It seems to me that ‘joy’ is a word that has become unfashionable and, perhaps, lost meaning for the modern age. My aim is to explore the meaning of joy, the ways in which we can develop a capacity to tap into joy, and the qualities of being that contribute to this capacity.
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Even the greatest love stories have their moments! For many years I have referred to this as ‘the 5%’. From a personal perspective, my husband and I rub along pretty well for 95% of the time – sometimes better, sometimes worse, but generally OK. Then, suddenly, love in the shadows; the unfathomable distance between separate identities becomes insurmountable, overwhelming, unbearable.
What I’ve realized is that, although these times feel like a threat, are full of pain and anguish, they are but another part of the gift of enduring compassionate partnership.
The Shadow Hordes
The Warrior Queen rises up from the shadows, fierce, proud, self-righteous, magnificent and lethal. She seeks only to protect her realm, yet her wild, wounding words are laden with destruction.
Beside her a weeping Child begs for comfort, “what about me? See me, love me, save me!”
Behind them lurk the Troll of resistance barring the way forward, the Grey Goblin of anxiety wringing her hands, and more.
The many voices of the shadow self become a cacophonous clamour that threatens to drown out any possibility of perspective or partnership.
Love in the Shadows
Where else do we have the safety to confront the shadows so openly? Love is possibly the only power that can talk us down from the ledges. It is only in the context of love that we can see the damage our shadow army inflicts on self and other. And it is only in the context of love that we can find the compassionate understanding to forgive ourselves for their existence within us.
If we never allow ourselves to see the shadows, we lose the opportunity to know them.
In truth, it is not the purpose of the Warrior Queen to destroy, of the Grey Goblin to disable, of the Troll to stand in the way; they seek to protect. They bring shadow, darkness in which to hide, to find safety. They are the wild, untamed aspects of our psyche. They are capable of evil but they are not inherently evil in and of themselves. Indeed, they can be instructive and empowering aspects of who we are.
Only as we develop our capacity for compassionate love can we begin to realize how to embrace our shadows, to acknowledge their purpose, to befriend them enough to listen calmly to their promptings, to draw on that wild wisdom without unleashing their destructive force.
This, to me, is the gift of the 5%. We are challenged at the deepest level to engage with all that it is to be human. This offers us not only the opportunity to make peace with ourselves but also deepens our compassionate understanding of shadow as it manifests in the world around us.
If you have found some value in this post, you may also enjoy Love Stories
Why is it
that so many of the ‘great love stories’ seem to end just when the real work of
love begins? ‘Happily ever after’ is such a cop out!
Why is so
relatively little written about love that has had decades to ripen and mature,
forged and strengthened by the shared joys and pains of a lifetime together?
culture, it seems that we glorify the exhilaration of new love, extol its
romantic and sexual highs. We talk so much less about the depth and richness
that develop when we genuinely choose to partner with another.
in the night . . . reaching out and linking arms like otters as we drift back
into a sea of sleep.
comes. Holding each other close, we welcome the day and the joy is like a shaft
of sunlight, even when the world outside is dark and gloomy.
that endures the decades is not the sentimental, delusional stuff of glossy
romance. Time has exposed unexpected strengths and skills, but also vulnerabilities
and inabilities. There is nowhere to hide.
narrative, the rich colours of joy and contentment, of achievement and
fulfilment, are intertwined with the darker shades of despair, of doubt, of
dashed dreams and struggle. These form a resilient rope of experience that
connects us ever more deeply, yet never binds.
this long this close is to witness both the best and the worst of self and
something truly profound in knowing that your loved one has, at the very least,
caught glimpses of your shadows, your demons, and not run screaming for the hills.
I call this ‘embracing the 5%’. Sometimes I think it is harder to accept this
gift than it is to give it.
passing of time, I have come to understand that love exists not ‘despite’ our
human imperfection but rather ‘because’ of it. The beautiful ability for true
compassion is nourished by this understanding, not by the sterility of perfect
people living perfect lives.
another deeply is also to know how much you can never know; exquisite closeness
and unfathomable distance co-exist.
been sure of the idea of a soulmate – sometimes this seems to be represented
more like a narcissistic reflection. It also sets us up to expect something
that ‘just happens’. Yet so much of learning to love requires the choosing of
an investment of our deepest self.
into a crowded gig and knowing instinctively where to find you – even then, a
fine thread connected us.
