How to Be Happy (or How We Serve)
Yoga helps you feel more connected to yourself, others, and the world. And that often leads to a desire to serve—and to cultivate a lasting sense of happiness. Beryl Bender Birch shows you how to do both.
One day in late March I turned on the television looking for a weather report and happened upon Matt Lauer and the rest of the Today crew perched in front of the Vatican Palace in Rome, covering the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis. The new pope was riding along through the crowds in an open-air vehicle, waving to his well-wishers. At one point the procession stopped, the pope jumped out of the car and ambled into the crowd to greet and bless a severely disabled person. It was a glorious moment. A humble and real human had just been chosen to lead 1.5 billion Catholics around the world, and here he was showing compassion and caring for the disabled. At that point, one of the news anchors interrupted the coverage with a translation of part of the pope’s earlier address to the people: “Don’t mistake tenderness and caring with weakness. Real power is in service.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I was stunned that someone would say that on national television! Real power is in service. As yogis in service, we understand. We might not be able to explain it, but we get it. Pope Francis was not talking about political power or economic power or any other form of tangible power. Rather, I think he was referring to spiritual power. And by that I don’t mean spiritual arrogance. He didn’t mean that because you serve others, you have permission to think of yourself as better than others. I think by “real power” he meant the power that comes when you dedicate your life to the upliftment of our beloved Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants. As we work to support the universe, we are supported and protected in turn. As we experience this more frequently, it strengthens our faith in how the universe works. We come to understand this reciprocity as a universal law. We feel totally vulnerable but totally protected at the same moment because we are in alignment with a higher power. What is that power? It is an inner strength that helps us, for example, to cultivate compassion and lovingkindness when we are faced with ignorance or violence or hatred. We all know that it isn’t easy to extend lovingkindness toward someone who is mean or violent or nasty to us. But it also isn’t always easy to extend friendliness toward someone who is happy, especially when we are feeling blue or depressed. It takes work in both cases. It takes deep-down digging; a desire to grow, to evolve, to watch oneself; and a willingness to replace negative thoughts of jealousy or envy with true joyfulness. It takes power and practice.
And that practice can take many forms. Yoga practice isn’t just about doing asana. You can be a yoga practitioner and never even do asana or own a yoga mat. Your yoga practice might consist of chanting the praises of God or studying the ancient texts or scrubbing floors at your local church or temple, or even just meditating or mindfully breathing. All of these can be considered yoga practice. And all have the same secret ingredient. Attention! I believe that attention is a primary driver of evolution and transformation. Getting our attention in present time and working to keep it there ultimately leads us to the realization that it is in serving the universe that we find lasting happiness.
We do the work. That’s all. And when we do this work of yoga—which is simply to focus on the here and now and to accept reality as it is, in this moment, in all its grit and glory—our circle of compassion expands and extends beyond our self, beyond our friends and family. It keeps growing and growing, taking in more and more of the world, until it meets itself and has encompassed all. And once that happens we realize that it isn’t enough to just make ourselves happy by chasing material gain and pleasure and fame and praise. Our yoga practice trains us to pay attention, to be more conscious, and thus to see more clearly and intuitively. We want everyone to be happy and to be free from suffering. That is how we come to find service.
I once heard someone ask the Dalai Lama what our ultimate purpose in life was. I thought he was going to answer, “To help alleviate suffering in the world.” But he said, “To be happy.” At first, that might sound a little self-serving. But think about what it is that makes us happy. Is it stuff? A new car? A new relationship? Maybe those things bring us pleasure for a while, but they are all subject to change, as is everything in the world of form. And when the new car gets old or the relationship turns sour, the pleasure turns to pain. None of those things can be counted on to bring us lasting happiness.
When I ask people who have been practicing yoga in any of its various forms for a while if yoga has changed their lives, everyone says that it has made them more calm, more relaxed, more creative, more compassionate, more centered, and, well, more happy! So what is it about our yoga practices that make us happy?
When we take out our mats day after day or sit and breathe or chant or study or sit for meditation, we begin to find moments of stillness, moments of true joyfulness and contentment. We start to feel a change. We begin to recognize that life is the way it is and that when we argue with reality, we are always going to lose. We start to appreciate the difficulties we encounter as opportunities for growth rather than pronouncements of punishment. Life seems to get a little easier because we are more relaxed and at peace with the way things are. This doesn’t mean that we bail out on life or fall into a torpor of noncaring or nonaction—in fact, we may feel more spurred to action. It means that we recognize we are stuck in the mud when we are stuck in the mud. Then we can begin to take steps to free ourselves from the unhealthy or counterproductive situation in which we find ourselves. But first we have to acknowledge the stuckness. We pay attention to what is going on here and now! Attention drives transformation.
Paying attention in this way leads to an experience of connectedness, and this experience of connectedness is the experience of yoga. Yoga really cannot be defined. It is what happens when we are able to quiet our mind. It cannot be known until it is experienced. I tell my yoga students all the time, “I can’t teach you yoga or even teach you to teach yoga. All I can do is teach you a set of instructions and, hopefully, if you follow those instructions, they will lead you to the experience of yoga.”
