Joy and delight in challenging times

What is the relationship between joy and delight and how can we cultivate joy and delight in challenging times?

Joy and delight

I think those things that delight us may often connect us to joy. But for me joy has more of a sense of rapture, bliss, ecstasy, and transcendence than delight.

In my 2019 post Revisiting Joy I described joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness and as existing only in the ‘now’. Saint Thomas Aquinas describes joys as ‘delights of the soul’ – yes, this sums up the distinction beautifully.

Opening to joy and delight in challenging times

In challenging times, I believe it becomes more important than ever to nurture and tap into joy as an underpinning of resilience and hope. I have worked consciously for more than a decade to cultivate the capacity for joy. So part of my ability to remain open to joy is simply ‘practice’. A key element of that practice is regularly and consciously opening out my senses into the now. Over time, this has become a normal way of being. This brings with it a constant stream of small joys that feed my soul and connect me to all that is. That sense of connection is fundamental to my understanding of joy.

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.

Implicit in and emerging out of ‘connection’ are love and compassion for all beings.

If you develop a strong sense of concern for the well-being of all sentient beings and in particular human beings, this will make you happy in the morning, even before coffee . . . Joy is a way of approaching the world.

Perhaps, too, the recognition of the existence of that unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking enables me to maintain my connection to joy even in times of suffering.

There are, of course, moments when I lose the connection, times of utter weariness and despair. But I have learned that these times pass, to rest easy with them. I don’t force my way back. But I do try to continue to open my awareness, to some extent to ‘fake it till I make it’, to rest in faith. I retain a sense of trust in the calm that runs underneath the turbulence always.

Delight in the everyday

I am constitutionally curious, and my curiosity reaps an abundance of delights!

Sometimes what draws me is something not previously perceived in an everyday experience; the musicality of dancing across frozen ‘puddle-drums’; the shadows cast by individual pieces of gravel on the road in the stark, bright sunlight of an early winter’s afternoon; the exquisite crystals forming at the bottom of a bottle of maple syrup. It might be natural beauty, which often illuminates some interiority. Or perhaps an interaction with another being; the infectious chuckle of a baby; a leisurely conversation with a dear friend; the knowledge that, in some small way, I have been able to make a difference, whether to loved-one or stranger; the now familiar gentle knock of our favourite squirrel on the window; the regular visits of the Cardinal lighting up our bird-feeder. Invariably, implicit in the flashes of joy there is some sense of flow and connectedness.

I realize that joy is often, for me, a multi-layered experience that instinctively links me with deeper knowing. I feel delight in what my senses are gifting me; the breathtaking majesty of a mountain range; the wondrous lake that is the backdrop to my life; the fractious flurry of goldfinches fighting for a place at the window feeder; the scent of lavender. But beyond that delight exist additional layers, rooted in association, symbol and insight.

My eyes may be drawn to the mountains, but the soaring of my soul reflects an awe that extends my awareness outwards into all of creation.

The lake tethers me to the constancy of change. it reminds me that there is a place of deep calm within me too that remains even in the midst of the wind’s tumult or the immobility of ice. I remember that it is the moments of absolute stillness that most fully reflect the light.

My delight in the goldfinches links me back to my Grandfather’s love of ‘all things great and small’ and to the benediction of his transmitted wisdom. The lavender is my Grandmother’s gentle, loving presence.

These do not need to be conscious or articulated thought processes. But as I have cultivated joy, they increasingly underpin and amplify my experience. Joy, it seems, for me at least, can be cumulative.

Bodily delight

Saint Thomas Aquinas distinguishes bodily delights from the delights of the soul and thus joy. I’m guessing he is referring here to ‘pleasure’ and ‘sensation’. I think, though, there are other dimensions to bodily delight.

Like many of us as we age, I see my mother in my hands. I sometimes hear her in the words that emerge from my mouth. I think the delight I feel lies in a sense of recognition, perhaps even of presence, of continuity and, again, of connection.