Red roadside poppies on Valentine’s Day (no, it can’t have been; it must have been a birthday!) and the importance of blue moons . . .
Shared dreams and adventures, the same words tumbling at the same time from two mouths, passing kisses, flirtatious glances (yes, even thirty years on), the hugging, the holding; our story.
years have tested and strengthened that thread with the countless strands of
our shared existence.
hard not to imagine that this connection might endure beyond time and space . .
The trees are freighted with the accretion of ice; branches that normally spread above our heads are bowed with heaviness, fingering the surface of the skating pond. Crystal coated grass, each blade distinct, and branches held in thrall create a crunching, crinkling, eerie cascade of sound.
Beauty and brutality in equal measure – there is real destructive power in this slow layering of ice on ice.
I am reminded that if we encase ourselves in a brittle, rigid shell – of pain, of grief, of pride or anger – we are more, not less, likely to be broken.
Revisiting joy nearly ten years on it is interesting to see where this perception has led me.
I see joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness.
Joy is not happiness. If anything, I think it provides a glimpse of the unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking.
I perceive joy to exist at the level of our essential being. Young children access it more easily than adults because they have not yet fully constructed ego’s walls.
Those with a deep spirituality often seem to radiate joy (the Dalai Lama comes to mind). Is this, perhaps, because they have worked to shed layers of ego, to access and stay connected with the depth of being, the flow?
Often when we experience joy it is as an incandescent flash, almost outside of time. It is not something we can hold onto, yet it nourishes us to the core. It is, in the words of Derek Walcott, an illumination, a benediction, a visitation.
Cultivating our capacity to experience joy is also a process of honing our ability to connect, as well as to contain and to accept every shading of existence. This encompasses both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world, which in the end is simply another manifestation of all that is whether you define this spiritually or in terms of particulate matter.
It is interesting that, at least according to Buddhist academic and teacher Reggie Ray, if we go back far enough in time to archaic, pre-agricultural civilizations, life’s purpose was perceived not as ‘progress’ but to stay connected with the depth of being expressed in creation. It seems to me that joy re-opens that gateway to connection and to that ‘still wilderness’.
Here are links to some older posts exploring the nature of joy that I think are particularly relevant:
In February of this year, in company with a small online community and led by Kim Rosen, I embarked on a five month adventure, Soul School.
Poetry, music, presence, and the wisdom in our own bodies / feelings / knowings, as well as readings and videos from many sources ignite and waken us. This is an invitation to radical self-honesty, realness, curiosity and community that will at least disrupt who you think you are, and possibly leave you, as Mary Oliver writes, “a bride married to amazement.”
This was quite a journey, intentionally touching on both light and darkness. In this post I gather together of some of the key strands from my personal perceptions and responses to the invitations. This is partly a record for myself. But I hope that, just as the poems and sharings of the course ignited sparks of awareness for me, so there may be something here that leads you deeper into yourself.
What is the soul?
Soul is . . .
Soul is the meeting point
of the impermanent
and the eternal.
Soul is the deep calm
beneath the crashing waves
of a turbulent sea.
Soul is sun’s abiding
behind storm’s devastation,
beyond the darkest night.
Soul inhabits stillness,
is the ‘still, small voice’
that speaks the language of silence.
It is the tendrils of soul
that weave connections
to other souls and to the soul of the world.
My soul is not contained by
rather, my body exists within the boundlessness of my soul!
My soul is fueled
by unsentimental compassionate love;
by joy and wonder;
and by the depths of the
all of which bring me to the place
Walk softly on the earth holding nothing but an open heart . . .
The False Self
This was an opportunity to look at the imperatives that bind and keep me from my fullest self.
These are the building blocks of the learned impulses, the self-image
that defines me as ‘facilitator’, ‘changemaker’, the one who makes things
happen and who makes things right, who does what must be done.
And, though they are not in themselves false, indeed encompass much of value, they cannot resonate as ‘true’ when they become rigidified and ‘absolute’; when they are rigid, they build a prison for the soul.
The Siren call of
recedes into the tide
of accumulating years.
