In my last post, I wrote of paradoxes. Here’s another: to find genuine happiness, I believe it is important to accept — even embrace — your sadness.
This is a fundamental tenet for many spiritual leaders, in contrast to Western culture which encourages us to keep pain and suffering at bay. The Dalai Lama, for example, has written extensively on the intersection of happiness and suffering. In The Art of Happiness, he observes that while upbeat Western views can lead to “a happier and healthier life … the inevitable arising of suffering undermines these beliefs … (Even) a relatively minor trauma can have a massive psychological impact as one loses faith in one’s basic believes … (and) suffering is intensified.” (p.147)
My mediation training also illuminated the importance of “leaning into the thorns,” as instructor Alice Estey put it. Shining a light on difficult issues (there’s that mindfulness piece again!) provides the opportunity to get to the root of conflict — or any other source of sadness. Appreciating the cause of pain is a good first step toward fixing or ameliorating the problem.
Sadness can even be a building block for happiness. Through the commonality of suffering, we build relationships, community, and compassion. It is sadness that provides the backdrop which allows moments of happiness to glow.
I had the opportunity to personally appreciate these benefits a few weeks ago when I woke up deep in the blues. In addition to my own disappointments, I have a large family and many friends — some of whom were in the midst of crisis. It all weighed heavily on me that day. I didn’t feel hopeless, and I didn’t feel like wallowing or being sorry for myself. I was just sad.
I decided to write about my sadness on Facebook because I like to share my genuine emotions on my FB page. Also, I don’t want anyone to think my focus on happiness means I believe anybody, me included, should try to be chipper all the time.
Immediately, I got that sweet boost of support Facebook friends can provide. Simply, I felt the love — but I was still sad. I read all my friends’ lovely messages, and just wanted to cry. Obviously, I needed to embrace my sadness.
When I arrived at yoga that evening, still on the verge of tears, the most amazing thing happened. A yoga classmate had a present for me. Liz Snell said she and her husband John had thought of me when they were at a craft fair in July and spotted small, handmade happiness quote books. Now, on this dark early winter night, she gave me the one they bought for me (pictured above). I was surprised, moved, and grateful.
No doubt, if Liz had given me the book on a sunny summer evening when I was riding the wave of a good mood, I would have sincerely appreciated the gift — but not in the same way. Now, every time I look at the book, or read from it, I have tangible proof that I am not alone in sorrow. That is so, so comforting.
Giving from the heart, and receiving heartfelt gifts, are both manifestations of compassion. I’ll close this blog with an observation on how suffering builds compassion from one of my all time favorite spiritual books, Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, by longtime yoga teacher and Yoga Journal columnist Judith Lasater. I love Lasater’s book because it’s so real, completely accessible — yet profound at the same time. In the chapter on compassion, Lasater writes:
“The old axiom wins out. Charity begins at home. So, too, with compassion. You must begin with yourself. To be compassionate toward others, you must first understand that you suffer. This awareness allows you to see that others suffer, too, and to respond with clarity to this condition, which is shared by all living beings.” (p.51)
So, to all you living beings, from another — here’s a heartfelt wish for a happy — and sad — New Year!