This morning I awoke to an email from a colleague. She had just learned that her teenage friend Heidi, a gifted and sensitive horsewoman, was waiting out hurricane Irma in southwestern Florida. Heidi owns two horses, one whom she rescued and rehabilitated, named Mercy. She had wanted to load up the horses in their trailer, pile the family into their truck, and leave Florida ahead of Irma’s wrath. But her father refused to go.
They live six feet above sea level.
So the Heidi spray-painted her name and phone number onto the two horses’ bodies, and wove luggage tags with her information into their mane and tails. Then, with a hug around each neck, she released them galloping into the wild unknown.
In times like these, when missiles are poised hair-trigger at every major city, hate crimes surge to a new high, and mother nature rages against coastlines and floods entire countries, devastating the lives of millions, joy seems an unlikely—perhaps even insensitive—topic.
But I’m not writing about the conventional definition of joy, which implies something one sided, as in happiness or delight. I’m writing about a deeper sense of communion with all of life—from the beautiful to the terrifying—that, should we have the courage to bear, results in a state beyond happiness, or despair. This is what some claim is the real definition of joy.
‘Joy is a measure of our relationship to death and our living with death,’ writes poet David Whyte, ‘[It is] the last breath of a dying parent as they create that rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence. If joy is a deep form of love, it is also the raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence.’
In these days of tumult, there seems no other way forward but to practice the art of that raw engagement of feeling everything. As life becomes more complex, invariably there is more to feel. As our country becomes more polarized, as climate change reveals its evidence, as the inevitable cycle of loss and letting go moves like a reliable tide within our lives, the spectrum from happiness, to grief to rage is ours in which to immerse ourselves.
We might be tempted to numb—to binge on a great TV series, swallow another pill, have another glass of wine, or distract ourselves with work and technology. But we do so at the expense of joy.
In my experience, true joy only comes about when I’m willing to open myself to all of the totality of life…the sublime and the truly terrible…that ‘rare frontier’ that Whyte describes.
The ordained Buddhist nun, teacher and author Pema Chödrön articulates well how to live in these times, and as a result, cultivate joy. Imagine…joy, in the darkest of times!
If something lives, it has life force, she says. Without this we cannot lift our arms or open and shut our eyes. This life force, this energy is what connects us to all of life. We are both moved by it and a part of it. But curiously, human beings have a funny concept that they must resist certain energies, and embrace others. We want to welcome all the ‘good’ energies, and reject the ‘bad’ ones.
Those who spend time with our EQUUS horses learn that as animals of prey, to navigate by ‘only being willing to feel certain energies’ would be fatal for them. They must feel and experience all things in order to discern what is their next right move. And so when people walk amidst our herd, our invitation for them is to ‘feel everything as is’ without preference, or without committing the inner violence of trying to change it.
Often people emerge from this way of being with the horses feeling a sense of real joy. It surprises them to discover that it was in the welcoming of all energies—good and bad—that opened the doorway to joy.
‘You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather,’ writes Chödrön.
This ‘being the sky’ brings on the sublime state of joy. When we recognize ourselves as the sky, then we see that negative emotions don’t touch us. They may feel unpleasant. They may actually physically hurt. But they are merely sensations. They are like different weather patterns, some really fierce and stormy, some cloudy, and others sunny.
Much spiritual and new age thought centers on a concept of mindfulness and centeredness as being absent stormy weather. But to me that is way too conditional for the all-ness that is. Rather, open your whole self to everything that is existence. To me, this is true mindfulness. It is the Openness that contains both openness and closed-ness.
And that Openness is you.
My children had a favorite storybook when they were small. It was titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. They adored this book. So much so that the cover wore off from constant reading before bedtime. Page after page, poor Alexander experienced one major downer after another. And things just got worse and worse.
What was it about that book that brought them so much joy? Did they have a sense that maybe their life was not as bad as Alexander’s? Or that maybe Alexander made them feel lucky? Nope. It was precisely because the book gave them permission to say, you know what? Sometimes life just totally sucks big time. Period.
And there was no ‘making it better’ in the story. No happy ending. The end of the book simply offered a simple, even-handed, shrug of equanimity: ‘Some days are just like that.’
This was a great message for my kids who were at the time living in a community rife with spiritualism and new age thinking. Everything was rainbows, bhajans, and positive thinking. And suffering was a meditator’s four-letter word.
In an instinctual move towards sanity, my kids, at the ripe old age of four and six, embraced one of the deepest wisdom teachings of all…Everything Is.
Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being wrote, ‘Anyone whose goal is 'something higher' must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.’
May we together be willing to fall into, and completely feel, that which we are all facing right now. May we be courageous enough to feel with those who have had to set their dreams free into the winds of the unknown, perhaps never to see them again. May we, in that courageousness, be the bearers, and bringers, of joy.