As winter finally wanes and the crocus thrusts through the softening soil, I've been thinking a lot about joy: about what it is, what it isn’t, how it feels, why it’s important, how to cultivate it, what it generates, and what blocks it. Joy is something I’ve tended to experience in bursts, a kind of giddiness, at once electric and transportive, and also fleeting. I think this—the ephemeral experience of joy—is in part due to the nature of joy ("forever bidding adieu," says the romantic poet, John Keats), but I know that it’s also because I’ve been much better at giving myself permission to feel and explore the depths of emotions like grief and sorrow than I have those of joy.
Joy—not glimpsed or tasted, but worn like a silky skin and savored—feels, to me, naked, exposed. Feels trembly. Feels unhidden. Feels all-in. Feels deeply vulnerable. When I anticipate and imagine cultivating and claiming fully my joy, as a spiritual posture, my heartbeat quickens and my chest heaves up then down, as it sometimes does when in an elevator and the body is still traveling between floors, suspended, despite the gentle thud of arrival.
I know where this comes from, the old story I’ve carried about my joy-unfurled being at first a magnet but then a threat to love, security, and safety. And I know I'm not alone in my experience: so many women with whom I work, and men, too, feel embarrassed by their own joy, by claiming and inhabiting unapologetically their capacity for unfettered delight and happiness.
As I've learned to reparent this part of myself, developing self-compassion and understanding in the process, and have guided many dozens of clients through the same intense process, I've discovered a few things:
• That an uneasy relationship with one's own joy is far more common than not;
• That we often have no idea that we have a fraught relationship with joy; instead, we know that we're inexplicably tired, that life is hard, that we feel overwhelmed, that we're bored, that we're way too busy, that we're good at seeing through our goals to about 85%, but veer off course just as the finish line comes into view;
• That we internalize (any of) the above to mean that we're destined for a life of almosts: almost wrote that book; almost found fabulous love; almost started that business; almost got that promotion; almost learned to eat well and exercise; almost took that trip; almost repaired that relationship; almost learned to love ourselves ... and thereby drive the wedge between daily life and joy even deeper;
• That estrangement from our joy is secondary to, is symptomatic of, a primary estrangement from something vital in us that longs to be fully expressed (some call this God or the divine, some call it the essential self, some call it our gifts, some call it passion, I've called it the "voice of more"): an aspect that's perhaps hidden because of a lie we feel we must continue to tell, or that's tamped down in the wake of traumatic violation and the fear of vulnerability that trauma begets, or that feels cramped or even crippled by a lifetime of holding-back out of (unconscious) fear that love will leave us if we truly let ourselves be fully expressed and seen;
• That joy is reclaimed not by resisting or growing around the hurt that initially severed us from it, but by leaning into our wounded places with curiosity and presence, sitting with the pain as it works its way through our bodies, and parenting those parts of ourselves that need unconditional love and affirmation;
• That there's an important difference between owning when we've been victimized--mistreated and abused--and indulging in victim mentality: the former is essential to healing and empowerment and is necessary to reclaiming one's vulnerability and therefore one's capacity for joy, while the latter re-inscribes the lack of personal agency that abuse can erode, reinforcing our discomfort with joy (and our tendency to confuse addictive pleasure with it);
• That joy is not life's window-dressing, but the window itself: the very portal through which we see, feel, hear, and come to know the life-force that animates and connects us with each other and all of nature, that urges our singular gifts and talents into expression, that guides us into growth over stagnation, that heals us and liberates us from resentment and blame, that signals our most authentic desires, and that leads to a sense of profound belonging, what some call enlightenment or, more simply, inner peace;
• That joy is not a state but a process, a practice that fosters healing, resilience, and transformation;
• That joy is subversive because it is generative, always urging us past the edge of what's known into the uncharted lands of our (collective) becoming;
• That rediscovering and repairing and vitalizing our relationship with joy should not be viewed as a self-indulgent luxury, but as an indispensable, critical part of living one's life fully, being of utmost service to others, and loving well.
How, then, do we begin this process of reclaiming our joy, or of deepening the relationship we have with it?
There is so much I could say in answer to this question, as learning this process has been at the heart of my own life's journey for the past several years, as well as my work with students and clients. In coming weeks and months, I will add to and expand upon what I share here, but for now, I'd like to offer you both a writing exercise that I and my clients have found very helpful, as well as a few resources to get you started.
