Where joy can be found

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I was never this thin or this blue-eyed. Credit: Timothy Dykes

About once a month, I cry in the shower.

It’s not a little sniffle, a whimper. It’s a vast outpouring that rivals the deluge of my giant rain showerhead. I have to hold onto the walls to keep from collapsing sometimes. The convulsing in my diaphragm, shaking my entire body, head to toe.

Today my sister sent me a video clip of a tearjerking song on youtube.


I shared the one I’ve been listening to lately with her.

(Warning, do not listen unless you are near a shower or at least in a private place.)

That was the final necessary pull on the tiny thread holding closed that mighty sheath of sadness inside of me. The song struck me after an earlier Facebook post reminded me of the year anniversary of the passing of a dear friend I didn’t get to say goodbye to. The day after the old lady who lives across the courtyard from me passed away in the middle of the night, begging the pardon of her tireless caretaker. And only moments after I had read in Tom Brady’s book: “You only have one body. You only have one life. Treat it well.”

Sometimes the world is just too much, isn’t it? Sometimes the sadness of the planets, the soil, the stars, the dark matter in between it all just can’t be contained in a single tiny human body.

This crying I do in the shower, it’s not just mine. The tears aren’t mine alone. I am not crying only for my personal losses – though of course all heartbreaks are remembered gingerly as the tears roll down. I don’t cry for them. I’m crying for the world. When all the pain of the world is upon me, and inside of me, sometimes the only thing I can do is just let it pass through me. Through my tear ducts. Through every pore. And then get washed away by my Lush body wash.

But I wasn’t always this way.

I was about 10 years old when I stopped crying substantially. Around age 8, I recall making the concrete decision that the vulnerability of letting a single other human being see me in such a naked state of emotion would no longer be acceptable. It just wasn’t safe. Or appropriate. So all throughout my parents’ bitter divorce, I built up my internal force field. The muscles buffering my diaphragm steeling against convulsion. (Though not developing into a six pack, unfortunately). The muscles around my eyes narrowing my tear ducts. Compartments forming in my brain to insulate sad thoughts.

By age 10 I was pretty good. No one was gonna see me cry. But the joke of life is that to really fool others, we inherently have to fool ourselves first. I don’t think I meant to stop crying altogether – just crying within sight and earshot of others. But the ruse was too effective, and tears more or less stopped altogether.

This had unexpected effects that I only came to understand much later.

It made my internal world a dangerous and tumultuous place – with corners never to be visited. Waves to be blocked. And emotions to be stifled, resisted, and suppressed. Emotional intelligence was – therefore – nothing more than an illusion of emotional control.

Instead of making me more capable of handling my own feelings, the opposite happened. I am sure I was depressed during at least 50% of my college years. Unable to get out of bed day after day until late in the afternoon when the tenuous hours of morning had passed. The same happened in business school – I struggled to find joy and meaning in anything I did. I later described it as a numbness that seemed to jellify my very spine, making every experience listless, gray, viscous.

And even worse, sometimes things would happen that would rock me so much more than made sense. I still remember when I dear childhood acquaintance died in a car accident suddenly at age 26. I say acquaintance because although we knew each other well and were fond of each other, we didn’t spend very much time together in those days. Living in the same city, we saw each other maybe 4 times a year and usually in the company of others.

I couldn’t go to work for a week. I was unhinged. Unable to hold back the tidal wave of sadness coming through me, I couldn’t maintain my composure for more than a half hour at a time. I worked from home, stayed in bed, and was completely unable to give a passable justification for the sheer magnitude of my grief to my concerned boyfriend.

And then one day something broke me open.

It was an unexpected break up. Different guy, a few years later.

Some days in the weeks after that loss, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t lift my head from the pillow. But I also felt suffocated by it. It was like all my bones had turned to knives and were trying to cut an escape through my skin.

The only thing I could manage for a few of those days was a bath.

