“Trust life, and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know.”—James A. Baldwin
“Your greatest joy is your sorrow unmasked.”—Kahil Gibran, The Prophet
Most of us desire to live as much as possible on the sunny, joyful side of life and avoid the dark, sorrowful side at all costs. Whatever precautions we take, however, inevitably the darkness of sorrow shows up at our door. When it does, we may tailspin into feeling hopeless and alone. But as James Baldwin implies, our failures and losses offer important life lessons. The devastating situations we face provide the opportunity for deep inner healing and growth. Unmasking our sorrows, as Kahil Gibran says, allows our greatest joys to be revealed.
Joy and sorrow represent two sides of the spectrum of life. Everything has its complementary opposite. Day and night, hot and cold, bitter and sweet—these help to inform our lives. We can’t truly know the experience of one without having experienced its opposite. Of course not all sorrow is the devastating kind, such as the overwhelming grief experienced with the death of a loved one. Less significant failures, wounds, and losses occur every day. You miss a turn and get stuck in traffic; you make a mistake at work; your partner misunderstands you.
Our culture rewards people for qualities of courage and strength, success and independence. Yet, the downside is that we can be mercilessly hard on ourselves for what we did or didn’t do. We all make mistakes. As a consequence, we may become stuck, ruminating on what went wrong—or we can open up to what our mistake teaches us.
Sorrow may arise from a deep well within us. The conditions of our lives continually feed this well of sorrow. Early in our lives, wounds may form and get lodged in our body and psyche. Though they may be masked on the surface, their residue may continue to reverberate within us. This may take the form of negative thoughts and self-judgments, which may, even if we are unconscious of it, direct our lives. Without warning, this residue may spontaneously surface when we encounter another’s suffering. This often happens to me in the form of tears and heaviness in my chest or gut.
To unmask sorrow is to allow it to surface, be with it, and surrender to it. This surrender is not about defeat, giving up, or giving in. It’s about letting go of the resistance to feeling and acknowledging it. Resistance takes a lot of energy and can result in all kinds of chronic physical and emotional problems. Acceptance of our deepest hurts unblocks the energy and helps us become more connected to life.
In some indigenous cultures an individual’s wound, illness, or loss is not faced alone. Rather it’s encompassed by the community, which brings healing forces to the one who is suffering. Native American warriors returning from war are embraced by their tribe. Group rituals help the returning warrior process and ease emotional pain. Allowing feelings of sorrow and brokenness to be met with their opposites of joy and wholeness fosters true healing.
When we allow our hearts to open to another’s sorrow, our own burden may lighten. We may even, consciously or unconsciously, feel the other person’s pain as our own. Seeing that we are not alone in our inner suffering may enable us to harness the feeling of being connected to something beyond ourselves.
Well of joy
In addition to a well of sorrow, we also have a well of joy. Its contents are similarly determined by conditions in our lives. We may savor the taste of chocolate or a sip of wine, a beautiful sunset, a warm hug from a loved one, the birth of grandchild, or getting a job we’d competed for. Joy appears in laughter, a smile, a kiss, a hug, praise from another, winning an award, or being told we are loved.
The desire for joy and happiness is perpetual in our lives, while the experience of it is ephemeral. As it comes and goes, it has the taste of bittersweetness, such as nostalgia for a place we once visited or someone who is no longer present in our lives.
There is something more beneath this joy and sorrow connection. At the core of our being there is another type of joy that is not dependent on life’s circumstances. It is an unchanging joy and is inherent in each of us. Everyday experiences can trigger the release of feelings of desire, delight, gratification, and exhilaration. These are actually messengers pointing us to this deeper unchanging joy and equanimity that exists independent of the objects and circumstances of our lives.
According to neuroscientist Richard Davidson, happiness isn’t just a vague feeling, it’s an actual physical state in the brain that can be induced through meditation. In iRest Yoga Nidra meditation, which I teach, we practice holding on to opposites like joy and sorrow at the same time, which ultimately enables us to open up to an expansive feeling of well-being.
From sorrow to joy
Deep sorrow can be channeled into something meaningful. Catherine Curry-Williams and her husband channeled their grief from losing their first-born child into forming an organization that has built 65 playgrounds in six countries. Through healing and forgiveness, Azim Khamisa, whose son was murdered while delivering pizzas, sought out the murderer’s grandfather, Ples Felix. They partnered to form a foundation dedicated to stopping youth violence through mentoring and education.
Maria came to iRest Yoga Nidra meditation sessions with deep grief over the suicide of her son, a veteran of the Iraq war. Within a year she was able to enjoy her work and family again. In a recent email she shared that iRest “continues to support me and help me to be mindful and live in the present. I strive to find JOY every day.”
Surrender, accept, trust
When our wounds, losses, or mistakes are faced lovingly they become integrated into the fabric of our being and help us continue to grow and even thrive. In their bouncing back from adversity, Catherine, Azim, and Maria demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit, which everyone has.
As a culture, we love rising up, but fear going down. Some say the true purpose of life is simply to “live fully.” In order to rise to this fullness, we must surrender to our pain and sorrow by accepting and learning from them, which allows us trust that in our deepest core reside joy and peace.