As I spoon round my husband each morning, there is always a flash of joy. Yes, that dear familiarity, that skin on skin delight in touch is still the first layer, even 30 years on. But it also connects me to the whole of our history together, all the growth, learning and co-creation, the deepening of mature love.

And, recently, I seem to have moved into a new relationship with my body as simultaneously separate from and integral to that which constitutes ‘I am’. With this has come an unaccustomed tenderness and compassion, as well as a stream of fresh awareness and delight. A fleeting perception of my body as a community of cells within that greater community that is existence was just the kind of momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is that forms part of my definition of joy.

Joy and gratitude as an act of resistance

Whether it’s the transcendent joy of sacred ritual or the simple joy of cultivating a garden, the pursuit of joy amid great struggle is a way to tend our humanity when it is most threatened. . . Joy is also a manifestation of abundance.

Although a key focus of my life has been an ability to help create the circumstances that support change for individuals and organizations, I’ve never really identified as an activist. I have always believed that the deepest and most enduring change always begins with the individual. So in looking at joy and gratitude in the context of resistance my focus is a more subtle, personal form of resistance.

At the most basic level, if joy underpins resilience and hope then it offers each one of us resistance against the negative emotions, the despair that might otherwise overwhelm us in dark times. There is great power in this.

To lay claim to joy and gratitude when the collective mood is one of loss, fear, grief and anger is to reassert our humanity, our vitality. By choosing to cultivate our capacity for joy, we retain the ability to expand rather than contract, which in turn drives our ability to embrace and energize change and so to move forward.

Similarly, in challenging times, the rootedness of joy in connection holds back the tides of isolation and alienation, certainly for self and possibly for others. We remain able to function from an abundance mindset.

Whilst it may seem counterintuitive to be joyful in the face of social ills and struggle, joy actually increases our ability to engage with the world empathically and effectively.

The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but . . . to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.

These last few difficult months have gifted many of us with an opportunity to turn our gaze inward. Although I have, like most people, struggled at times, I have been surprised to discover an increasingly persistent undercurrent of joy. Sometimes this brings feelings of guilt. How can it be OK to experience joy when so many are suffering?

This takes me back to that sense of joy as underpinning the capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human. Those of us who are able to tap into this capacity and to keep joy alive are, to an extent, light bringers and keepers of the flame. I can’t think of a much more profound act of resistance.

Light in tough times

In these challenging times, it is hardly surprising when fear creates a knotted tangle of resistance, control mechanisms, and doubt. It can be difficult to hold on to an awareness of light.

Awe versus awful

A friend commented to me that maintaining an awareness of awe didn’t seem to help that much when instead faced with awful. I think the reality is that awe, wonder and gratitude are important in nourishing joy and resilience. They are not a preventative measure or an insurance policy – life happens. But greater resilience and the ability to find joy in even small, everyday things, can provide the necessary glimmer of light to help you get through the tough times.

Not mine to fix

It is easy to find oneself on a slippery slope of self-blame or loss of faith when life doesn’t go as you hoped and expected, when illness or adversity strike. I realized in the last week that, whilst I am mostly able to understand and accept that it is not up to me to fix others, there is a part of me that wants to cling to the belief that, if I ‘do it right’, I can fix myself. It was illuminating and freeing to understand that it is also not up to me to fix myself!

I may aspire to physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, may do my best to adopt positive choices and practices. But it is not a weakness, a failing in myself, if physical or emotional issues do not resolve immediately in response to my actions – or even ever. I simply do not have that level of control over life – no one does. There is no point, therefore, in judging and finding myself wanting. Nor does this invalidate the choices and practices. What I can do is sit with myself compassionately and with acceptance of what is. I can listen deeply for what I need and tap into that ability to connect with resilience and joy and the underpinning awareness that the light is always there.

