With tragedies of the proportion as in Haiti, universal suffering not only peaks due to empathy but so do the numbers of people wallowing in suffering. I’m not referring to schadenfreude, where you enjoy other’s misery. What I’m referring to is feeling better about yourself because you suffer. For many people, there is a fine line between empathy and reveling in one’s own ability to experience suffering.
Yet, to dwell on suffering has become a habit for a lot of people thanks to the perversion of self-help, reality shows, sensational news, and talk shows. What was funny neurosis in Woody Allen movies has become a national phenomenon. As much as I loved “Sex and the City,” it serves as a prime example.
I remember being glued to the TV during moments of crisis. This time, after reading too many haunting horrors both manmade and natural, I find that disturbing images and stories do not increase or decrease my understanding of, much less production reaction to the situation. The magnitude of suffering is so great that if I were to concentrate on that, it would be paralytic. So, I’ve chosen not to seek out images or stories of suffering.
This nurturing of suffering is also a personal inhibitor. An excellent Yoga Journal article by Phillip Moffitt, “Beyond Happiness,” asked this poignant question: Think back to the last time you had dinner with a friend. Did the two of you spend most of your time commiserating about your struggles and disappointments, and less time celebrating your brighter moments? Has your joy become a source of suffering?
Of the Four Cornerstones of Buddhism, one is to concentrate on one’s suffering to better understand the cycle of suffering and break it. But this can become a trap, a wallowing in negativity.
Another Cornerstone is to to concentrate on one’s joy. Mr. Moffitt calls it Happiness Practice, a phrase I love because, as he explains, it is a practice to summon joy, not just plaster on a smile. It isn’t optimism or even being happy, it’s recognizing what happiness is, which type of happiness you may be experiencing at any given moment and then being able to draw upon it when you want, e.g. you feel an intangible mood creeping up about to ruin your day or you’re about to start a futile fight with a friend or partner.
What Mr. Moffitt doesn’t say is that Happiness Practice has been around and proven in the world of psychology. Like any other physical practice that reworks your muscles, mental practices rewire one’s brain, one’s thought patterns. “It always goes bad for me”; “I have bad luck”; looking only at the negative in other people or your own life; the same responses to situations even when you want desperately to change are all wirings that can be changed. You can make a different choice to these thoughts if your mental faculties are in tact (I always emphasize this so as not to disregard clinical depression and other psychoses which warrant medication).
As I said, once there is an intention in place, the universe conspires to help you. My intent was to let go of anger. Instead, as I did my yoga practice, responded to Haiti, and merged the two physical and spiritual yoga work into dana. Lo and behold, a personal reward came in the form of happiness practice. The words of K. Pattabhi Jois, guru of Ashtanga Yoga, are ringing true: Practice & It Will Come.