By Miriam Hall
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“What if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering, or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things?“
- Ross Gay, Inciting Joy
Joy. A three-letter word that is so simple and short, and yet, experiencing joy often feels complicated. Through my study and work in Karuna Training, I’ve seen joy as a spectrum, from contentment to ecstasy. There’s a wide range in there - celebration, happiness, satisfaction, playfulness, delight, wonder, and more. And, as Ross Gay says in the quote above, joy is not separate from sorrow.
Pause for a moment to consider the following:
You can make a list of what brings joy, but I invite you to go deeper and consider how joy feels in your body, heart, and mind.
If we are going to harvest joy, first, we have to plant the seeds for it. When I woke up this morning, the sink was full of dirty dishes. I remember grumbling to myself before going to sleep that I’d take care of them in the morning. When I saw the sink this morning, I momentarily cursed last night me, but then I recalled I was exhausted and couldn’t do one more thing last night. I turned on some fun music and dug in because leaving them for future me would kick the struggle down the road a bit.
This morning, I had the ability to give my afternoon self the gift of joy that comes with getting to see a clean sink and the minor, but important, accomplishment of finishing something. I can’t always do that. I struggle with cyclical depression and anxiety, and sometimes planting joy looks more like leaving a favorite stuffed animal in bed to snuggle with that night. Sometimes it looks like crying with a friend until I am emptied out, and we can laugh about something silly.
In other words, small bits of joy resource us, give us the strength and ability to handle hard times, and help us be receptive to further joy. Deb Dana, a polyvagal researcher, and therapist, coined the word “glimmers” to refer to the opposite of what we commonly call “triggers”. While triggers set our nervous system into states like fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, glimmers help us recover from those states and, sometimes, even attain equilibrium and joy. Though the idea and experience of glimmers are often small or momentary, we expand to the whole spectrum of living - joy and sorrow- when we practice joy in microscopic ways.
All of this talks about joy as if it is an “inside job.” In a way, it is. But the inner aspect of joy isn’t the whole story. The fact is, some people can’t access the basic resources they need to survive, which can mean joy becomes a lower priority on the list. I think it’s important to look at joy as both an outside and inside job. Everyone can enjoy the small things in our lives - butterflies, children’s smiles, beautiful flowers - even as we struggle to survive or work toward liberation for all. Survival and joy don't have to be pitted against each other; we can always keep the joy in mind and heart. Joy and care often come together. Joy isn’t meant to bypass pain; rather, to help give us more than just pain in our lives.
Once we begin to recognize joy on a personal level and a larger scale, we need to harvest it: take it in, savor it, and share it. Since it’s intermixed with sorrow and everything else, this harvesting of joy isn’t always clean and simple. When we harvest joy, we have to harvest the full complexity of our lives.
In August, I am facilitating a Karuna Live to take a deeper dive into the concept of harvesting joy. I invite you to join me for an hour to collectively cultivate a sense of interconnected joy, embracing the richness of our overall experience.
By Miriam Hall
This article is related to an event. Click here to learn more.
“Body shame flourishes in our world because profit and power depend on it.”
– Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not An Apology
Oppression based on gender and sexuality is more heightened than ever in the United States and many other countries. Folks who identify as female, transgender, queer, nonbinary, or other identities that are not heterosexual and cisgender (identify with the gender they were given at birth) worry about their lives. Many compassionate people who are cisgender and/or heterosexual are shocked by these public persecutions and are unsure what to do. Oppression of those with differing gender and sexuality affects everyone, even if those closest to what is deemed “normal” often feel it less.
How is shame perpetrated internally? Humans are meaning-making beings. Tremendous wisdom and wrenching confusion can emerge from the meanings we create. When children are getting to know themselves and the world, if what they feel internally doesn’t match what others tell them is acceptable (implicitly or explicitly), the meaning they make is that there is something wrong with them, not with the world. As Sebene Selassie teaches, belonging is as basic to our survival as water and food; if we sense we don’t belong, we will do anything to fit in.
For instance, a common situation: a cisgender male child wants to wear dresses, but he is told by adults that he can’t wear dresses. Even if they don’t say there is something wrong with him, he will come to that conclusion. The child’s wisdom is in playing with gender representation and seeking something outside the straightjacket of what’s deemed okay. But he has also internalized many messages that even more strongly say there is something wrong with him. He will decide there is something wrong with him for wanting to wear dresses, instead of recognizing that there’s something wrong with a world where boys can’t have more clothing options. This idea that there is something wrong with us is what fuels shame from the inside.
Even folks who are cisgender and straight can remember back to adolescence when most people experience shame around gender and sexuality. Lovingly touching our personal experiences of this kind of shame can help develop empathy for others who fit the default even less.
In contemplative psychology, we study the ego as our basic sense of self, which is constantly forming and reforming every moment. The development of the ego is not dissimilar to the development of a child’s mind. The self is a pattern-seeking, meaning-making calculator, which adds up all the pieces, eliminating anything aberrant in ourselves or others. This reinforces a sense of difference as being wrong and deepens shame about our own “wrong” thoughts,views, or desires.
What is driving the oppression of gender and sexual diversity externally? When shame grows unchecked, we suffer. We blame others for our fear, sadness, and disgust, the three primary emotions underneath shame. The more the folks who are blaming have systemic power, the more dangerous the blame is for their targets.
