“When it comes to champagne and our family, my father has only one absolute rule: We do not drink it when we are sad.”
-Kathryn Borel, Corked
During the last year of his life, the only thing my dad was able to consume was champagne. And he did – on every occasion he could think of. The chemotherapy had completely obliterated his appetite, but not his willingness to embrace all the little joys life had to offer in whatever time he had left. We had champagne on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve (and New Year’s Day), birthdays, and even the Superbowl. What was particularly interesting about this ritual was that prior to his illness, I could count on one hand the number of times I had seen my dad willingly drink champagne. He was a beer and rye guy, and for him, champagne’s only purpose was to see if he could shake it hard enough to launch the cork over the neighbour’s hedge on New Year’s Eve, usually losing half the contents of the bottle in the process, much to my stepmom’s dismay. Since his passing four years ago, it has become an annual family tradition to toast him with a bottle on his birthday. During the initial couple of years we did the same on the anniversary of his death, but this made everyone involved sad, and we knew, if nothing else, that Dad wouldn’t want us to be unhappy when reminiscing about his life. So, it became more of a practice of celebration than mourning.
Unlike my father, I adore champagne. I could literally find a valid reason to have it every day if doing so wouldn’t destroy both my liver and my bank account. Instead I reserve it for special occasions, most often with my closest friends. These moments have become so cherished to me that I often keep the bottle and write the date and occasion on the cork. When I’m having a tough day, I take some time to look at them and remember the pure joy those events elicited in me.
We learn in yoga that all the happiness we could ever want lies within us. No external source is necessary and if we practice long and hard enough, we will be able to tap into that pure unbridled internal joy at will. While I understand this concept in theory, and have even caught a glimpse or two of this phenomenon over the decade and a half I have been practicing, I am still currently unable to evoke that bliss on command. When I’m sad, I’m sad. When I’m frustrated, angry, hurt, or confused, until that emotion either fades or is replaced by something new, that’s just how it is. I can’t just substitute feelings with the flick of a switch. And as far as I am concerned, that is a good thing. All sentiments have their value, and it has been well-documented that ignoring or bottling up any strong emotion simply leads to its re-emergence at a later time, often in a significantly more destructive fashion.
Yoga is one of my greatest sources of joy in daily life. That doesn’t mean I always feel like doing my practice, but I absolutely feel some improvement in my mood during what I fondly refer to as my post-yoga bliss every time. However, when I am dealing with strong emotions, I’m inclined to bring them with me into my yoga practice, especially during meditation. Depending on the practice, those feelings can either be toned down a touch or seriously amped up. The increase in intensity is great if the emotions I’m predominantly carrying are joy or (my personal favourite) serenity – not so much if I’m having a less than stellar day and feeling down or angry. In those instances, I need to pick and choose the components of my practice carefully. The one exception to this is Star Pose. Anyone who has ever taken a yoga class with me knows that at some point in almost every class, I throw in Star Pose. This involves starting in a forward fold from either a chair or a standing position with feet spread wide, and on a count of 3 reaching up toward the sky with arms spread wide. It helps significantly if you yell “Star Pose” as loudly as you can when you do it. I challenge anyone not to have a giant smile on your face while doing that, no matter how you’re feeling.
Having a glass of wine can similarly go either way. Alcohol tends to be a mood enhancer for me, and if I’m already not in a great place, despite the fact that wine is often a source of enjoyment for me, it can leave me feeling much worse off if I am not acutely aware of my initial frame of mind. For this reason, I have adopted the opening quote as a rule to live by, so that all my champagne memories remain happy ones.
Ahh… the pursuit of happiness. I read a book recently called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris which basically posits that we spend the vast majority our lives on a quest find “true happiness”, when what that actually accomplishes is emphasizing the amount of time we spend in a state of perceived unhappiness. Everything we believe brings us happiness inevitably also leads to a subsequent state of unhappiness. The budding romance eventually leads to a fight or heartbreak. A new gadget ultimately breaks or loses its initial appeal. That piece of pie (or glass of champagne) doesn’t last. Nothing in life is permanent. Everything ultimately changes.
This is not a sentiment of gloom and doom. Rather it is intended to bring our awareness to these moments of happiness and teach us how to savour them without becoming disproportionately attached to them or rely on them to gauge our life’s worth. If we can be fully present during these moments, the bliss we feel is not only likely to last longer, but also be more memorable, which may have residual effects during more challenging times. It also helps to point out that it’s not just the good times that aren’t permanent. In the words of author Kirsten Fuchs, “This too shall pass. It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.”
That being said, our society has become one that revolves around accomplishment and uses that as our predominant measure of success. We are so wrapped up in trying to achieve that we forget to take the time to appreciate. We collectively spend less and less time doing things we enjoy. I am no exception.
For as long as I can remember, travel has been my greatest passion. And yet, over the past few years it has been placed on the back burner. I have not gone on a significant trip of my own design in over a decade. That represents almost a quarter of my entire life. I have, however, in that time, become an expert at devising excuses as to why I cannot travel the way I want to. “I don’t have the money” (except I magically find the money to go to destination weddings and trips friends invite me to go on that I ultimately get no say in whatsoever). “I can’t take time off work” (except I’m self-employed and have already disclosed that I no longer get much enjoyment out of my current profession). “I want to do something meaningful wherever I go but I don’t know what or how to do that by myself” (except I managed to graduate from 4 universities and moved to Europe for 3 months and I sorted all that out by myself). Imagine where my travels could take me if I funneled the energy I currently use in coming up with excuses not to travel into my next adventure.
Joy doesn’t have to come from something as substantial as journeying to another country. It might simply be taking the time to read a book or enjoy a movie. It might be sitting in silence while you savour your morning cup of joe or spending time in nature. It probably involves carving out more space in your schedules to create playdates with your tribe (Playdates are extremely essential at any age). We simply need to identify those things that bring us joy and decide to make them a priority. But the key lies in savouring these moments and acknowledging the enjoyment they bring us. This way, when things aren’t going the way we had envisioned, we guarantee ourselves a few minutes each and every day when we can be blissfully unaware of all the drama, negativity, and discord that surround us.
Let me take a brief sidestep here to highlight something extremely important. If you have been diagnosed with, or suspect you may have, depression, that is a horse of a completely different colour and requires actual treatment. There is nothing wrong with using the above suggestions to try to increase your level of joy, but they will not suffice to resolve a depressive episode, whether acute or chronic. Please seek help from your healthcare provider. There is zero shame in accepting help. In fact, it is SO important that we ban together to help destigmatize mental illness. I myself have an ongoing history with more than one mental health issue – a topic I will be tackling in future posts.
Over time, assuming we have a clean (or well-managed) bill of mental health, distinguishing those activities that bring us pleasure from those that don’t will help to define our baseline contentment. From there it is up to us to decide whether changes need to be made to our lifestyle or to our attitude.
Ultimately, we are responsible for our own happiness. Either we choose to take steps to change those aspects of our lives that do not raise our frequency, or we decide that they are a necessary evil and therefore must find a way to elevate our own vibration.
Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can, wine to accept the tings I can’t, and yoga to know the difference.
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Thought provoking. My take is a lot of what this says comes down to “ that’s LIFE”. Happiness is ours to find and live. Our choices wether it be yoga, wine, beer, coffee etc, will lead us to a moment of happiness. We are human though and happiness is fleeting so life takes us to the next bout of happiness by what we choose to do. I could go on. Love reading your blog. Keep it up.
Thanks Lyle. That’s what I was trying to convey – these human journeys are a wild ride (but also, at least to a certain extent, whatever we choose to make of them each step of the way).