Shining a light

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

Sitting in meditation with these ideas swirling around me, I had a delightfully ‘silly moment’ when the thought that popped into my head was ‘I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!’ Beyond the thought, though, lies a deepening understanding that it is not mine to fix anyone and a continuing commitment to the growth of authenticity. Thus is helping to reframe my ongoing desire to ‘make a difference’. It struck me that this was a personal expression of what Kim Rosen suggests in the quote above (revisited from my Soul School post). Playing with the thought, the poem below was my destination!

Lighthouse - shining a light at the edge of the world (Cape Spear)

I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!

I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up,
to stand tall and true at the edge of the world
mostly unremarked and unremarkable but there,
a steady light radiating outwards from within.

It is none of my business
whether the light
is witnessed
or serves any purpose.

But, on the darkest nights,
when storms rage and rocks reveal their fangs,
just maybe my light may ease some being’s passage
and help them come home to themself.

August 13, 2020

Love Stories

‘Happily ever after’ or true partnership?

Rock love heart

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?

As a 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.

Reflection 1

Waking in the night . . . reaching out and linking arms like otters as we drift back into a sea of sleep.

Morning 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.

Enduring love

The love 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.

In this 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.

To live this long this close is to witness both the best and the worst of self and other.

There is 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.

With the 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.

To know another deeply is also to know how much you can never know; exquisite closeness and unfathomable distance co-exist.

I’ve never 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.

Reflection 2

Walking 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.

The years have tested and strengthened that thread with the countless strands of our shared existence.

It is hard not to imagine that this connection might endure beyond time and space . . .

Revisiting Joy

Joy is to be found in a place of inner quiet, the point of light within – the divine spark? It is more the manifestation of a quality of spirit than an emotion, existing only in the ‘now’.

Back in 2010, when I started this site, this was my first attempt at a definition of joy.

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.

Still wilderness. The place that is most us yet remains beyond us.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

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?

Let there be light

. . . joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.

Christian Wiman, Joy – 100 Poems

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’.

Soul School – navigating the anatomy of the soul

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.”

~Kim Rosen

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 presence
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 energy
that weave connections
to other souls and to the soul of the world.

My soul is not contained by my body;
rather, my body exists within the boundlessness of my soul!

My soul is fueled
   by unsentimental compassionate love;
     by joy and wonder;
         by gratitude;
            by acceptance;
              by laughter;
                 and by the depths of the living silence;
                    all of which bring me to the place of presence.

Walk softly on the earth
holding nothing but an open heart . . .

The land of my soul
The land of my soul . . .

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.

Ruach*

The Siren call of ‘should’
recedes into the tide
of accumulating years.

Beneath the surface, though,
still swirl the subtler soundings
of impulse and desire: 

    to ‘make a difference’ or
    to ‘make it so’;
    to ‘go the extra mile’;
    to ‘live life to the full’;
    to ‘keep my word’ and
    ‘fill the need’

Recurrent melodies
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;

must move
with the ability of grass
to give way
yet return to itself;

must dance
with the fluid abandon
and ecstatic release
of autumn trees.

 *************************

Let the wind sing
through me,
carry the breath
of ‘I am’
into the greater chorus
that is life.

Let me continue
to shed old skins,
strip away
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.

~ David Whyte in Self Portrait

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.

As I searched, I discovered that my deepest fear is of the distortions and perversions of power in both the interior and exterior worlds.

It was 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

Coming home

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’?

Listening

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 compassion’.

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.

The Return

I had supposed
it was sun’s warmth
that allowed the frozen lake
to remember its fluidity.

**************************

This year, I watch, I listen.

**************************

Sun carves
holes in ice;
night recoats them
with transparent stillness.

Wind comes,
blustering, buffeting force.
Ice creaks and groans
and breaks apart.

The lake
remembers movement;
its interior currents
persevere with wind’s work.

With thaw
come surge and flood,
release and ecstasy,
unbridled power and overwhelm.

The land
slakes its thirst,
opens into
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?

Allium
Allium

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?


Story

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 hum.

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.