Mary Oliver gives us three Instructions For Living A Life: 1. Pay attention. 2. Be astonished. 3. Tell about it. I read that poem many months ago, and the word astonish kept standing out to me. I started being curious about what that instruction "be astonished" really meant. What is astonishment, and how do I practice being astonished?
One of the things I started noticing are the ways in which we block astonishment. At the top of the list: envy, jealousy, cynicism, insecurity, and fear. These mental states cause us to contract, to become narrow, to pull away, and to shut off our ability to see clearly the world around us.
There are many practices that help us to move beyond the obstacles that block astonishment. One of them is the Buddhist practice Mudita or sympathic joy. It's the practice of deriving joy, satisfaction and fulfillment from other people's happiness, success and good fortune. Often considered one of the hardest Buddhist practices, this way of being invites us to experience joy for someone else with out any self interest.
For example, last Saturday I was walking to Love Hive Yoga to teach a class. On my way there I passed a restaurant called The Screen Door. Outside there were about 30 people waiting to get in for brunch. That's normal for this restaurant on the weekends. As I walked through the crowd I grumbled a bunch of negative thoughts and criticisms. They were smiling waiting with friends. It was sunny. And I was like "I would never wait outside that long," "look at these idiots," "they're probably tourists." Etcetera, etcetera.
I caught myself, though, and I laughed a little. I said to myself, “Mudita, Roger!" I changed my thoughts right there on the spot. I allowed myself to feel happy knowing that they were doing something that was probably making them happy. I coached myself by imagining all the ways that they could be experiencing satisfaction-- being with loved ones, standing in the sun, anticipating a delicious meal.
The end result is that I walked on feeling happy. I showed up to class and I told them about my experience, which is part of Mary Oliver's third instruction: Tell about it. To share our story.
It shows up in yoga class, as well. Sometimes we see someone whose practice looks strong, flexible, graceful, and beautiful. We witness someone come into a difficult pose with seeming effortlessness. Meanwhile, perhaps we are struggling or afraid. Our reaction can show up as either self criticism: I'm not as good as them. I'm weak, out-of-shape, inflexible. I'm terrible at yoga. Other times we feel envious or jealous and so we criticize some other part of them to diminish their success: Look at her slutty yoga pants. She doesn't even have to work at it. He's just showing off. It must be nice to have so much money to afford to do yoga everyday. Etc..
Instead, we can celebrate their success and achievement; we can feel joy and happiness for them. I love how free she is in her body. Wow, such natural beauty! How wonderful that he can do such fantastic things with his body. That's so great that she has the means to do yoga everyday.
We can be astonished! It takes some practice to open our eyes, to look, to listen, and to change our habitual, deeply held thought patterning. The side effects of these instructions and practices are we experience a greater sense of happiness, satisfaction and contentment with our lives.
If you are in Florida, join me for my workshop Yoga and The Art of Astonishment on January 27 - 29. We will have an opportunity to dig into this work through storytelling, discussion, meditation and yoga practice to cultivate astonishment in our own daily lives. Ryan Devin, an all around amazing teacher and human being will be assisting and co-teaching with me for the weekend! How you can come! See more info below.