"Sufffferrr. Sufferrr, dammit."
Yogi Bhajan, beloved leader of the 3HO kundalini organization, called out slowly and mischievously to the room, letting each word roll off his tongue. I was seated on my small sheepskin in a packed yoga class of fellow sufferers--ahem, I mean yogis--quickly looking for reasons to bolt.
We'd all been in lotus position for the better part of an hour at this point and had done a few poses with our arms extended out in some formation with our eyes crossed staring at our noses. For our final pose of the class, Yogi Bhajan called out to yet again extend our arms straight out on either side with palms flat facing upward, eyes crossed and staring at the tip of our noses. I wanted to yell out, "No! I can't do this anymore!" Instead, I behaved myself and I fell in line with everyone else and assumed the position. When we'd been in this position for a harrowing fifteen minutes, I was shaking, beads of sweat were freely flowing down the sides of my face and my arms felt like two cement blocks. With a rapidly decreasing ability to focus my thoughts on breathing in "Sat" and out "Nam" as he'd instructed, it was just then that Yogi Bhajan called out into the silence, "Suffer. Suffer Dammit."
I held my breath for a moment, and then I began to giggle. It escaped as nothing more than a whisper at first, but when a few friends seated nearby heard me and joined in, I couldn't contain it. I started to roll with laughter at my chosen predicament. I was suffering! And, simply put, I was choosing to do that. We remained in that position for another six or seven minutes, and I realized afterwards that my state shifted from suffering to joy through laughter. This wise teacher had led me out of some thick mental swampland and helped me for the first time realize something quite profound:
Almost all suffering is a choice.
When my mind focused on the suffering I was experiencing in that position--quaking, aching, thoughts wandering, I'd started to question myself, this group of practitioners and Yogi Bhajan. "What was the point of this class again? Why was he having us hold these poses for so long?? Why are we all listening to him? This is hellishly foolish." I was pretty close to dropping my arms, uncrossing my eyes, and undoing my legs from that pretzel position to escape, when he seemed to hone in on my thoughts and make fun of them. No longer trapped in negative arguments rationalizing why I should leave, it was then that my laughter set me free. Free to choose to see the class, the pose and my predicament as a divine lesson: what we choose to focus on expands.
Good things happen. Bad things happen. Amazingly beautiful moments occur. Tragedy knocks on every door. People live. People die. And then more wonderful things happen. Life isn't happening to you. Life is happening for you...with you. We all get to choose how we ride the ebb and flow of this one precious life we are given. I come back to this awareness again and again:
Almost all suffering is a choice we get to make.
And likewise, unmake.
Admittedly, in too many moments, I have chosen to suffer through my life's inevitable challenges. Suffering has led me down dark, lonely hallways. Suffering has created false beliefs. Having profound opportunities to challenge the choice to suffer, including the one with Yogi Bhajan back in 2003, has led me down that road less and less over the years. That awareness is like a muscle I've needed to develop and continuously strengthen, and remembering that it is a choice brings me to gratitude.
Gratitude has been my salvation. It's very hard to suffer in the midst of being grateful. Gratitude doesn't negate anything--it's doesn't create amnesia for what has happened, but rather helps me find joy in the midst of the sad. Joy leaks into those shadowy places. Joy is a light-filled thing. And joy--gratitude's sister, if you will--creates a space in my soul for authentic bliss to dwell for everything this life offers.
I believe each of us has our Yogi Bhajan moments--a person or a situation is put in our path to help us question or even confront where we want to place our attention. Will we allow ourselves to suffer through something? Or will we choose to acknowledge what authentically exists, while not letting it drag us down the rabbit hole? Sometimes it's as easy as a good laugh to chase that rabbit away, and sometimes it takes a concerted effort. So much of life is out of our control, but what we do have control over is how we react to it.
Even if it takes a long time and serious mental gymnastics, I am committed to finding the gift in all of my experiences. I've realized that life is far more meaningful for it, and I relish the outright blissful moments all the more.
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