In 2007, I traveled to India for a yoga retreat. When I gazed down from the hilltop in the morning, I saw the coast of the Southern Indian state of Kerala dotted with canoe-like fishing boats. I practiced yoga listening to the hypnotic sounds of the flute played by an Indian musician on a bluff overlooking the Arabian Sea. I enjoyed the ever-present scent of incense softening the transition to this otherworldly setting. And one morning while returning from yoga, I stumbled upon a man taking a leisurely poop on the beach in front of everyone.
According to author Eric Weiner, this mixture of faith, beauty, tradition, and squalor creates a sense of unpredictability. And that is why the people of India rate high on the Global Happiness Index. Weiner writes that “the happiest places are the ones that reside just this side of paradise.” In other words. too much of a good thing and we get lazy and unappreciative. As do the majority of people in India on a daily basis, we best appreciate sweet when tasted with sour, joy when mixed with sadness, triumph when contrasted with struggle.
This unpredictability of experience and emotion is a key component in the recipe for happiness. For most, myself included, we like to know what’s happening; we thrive on routines and plans. The unpredictable is scary and uncomfortable. But taking a cue from the people of India and making peace with the unpredictable leads to a more pure and lasting form of happiness. Following are three tips for embracing life in all of its unpredictable grace & fury, light & darkness.
The science shows that people who volunteer regularly are statistically happier than those who don’t.* I teach yoga for a living and usually my students are people who can afford a yoga class package at a nearby studio. But when teaching at a state funded drug rehab facility in Arizona, I had a profound awakening. At one point in their lives, many of the people at this public rehab facility had literally “flatlined” due to drug overdose and were revived by paramedics. Despite working toward recovery, they were generally broke in the ways of money, mind, and spirit. My petty worries and silly issues suddenly paled in comparison. I was shocked how even the most basic breath or simple yoga pose brought them so much joy.
A few nights ago, I was arguing with my girlfriend about bills, expenses, and all else that goes part and parcel with this grinding economy. Until she happened upon an article in the newspaper. The article told the story of Amado Campos (see above photo), who wheels a makeshift wooden cart up Los Angeles’ hills and across its freeway overpasses, under bridges and past gangbangers. He scrapes by each and every day by selling corn, chips, and shaved ice. If his cart falls over on a downtrodden sidewalk, he’s out a day’s earnings. All the while he’s a loving husband and father who recently went deep into debt borrowing money from a neighbor to celebrate his daughter’s Communion with 80 family members. For those of us lucky enough to be sitting at a comfy desk perusing the internet, it’s easy to forget that the story of Amado Campos is the story for the majority of the planet. More than one-half of the world’s people live below the internationally defined poverty line of less than U.S. $2 a day.**
So often when we feel something uncomfortable, we tend to avoid it. Who in their right mind wants to feel pain? In the ancient Eastern world, there are practices like yoga that teach how pain, struggle and conflict “are the primary engines of growth and creativity.” A basic yoga class teaches how to handle pain and intensity with breath and relaxation rather than force and effort. When we embrace discomfort with grace, we’re all the more appreciative of the good times to follow. As Helen Keller said, “The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”
*The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner