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All articles written by Russell Delman

Living with Sorrow, Remembering Joy - Embodying All of It

November 13, 2023


Sometimes it is all too much, this life. So much unavoidable pain, just in living. Unwelcome changes in our bodies, friends getting ill, dying. Sorrow IS.

We then add to that all the human created suffering arising from confusion, hatred, and narrow self-identities. Images of Hamas brutalizing innocents and Israel bombs mangling children - it's all too much.


As I have written before, healthy infants are naturally joyful. When not hungry, sleepy or in pain, there is curiosity, playfulness, joy. We are this also, it hasn't gone away. When we are present, not consumed by repetitious thoughts of the past or worries about the future, a subtle, perhaps very quiet, joy is nearby. We can grow this kind of presence.

The joy I am speaking about is not the same as happiness or exuberant delight. This delicate joy is connected to feeling grateful for just for being alive. There are ways to grow this connection between gratitude and joy that make a powerful difference in our lives. More on this later.

Sorrow and Joy Together

Recently, I was with someone who felt it unacceptable to feel joy amidst so much world suffering. As we explored together, she saw an unconscious belief that it was a transgression of her empathy and care for others to also feel joyful for her life. Through our inquiry, she saw clearly that this was an injurious, unhelpful belief. In a way, she needed permission to feel both her gratitude and joy, alongside her sorrow. Is it true, that allowing your joy and gratitude feels somehow wrong when surrounded by suffering?

To me this is a very important question. Many of us feel conflicted about enjoying our lives when so much of humanity is suffering. We either ward off the pain by closing our hearts or we feel overwhelmed. Neither is a life-giving option. Of course, sometimes distracting ourselves from "it all" can be helpful. TV, movies, novels, games, perhaps a glass of wine can be temporary buffers. Other times, being overwhelmed, just sobbing or raging against God, might be just right. More often, learning to widen our hearts to include "all of it" can be both honest and life-giving.

Since we live in an age when international events are instantly known, we will always be cognizant of global horrors. Closer to home, sometimes the suffering is in the people right around us or in ourselves. As my precious wife has gone through numerous, painful medical challenges in the last years, I have been learning how to simultaneously share in her pain and fully enjoy the gifts of life. Having empathy and compassion for all living beings, including ourselves, seems essential - who wants to live in a world without these capacities? The question is, can we allow sorrow and joy to live together?

I don't know the answers, there is no prescription. I do know that we need much fortitude of spirit, resilience of soul and spaciousness in body to embody it all. I know that gratitude is the most life-giving, learnable, growable trait for human beings and that gratitude invites authentic joy.

Fortitude and Resilience

To grow these qualities, two apparently opposite capacities are needed. First, we need to accept and anticipate the reality of suffering, death, and loss. Positivity alone is not the answer. Buddha's teaching begins with the first noble truth, "life is suffering". I prefer to say, "life includes suffering". The great tragedies of literature and many ancient stories are meant to prepare us for these facts. Fortitude requires facing the reality of suffering. Don't be shocked by bad news. I choose to intentionally remember the reality of death - mine and those close to me - everyday. This is not pessimism or negative thinking; it is embracing reality. This practice builds resilience.

Second, we need to trust in "blossoming worlds to come". As we bring more gratitude and joy into the world, kindness and love seem to follow. As we add goodness into our shared field, our collective body gets healthier.

As cells of a greater body, we all contribute to a shared field of consciousness. Our thoughts and beliefs have effects, not only on ourselves and those around us, but on the field itself. Cultural narratives favor negative outlooks, bad news gets much more airtime than wonderful happenings. The recent book "HumanKind" by Dutch author Rutger Bregman offers a legitimate counter argument to the dominant world view. Seeing the goodness that is all around us is an essential antidote.

Spaciousness in Body

To allow both the reality of suffering and the joy of living, it is very helpful to grow spaciousness in our bodies. All our feelings are carried in our bodies, where else can they be? Habits of chronic tightness and breath holding decrease the inner space needed for living with diverse feelings. Developing simple bodily habits of conscious breathing and releasing unnecessary holding in our tissues can increase our capacity. Growing the bodily container through which, we experience life can expand our ability to be present for "all of it".

All of these capacities - fortitude, resilience, spaciousness - are supported by the practice of "cultivating the field of gratitude".

Presence, Gratitude and Joy

During retreats when we practice walking meditation - moving slowly in a circle, intending to be present - I will sometimes ask:

- "Does anything need to change in this moment and just for this moment, for you to be whole, at ease and fulfilled"?
- "If you let go of the past and future and attend to your sensations, are you actually just fine for this moment"?
- "Even if you have mild to moderate discomforts, is it true that without the thought of the future, life is truly acceptable for right now?"

For almost everyone, "just being" in the moment, without memory or expectation, invites an experience of a kind of quiet, subtle (sometimes profound) joy.

In the evening, we might practice going back through the day in memory, inviting moments of being touched by something. It could be as simple and small as a welcoming smile, the color of a flower or seeing two squirrels chasing each other. When people take 3 - 5 seconds inviting the moment into presence, they often find a previously unacknowledged joy. It takes just a few seconds to let that quiet joy into our bodies. Almost always, it is accompanied by a sense of gratitude. Moments of presence can bring joy, which invites gratitude. The key is to PAUSE and invite an undistracted moment of presence. Presence and gratitude together evoke joy. The practice of "cultivating the field of gratitude" is available to us at any time.

Numerous studies reveal the tremendous life-giving effects of gratitude. From immune system bolstering to heart benefits to attitude/mood enhancement, moments of dwelling on our appreciations have a powerful influence. After more than twenty-five years of offering retreats in "Gratitude and Forgiveness", I have witnessed how most people can intentionally cultivate the "attitude of gratitude". I encourage you to experiment with this practice.

In Summary

To close our selves off from shared suffering dehumanizes us. To live overwhelmed by the sorrow darkens the world. The world needs our presence, our joy and gratitude. We share this field of consciousness, all affecting each other.

How can we be strong enough, resilient enough, to withstand the endless challenges of life while also grateful enough to experience the never-ending gifts? For me this is the living question - the koan of daily life. (koan = in Zen, an illuminating question that transcends logical answers).

Embodying all of it,
the sorrow and the joy,
seems impossible,
yet, this is our task.

Until next time....Russell

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