Sorrow and Joy

Sorrow sticks to me
with the tiny talons
of woodland things
clever velcro claws
that trap and tear

Joy is thick and sweet
like dense droplets of oil
that slip easily through
the liquid membrane
of my water-logged mind

As if my soul were fine tuned
to the piercing puncture wounds
of even mild misfortunes
but immune to the equally
abundant presence of pleasure

Cursed to carry the wrong container
and collect only itching burs
but not buoyant blessings
regardless of the quantity of each
that happen to come my way

A cup for gratitude that has a crack
or even worse, a burlap sack
that can only attract and hold
the heavy, solid moments that hurt
while every drop of delight drips through

A faulty, backward magnetic field
that repels the currents that heal
but quickly aligns with what's unpleasant
the unnatural effort to help myself
is more tiring than circling the drain
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You Deserve It

Holding back the happiness
has become a form of self-defense
a suit of armor inlaid with spikes
stripping the soul of all color

A perversion of pleasure
believed to be undeserved
the conviction that hardships
will hurt worse with contrast

Let your heart lift with the certainty
that there are no prerequisites for celebration
the spirit is free to sing at its leisure
relinquish the reigns of self-affliction

Wrap your heart in layers of joy
so when the rain comes, as it must
you will have a safe harbor of happiness
to sustain you from within

Don't ever feel you must deny yourself
life's most simple, innocent delights
don't leave your soul to starve
without its natural nourishment

I promise you've already earned
your small share of sunshine
don't waste your life wondering
if you are worthy

You've won the lottery of merely living
each automatic breath is a reminder
that you deserve to be here
and thoroughly enjoy it whenever you can 

When Gratitude Stops Working

It has been over six years since I started practicing daily gratitude. I have journals upon journals filled with lists of things I’m grateful for. After all of this, after so much time spent training my brain to find gratitude, how can it be that I still feel like a terminally ungrateful person?

The main issue I have with a lot of mindfulness practices is the way my clever brain figures out ways to get around them after awhile. It’s ironic that most of the “mindfulness” I have incorporated into my everyday life isn’t done very mindfully at all anymore. Whether it be meditation, journaling, or mindful eating my brain seems more adept at learning to avoid the conscious effort rather than learning to be more present like I had intended.

Finding Novelty

If you can relate to this issue, you’re probably already asking, “How can we solve this problem?” While I don’t yet have a definitive answer, one thing I’ve noticed is that of all the self-care tasks I do every day, the one that never seems to get stale is my yoga practice. The only difference between yoga and my other practices is that the yoga flows I do are ever changing and evolving. I don’t practice the same poses in the same order everyday. If I did, I’m sure that would just as easily become a mindless habit like the rest. So the only advice I can give to you and to myself is: Keep changing it up.

This isn’t the perfect solution, I know. It is frustrating to constantly have to be reimagining ways to keep yourself mindful. It would be so much nicer if we could just do a few short little identical practices everyday and reap all the benefits of a more compassionate, mindful, spiritual life. I guess the old saying that nothing worth doing is easy still rings true.

I’ve found that novelty is essential to keep me mindful, even if it is aggravating to have to always search for it. Luckily, sometimes that little tweak for my practice finds me on it’s own like it did yesterday. I stumbled upon a Podcast that referenced The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. In his book, he talks about savoring little things throughout our day that “delight” us. For some reason, just this small, almost insignificant shift in perception has made a huge difference for me. It’s amazing how powerful the slightest change of framing can completely shift our perspective on something.

Replacing Gratitude with Delight

Despite sticking with my gratitude practice for so many years, I noticed almost immediately that it was not providing the mental benefits I had hoped. Sometimes it even seemed to backfire. There are a lot of days where I struggle to think of things to be grateful for. This makes me feel awful, because I know I have such an amazing life. I know I should be able to come up with dozens of things to be grateful for every day. The guilt spiral begins and I end up harming my mental health instead of helping it.

The most important part of gratitude is actually feeling it. As someone who struggles to stay grounded in my body and emotions, “grateful” is a rather vague sensation for me. There are lots of other emotions that compile this more complex feeling. It’s hard for me to just drop into a sense of gratitude on demand. However, “delight” feels a bit more tangible most days. Just the word alone makes the corners of my mouth twitch into a soft smile. Delight. Now that I can feel.

Not only am I more easily able to feel delight in my body, it also somehow feels a bit more lighthearted than gratitude. There is something very daunting and serious about being grateful. Not to mention the reverse, being ungrateful, is tied to a lot of shame. Delight, on the other hand, brings up a sense of buoyancy and silliness for some reason. Imagining being delighted makes me want to giggle and wiggle my toes in a way being grateful does not. There is a joyous, uplifting, lightness about the idea of feeling delighted. It also seems easier to pick small things in a practice about delight versus a practice about gratitude. Saying I am grateful for the way a stinkbug stopped and looked at me when I tapped the counter next to it feels strange, but to say the same scenario delighted me fits perfectly.

