The Power of a Moment, or Saving the World Through the Transcendent Bliss of the Whoopee Cushion
It was one of those moments. Somehow, my eight-year-old niece got her hands on a whoopee cushion. (Yes, they do still make those things.) After a variety of attempts, she successfully slid it under her uncle as he sat down in his chair, and she lit up laughing as he landed.
Well, we were all laughing, but my niece’s face was completely transformed by delight. I’ve seen her in this state before, other too-rare moments where she’s in full-on joy mode (and to be clear, it’s not always related to passing gas). It’s haunting, because it’s so fleeting—for one sweet little stitch of time her face is wide open, clear of any other emotion or even thought. Her body flashes electric, as if it might lift off the ground. And then the next moment it’s gone—she’s still laughing, but her mind, like everybody else’s, has gotten back to its job of scanning and assessing and navigating the personalities and circumstances around her.
When I see this joy-moment in my niece, I recognize it. It was also in the surprising, seismic belly laughs that would erupt out of my brother when he was a baby. It still echoes in the eye-widening, smile-softening slip of time between the moment when my 11-year-old nephew hears something surprising-hilarious and the moment he switches to the task of responding to it.
While I hope we all know what it feels like to be inside a joy-moment, I think as we learn to be adults, we forget how to have them—how to let go ofyour usual ways of surviving and engaging the world around you, and to let your unadulterated self have an experience of pure joy or delight.
Or maybe it’s that we learn it’s too vulnerable to linger in that kind of state. How many times have you felt a little joy well up inside you, only to have it muted or tamped down by some defensive thing that’s also inside you—embarrassment, anxiety, suspicion, habit?
I don’t remember the last time I was in full-on, unrepentant, wide-open joy mode. Was I was dancing in my living room? Was I in a tear-soaked savasana? Was I standing on a fogged-over mountain cliff, scream-laughing into the howl of the wind? It’s easier for me to remember these moments in other people. And I think this piece is important: when you see it happening in someone else, it has a palpable effect on you, too. It lifts you up a little bit. It lingers after it’s gone. You may even try to recreate it. Because these moments feel really good.
And what if life had more of those moments? What if wide-open, unguarded joy became even just slightly more common in our culture—how different might we be? How differently might we behave?
My experience of yoga indicates that it can—no, it does help create the circumstances that are conducive to experiencing moments of this transcendent bliss. Through practice, we gently peel away layers of our outer defenses, tensions, and habits, and we are more likely to touch into joy. We don’t have that total bliss experience every time we come to the mat, but the more faithfully we practice, the easier it is to find our way to ease, contentment, happiness.
One of the principles we work with in yoga is that when you change any part of a system, you change the whole system. Through consistent practice, you discover how true that can be, on many levels—the way working with your physical body affects your mental/emotional bodies (and vice versa); the way a change in your relationship with yourself ripples out into all your other relationships; the strange, serendipitous ways your life starts to open and interweave with those around you, sometimes leading to a career change or a newfound passion, sometimes leading to a heartfelt exchange with your mailman.
A lot of these effects come from learning to pay attention at every level, and learning skillful ways to respond to what arises. As we (slowly, gradually, sometimes haltingly) learn to do this, we open ourselves to awareness of the miracle of being alive. And without fail, the universe fills us up with whatever grace we happen to need at the moment. (If you don’t believe me on that, just test the theory—I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.)
I’ve been thinking about these ideas in relation to the blue’s upcoming 7-year anniversary fundraiser, which will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle. I love how well the mission of that group echoes the principles of yoga practice: they change the world through individual, skillful, patient action. A child is matched with a mentor and they share experiences that, one by one, make that child’s life a little different. The fertile ground of this one child’s mind and heart gets planted with some new seeds, and the path of that child’s life is forever changed.
And the effects aren’t limited to the child—with each shared experience the mentor is changed, as is everyone in the child’s life, even if only slightly. And how can we measure the power of that effect? However small a shift it makes, each action has still shifted the whole system. And maybe it helps peel back a layer, keeping that child a little closer to his ability to tap into a sense of wonder and possibility, of transcendent delight. Even if it arrives via a whoopee cushion. One action, one ripple, one sweet moment at a time: this is how we change the world.