I have a confession to make.
It’s about joy.
We have had a strained relationship over the years.
I have eyed joy from afar, from a distance, with trepidation and suspicion, daring only to dip my toes in when the temptation was too strong to resist any longer.
There are a whole hornet’s nest of old reasons for that, some of which I’ve already revealed and some which continue to spill out here in this miraculous digital space, but in some ways the reasons are not important.
The actual wounds and hurts matter far less than my reaction to them, which was to close, to armor up, to prepare myself for the battle that I perceived life (in part because of those wounds and hurts) to be.
Working with my own coach at one point I could actually hear that armor going on, the clink and clank of the heavy weight of the individual pieces as I covered myself up so I could be safe in body and spirit. I could feel the burden of carrying all of that protection as constant exhaustion. And I could sense the fruitlessness of it as the emotional ceiling shrank to the height of “fine” rather than “great,” or “wonderful,” or even just “happy.”
Joy was not allowed in because in order to block the bottom end of the scale, I had to cut out the top. This is the unfortunate reality of how it works with our feelings. We cannot block selectively. We can only block for intensity and volume, so we either have them all, or we limit ourselves to a narrower band that feels tolerable if not good. Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and all around compassion genius, describes this narrowing: “These reactions, strategies, and story lines are what cocoons and prison walls are made of.”
What, then, are we to do if we want to experience joy? This has been a question I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. I have all of the ingredients for a joyful life and yet somehow the feeling still seemed inaccessible to me. Ironically, now that I seem to have gotten a better handle on this whole joy thing, I have stumbled onto a book that describes the very process I’ve been following, although in a much more concise and clear fashion (without all of the bumbling and experimenting). Pema Chödrön describes cultivating joy as working on the mental capacity to celebrate and rejoice in good fortune – even in the smallest forms. To do this we need to be present, to see what is actually around us, and we need to acknowledge and be present when we resist that rejoicing.
When we feel ourselves pull away from the opportunity to celebrate, to rejoice, Chödrön suggests that we: “right on the spot, we can go beneath the words to the nonverbal experience of the motion. What’s happening in our hearts, our shoulders, our gut? Abiding with the physical sensation is radically different from sticking to the story line.” BOOM.
In order to access the joy, we have to actually allow the discomfort we experience when presented with the makings of joy – whatever those might be for us, AND the way to do that and not turn it into some multi-day mind fuck is to feel those feelings in the body. I know this to be true from first-hand experience. Being instructed by my own coach to notice my emotions in my body for the first time was a total revelation, and the way that it quieted the mind was nothing short of miraculous. It is in this miraculous quiet space that we can relax, that we, as Chödrön puts it “train in softening rather than hardening.”
Softening, rather than hardening. It sounds risky to many, but doesn’t it also sound so restful? Doesn’t that armor just get so very heavy? Doesn’t “fine” grow so tiresome?
I know it did for me, and as I open this space, as I drop my armor (which is a process by the way and one that is not exactly linear in my experience), I discover that I can be safe in my joys, in my rejoicing, in my celebration because I am no longer so fearful of experiencing the lows. It is all part of the human experience, and I really do want the whole shebang. Don’t you?