The Elusive Quality of Joy

A friend recently asked me why people who have suffered throughout their lives (adversity, social stigma, chronic pain, and so on) have such a hard time experiencing joy.

What a complicated question! Is it the perception of joy, the physical experience, and embodiment of joy, the cognitive ability to identify joy? Is it a conflict between the idea of deserving joy or the trust that it exists? 

Many luminaries have addressed this issue; from Sadhguru to Tony Robbins, TEDx talks to religious Sermons, neurology, and psychology- there is no one answer.

I had to creep up on joy. In the first years of my recovery, I could barely stand to have things peaceful. It seemed like I was hardwired for chaos, anxiety, and discomfort. If any of these three abated it caused the other two to increase to keep the sensation of sustained panic level.

Even if my body and my actions were measured and appropriate to the situation (rather than pacing, verbalizing anguish, and fear-mongering) my mind was usually racing into the “‘what could go wrong” scenarios. So, too, my body was always tense, guarding against an increase of pain and the other symptoms of fearfulness. My breath came in gasps and my muscles were engaged or ready to be engaged at all times.

Little by slow I was able to experience brief moments of calm. Just acknowledging it became the practice. It was truly only minutes at a time. I was taught practices of useful breathing – a little slower, a little more extended, a little fuller. I was able to sit still and avoid getting involved in every small occurrence in the house. I had two kids who were either fighting with each other or avoiding their homework and chores, adding to the mess I was always trying to clean up. It took a great amount of energy to let small things go and to loosen my shoulders, release gripping in my back and legs, softening my rib cage enough to breathe. But I did.

Learning to let go of more and more in my life; the actions and attitudes of others, the situations over which I had no control, the outcomes that I was not able to influence or create. Releasing these first added to the anxiety and then allowed me freedom. I was learning that I could change my attitude and choices but not people, places, and things.

From learning to find calm I was then able to entertain the idea of joy, of happiness, of play. Please know that I love to laugh. I always have. I have since learned that laughter is a powerful reset button and release of trapped energies. I am not a fan of “harm-based” humorists, I love the absurd, the silly, and the playful. I was able to build on that to expand my nascent feelings of joy. When I am laughing I am doing nothing else. The internal editor is silent, the critic, the judge; they all have left the building. Puns, silly satire, silly walks, kids humor; observational humor -they all give my brain a big RESET and I feel part of humanity again.

In my experience of joy is similar to laughter. It is a momentary respite from worry. It doesn’t have to be big or demonstrative- no one needs to know I am experiencing it. Rosemary Tisch, the family recovery health advocate and member of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, teaches a practice called WOW- the world of wonder. Practice registering in the conscious mind small miracles, beautiful places, flora and fauna, a small bee in its business, look at these things and joy will fill your heart – even for a second. Regard the color of food on your plate or the treasures in your house. Grace. Joy. Gratitude. And then expand. Take that moment and reflect on it- let it grow. Notice it each time you have it and savor it. You may find there are more seeds of WOW in your day as you refine your ability to discern them.

The work is conscious, painstaking, and slow. It starts with seeds of calm. The stems of awareness grow and eventually can bloom into the consciousness of joy. It is a practice and one that is well worth it.

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