Do you ever wonder why we wake up some days and seem to breeze through the entire day without sensing any stress, frustration or anxiety, when on another day stress and anxiety seem to be inescapable? Is it something we ate or drank? Is it possible we’re the victims of random events that launch us into states of unhappiness and stress without our consent? Do we even have a choice in the matter?
Seekers from all walks of life, including the ancient yogis, have been asking this question for time immemorial. Why do some events seem to disturb us while others do not? Why is it that the same event on one day seems to pass without a second thought, while on another day it seems to represent the very source of our suffering? Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, what can I do about this, if anything at all?
From where does stress actually arise?
It is common for most of us to perceive stress and anxiety as coming from a source outside ourselves. At one time or another we’ve all been stuck in traffic, barely creeping along on the highway, and all we can think about is how the traffic is driving us a little crazy. This is a prime example of an outside source we can use to blame for our internal state.
We all tend to have a set criteria for what we assume will make us happy. For one person it may be losing weight, for another it may be finding the ideal partner, for yet another it’s gaining the approval of our peers, or having lots of money, the list is endless. But there is always a hidden or underlying theme to our criteria for happiness that is quite often the root of the very suffering we are trying our best to avoid. Inherent in the desire to be rich is the fear of being poor and implicit in the desire to have a partner is the dread of being alone. In our desire to be thin, it’s implied that if we’re overweight, it’s not okay to be happy.
When we become attached to the idea that life needs to be arranged in a certain way in order for us to be truly happy, we have already sown the seeds of our potential unhappiness. You get the idea…
We are all programmed by our past experiences, our culture, our families, our teachers etc., all of which determine the unconscious (or subconscious) “rules” by which we decide whether we can allow ourselves to be happy and stress-free (or not). If these “rules” are fulfilled, then, and only then de we feel we are within the parameters of being allowed to feel happy, and so it appears that we are. But if these “rules for happiness,” which each one of us has set for ourselves, are not met, we prevent the possibility of allowing ourselves to be happy.
So, in reality it is each of us, not life itself that determines our level of happiness. It’s how our life circumstances “measure up to our criteria” that actually determines our level of happiness. Essentially, each of us decides whether we can be happy or not by the conditions we set for that happiness. It’s not life’s circumstances, or any particular person or event that determines our level of happiness; each of us must decide this for ourselves.
This doesn’t mean that we are forbidden to have preferences. The problem is when we are trapped by becoming so attached to our preferences that we can’t let go of them and allow life to present itself as it will. It’s important to realize that life has no allegiance to our established criteria or to any of us as individuals. It shows up just like it is meant to do, like the rain, and then the sun breaks through the clouds. The events that constitute life have moved by their own ways and means long before we were born and will continue long after we’re gone.
Ironically, the things that happen are not personal, but we take them personally. After all, we are the ones who decided that reality should be different than it is.
The Way of Yoga
The way that yoga suggests comes down to being free from the need for anything to show up differently than it does in order to for us to be happy. Whenever anything we do has a prior condition of “in order to,” we are attempting to “manage” reality. Yoga philosophy dictates that we sincerely devote our lives to letting go of any conditions we have about how life needs to unfold. We practice relaxing, releasing into the moment no matter what is taking place. When confronted with situations where we would normally react, we begin to catch ourselves and say, “Can I relax with this?” “And how about this?” We don’t have to be perfect, we can treat it like a game we play with ourselves and watch what happens; by and by we’ll notice that just by putting our attention on this intention we’ll be able to relax with more and more things happening in our life.
The physical practice of yoga asana is useful here in two ways. First, the practice is intended to put demands on our body and mind in a scientific way so that we can more easily observe our habitual tendency to try to manage life or reality