The Happiness Jar

A new year often inspires us to take stock, get organized, and make positive changes.  For me, a New Year calls for a clean desk. The clutter and piles of “to do” stacks all about my workstation make me feel as if I’m drowning, and if I am to accomplish anything on my resolution list, a clean desk is necessary to set the stage for productivity. I began by cleaning drawers and tossing flyers, notes and coupons that were obsolete. I collected technology gadgets, extra mouses and staplers and carted them to David’s office. Eventually I moved on to the surface of the desk where an extra monitor, printer and other devices fight for prime-time space.

On one corner of the desk sat a dusty, large yellow jar that I assigned my “happiness jar” on Jan. 1, 2017. We made Happiness jars as an art project in a New Year’s Day retreat and I decided to practice what I preach and placed mine prominently on my then clean desk. When inspired, I’d write on a note pad a quick message to acknowledge a moment in time that brought me happiness, then fold and drop the little secret into the jar. As the months rolled by, the jar filled with dozens of little folded notes expressing positive waves of emotion. But the jar has been long since forgotten because I stopped adding content somewhere in early 2018. Over time, my happiness jar stopped serving as a beacon to remind me of my full and satisfying life and the little yellow jar became just one more thing that was taking up space on my desk, detracting from my functionality.

Glancing at that dusty glass vase, I decided to toss the thing, but considering the time I devoted to writing each of those little notes stuffed inside, unceremoniously dumping it in the trash felt wrong. And how inauthentic would a teacher be who lectured students about the value of a happiness jar, telling them that revisiting the messages was as important as the affirmation of writing them, yet too lazy to fulfill the intention of the project herself? Feeling duty bound to check at least a few of the notes within, I unfolded one message and smiled. I’d written about the day I received my first phone call from my daughter in Air force boot camp. She had gushed about her feelings of accomplishment and pride, and I was so relieved and delighted that she was happy with her choice of career path, I honored the moment with a “happiness note”.

Might as well check out another note, I thought. Now, a bit more eagerly, I unfolded another paper. This one was penned on the day I made reservations to take my husband to Key West for a much-needed short vacation. I wowed in that note to change our life and put “us” in priority more often. That little weekend away was symbolic of my resolution to try to travel a bit to escape the constant on-call duty that is a part of running a retreat center. I smiled, remembering the romance and relaxation we enjoyed on that trip, and reveled in the fact that we’ve taken several other vacations since then– to Ireland, to Texas, to San Francisco with all my children, and even a few quiet, nature filled RV camping trips. I actually stuck to the intention I made that day, and here in my hand was testament to the exact moment I made the commitment to bring more balance into our world. Cool.

I would never get to my desk if I just sat here fooling with little notes, but I decided to read just one more and then throw the dang jar out and continue my cleaning project. The next personal message discussed my deep appreciation and gratitude for our yoga community, inspired by individuals who came to aid us in cleanup after Hurricane Irma. There were other notes following that described moments of love and appreciation for my staff, customers and what I do for a living. I had captured memories of visitors walking the labyrinth, sharing poignant personal stories of healing, or thanking us for creating a Chakra garden. Here I was, feeling put out and drained by the endless drudgery of running Heartwood, with nothing but a messy desk to show for it, yet proof that moments of joy and a deepening of my purpose were embedded in every day. I had proof right at my fingertips in the form of little notes jotted down in a hurry and stuffed unceremoniously into a jar.

My messy desk looked differently to me suddenly. Perhaps what at first appears to be chaos is less a sign of someone drowning in work and more a testament to an active life. I work hard, yet I live my purpose and my world is filled with endless diversity and unexpected connections that are a part of this place of healing and learning.

At this point, I couldn’t resist revisiting every single note just to look back and recall last season’s small pleasures. The notes served as inspiration and opportunity to realign my attitude. For an hour, I unfolded notes, reliving moments of happiness or poignant joy that had long since been forgotten.

I don’t know exactly when or why I stopped filling the happiness jar. Joyful moments didn’t disappear from my life, but busy with the daily drudgery of tasks, I think I simply felt too overwhelmed to take even the few seconds needed to jot a sentence down to stuff in a jar. I now began imagining all the wonderful moments I didn’t capture just because I got too busy to reflect, even in a small “happiness jar” project sort of way.

Crouched at my messy desk on a cold afternoon with students passing to and fro behind me as they went about their training, I finished reading all the notes. Perhaps I should have made more of a ceremonial event out of the reading endeavor, going over them with a glass of wine on New Year’s eve sitting in the center of the labyrinth or something.  Nowadays, the big reveal of the contents of a happiness jar is the fodder of an Instagram worthy event, romanticized and captured with a selfie to show the world how very spiritually evolved one is. But rather than trying to capture the moment as it occurred, I just experienced it, quietly, alone in my thoughts at a messy desk, learning something about myself.

I never did throw the jar away. I didn’t get around to cleaning my desk either. At this time, my desk is still a mess, and lo and behold, the empty jar has been placed back in the corner. I must be making progress, because I did manage to dust it off. The jar sits empty, awaiting another round of captured moments which I am ready and willing to collect once again. We all need reminders that life is filled with blessings big and small. All we need is to acknowledge them now and again, mindfully and with an understanding that sometimes we are truly aware and awake. At other times our awareness slips away as distractions separate us from our true nature. What is important is to acknowledge our slips and get back on the path. Happiness doesn’t really live in little notes in a jar, but in our hearts, always at the ready for another unfolding.        