I’d light a candle, turn on a sad song. This was a favorite in those days:

And then just sit in the water until all the liquid in my body had voided through my eyes.

I cried audibly. Wailing sometimes, moaning others. The upstairs neighbor could hear me through the pipes, I was sure of it. But I was too helpless to care about that. I was dying, I could tell. It was all I could do to hold my guts in. Every time I stood up from the bath and found I wasn’t hemorrhaging, I was surprised. I was sure the wound was mortal. It was in this state that I had no choice but to allow other people’s opinions to be damned.

Then during one of these baths, something strange happened.

I was in the midst of my tears, feeling sorry for myself (vivid expression), playing poignant moments on the movie screen in my mind: memories of tenderness I’d never experience again, futures ruptured by the relationship’s end, and my particular failings to keep it all together. But then I felt something else was there with me in the tub. Not with me, around me. No, not around me, behind me. No, not behind me, everywhere.

To say that I heard it is not quite accurate, but it was everywhere, like a sound, like a ringing bell. Also to say I felt it wasn’t quite to the point because I was still heaving great painful tears, but it was there like a texture, like something in the background behind everything else. Like air or space. A vessel inside which my experience was unfolding.

In this same moment, I noticed that I wasn’t actually crying anymore. Though the diaphragmatic contractions were pretty similar, what I was actually doing in this moment was laughing. The humor of my situation had struck me, tickling me deeply. A sad 30-something lady, recently dumped, crying in the bath tub, listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s maudlin Lark Ascending. I was a parody of sadness. Too perfect in my imitation of a woman bereft.

The laughter arose simultaneously with that field I was talking about, that ringing bell, the background texture. And I knew it instantly – it was joy. It was joy and it touched me.

Joy was there in that moment of deepest pain. The tears were still rolling. For minutes my laughter would shift to crying and then back again. They started to feel like the same gesture, different only in the shape of the eyes, something in the upper lip. But unmistakably, what I also felt in the midst of that pain was joy.

This bath transformed my life.

A series of insights blossomed afterwards – the awareness that joy is ALWAYS there. It is never anywhere other than here – it is the space that every other emotion occupies and distracts me from. The notion that pain can be a pathway to joy, that all roads lead to joy, but only if you follow them. And the idea that by stifling my own sadness, I was suppressing/obfuscating/foiling/obstructing my own ability to experience the sweet and gentle joy that was always standing quietly by.

The transformation didn’t happen overnight.

But slowly, over weeks, months, and years. With a lot of work – emotional, spiritual, and mental – I came to make peace with the wide sea of feelings inside of me. That sea that is connected – like water – to every other molecule of sadness in this vast reality we all share.

So I determined not to hide sorrow. Man, it was hard to give up that armor at first. It still lingers in pieces, if I’m honest. But slowly slowly, I learned to surrender to the sadness when it comes. To not try to stem the waves, but rather just to ride them.

It’s only when I thought I had to contain myself that the sadness seemed infinite – like it would swallow me up whole into a black hole from which I’d never return. It’s only by encountering my emotions as equals – as visitors who are just passing through but who do not want to pass by unnoticed – that they can take their space, and I am allowed to keep mine.

Now I don’t have a bathtub.

Very sadly. Sometimes I cry about not having a bathtub. That thought gets mixed in there when I am holding onto the walls and just wishing I could lie down instead.

But when the urge strikes, I cry in the shower. I let all the pain of the world pass through me, cleansing me inside just as the water cleanses me outside. Ensuring there’s not too much build up of unexperienced emotion cluttering the space of joy that I so long to know in my daily intimate life. My constant companion and lover, there to towel me dry just as the tears subside and give way to laughter.

Oh and here’s a nice poem/meditation from a guy I love a mentor sent me today:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.

Breathing out, I feel flesh.

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.

Breathing out, I feel solid.

Breathing in, I see myself as still water.

Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.

Breathing in, I see myself as space.

Breathing out, I feel free.

Thich Nhat Hanh