoy those gestures.
Satisfactory social relationships and friendships are a very important source of joy that can improve our quality of life. Friends have the capacity to uplift us and provoke in us positive feelings of joy, love, hope and gratitude. In fact, the desire of sharing with others is the spontaneous result of feeling happy and, in turn, sharing with others nourishes us with more joy.
What are some of the signs of joy? As just mentioned, wanting to share our happiness with others gives joy away. Joy breeds love, acceptance and forgiveness and, at the same time, these positive qualities breed joy. Touching hugging and caressing are some of the spontaneous ways to express joy, activities that open the flood of endorphins, our natural opiates.
A smile also gives joy away. The extension of the zygomaticus major muscle from the corner of the mouth to the cheekbones sends a message to the brain that it can relax, that there is no need to be on the alert. This instant communication between the state of tension or relaxation of our muscles and the brain is the basis of the therapeutic benefits of relaxation. Have you ever tried to smile while you were angry? It is impossible. So let’s cultivate our smile, even if we don’t feel like smiling all the time.
“A day without laughter is a day wasted”, said Charlie Chaplin. The mood enhancing benefits of laughter are well-known by all the Yoga Laugh groups which are sprouting all over the world. Besides, laughter is contagious so by laughing we can share our joy with others. But even if you are alone try to watch funny movies -forget about dramas – and have a good laughing session.
So, does it make sense to do whatever we are doing a little slower, a little more mindfully in order to enjoy and rejoice in the simple pleasures of life? Then brief or prolonged moments of joy spent in a good mood will have tangible repercussions in our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. And while we steer towards the ideal of self-realization we can, at the same time, enjoy the path and experience happiness right here and now. As a Buddhist prayer says:
“This land where we stand is the pure lotus land and this very body, the body of Buddha.”