The Pain of Joy

Shadows and Light - Grand Canyon, 2007

I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, which keeps me mindful of sensory experience, the fleeting nature of thoughts, interbeing and the simultaneous possibilities of suffering and joy.  Our animal nature instinctively wants to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and so the idea that we might accept both of these in order to reach joy takes some getting used to.

Parenthood has taught me a lot about accepting the paradox of opposites emerging from the same situation, existing in the same space and time.  Among other mind-blowing revelations surrounding my first child’s appearance on this planet, it occurred to me that as I gave birth, I also gave death.  We cannot bring a person into the world without simultaneously condemning them to face their last breath someday.  The pain of joy!

So philosophically I’ve understood the idea of the connection between pain and pleasure, but my body finally truly got it the other evening.  I was driving to teach my Spanish class and mentally reviewing the events of the day, which included some wonderful news from several members of my family.  I began to feel proud, relieved, excited, happy.  Instead of judging these feelings as “good” or “pleasurable,” I just felt them as they welled up.  I quietly watched how my body was responding to these emotional thoughts.  (Somehow I kept driving too… not the best situation to get distracted by an awareness exercise, but that’s about the only quiet time I get these days.)  My eyes were tearing up, my chest was squeezing tightly, my breath was shallow and strained, my head felt like it was going to explode.  From my removed perspective, I realized that it felt exactly like grief.  This overwhelming wave of happiness resembled exactly my recent experiences with crushing sorrow over the loss of my Grandma, except that normally I would have labeled it “good” and so it would have felt amazing.  When it is about something “bad” then it feels awful.

I’m not sure what to do with this new physical awareness. Does “good” become tainted with “bad”?  Having seen the man behind that curtain, do they both become irrelevant?  Is there no longer pleasure or pain?  Can we trick ourselves into thinking “it’s all good!” and avoid pain forever?

The Overlook - Grand Canyon, 2007

Is there a new place to dwell, a mountaintop above these paradoxical dualities, where we can see something more true and real than animal emotions and senses which flash hard and random like lightening through our conscious minds?

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6 responses to “The Pain of Joy

  1. I’ve been working on a similar idea by giving myself time without words. It’s an odd thing to do, for me, because often my head is busy even when my body is still. By putting words aside and just being, I’ve found a whole lot of me that I was missing. Perhaps our drive to label and fit things into patterns messes up our emotional tags and in the end our experience of life? I know that many things I would thing scary others would be excited by…

  2. I love the idea of time without words! That would be amazing. I mean, I know there would still be words flitting about in my head, but to just let them fly away sometimes without my usual tedious analysis… that would be good.

    I think you are right, that our instinctual drive to categorize, understand and recognize patterns can get us into a groove that might not be the best one overall. I know we have to honor the way our brain functions to keep us alive, but perhaps we can move beyond that to a perspective where we are aware of all the options and possibilities and we can choose consciously instead of instinctively.

    I am really enjoying your comments on my posts, by the way, thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to read and respond! I see you in your avatar pic with your cuppa, and I’ve got mine here, and in a somewhat bizarre 21st century way we get to hang out! 🙂

  3. I’m enjoying our ‘conversations’ too. And yes, I often have a coffee cup in my hand. I’m loving how I can hang out with people from all around the world. Such fun. 🙂

  4. Hi, came here by way of kloppenmum and just thought i’d leave some thoughts on the buddhism perceptions having grown up in and around buddhism and taoism, and try hard to remember to practise being mindful – not always easy! 🙂
    It’s amazing that you’ve got to the point of emotional realisation. My own thoughts on whether ‘good’ become ‘bad’, I think, post-realisation, will come acceptance. A lot of buddhism stems from awareness and following that, acceptance, to accept that there will be both good and bad, both being equally valid, and eventually, i think the idea is to not let either emotion affect you too much, therein lies acceptance.
    Have a great day ahead!

    • Thank you so much for your comments, Loi! Acceptance is another one of those things that I “get” intellectually is a good idea, but I haven’t been able to actually live it or feel it! I think one of my mental blocks is the assumption that to accept something is to validate it or condone it, which I don’t really believe is true, but that’s a thought pattern I’m stuck in. Thus to accept bad is to allow it somehow, which of course no one wants to say, “It’s perfectly okay that this horrible thing is happening!” I need to let go of this assumption to grow past it, but it’s really sticking to my fingers! 😀

  5. I know exactly what you mean! At some point it struck me, that if there were no ‘bad’ we would not be able to appreciate the ‘good’ quite as much, it’s rather a bit like, we know what it’s like to be happy because we’ve been sad (not a great analogy but I hope you get what I mean). That was when I realised that good, bad, nice and horrible all have a role to play. Give it time and you’ll get there, meanwhile enjoy the ride 🙂

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