Whilst on my latest teacher training I participated in my first cacao ceremony. After taking the cacao I was expecting to experience some sort of immediate response…but it didn’t happen. We were told that we might feel a reaction in the chest as the cacao gets into the system and causes the heart to race, but when I didn’t experience this my mind began to wander and I checked out of the experience. Eventually though I realised what I was doing, and made myself return to the present moment and focus on what I could feel. Ultimately I ended up having a really profound experience: I had an overwhelming sense of joy from deep within me, something that I didn’t know, or at least had forgotten, was there. Having not had this kind of contentment and happiness with myself and the world for so long it was truly amazing to experience this. I realised that this feeling had come solely from inside me, and that my own happiness wasn’t dependent on the world around me, but existed within me; that it would always be there even if something gets me down, and that nothing could take it away from me, which was hugely comforting. I had this overwhelming certainty that this was something I wanted to cultivate, and to help others cultivate, and had immediate visualisations of how to make this happiness my reality.
Recently there’s been a really interesting video floating around Facebook about an algorithm for happiness. In it Mo Gawdat, a Google Executive, states that happiness is equal to, or greater than, the difference between the way you see the events of your life and your expectation of how life should behave; if life meets your expectations you are happy.
“Happiness is that peaceful contentment feeling of ‘I like the world how it is right now’.”
Since watching the video I’ve been thinking about this concept of happiness a lot, trying to break it down and understand it better. Recently I went through an extended period of suffering from lack of happiness – I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say I was depressed (though perhaps that’s my ego preventing me from accepting the truth), but I certainly wasn’t in the best place I’ve ever been. Luckily I’ve got an incredible person in my life who’s been extremely understanding, patient, and supportive, and helped me through to what now feels like the other side. That being said, I’m still trying to figure out happiness, and in particular my happiness – how to be joyful.
Breaking down Mo’s equation, happiness is determined by the interaction between just two thing: expectation, and your perception of reality.
I interpret expectation as how you intend/believe/how likely something is to happen – how the scenario has played out already in your mind(?). The mind can experience any scenario – it’s limitless, but is bounded by the physical world – our interactions through the senses, which we define as ‘real’. So when the experienced physical world (reality) is equal to, or aligned with, the imagined reality (our mind’s expectation), then we are content/happy.
Unhappiness then is the imbalanced relationship between expectation and reality – mental and physical, mind and body. Thus, in order to rebalance or tip the scales the other way then there are only two choices: alter expectation, or alter reality.
We experience reality via the senses, it being a combination of the interaction of self and everything else, so of course we can only exact a degree of control over it. It’s also in a constant state of change. If happiness is determined by being able to alter expectation and/or reality, and we have only a limited control over reality, then being able to manage/let go of our expectations becomes key to being happy.
Whilst away recently I’d planned to go to a yoga class, but it didn’t transpire. Consequentially I found myself in a negative headspace, and found it difficult to get out. Something so innocuous, I know, and it sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but at the time it wasn’t. I was unreasonably unhappy. After some contemplation I rationalised that it was because I’d had the perfectly reasonable expectation (of myself) of being able to attend the class, but the reality didn’t align. I was unable to change this reality, and for some reason I was unable to let go of the expectation I’d set myself. I’ve noticed that sometimes when something doesn’t happen how I expect it to, and if then I find it difficult, or I’m unable, to accept the reality and let go of the fore-held expectation, I can end up feeling down. In the end I managed to get out of the negative space by doing a self practice.
Immediately after watching the video about Mo’s algorithm I tried to relate this idea to my yoga practice (obviously!). Yoga, for me at least, is about calming the mind to discover my most honest, genuine, self, and find contentment and happiness within me, and within the world. This is done primarily by focusing the mind on the breath (pranayama) and the physical postures (asana) – i.e. meditation.
I practice yoga because it makes me happy; when I’m feeling stressed, tired, angry, etc, I take the time to do go to a class, self practice, or have a little play, even if it’s only a few minutes. I’ve recently realised how important it is for me to get out of my head and into my body, and yoga (as well as other things) facilitates this.
When doing yoga we (aim to) practice Pratyahara – withdrawal from the senses. When we withdraw (not escape, but withdraw) from the sensory world all that remains is the self; the only reality that exists in the practice is the body and the mind. In this space we have the greatest level of control of our reality – more than we can ever have when out of this space. So if something doesn’t happen how we intended – the realisation of our expectations misalign – then it’s completely our own doing, no one else’s. When this happens we’re faced with two options to reset the balance (find happiness): alter our expectation, or alter our reality.
For example, say you’re doing an asana practice and you have the intention of doing a Warrior 1. There are two outcomes:
Scenario A: you nail it (relatively speaking – even the most ‘basic’ of poses is never really mastered), reality meets expectation(ish), and all’s good. You can move on happy (/satisfied).
Scenario B: you don’t.
You’re now left with two choices: either you change your reality so you’re able to do the posture, or you change your expectation of yourself; in certain circumstances one can take considerably longer than the other (imagine it’s a handstand instead of a Warrior 1).
When practicing yoga what we’re learning is to constantly change and manage our expectations and/or reality of ourselves – if you struggle to execute an asana, or exit it, but not by choice (i.e. fall out of a posture) you just have to accept what’s happened and move on, or practice and practice until it improves, and the transition out becomes your choice. (All postures have a beginning and an end, and you could argue that the practice is learning to be in control of the time in between.) We learn to find happiness through a continuous process of letting go of and resetting expectations, and accepting reality. Practicing to accept reality in the isolated environment, responding rather than reacting to expectation and reality not aligning, so that we can do it when outside of it. You could extend it further still and say that ultimately you’re trying to not have any expectation, but to purely just experience reality – each moment as it happens; if there is no expectation then the reality will just be happiness.
I met someone recently who said we get depressed when the vibration of our reality is so far removed from the vibration of our truth. It made sense then, and looking at it in this way it makes even more sense now. For me, I’ve realised that when my ego refuses to let go of an expectation that hasn’t aligned with reality, or I don’t take steps to change either my expectations or reality over an extended period of time, then I get down. I don’t have a solution for how to always be able to resolve this so I can return to my happy state regardless of the situation, but I have realised that practicing yoga provides me the opportunity to do just that – practice.