I managed to listen to a few sessions from the 2022 Global Joy Summit. The focus of the second day was The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow. I have long defined joy itself not as an emotion but as a way of being. What struck me was that there can be in every emotion a passage to joy.
We often separate our emotions into those we find difficult and those we think of as pleasurable. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that all our emotions rise up from our inner wilds. Every emotion brings its own gifts, and, with self-compassion, we have the ability to befriend them and channel them for the greatest good of self and others. But every emotion, even those we may think of as ‘positive’, has a shadow capacity for harm if allowed to run amok.
It’s easy to see that anger can be destructive. However, at its best, anger is also protective. It flags to us when our boundaries are being breached, when we are veering off course. It can also usefully inspire us to activism in response to perceived injustices, provide an impetus for change.
But, as a red-headed Celt, I know only too well the pain I can inflict on myself and others when, instead of being able to observe and be with my anger, I flare into a spike of adrenalin and words I will inevitably regret.
If an emotion is causing harm, it is likely turning sour.
I learned as a child to suppress my anger. I was ‘baited’ by my peers once they discovered I had a temper. So, for too long, I didn’t listen to its voice until I was overwhelmed by it. It has taken me many decades to begin to learn instead to recognize anger’s promptings, to acknowledge these both internally and with a brief expression, but then to attempt to stand back, breathe, and to see what is really required. Often the question is ‘what do I (or we) need to do differently?’ It may involve a re-stating of boundaries. I definitely find humor a helpful tool in defusing the moment. I think I am still better at accessing compassion for others than self-compassion though.
For me, anger’s relationship to joy is that it brings me back to my authentic self by enabling me to uphold my personal boundaries. It takes me to the place of what the Dalai Lama terms wise selfishness, a key component in cultivating joy. And when my anger is aroused by social issues, it ignites my compassion and connects me to an awareness of our shared humanity, at the heart of which is joy.
Sadness and grief
More than anything, sadness speaks to what we care about. Sadness and grief underpin our humanity.
Tears mark what is sacred.
Life is never static. Sadness and grief orient us to loss and impermanence. They draw us to necessary reflection, a slowing into quietness, ultimately to an understanding of the importance of presence in the moment. The root of grief is often love.
To be able to sit with sadness and grief is vitally important. If we try to block out the pain, it will stay with us, haunt us, and we will become stuck in a destructive cycle.
The acceptance of impermanence, that all things, all emotions pass – so implicit in grief and sadness – is another cornerstone of joy.
‘Can happiness ever become excessive?’, I wondered.
We think of happiness as a positive emotion. Mostly it is, nourishing our sense of wellbeing. Finding delight in the everyday is no small part of the way in which I cultivate my capacity for joy. I talked about this in my post Joy and delight in challenging times.
I recognize in myself, though, a tendency sometimes to let the good times spiral. We speak of high mood, high energy, high times. Yet that ‘high’ too easily can take on an addictive edge, become excessive pleasure seeking, or pull us towards something more like mania or obsession.
I think that the acknowledgement of toxic positivity implies a recognition that there can be a distortion when we overemphasize ‘positive’ emotions and avoid the ‘negative’. Avoidance is a form of resistance and ultimately what we resist persists and can easily become poisonous to self and others.
It is interesting to look deeply at the emotions we term ‘positive’ and take heed of their shadows as well as to look for the gifts within those we experience as ‘difficult’.
Owning opportunities for growth, new insights, the deepening of our humanity and compassion by truly experiencing what we feel, is very different from avoidance. To me it implies that awareness of the thread that connects us to joy even when we are in the midst of suffering.
Friending the inner wilds
Our emotions are our constant companions. Too often, though, we fail to become truly familiar with them. We need our passions, for all their wildness. The more we are able to sit with them, to listen, to be, to let them flow through us, the easier it becomes to see all our emotions as friends rather than threats and to appreciate what they do for us. At the same time, we may gain an understanding of the ways in which we habitually inflate their more harmful aspects and develop strategies to defuse these.
This is a very personal process. Emotions are not as universally recognizable as we tend to think. At a macro level, recent research highlights cultural differences in emotional experience and expression. This implies to me that our individual emotions will have been shaded by all the different layers of culture.
My understanding of the gifts and the shadows in any emotion may not fit your experience. There are no short cuts or quick fixes. There is significant work involved in looking at the emotions that shape your life, including those you think of as ‘easy’ or ‘good’. Developing friendship and real understanding requires an investment of time, openness, and self-compassion.
In an earlier post on Love in the shadows I referred to the shadow hordes, a way in which I give identity to feelings and shadows by personifying them. I find this a useful technique through which to amplify my ability to recognize and relate to my emotions.
I believe that deep in the heart of the wilds is a quiet, peaceful, deeply compassionate space suffused with joy. Occasionally we catch glimpses of it, in ourselves, but more especially in great spiritual leaders like Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama. I don’t think we are meant to live there all the time. We are meant to feel. Those feelings are part of the richness of our living. Our responsibility is to learn to respond to what we feel appropriately rather than simply to react and to appreciate the gifts our feelings hold.
Learning from the lake
What makes watching the lake so mesmerizing is its state of constant change. It does not, as far as I can tell, resist the whipping of its waves by the wind or the transition to ice in winter. Sometimes it sparkles, diamond strewn. Sometimes it hypnotizes me with the intersecting patterns of its ripples. Sometimes the depth of its stillness fills me with a quiet sense of awe. Different facets of its character are revealed by every change of light. To me, it is never anything but beautiful. And, always, I am aware of a sense of constancy and calm in its depths, no matter how its surface is interacting with the world.
. . . in every emotion a passage to joy.