The Uses of Joy

Yesterday morning, I met my dear neighbor on the sidewalk as she came out of her house to go to work. I was walking my dog home from a little golf course jaunt, in a sunny mood having seen a bit of sunrise and heard the birds’ voices.

“I am so glad to see you,” she said, in tones that told me something was wrong. I hugged her and asked what was up. Her beloved cat has been sick, but that was just the start of it. She had gone into a sort of panic fed by news stories of imminent global food shortages, water crises, violence–on top of the suffering of one adored creature who depends on her utterly. She cares so deeply, my neighbor-friend.

“It’s a lot,” I said in sympathy, knowing my own despairing times.

“It’s real,” she said of the bad news.

“And yet,” I said, “life is so good.”

She smiled at me with great affection, perhaps a bit of wonderment, saying, “And that is why I’m so glad to see you this morning.”

“See how beautiful?” I said, gesturing to the day at large: birdsong, sycamores, blue sky, happy poodle winding the leash around us. I admired her shirt, which was emblazoned with Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

She had not known the identity of this elephant-man and was pleased to learn that he’s the Hindu god responsible for removing obstacles. (Also, he “creates obstructions in the path of those whose ambition has become destructive,” which seems like a timely duty given the “leadership” we currently endure in this country.)

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Ganesha, by Craig Moe, via Flickr Creative Commons

She hugged me again before heading off to the office where she counsels people in ill health and financial peril, people no one else listens to.

I could never do the supremely important work she does, but perhaps by fortifying her in this way that comes naturally to me, I have made a small indirect difference with her clients.

Possibly my privilege makes it easier for me to hang onto my joy (despite being rather anxiety-prone myself). Possibly I’m just extremely sheltered and unwilling to fully face up to the bad stuff. Yet it seems radiating joy can be of use to someone in pain, if it flips the script in some small way.

Now, did this encounter change the fact that later that same day someone was shot at a nearby gas station? Did it change the fact that mass shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace in my country? Did it change any dire predictions about the world’s future?

No. Still: I believe that the more inner resilience we cultivate, the better equipped we are to be there fully for each other, to anchor the shift, to hold a higher vibration, and to act from that expansive state, instead of out of fear and contraction.

I could fret about recent mass shootings, localized violence, or future projections, and go down a rabbit hole of information/commentary/outrage/worry. Or I could allow all my emotions to flow and shift, attending to them gently, and return to a steady place, in touch with my fierce joy if possible. Then I take whatever action calls me. (I used this script to call my Senators and demand universal background checks for gun purchases. I donated to Everytown for Gun Safety.)

Some resources: Rick Hanson’s lovely “Take Heart” post is all about cultivating inner resilience in troubled times. Jen Louden’s recent “When You Feel Powerless” speaks to the feeling of “what I do is a drop in the bucket,” specifically in the face of mass shootings. Also see my “Tips for the Anxiety-Prone.”

Magnify Love

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

—Desmond Tutu

Here in the U.S., we’re feeling the reverberations of yet another mass shooting. Some call it the deadliest in our nation’s history. Even as I unplug from the news cycle, I’m energetically affected by the pain and anguish, the anger and fear.

Sadness is mostly what I feel when I think of the shooting. When I remember to, I turn toward the sadness, feel it in my body, notice the wish to numb it, alongside the urge to amass information in support of my personal philosophy about these types of tragedies.

I “embrace, allow, include,” as I’ve been coached in mindfulness training. I open up room for all my responses and attend to them with kindness. In that space I can consider right action.

All of which gives me more compassion for others on their own path.

I like to believe that humanity is evolving in a positive direction, appearances (seemingly) to the contrary. The horrible things that happen always grab our focus, fuel our outrage. It’s the same with the inflammatory things said by some pundits and politicians: Our attention gets hooked by ugly things that seem to confirm the awfulness of everything. And the ugliness magnifies.

A wise yoga/meditation instructor recently reminded me that our brains are wired to notice the snake amidst the flowers. Danger! Alert! We fixate on the negative. It’s biological.

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No snake, just flower.

Mindfulness meditation creates an opening for a new practice to emerge. It offers a brief space—the length of a breath—in which we can begin to choose.

I wonder: what if we train our attention on something other than the horror? Not to look away blithely denying injustice, but turning toward the little acts of love and solidarity, small exchanges of soul happening every day. Is it a copout, born of privilege, to even suggest such a thing? Or is it an opening?

Some schools of Buddhism teach that the material world is nothing other than a construct of mind. What mind do I wish to inhabit?

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What do I choose to magnify with my attention?