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.”

Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A recent medical procedure that emptied my colon brought back vestiges of a mood disorder I thought was long gone. I realized again the close link between mood and gut flora. I’m happy to say that with time and scrupulous self-care (below) anxiety has mostly left me. But it made me remember how painful it is to live with anxiety, and I thought a blog post might be useful to others dealing with similar.

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I visit this tree every day. It keeps me grounded.

So, below are a few tips drawn from personal experience. This is not an exhaustive list, and not meant to replace professional medical/mental health advice.

  • Take deep breaths. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s physiologically calming. It’s something you can control. Just watch the air come in and go out.
  • Feel whatever you feel. Don’t judge it or push it away. You can touch the emotion as if it is a beloved child, be there for it, love on it, and watch it shift. (Note: If this gets overwhelming, stop and reach out for help from a trusted friend/spouse/professional. Consider, too, that you can access help from the unseen: Source/God/spirit guides/higher self.)
  • Nourish your gut bacteria. This will help to rebalance neurotransmitters like serotonin, 90 percent of which originates in the gut, not the brain. According to my holistic physician Kevin Logan, a diet rich in vegetable fiber provides an ideal environment for diverse gut flora. Reduce or eliminate processed food and sugar, and introduce lactofermented veggies like sauerkraut and kim chee.
  • Take nature as your tonic. If you can’t get to the woods or the beach, just take a walk and look at the sky and the trees. Time outside (or even in the company of loved animals indoors) will increase your resilience to stress.
  • Limit social media and the online universe in general. Speaking for myself, social media can be a huge energy drain, and the overstimulation it creates is subtle but detrimental. I make it a rule that after 8pm I don’t check email or Facebook. My health coach buddy Bill Heitman recommends unfollowing anything (and anyone) giving you anything other than 100 percent warm feelings. (You can always seek out news when you want to get informed.) Or, you can install an app like Social Fixer to customize what you see on Facebook.
  • Get some movement every day. Even five minutes of freeform stretching is a start. Focus on the pleasurable aspect of feeling into your body as it moves.
  • Make positive habits the rule. If exercise is hard to work into your routine, consider what a recent TED Radio Hour guest suggested. Turn it into a rule, so there’s no question about whether to do it or not. He compared his gym habit to brushing his teeth at night: He doesn’t have to decide whether to do it or not (and if he had to make a decision, he probably wouldn’t go!). He just does it, regardless of how he feels about it in the moment. This is how I am with walking my dog every day: I just do it. And it’s self-reinforcing, because I’m also getting my nature fix.
  • Put deposits in your health bank. That’s what Christiane Northrup, MD, calls restful, restorative activities that engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for causing vital organs to rest). (Examples: meditation, napping, cuddling, sitting and staring into space.) By contrast, anything that activates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for revving up your metabolism, protecting you through fight/flight, etc.) will withdraw from your health bank account. We forget how important it is to STOP, get quiet, and allow our nervous systems to rebalance, in this overstimulating age.
  • Lean on your tribe. If you have a trusted friend or two who will hear you in your most vulnerable hour, kudos. Even if you don’t, getting out and connecting with people in real-time will probably bolster you.
  • Let your creativity out. In coloring books, even! Creativity heals.
  • Consider taking action. Sometimes our minds spin and spin about whatever worrisome thing has hold of us. Taking even a small action might make a dent in the worry. If some of your anxiety centers around the state of the world, ask yourself if there’s something you can contribute to the good. It doesn’t have to be grandiose to have meaning. Maybe it’s a creative project, or a small generative act that you dedicate to the uplift of all, like a kind gesture to a stranger. (Note: Make sure that what you decide to do aligns with who you are! Vs. a “should”!)

For me, all of these are cross-reinforcing. I feed my body well (most days) so it supports my mood and movement. Several times a week I practice yoga, which slows my breathing and moves me into the parasympathetic nervous system, while also strengthening my body. I get outside every day with my dog, which helps tire my body out so it rests easier. I try to avoid media after about 9pm so I don’t go to bed with my brain on overdrive. When I’m rested, it’s easier to write about what troubles me, and sometimes the writing turns into a creative piece that boosts others. And so on.

Please add your own tips in the comments! We’re all in this together.

A Hollow Reed

Years ago when I was untangling the emotional roots and antecedents of fibromyalgia, I saw a counselor, a lovely 60ish-year-old man with round spectacles. I kept hoping he would hook me up to his biofeedback machine and fix me. I would sit in a chair in front of him and look over at the biofeedback station significantly. Kind of like my dog points his nose at the treat bag, with great hope and impatience.

On our initial phone call I had told him that biofeedback was what I needed. I figured I would force my beleaguered body to relax, and boom, all would be well.

Instead, he asked me to close my eyes and breathe. How did my body feel, sitting in the chair? Where was the pain, where was the tiredness? What did it want to say? He’d ask me to play witness to the tumult inside me. “We are present to this discomfort,” he would say.

Eventually the witnessing came around to breathing in openness and ease. I was never long in his presence before I felt it: the touch of the Divine. I breathed in and invited it. The ache in my chest might grow more pronounced, but with each inhalation, I felt a lightness flood every cell, until the ache transformed into something softer, like a blossom opening to the sun.

Sunlight

I don’t remember specifics from our time together, except the way my breath would flow the length of my body. I drew it in from my feet and exhaled it out my crown, an old yogic practice.

“You see how this is right there for you, as soon as you invite it?” I remember him saying. “This is your gift.”

It didn’t seem like much of a gift at the time, even though those meditations brought the rare sensation of settling me fully in my body. The grounded feeling never lasted; one step out of the haven of his office—that luscious sweetgum tree outside the window!—and I would leave my body again.

One thing stuck with me: He said once, “I am not the doer here,” with his long fingertips pressed to his white canvas shirt. “I am not in charge.”

He spoke of being a hollow reed, the Divine playing its music through us. “We just need to step aside, get our egos and personalities out of the way,” he said.

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I wasn’t sure that was possible, for me.

These days I find myself opening to that possibility, as I check in with guidance every step of the way. For the first time, I don’t plant myself so firmly in the driver’s seat.

I wrote about my tendency to push 18 months ago; rereading the post now, I see how I was playing with the idea of surrender, which had been enforced (again) by illness.

Only now is this starting to filter into daily practice. If life moves in a natural ebb and flow, as Charles Eisenstein suggests, then aligning my own activities with that natural movement brings a delicious serenity. Not only that, but cosmic forces line up to push me farther than I could ever push myself, and with much greater ease.

So I pause and ask: Is it actually time to do what the ego/driver in me wants to do? Or is it time to do something else? I’m finding more ease and joy as I move through life open to the possibility that it’s not all up to me.