The gift of pages to be filled.

As a new year crests, I find myself preparing for upcoming programs and new students, wondering how I might enhance the yoga experience to make each individual’s personal journey at Heartwood more poignant and everlasting.  While the programs evolve and get better and better, I can’t help but notice that the students still wrestle with obstacles and mental obstructions that keep them interacting with yoga on the surface level, rather than really soaking themselves in the deeper dimensions of the practice. Perhaps I am too ambitious with what I hope to accomplish in only 200 or 300 hours, but I can’t help but notice that eager students arrive for formal yoga trainings with a preconceived idea of what yoga is, how they will implement a YA certification into their lives, and a huge attachment to yoga as practiced in the standard one hour class. This very understandable enthusiasm makes introducing a new perspective difficult as I attempt to shift the trajectory of their studies to a more authentic version of yoga.

Leading eager yogis in a new direction without snuffing out their passion for the practice is difficult, because frankly, growing stronger as you master arm balances or complicated sequences feels like such an accomplishment. The non-performance part of yoga is dull and unsatisfactory compared to the gratification of mastering physical challenges and feeling so alive in your skin as you practice. That said, somehow students must learn that the uneventful archaic approaches to yoga is what sets the stage for really remarkable things to happen. Looking at life under the surface and facing yourself be scary and sad, but liberation begins here.

In a world of instant feedback, short attention spans and life unfolding quickly, how does one sell the importance of putting off short term “yoga advancement” and the fun stuff for a painfully slow unfolding relationship with our spiritual potential that can only be found in stillness, solitude & honest contemplation?

Of course, with all the lectures, slideshows, practices, visual aids, and formal building blocks of yoga education we squeeze into our trainings, its no wonder students get stuck in the intellect. There is so much information to grasp to feel competent sharing yoga with others.  They must worry about testing, and teaching, and being able to retain all this dense information. They have to consider the details of starting a business as an independent yoga teacher to pay off this yoga teacher training investment. They also want more of what inspired them to come in the first place – that great high you get when doing yoga asana class. Why would they want to take their yoga another direction, when physical yoga was the inspiration that brought them to teacher’s training in the first place?

I see huge transformations and a broadening of knowledge in every student after 200 hours of study. We all start the journey at the beginning, and these yoga practitioners are exactly where they are meant to be at this stage so I don’t mean to imply there is anything missing in the students. The problem is, I worry that when my graduates leave Heartwood, they may continue to add to their experience and understanding outwardly (more certifications, more workshops, more yoga retreat experiences) and not continue to grow inwardly (a deeper understanding of core concepts and a poignant self-knowing that comes with a commitment to exploring yoga’s full potential in quiet introspection.) They don’t know what they don’t know, and frankly, nether did I when I first completed my 200 hour certification. I keep trying to pinpoint how and why I evolved beyond those early stages of yoga infatuation, because the answer will no doubt help me guide others.

I find myself pondering the question: How can I respect a student’s understandable focus on the practical application of yoga education, such as who, what and where they will teach this stuff and at the same time instill a desire to sit with themselves in a quiet way to move towards a heart-based understanding of the element of yoga that can’t be measured or used to support a teaching career? True spiritual evolution isn’t Instagram worthy, and for some people, if something can’t be shared on social media, it never happened. In a world where people seem to need an audience for their lives, how can I encourage them to not be seduced by a yoga culture that is in some ways a distraction from yoga?

I suppose I can continue to lecture, bemoan the decline of commercialized yoga, and throw the gauntlet of “serious yoga” to their feet, hoping ego or a drive to be the real deal will get students to slow down and sit with themselves – not just as homework in meditation or formal practices to  “out-yoga” the next guy, but in a true state of curiosity and sincere desire to make space for a deeper sense of self-knowing. But you can’t force a student to embrace spirituality any more than you can force a flower to bloom.

Wait a minute. I am a gardener, and the fact is, when you create the right circumstances, you CAN get a flower to bloom – even out of season. All you need is the right environmental conditions, a little work and careful planning.

The fact is, there are no bad students – only bad teachers, and if I truly believe yoga students are missing something as we race to memorize the history, practices, theory, anatomy and technical elements of yoga , I dang well better figure out how to make the “non-doing” part of yoga interesting enough that aspiring yoga teachers will embrace the quiet, immeasurable, time consuming process of learning who they are and what makes them tick to unfold their relationship with self, earth, and God.

For me, writing has always been a way to deepen my awareness and learn personal truths. Writing is a conversation with self (or something higher than self) that is private, personal and deeply engaging. You sit with the blank page and let it speak to you and once that conversation begins, get lost in words that seem to come from a place of honesty and knowing.

Considering this, I recently ordered dozens of beautiful, hand tooled and hand bound leather journals from India embossed with symbols such as Om, Ganesh, Dancing Shiva, the Buddha and the Tree of Life on the cover. Each journal is filled with pages and pages of hand made paper infused with flower petals and natural fibers. No lines – just blank space. I plan to give these books to my students with writing prompts designed to help them process the yoga sutras and other concepts we introduce in our yoga trainings. Anyone who is “into yoga” will appreciate both the look and the representative utility of the journals, but my true hope is that these books will serve as an invitation to seek  introspection and bring joy to the process of Svadhyaya (self study). What begins as “homework” will hopefully become habit.

The gift from me will be a journal, but the gift each student can give themselves is actually the potential that lies within the blank pages.

If you’ve never tried journaling, perhaps you too should try writing as a yoga practice beyond the mat.