I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with a new man whose past intersects with mine since we both have roots in the same midwestern city. As our first date was winding down, he asked if I wanted to continue the journey and see a movie. We’d spent four hours getting to know one another, and I’d already broken my tea/coffee rule for a first date–keep it short and simple so you can make a quick getaway if it’s not a match. So when he asked if I’d like to keep going, and I said I’d have to think about that, he responded: “I just want whatever makes you happy.”
I smiled and said the thing I wish I’d been able to say my whole life: “That’s not your job–it’s mine.”
And with that he laughed and told me I was different from other women he’s dated. I told him I’d had a great time, but let’s leave something on the table to look forward to–so we agreed to dinner and a movie at a later date.
His offer to make me happy kept buzzing in my head after we parted, though, and I hit upon why that phrase feels like a pair of too-tight jeans. It’s because I have a clear picture of my past always firmly embedded in my mind, with its technicolor dream house and postcard-worthy vacations and handholding walks with the one I loved. What a happy picture it was. But the day it abruptly ended, I looked at every behind-the-scenes nuance in my marriage, in my life, and placed them in a familiar framework to try and make sense of what happened. What I saw was the Wizard, and instead of making Dorothy happy for most of her time in the Land of Oz, he just blew smoke up her blue and white gingham skirt (when you’re from Kansas, people automatically expect an Oz reference with a soupçon of gingham thrown in). Things only go right for the pigtailed Kansan after she learns the Wizard can’t grant her happiness or anything else–she can only do that for herself.
I digressed right down a row of corn. Sorry.
So what defines your happiness, dear readers? Can you pinpoint the things inside you that give you the warm fuzzies, versus those from outside your heart chakras as we say in yoga?
Here’s what I now know: My internal sense of happiness is like a pilot light, sparking one by one the things outside me that have the capacity to make me glow. If you keep that pilot going, you can re-direct your chattering monkey mind that tells you you’re not good enough to a place of goodness instead. I shut that monkey up for the first time during shavasana, corpse pose, in my first yoga class 27 years ago.
After my maternal grandmother and father-in-law died within six months of each other, a year of poor health dogged me. I landed in the ER a handful of times with stroke-like numbness around my mouth, tingling sensations zinging up and down both arms, and heart-pounding palpitations. “I’m suffocating,” I’d say to the triage nurse upon arrival. My days were narrowed by dull, throbbing headaches, a burning ache between my shoulder blades that felt like acid had been deposited there, and lead-like legs, only able to drag myself up and off the couch for doctor appointments.
Diagnosis? Panic attacks. The deaths of people I loved that year combined with the fact that I’d convinced myself I’d die young like my parents finally caught up to me, as my brain told my body, “Okay, keep thinking it, and I’ll show you what that looks like, sister!”
Trying to get my old Linda back on a day when I had a smidgen of energy, I went to my writer’s group where a friend there asked me to come to a yoga class she was teaching that week. I didn’t know anything about yoga except that the people I’d seen in magazines or on tv who practiced it seemed a little bit weird, and I imagined them contorting into pretzel poses surrounded by a haze of patchouli incense. But hey, I was feeling weird and out of sorts, so when she promised me yoga would change my life, I figured I had nothing to lose.
My first warrior pose was wobbly at best and my tree pose looked like it was missing an important limb, but it was during the last pose of that class, shavasana, as I stretched out on my mat, that I felt my body begin to release that year of illness and loss one muscle at a time. By the time my teacher’s words, “Let mother earth hold you in her arms as you sink down into the rich soil of her embrace,” reached me in my state of newfound peace, I didn’t notice the warm tears slipping down the sides of my cheeks until they reached the back of my neck.
I’ve now studied under many teachers and found my way to a yoga mat every week for nearly three decades. When I’m in the studio, the second I close my eyes, my mind and body spark an instant connection; I become still and quiet the outer chaos of street noise or the chattering monkey as it jumps to the list of errands awaiting me, or a friend’s illness or to work deadlines. By the time I return to the present at the end of shavasana, I feel like I’m in a dessert daze, that satiation that comes after devouring a warm chocolate molten cake with a dollop of whipping cream. I move to sit atop a bolster with my legs crossed in front of me, and follow my teacher’s final mantra, palms together as if in prayer: First, hands placed between my eyebrows, “May you always know your truth,” then placed at my throat, “May you always speak your truth,” and finally, placed at the breastbone, over my heart, “May you always live your truth.”
As I walk outside the dimly lit room to the sun bathing my upturned face, my work is done in that moment: The pilot light glows and I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.
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