This new level of seeing expands our circle of compassion beyond our own backyard and is, I believe, what kicks in the desire to serve and leads to lasting happiness. Somehow we are no longer content to just take care of our individual selves because we don’t see ourselves as separate any longer. We see ourselves in the whole of humanity and that if one of us is hungry, we are all hungry. And when we roll up our sleeves and get down to work, to feed the hungry, the joy that brings us is incomparable. We like to be happy. It feels good. It not only feels good, it is also practice. Every breath we take in awareness is practice, but it is also seva (service). Our practice inspires our seva, and our seva inspires our practice. If you want to serve, practice! The way will become clear. The direction you need to go, the work to be done, will all be revealed to you through your practice. Practice is making an effort to keep the mind steady, to be present, to stay focused. And as yogis, we have a responsibility to practice, to do the work. As we put forth the effort to grow, that effort infuses the collective unconscious and makes it easier for everyone else in the world to access that awareness. Energetically, the effort infuses the morphogenetic field that we all share, and others are able to tap into the greater level of awareness more easily. So we serve through our practice.
It used to be that if you wanted to follow a spiritual path, you cloistered yourself from the world and went off to a monastery or a cave somewhere. You renounced the world and all its pleasures and pains in order to contemplate in solitude and simplicity the true meaning of life and the nature of God. If, however, you wanted to change the world and make a difference, you became a social activist and went out into the world. You demonstrated and marched and wrote letters and got yourself arrested oftentimes. Those two paths were completely divergent and rarely intersected. But that is not the case any longer. Now those two paths have become convergent. We, as awakened citizens, have a responsibility to go out into the world and help wake things up. We don’t preach. Yoga doesn’t proselytize. We each have our own place on the evolutionary spectrum. Some people are ahead of us on the path, and some are behind. It is okay to recognize this. We are grateful for where we are and have an obligation to respect all and help those coming along behind us. But we cannot hide from the world once we are awakened to it. We have become spiritual revolutionaries and our job is to serve. And an added bonus is that it makes us happy, which is what keeps us serving! The power of service comes in serving without attachment to the outcome. There is always hope that you are helping. But hope is a nonyogic ideal. It means that you are somewhere in the future, hoping for some outcome, as opposed to being in the present with what is. We do hope, a little. We hope that our service makes a difference. But what good does the hoping do? In the end, it’s useless. Do the work. That is what helps. Breathe consciously. Pay attention, and do what you can, with what you’ve got, in this moment!
I started teaching yoga in l974 and started my school, The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute, in the early 1980s, which is when I began training yoga students to be yoga teachers. From the very beginning, one of the requirements for graduation for each of the students was to develop a “give-back yoga” project in their home community. This could be any kind of service. My objective in giving them a broad criterion in which to design a project was to disseminate the idea that yoga was more than just asana. Really, it was service. They could plant trees; walk dogs at the local animal shelter; teach meditation; pick up trash on the beach; start an organic farm; work for clean air, water, soil; or just about anything local that served the greater good. All of it, to me, was yoga. In the past seven to eight years, these give-back projects have grown to become more comprehensive and more integrated into the training. When, in 2007, Rob Schware, Lori Klein, and I started the Give Back Yoga Foundation (GBYF) that was still my objective. We all wanted to support yoga teachers in their seva!
Our very first grant application was from a woman who asked for $87 so that she could buy reusable bags in order to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables that had been donated by the local supermarket to the senior citizen center. Since that time we have gone on to support yoga in prisons and a variety of yoga projects in Nepal, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Africa, and all over the United States. For the past two years GBYF has focused on the production of yoga materials—tapes, CDs, DVDs, books, and manuals—designed to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and navigating the tricky transition from deployment and combat to civilian life back home.
More and more people are getting into service. Look at the Yoga Service Council Conference—it didn’t exist two years ago. That is encouraging, but we still need a quantum leap in human consciousness. Awareness is collectively growing, evolving. More and more people are more and more conscious. The important thing is to consciously work on your own evolution and to take that growing awareness out into the world to serve: not to proselytize, not to preach some self-righteous blather, but just to help. Every day, show up for your practice. Do the work to make yourself better for the benefit of all beings everywhere. This is the real power that the pope was talking about.
To be effective, pay attention and listen. And try to be in rapport with the people whom you are working with. If you are too proactive and come on with too much energy and too many self-righteous plans, you will turn off the people you are hoping to help. Conversely, if you don’t have enough energy, you will put people to sleep. They will give up and go home, feeling discouraged by your lack of worthiness. So, you find a balance between giving out and holding back.
Whether we are feeding hungry sparrows or working to preserve the oceans for the whales and finned ones or teaching yoga to veterans, those of us who serve have to take the time to listen, to feel, and be aware of what we hear and feel. It is a conscious tuning into awareness. We are not locked into knowing this world only through the limited perspective of our five senses. We are multisensory and can open ourselves to the infinite. Isn’t this the experience of yoga? And isn’t that yoga service? Yoga service is yogis, serving! That’s all. And that feels good. We are joyful and happy!