Joy, Grief, and Gratitude
At the beginning of July, I dedicated the entire month to the practice of Joy. After 15 plus months of pandemic, I felt inspired to breathe some new life into my daily existence, and joy felt like the logical, natural place to start. I naively thought it would be simple and fun. Holy smokes, was I wrong. About a week into the month, I remembered what happens when I make massive declarations to the universe. On my 31st birthday, I went to a new moon chanting ceremony by myself (btw I’d never done anything like that before) and asked the universe to become more open. I asked to figure out how to not be stuck in old habits and open more to the deeper purpose of my life. Less than a month later, I had a major scooter accident that changed the course of my life, which definitely opened the path towards greater clarity and opportunities for learning and growing.
This past month I’ve learned, painfully at times, the close connection between joy, grief, and gratitude. During the first week of July, I reminded myself to slow down and notice the small details in my life that made me feel grateful, brought a smile to my face, and helped me know joy. Things like: cuddles from my two kitties, an abundance of food growing in our garden, the beauty of wildflowers in my backyard, a delicious meal, a good conversation with my husband, or receiving a Marco Polo video chat from a dear friend.
What happened next both surprised and annoyed me. I discovered that I was experiencing big heart-opening and heart-wrenching healing. Old patterns, beliefs, losses, and triggers kept showing up. With the help of my therapist and husband, I’ve touched into some deeply buried pain and grief that has been stored in my body and subconscious for decades. I’ve had big realizations and “aha moments” that have left me feeling raw and really damn vulnerable.
Opening more to joy has opened me up to it all. There is no way to filter joy from all the other hard emotions i.e. grief, pain, anger, sadness, frustration, and overwhelm. And like many folks right now, there’s a whole lot of all those things after this year we’ve all had.
One of my teachers talks about the difference between joy and happiness. He says, “joy is when you don't have to be happy to be happy. True Joy is when you can smile in hell”. Joy is a choice, a commitment, and is unconditional. This is very different from what most Americans are taught in our fun-obsessed, instant gratification-seeking culture. In my 20s, I was really good at having fun. I took long trips to exotic and foreign places, I went to endless concerts, music festivals, sports games, parties, and countless other fun and exciting experiences. I no doubt had a blast and I’m super grateful for all the fun adventures I had, but when I reflect back on that period of time in my life, I’m not sure that all that fun always translated into joy. I think there was always a lot of pain and grief, I just usually numbed the hard stuff by only focusing on having fun which often was sprinkled with too much drinking, too many harmful relationships, a confusing display of eating disorders, and other self-destructive patterns. And by numbing out the hard emotions, I was numbing the good stuff too.
After my scooter accident in 2014, just one year into my 30s, I woke up after five days in the ICU totally confused, in a lot of pain, and full of gratitude. Amidst the brain fog from a concussion, many injuries, and a whole lot of pain meds, I knew that I was incredibly lucky to be alive. I was so grateful to be in my body, to feel my breath, and to know I had more life to live ahead of me.
As I write this, I’m close to turning 38. I’ve definitely had a lot of fun these past seven years, but I’ve also experienced more pain and grief than I’ve ever known before. I just feel it all more. No more numbing or distracting myself. Because of this, I can access joy more. Even when it feels hard. By opening my awareness, I see beauty and miracles all around me. It’s easiest for me to experience this in nature. And it’s usually the simplest things. Feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. Hearing a hawk cry out in the distance. Noticing the power and presence of a majestic oak tree. Moments like this help me feel awe, wonder, and gratitude.
So you may be asking yourself, was Joyful July a success or total failure? My response would be that I think it was a little bit of both. I initially set myself up for failure when at the beginning of last month, I thought that joy would be easy and without any real work. I think that I needed to remind myself, through a few ass-kicking moments, that like anything meaningful in life, dedicated attention and work is necessary. So my success lies in the fact that I worked this last month. I worked hard to find moments of joy not just amidst the tears but because of them.
Leonard Cohen sums it up perfectly:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
For me, grief is the crack and gratitude is the light shining in. The continuous practice of even noticing any and all of this is Joy. When it comes down to it, joy is a choice we all make every single day. The more we allow ourselves to feel all the emotions, the more we can access the joy that is truly aligned with our deepest values and gifts that we are all here to share with the world.