Putting It Into Practice

Today, instead of a gratitude list, try listing some things that delighted you. I’ll go first. Here are just a few things that brought a sense of delight into my life this morning:

  1. Hitting that snooze button on my alarm and snuggling back into my warm blankets with my dog for those few precious moments before getting up.
  2. Enjoying that first hot, black coffee.
  3. Feeling my house get warmer as I waited for the furnace to get going.
  4. Listening to music and singing as I drove to work.
  5. The smell of the perfectly ripe, beautiful, big apple I brought for breakfast.

Regardless of what kind of list you write, it’s helpful to be as detailed as possible. Add lots of physical descriptions, trying to incorporate as many senses into it as possible. I have to admit, I couldn’t help but smile as I wrote down my morning’s delights just now.

My favorite part about learning about this new way to practice bringing mindful moments of pleasure into your life was the idea of sharing it with others. Yesterday I asked a few other people to tell me something that delighted them about their day. It brought me just as much joy and happiness to hear about their experiences and imagine them savoring those small delights.

I hope at least some of you find this helpful. I would love to hear about any other ways you’ve found to keep a spark of novelty in your daily practices. Please, please, please leave a comment and let me know what delights you’ve had so far today!

Imitating Happiness

Imitation is an art form
I can never quite master
studying the smiling faces
of beings filled with laughter

How easy it seems for some
to fill themselves up with whatever
is available in that very moment
the carefree craft of cultivating pleasure

Ashamed of all the effort needed
to experience moments of gratitude
I want spontaneous heart opening
materializing all that matters to you

An actor well-versed in playing the victim
awkward and unsure in any other role
celebration starts to seem phony
it's so tiring trying to feel full

Boundless

Sniffing out the subtle waves
of energy that uplift me randomly
learning to honor and observe
the current of my own consciousness

I've mastered avoidance now it's time
to understand how to move toward
these updrafts of excitement and inspiration
that seemingly strike from out of nowhere

What is this delicious prickling feeling
stirring me up inside sometimes?
what brings me to this breathtaking
balcony overlooking life's possibilities?

Exertion and effort that charges me up
an inner battery self-powered beyond depletion
is there a way to stay connected to
this unending well of propelling passion?

Sumptuous sensation of celebration
sprouting from an unfurling heart
the unbridled joy of certain victory
found before I even start

The Art of Being

The need to understand
becomes the thief of sensation
how many moments have been
thrown away through analysis?

The inability to understand
certain forms of suffering
intensifies and elongates
time spent in those spaces

Questioning simple joys
steals the innocence of happiness
do I really need a reason
to feel buoyant and free?

The intellect I've so prided myself with
has been revealed to be a burden
intelligence can sever the tether
between body and spirit

Simple animal satisfactions
evaporated under a microscope
intuition silenced from years
of skepticism and scrutiny

Allowing myself to merely exist
has been the greatest challenge
the most beautiful form of art
is a life well-versed in letting go

Reincarnation

Summer stirs something deep inside
a soul shaken awake by sunshine
renewed and ready to add its song
to the symphony of early morning

Slipping unharmed from the jaws of winter
wondering at this cycle of renewal once again
where did I go while the world was dark
resurrected by blue skies as a brand new being

The shadow of death has fled from my heart
crept into the creases to await autumn
ready to beguile me with cottage core
cozy sweaters and pumpkin spice

Every season seems splendid and romantic
in the intoxicating summer air full of flowers
all of life seems brighter, softer, less scary than before
safety found in long, winding, aimless days

Warm skin soaked in bright light
greedily drinking the sun's special elixir
this soul of mine is solar powered
one juicy charge lasts until January

Every season is all or nothing
in the summer I know I'll live forever
in the winter I know I've already died
celebrating my 28th year of reincarnation

Capturing Happiness

I have the habit of turning
yesterday's gift into 
tomorrow's obligation
believing perfection can be repeated
if only I can find the right formula

trying to turn moments of softness
into a repeated daily schedule
attempting to compress the essence
of my best moments
and always have them on hand

nice little bottles lined up
in my medicine cabinet
one sip for surrender
two sips for satisfaction
three sips for the sublime

but magic becomes stagnant
inside sterile, air tight containers
the tragic irony of trying to 
set aside time for spontaneity
so it no longer feels unsafe

the rippling joyous energy
of life's unexpected moments
cannot be captured and handed out
in regular, measured doses
surprise is an essential part of the recipe

facing the unknown with an open heart
is a signal, an invitation to be inspired
delight and disappointment are two sides
of a single coin, they cannot be separated
embrace both or have neither  

