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Cultivating Joy and Leaning into Pain

February 3, 2021


Snowflakes blowing, cold, bitter wind - a warm house.
Dry throat, chapped lips, thirst - a cool drink.
Enlivening inhale, relaxing exhale - This breath.



Cultivating joy in the "ordinary gifts" of life is a learnable and extraordinarily beneficial skill.


To me, joy is more of an attitude than a feeling. Like gratitude, it is a way of approaching life. We don't need some wonderful or big happening to experience joy. As infants, when not in need or pain, joy was our default state. Part of the attraction many of us feel toward babies is how joy is present in neutral moments; without any particular cause, joyfulness is in the air. This implies that without our confusing mental structures, joy is our natural, neutral condition.


The great promise of awareness practice is the transformation of ordinary life moments into satisfying experiences. Behind the black robes and austere surface, this is one of the secrets of Zen. With an open, dedicated attention to the moment, doing the dishes, walking up the stairs, sipping a cup of tea, all can bring a subtle sense of "all is good". Everyday life is transformed, when "nothing wrong" is not bland and gray but actually a kind of positivity. Meditation practice teaches us that if "just" breathing and sitting can be whole and gratifying then any moment has that potential. This is not a should, rather it is a possible. The power of our attention and attitude is extraordinary.


Celebrating the ordinary moments of being alive helps us cultivate joy. "Nothing special" is subtly, quietly joyful. Some might say, it is unnatural, perhaps unkind, to feel joy when there is so much suffering in the world. I would say that to mobilize our life-forces for the benefit of others, experiencing joy in everyday life is a boon. Dissatisfaction with this moment does not enhance our caring for others and the world.


We are no longer infants simply enjoying the moment. Infants are rightfully self-centered, not skilled at taking care of others. As we learn to care for life and each other, it is helpful to remember the joyful child within. How? The key for me is remembering to PAUSE, step out of unhelpful mind chatter and enter the moment freshly.


Cultivating this attitude is like finding a secret treasure...


Pain is an undeniable part of being alive.
It is perhaps the most personal, isolating experience.
No one really knows what the pain really feels like for us.
How do we relate to this compelling reality in helpful ways?


Empty, meaninglessness - dark, bottomless hole in the heart
Stabbing, burning - sharpness penetrating body
Resisting, OPENING - spaciousness appears


Whereas joy is natural to the uncluttered mind, embracing pain is quite unnatural. We are biologically oriented to withdraw from painful moments, like taking our hand away from a stove. This reaction is essential for survival, so leaning into pain is not natural; it requires both discretion and courage. Discretion is required to determine if an external change is needed such as taking pain relief medication or leaving a dangerous situation or if more engagement will be helpful. Courage empowers us to engage further, contradicting ancient, neural patterns of resistance. Choosing to lean into physical, emotional, mental pain and/or the pain that arises in our relationships is an essential part of learning how to live and to love.


Rather than fighting pain, opening to it comes from knowing that pain is intrinsic to life and how we relate to it is meaningful. It is not a mistake because we have erred; rather, pain contains unanticipated, "non-ordinary" gifts for our learning.


Leaning into pain also comes from knowing that resistance to pain, ultimately, increases it. In choosing pain, we invite the entirety of the experience, the bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts. This includes welcoming the resistance, the "no". Developing awareness of all these levels of experience is the key to staying present.


We are not meant to conquer pain as if heroes of a fairytale, rather we humbly find our way to staying with reality. Intense pain will overwhelm anyone, humility is wise. Listening deeply, we can hear what is most needed for life to prosper. Sometimes this might be asking us to change the situation directly, sometimes to be in it in a new way. Either response can be life affirming and both begin from leaning into the direct experience of the unwanted.


Our learned exit strategies of fighting, running away, freezing or going blank are tied to old neural patterns. The circuitry activated for emotional/mental pain is the same as for physical pain. Developing the fortitude and groundedness to withstand various levels of discomfort and choosing presence in painful moments is demanding. Practicing presence in less demanding moments is essential.


Cultivating joy and leaning into pain are attitudes that are mutually reinforcing. Joy strengthens our psychic immune system and enhances our capacity to dance with the trials of life. Leaning into pain, minimizes our contracted, breath holding strategies of resistance making our bodies naturally more resilient and open to joy.


Celebrating joy in its small and large appearances and leaning into painful moments fit together, like two sides of a coin. These are learnable, life-giving skills and attitudes.



Snow stopping
A subtle sadness appears - hello there!
Darkness and light intimate together
A gentle settledness ensues - thank you

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