Beneath the surface, though,
still swirl the subtler soundings
of impulse and desire:
to ‘make a
to ‘make it so’;
to ‘go the extra mile’;
to ‘live life to the full’;
to ‘keep my word’ and
‘fill the need’
within the song of ‘I’,
these deepest ‘truths’
constrain the deepest lie.
For the wind to blow through me
I must open
to the cracks in the universe
that let the light shine in;
with the ability of grass
to give way
yet return to itself;
with the fluid abandon
and ecstatic release
of autumn trees.
Let the wind sing
carry the breath
of ‘I am’
into the greater chorus
that is life.
Let me continue
to shed old skins,
the shielding shadows
as I expand
into my fullness.
Let me humbly inhabit the cyclical rhythms of the universe that take me beyond question and answer to the paradox of all that is.
* The Hebrew ruach means “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit.” The corresponding Greek word is pneuma. Both words are commonly used in passages referring to the Holy Spirit.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.
I am learning the distinction between capability and capacity. I am learning to sit with the silence and listen to the wind.
Any thought, no matter how wise, is a rigid form, and life is movement and constant change. Any rigid form obstructs the flow of life, even a beautiful one.
~ Kim Rosen
The Beast and the Beauty
The focus of this session was to open to the darkness, the beast within, to reveal, acknowledge and own it so as to reclaim its energy. By definition, this was difficult material and it feels inappropriate to share too much detail.
searched, I discovered that my deepest fear is of the distortions and
perversions of power in both the interior and exterior worlds.
interesting that, in a guided meditation exploring the feminine archetypes, the
ones I shied away from were the ‘power’ figures.
In an apparent contradiction, I am afraid both to be powerful and of being powerless.
I also learned that even a ‘wise gift’ carries with it potential distortion. An early message that ‘making a difference can be as simple as a smile to a stranger’ and other similar transmitted wisdom from my mother has simultaneously been a powerful positive force in my life and has bound me to my false self.
The most important question for me, as I emerge through a time of very conscious transition into my Crone years, is this:
How may I open and deepen into the embrace of my own innate wisdom and power to the benefit of myself and others?
The Essential Self
When we align with who we really are, who-what we are designed to be, we unfurl. Benefit in all directions abounds that has little to do with us. We are simply being . . . and the benefit that happens, in a way, is none of our business.
~ Kim Rosen
As I have entered this new stage of my life in which I
am consciously embracing ‘the season of the Crone’, there is a deepening sense
of coming home to my truest self. Increasingly the pervading qualities are authenticity, presence and love. These
are underpinned by a deep knowledge of a calm place of awareness, of a ‘secure
base’ that lies within and is always available to me.
I think this
has only become possible as I have embraced the beauty of imperfection, most
particularly in self and others. Perhaps the most glorious human quality is
that of compassion; in a perfect world filled with perfect beings, compassion
would have no place! This realization allowed me finally to release the last
remnants of the need to be perfect.
I believe that this is what it means ‘to be who I am meant to be’. It is at the heart of both self-acceptance and of a letting go of external agendas and attachment to outcomes.
I am still working towards understanding my purpose as (hopefully!) a ‘wise woman’ or ‘elder’ in a society that is only beginning to re-discover these concepts. But it may well be that living truly to the best that I am, present, authentic, loving, accepting, without expectation, is the greatest gift that I can give to others, to the world. Is this how ‘making a difference’ seeps into the fabric of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’?
My listening and ‘received guidance’ so often come through a deep attention to the natural world. I learn that I am made of the same stuff, that my patterns are also the ones I see every day in the lake, the trees, the creatures around me and in the turning of the seasons.
I am both as precious and as insignificant as the
wondrous, diverse lives I see around me. I value, hold to my heart every living
thing (even if I admit to a certain ambivalence when it comes to ticks and
mosquitos!). Yet when the hawk swoops on the chipmunk, I accept this too with
love. This is at the heart of what I mean when I speak of ‘unsentimental
I think for a long time that my perception of wisdom and the way I thought an ‘enlightened’ human life was meant to be was to reach a place where I was always able to be calm, never losing my temper or feeling angry or depressed. But when I look at the constant change in nature, the storms, the subtle shifts of wind, and light, the impact of freeze and thaw or heat and drought, I am so conscious that I too am part of this. These shifts are important, a necessary part of living and being, part of the richness.