Cycles

My sorrow comes in cycles
waxing and waning with the moon
regular intervals of lapping tides
frigid dark waters against a jagged shore

long desolate seasons of solitude
convince me that joy was never mine
the cosmos close in around me
a heavy weight upon my sunken chest

when the sun finally emerges on the other side
of that cruel and endless winter wasteland
happiness breaks over my heart
like a revelation

my sleeping soul cracks open
shivering with delight in the warm heavy air
finally freed from its cramped cocoon
to absorb the majesty of the world reborn

open and unafraid, buoyantly held above
the stark reality of the season past
the second side of my dual nature
shaking off the bizarre burden I've been carrying

why was I so sad before?
what was it that I'd been pained by?
now suffering seems so far away
was it ever here at all?

I don't recognize myself
as I look back through the snow
and the aching, bony trees
caught in the swift, sharp wind

the summer beckons me forward
into a bright mirage of green
where nothing can cause me harm
where this time the cycle has surely stopped

each moment maintains its own eternity
forever paralyzed in each part of the pattern
immovable sadness giving way to boundless joy
always and again

Pain Puts Things in Perspective

Without the fear of loss would we ever truly appreciate anything? We suffer from the mere thought of a loved one becoming ill or dying. We wish that we could live in a world without such awful realities. Yet, I wonder if a world without these negative moments, would be worth living in. It’s easy to imagine that in a world without pain, sickness, or death we would all be eternally happy, loving, and grateful. I’d like to believe this is true, but part of me knows myself too well to even pretend.

When I first became an atheist, the loss of the afterlife I’d imagined, didn’t make life less meaningful, it made it more so. Life was no longer simply a dress-rehearsal for eternity. This was it. This was what mattered, all that mattered, and I had to make every moment count. There would be no waiting to reconcile with someone past the pearly gates. There would be no final repentance or forgiveness or second chance to share my love with those most precious to me. This what it. This time I have on earth was all that I was going to get. Wasting it was not an option. When I died, when a family member or friend died, that was it, the final curtain call. Never knowing when that moment might come, the contemplation of that fact, is what give me the courage to not hold back.

Oh course, we can’t help wishing we could avoid it when the pain inevitably comes. I desperately wish that my dog was healthy and I didn’t have to go spend god only knows how much on expensive treatment, but somehow at the same time, I’m grateful for this experience. The small, petty problems of day to day pale in comparison to the joy of holding my dog in my arms. Even my recent fears and worries about money, seem insignificant. I have enough to save my baby, and that’s all I need. What a blessing it is that I can afford to help her. Nothing else matters.

Ideally we’d like to always recognize the love we are blessed with and never take an opportunity to bask in that love for granted. The reminder that my dog will die one day, that she will become sick and beyond help one day, makes the time I share with her all the more poignant. I want to think I’d always treat her with the devotion, attention, and affection she deserves regardless of the time we have in the future, but I know that isn’t true. These past few days of fear and uncertainty have shown me that. They’ve highlighted for me just how much I have been taking her for granted.

How many times have we said we’re “too busy” for those dear to us? Would we ever have enough time for them if our time together was not limited? Or would we keep putting off those quiet, tender, attentive moments indefinitely? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that I’ve never felt more grateful for every caress and sloppy kiss shared with my sweet dog daughter than I have in the last few days. Even the thought of her sweet, loving face and wagging tail brings tears to my eyes. I want to spend every moment I can with her. I want to make sure she knows just how important she is to me. I want her to feel this love I hold for her inside and know what I cherish her.

It pains me to say it, but I know that without this recent health scare, I would be continuing on as always. I’d be paying little attention to her and getting annoyed at her for little things. I’d speak harshly to her for not doing as she’s told. I’d feel irritated by always having to clean up after her. The realities of suffering, pain, illness, and death are sadly essential. We need them to shock us back to our senses. When faced with these hard truths, we are reminded again and again that love is the only thing that really matters. Everything else is irrelevant. Suddenly we see just how absurd it is to waste time and energy on anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, fear, etc. We should be spending every ounce of our beings on putting forth more love and happiness into the world. No phone call is more important than acknowledging your child. No chore is so urgent that you can’t take the time to be kind.

These are life lessons that we must learn again and again. In this way, the things that bring us the most agony in life are actually things to be grateful for. Death and loss are hard to accept, nearly impossible at times, but without them there would also be no love, no peace, no joy, no perspective. We must always try to be grateful for it all, even when it’s hard.

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