I keep thinking about a yoga class that I attended at an ashram on Robertson Blvd in Los Angeles, ten or eleven years ago. I was trying to find some spiritual direction and someone told me about this teacher who was the real deal, a Sikh guru who naturally used yoga practice as part of his spiritual teaching, not for exercise, not to relax. The mind-body conversation in the East is very different from the West, the information flows both directions, (unlike Descartesian mind over body monologues). Which is not to say, I must assure you, that this guru's yoga was particularly easy. We held poses for what felt like hours while he talked about the way to discover the ground of being and challenged, tough-love style, the part of us that wanted to collapse on the mat and just quit damn it!
My first experience was powerful. Near the end of the session the teacher had us sit in lotus position, hold our arms straight up over our heads, and repeat a chanted prayer. It was kind of fun at first. I like chanting. But when I realized that this arms-over-head prayer session was not merely a slightly exotic, two-minute send off, but something we were going to be doing for some unspecified "awhile," I got discouraged. I didn't quit but I did get tired, loosen my arms a little, and generate some resentment. The guru dug in too. He exhorted us to stretch our arms to heaven, to find out what was possible, to give up a little comfort. And he instructed us to chant louder. Loudly. "This prayer is a hymn to your magnificence" he said. "Shout it out!"
So I did. I guess I was really looking that day for what he could teach me, and I've always been susceptible to tough coaching--- it tingles my heroic nerve. I stretched my arms and chanted and chanted in full voice. Energy started rippling through my body. Suddenly my arms were light, light as feathers, and I started to weep with joy. Bliss is the only word I know to describe the complete sense of rightness and wholeness that filled me in that moment. This state lasted for a couple of hours.
I never experienced that bliss again in that setting, and I went to only three, maybe four more classes taught by this man. But I do recall something from the last class that I attended, words from the guru that echo through my Campbell research and have a lot to do with my interest in the concept of bliss. We were once again holding a deceptively simple pose for an excruciatingly long time when he said, "You know that bliss is here. It is always available to us. Bliss is being. But the truth is, most of us do not want bliss. We only want to be a little bit happier."
What do we want? Goethe writes: "I praise what is truly alive, what longs to be burned to death." I yearn for that combustible element too. I also know that I fear that kind of surrender and, day to day, hope instead, for grace. And I continue to choose rather conventional forms of happiness, not bliss.