All things pass – both life’s challenges and its gifts. What remains with us is what we have made of the experiences. So now I have no expectation that I will feel a particular way, will maintain an unruffled calm. Instead there is a growing ability to retain an abiding consciousness of that ‘calm place of awareness’ in just the same way that, in becoming intimate with the shifts in the lake that is the backdrop to my life, I am aware of the calm that lies beneath all.
When the wind blows and white caps form, when rain falls in torrents to break the surface, when ice forms and makes the surface static, that living, fluid state of calm still exists. And before long there will be another moment of exquisite stillness or of evening light reflected back, painting the trees copper and gold.
it was sun’s warmth
that allowed the frozen lake
to remember its fluidity.
This year, I
watch, I listen.
holes in ice;
night recoats them
with transparent stillness.
blustering, buffeting force.
Ice creaks and groans
and breaks apart.
its interior currents
persevere with wind’s work.
come surge and flood,
release and ecstasy,
unbridled power and overwhelm.
slakes its thirst,
its own messy awakening.
The lake returns to itself, its fluid, shifting moods, and, beneath, that deep reflective calm.
The Unnameable Vastness of Being
There are no words for that inner space beyond all the assumed identities, but the nearest I can get, inspired by John O’Donohue, is ‘eternal presence and belonging’.
I had not consciously sought to ‘just sit’ but
was called to it one extraordinary afternoon by the visiting presence of
Scarlet Tanager, Redwing Blackbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeak
and Indigo Bunting.
This Wondrous Now
Spring green and dappled sunlight,
shot with transient jewel bright
flashes of delight:
scarlet, blood-red on coal, gilded crimson epaulettes; vivid orange-gold, blazing; rose breast bursting from black and white; a brilliant scrap of indigo sky, all held within an exuberance of song!
My heart leaps with joy at the unfolding moments; I cannot bear to tear myself from this wondrous now!
To sit with no defined purpose or structure is
still somehow disorientating, sometimes challenging; and even though it is like
a homecoming, there is a kind of resistance. There is also a pull to ruminate.
The flow of sensory input intensifies, and I am
aware of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations as part of that input.
Yet I also become vividly aware of this sensory
information as just another construct; my experience is partial – other species
see, smell, hear (and probably taste and feel) within totally different ranges;
their reality is not mine. However wondrous, absorbing, awe-inspiring I may
find that which I experience through my senses, there is a consciousness that
this is just a tiny part of something so much bigger!
Who sees, hears,
smells, tastes, feels, thinks?
How does that which experiences in me connect to that which experiences in you?
Sitting gazing through the window’s glass . . .
A few feet from me, a honeybee works diligently, collecting nectar from a vivid purple allium. Do the florets shift with the subtle disruption of the bee’s wings, or is it just the breeze?
A story unfolds – why is this so compelling?
An invisible filament of spider’s web is strung between allium stems – I deduce its presence because of the catkin and the mayfly apparently suspended in mid-air. For a few moments it seems as if the bee will be likewise captured, held, and my heart lurches – I want to rush outside, to liberate it. But the bee reclaims its freedom, returns to its business of scouring the purple blooms before spiraling into the great beyond – a somewhere that exists beyond my peep-hole into its world.
The story fades.
Colours gain intensity; the furred texture of
the poppy stem and buds makes me want to reach through the glass, to experience
with touch, maybe to smell and taste, to hear the bee’s almost imperceptible
This reminds me that, even if I have cultivated
sensory presence and relish the joy it brings, it is still all too easy to
forget, to fall into the habit of experiencing as if through glass, from a
place of separation.
I am also aware that, joyous as the sensory
experience is, there is another layer, the “invisible world” of the Celts, the
great unknown and the source of eternal wonder. I feel blessed always to have
carried this awareness with me, a small but widening tear in the fabric of this
limited reality through which I sense that ‘eternal
presence and belonging’.
Paraphrasing John O’Donohue, may you be at ease with the unsolved and the unfinished and be able to recognize, in the scattered graffiti of your desires, the signature of the eternal.