Joy Inventory: A Writing Exercise
Set aside some quiet time for yourself to write in your journal in response to the following questions. Be sure to approach both the questions and your answers with an attitude of curiosity and compassion, not criticism or self-blame.
• When is the last time you experienced joy? Describe the experience. What did it feel like in your body? What did you feel about yourself? About others?
• How, for you, is pleasure different than joy? What brings you pleasure?
• Are you comfortable experiencing and expressing joy? Do you inhabit your own joy with ease?
• Are their certain situations or circumstances in which you feel more comfortable experiencing and/or expressing joy than others? What are they? When do you feel more inhibited with regard to joy?
• Is it easier for you to feel emotions like melancholy or sadness than joy?
Observe your answers with interest, not judgment. Allow yourself to sit with and acknowledge what you've written, and honor your honesty and awareness. Resist the urge to pathologize yourself or fix yourself. Just notice, and let that noticing do its own work for now. It will.
Resources to Heal & Jump-Start Joy
I will delve into some of these resources more fully in upcoming blogs, but for now, here are some of my go-tos:
• Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm, by Nicole Daedone. This book approaches sex like the authors of Slow Food approach eating: as something to be savored, as a journey rather than an arrival, and above all else, as a gateway to profound intimacy with self and other. Daedone unwraps the female orgasm in all its nuanced glory, shifting our focus from the release of climax (which is just one—and an optional one, at that—of the many layers of orgasm) to the experience of pure sensation fully-felt. This book is excellent if you feel disconnected from your sexual energy (and if you feel disconnected from your joy, you are likely to feel disconnected here, too), if you feel uptight or ashamed about your sexuality, if you are recovering from sexual trauma, if you think that your ability to feel aroused is a thing of the past, if you seek sex as a buffer or distraction, if sex feels empty to you, if you are a heterosexual woman and are accustomed to focusing on his arousal as a way to arouse yourself (i.e., being "sexy" and performing seduction), if you're a partner to a woman whose pleasure you don't understand and you feel unsure of how to pleasure her, if you have a hard time asking for what you want (or if you don't know what you want), if you have a hard time asking him or her what s/he wants, if you want to learn more about how to explore and feel comfortable with self-pleasure, and if you're in a long-term relationship or marriage and sex (when you have it) feels routine and predictable. Slow Sex will help you connect with your sexual energy, which is inextricable from your creative energy and therefore your joy. When you heal and awaken this layer of your being you also jumpstart your ability to experience joy more fully.
• Melanie Tonya Evans, author, podcast host, and healer for survivors of narcissistic abuse and toxic relationships. If you are estranged from your joy, or live your joy at half-mast, it is likely that you've experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse as a child or as an adult, and perhaps both. If this is the case, reclaiming your relationship to joy will catalyze and deepen your healing, even if you think you've done the work of recovery already. Learning to fully own the ways you were victimized while letting go of victim mentality is a crucial stepping-stone towards reclaiming joy, and the process of joy-reclamation will in turn foster this learning. Evans will affirm your experience of abuse and help you release self-blame and shame, and she also offers concrete step-by-step processes for deep healing of old (and new) wounds, so that you can more fully take back your power and free yourself from resentment.
• Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff. This is a classic; Kristin Neff put self-compassion on the self-help map. Self-compassion is an essential component to fully-realizing our joy, as we can't experience joy while simultaneously shaming/blaming/criticizing ourselves. Moreover, self-compassion is not the opposite of holding ourselves accountable, but the very thing that allows us to take responsibility and make genuine amends or changes.
• Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. This book of poems, ranging from Oliver's earliest to those she published just before her recent death, are joy-incarnate. I know of no other poet, save her beloved influences, Whitman and Emerson, who capture and render so perfectly and clearly the anatomy and practice of joy. In describing Emerson's poetic, Oliver coined the phrase "an attitude of noticing”; I believe that there is no other posture more necessary to the cultivation of joy than this. I suggest starting on page 291, with the poem "Poppies," a fitting poem as we in the northern hemisphere enter the land of spring.
Finally, I am also creating a group coaching program for women that is devoted specifically to healing and cultivating joy; these details are coming soon as well! The program will launch in late spring, 2019, so stay tuned...
Okay, lovelies, that should be enough to get you started. Please feel free to let me know what you come up with during the writing exercise I shared above, as well as any thoughts or questions that arise for you from any of the readings or teachings here. You can do so simply by writing in the comments, and I will personally reply.
And as always, if this blog inspires or helps you in some way, please share with others. Change is a collective effort!