I recently came home from a wonderful date night with my husband to our two healthy children and felt a moment of pure joy.
And then, in almost the next moment, I noticed my body contract—as if in that contraction I could hover over and protect all the things I never want to lose.
My fear and contraction was all the more noticeable because I’d recently gotten back from a silent retreat, in which I’d spent 10 hours a day meditating, noticing, and accepting how things are in the moment, and how the moment always changes. And yet, confronted with what I love the most, I went back to old patterns: by not wanting to lose the moment, which is always impermanent, I lost it to my rising anxiety.
It took me a few long, conscious breaths before I could come back to my equanimity and sense that more expansive and grateful joy.
Joy can, paradoxically, be one of the more challenging emotions.
Brené Brown calls our discomfort with joy “foreboding joy.” In her book Daring Greatly, she writes:
“…I’d argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel…In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup…We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
When I first read that passage a few years ago, I had a moment of pure recognition.
I realized how often I didn’t allow myself to experience a moment fully because I was scared of losing what I had. How often I’d played small to protect what I already had, as if by daring to go out and experience more and be bigger, I would put the life I had at risk.
I’m not alone. In my writing class, the module in which we write about joy is often the most challenging for students. Because we also work with our bodies in the class, students notice how just naming joy can bring an almost immediate muscle contraction. Writing about joy brings up feelings of loss, regret, and fear.
In almost every way, joy brings up feelings of scarcity for many of us. But I’ve learned to see that that’s okay. We don’t need to push joy away.
Instead, we can recognize what is happening. As we become more mindful and write into our joy, our fear often dissipates. When we allow ourselves to stay with the joy—to name it appropriately, to detail it, to allow it space among all the other emotions without needing to take the back seat—we retrain our mind, our emotions, and our body.
We come out of that immediate unconscious coupling of joy and fear, and come to see the full range of our human emotions. Just as in meditation, when we stop our reactive process, coming out of aversion and grasping, we can allow our fuller self to emerge.
And language can help us do this.
I’ve read about ancient cultures where parents named their child “ugly one” to distract the gods. The logic was that if they didn’t brag about their beautiful, beloved child, the gods wouldn’t notice and be tempted to take the child away for themselves.
Luckily, we don’t live in a world of greedy, trickster gods. Appreciating our child and naming her beauty will not put her in danger.
Appreciating joy and beauty, and naming it appropriately wherever we find it, does not endanger us.
But these parents had the right idea: language does shape our world. Just naming this pattern of “foreboding joy,” as Brown has, helps change the pattern by making us conscious of it. And then, accurately naming our joys as joys and our fears as fears helps us become more comfortable with the light and the dark around us, so that we don’t conflate the two.
The 19th century English poet William Wordsworth has a beautiful sonnet that begins, “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind.”
It’s a beautiful line that reminds us how unexpected joy can be—how wild and unruly. But as soon as he feels joy, Wordsworth, like so many of us, turns to share his moment of joy with his daughter and remembers that she is dead.
The poem that begins with such delight and powerful, positive energy, plunges into despair and guilt. Wordsworth asks himself how he could ever again feel joy and how, even for one moment, he could forget the loss of his daughter.
We can all, I believe, relate to this. We all know the flip side of joy, the emptiness that is so often waiting for us.
But what if we allow ourselves, even with our sorrows and losses, to experience and stay with joy?
Recently, many of us turned our clocks forward to give ourselves an extra hour of daylight. To develop our joy muscle is not to forget our sorrows, not to forget the dark, but to reset our inner clock so that we are not as afraid of joy when it appears. We can rest in its embrace without feeling shame or guilt. We can feel not just what we lack, but also what we have.
We can give ourselves permission to delight in those moments that can come like a spring breeze, and cultivate the seeds of positivity so that they are not just blown away, but planted with our intentions, our words, and our mindful presence.
Here are three steps that can help us develop our joy muscle:
1. When you notice a moment of joy, stop and take a breath. Notice if your body contracts. If it does, name it: “foreboding joy.” Practice coming out of scarcity mind and just being with your joy.
2. Write in detail about what brings you joy. Don’t be afraid of any other emotions that might come up. Write about them too, and keep going. Get through the mud so you can appreciate the lotus. Then, come back to the joy—writing with as much detail as you can. Allow the body to feel not just the foreboding joy, but the simple joy itself.
3. Share your joy with others. And when others share their joy with you, enjoy it!
Bonus: 5 Mindful Things to Do Each Morning.
Author: Nadia Colburn
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Travis May