Are you feeling overwhelmed? That’s fair. This is a deep and wide system, one meant to overwhelm us, that Sonya Renee Taylor calls the “Body Shame Profit Complex.” How do we peek underneath all those layers? Take a moment as you are reading, and pause. Let yourself feel the largeness of your own experience of how these systems have harmed you, and let that acknowledgment help you connect to others.
I invite you to join us for this Karuna Live. Together, we will collectively begin to feel what is underneath shame and blame around sexuality and gender, shedding layers until our raw selves are able to tolerate being seen, even if it is only a little bit. Even if we can’t yet share with others our deepest fantasies, views, or identities, we can reveal them to ourselves, casting a light of love on what we would otherwise keep hidden.
We will talk more about the main emotions underneath the secondary emotion of shame, and how we are wired to be ashamed of our gender and sexuality, regardless of our identities. Then, we will carefully practice feeling into the wisdom locked up in our shame, letting it show itself so we can grow out of our shame shell slowly, in sustainable and loving ways.
People of all genders and sexualities are welcome to attend.
By Miriam Hall
During the pandemic, I got interested in mending some of my older clothes. I researched how to darn and patch, not having done much of either in the past and quickly found many videos and tutorials on “visible mending.” Visible mending is not hiding that something has been mended – using a patch that shows off where there’s been repair or embroidering in a way that makes a sewn tear appear more beautiful than before. There is a Japanese form of mending pottery, kintsukuroi, in which potters heal a broken bowl or cup with gold, so the flaw is transformed into art.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if this could be the case for relationships? What if, instead of seeing only scars when we have hobbled back together after hurt, we could find a deeper richness after repair? During the pandemic, I have experienced rifts and tears in many minor and major relationships – some initiated by me, some initiated by others, and a few that seemed to appear out of nowhere. I’ve been able to ask for or make repairs in only a couple of those circumstances. Yet, as cliché, as it can sound, those relationships that we were able to repair are, in fact, richer than they ever were before. So why are some of those relationships reparable, some went by the wayside, and some caused great pain without any resolution?
When Repair Is Ill-Advised
Not all situations of hurt or harm should be repaired. Regardless of our fundamental capability as humans to be good, some relationships suffer from power imbalance and need to be gotten out of as soon as possible.
People who are systematically oppressed often try to repair situations we need to leave. As I often remind myself and my students, we can use any form of dharma teachings against ourselves. So before we go any further, I want to remind us all that repair is not only not always possible, it is at times dangerous to remain in a relationship, much less attempt to ask for or offer repair. As is often discussed in the prison abolitionist movement, some detrimental systems or situations aren’t broken – they are meant to function that way. If a system or relationship continuously harms you, that may be by design, even if unconsciously, not by accident.
Digging Into Details
The prefix “re” means to “do again,” and pair means to “be together.” If we weren’t together in the first place, it would be hard to pair us again. I have tried many times in my past to force a re-pair with someone when the fact is, there wasn’t a pairing to begin with. For instance, during the pandemic, I forged a zygote of a friendship as a white woman with a Black woman on social media. We “liked” each other’s posts, re-shared on occasion, and exchanged some private messages. But as is often the case for white women, I assumed too much intimacy with her, wanting us to be more “paired” than we were. This confused intimacy led me to make some mistakes – sending her a video I thought was funny that she thought was violent (which I would have tracked had I paid closer attention to her content) and, ultimately, commenting on one of her posts that generalized her talent as a Black artist.
I knew I had made a mistake immediately, because of a set of sensations I have learned to track in my time as both a student and teacher of Contemplative Psychology. My throat tightens, my face reddens, and my mind begins to race. I wished I had taken my time before I made the post; I wondered if I could remove it before she saw it, then the equivocating began – “It’s not that bad, it will be fine.” I spent the next 24 hours constantly checking my messages to see if she had replied, even to say, “Hey, that was not cool.” All of this is textbook behavior for me. My body and mind do the same reactions they have done since I was a child and harmed someone; however, what has changed is that I can now observe these reactions and – for the most part – not act on them, just notice them.
Once a week had passed, and I hadn’t heard anything from her, including no hearts or laughs at posts she would have normally responded to, I sent a brief apology, naming that I knew the comment was harmful and I was sorry.
I never heard back.
I obsessed over her non-reply for twenty-four hours, then it finally hit me: we didn’t have enough of a relationship to begin with.
It’s not that repair isn’t possible when we don’t have a relationship, but to expect her, as a Black woman, to do the emotional labor with a white woman with whom she hasn’t built trust is too much to ask. There wasn’t enough there to repair, for either of us. I have mostly let go of the idea that I can “make it up to her” somehow, and I no longer expect her to want to pair with me. Part of the skillful means, in this case, was realizing repair wasn’t possible.
We live in an era rich with transformative justice, relational wisdom, and mindful action. Out of the suggestions of people like Dr. Ken Hardy LMFT, along with the four-step practice we use in Karuna Training to heal when we split from the wisdom of our felt sense, I have a kind of “checklist” for myself, which we will try out during the Karuna Live offering.
I am not perfect at repair. But I’ve come to understand that no one is. If you have even made it this far, certain folks reading this newsletter would love to tell you how I hurt or harmed them and did a horrible job of mending. I regret some circumstances and wish I could have handled them with more skill. Equally, I can think of the times when others have caused more pain through attempts to patch things up than repair. This isn’t about repairing perfectly or being better at it than others. Not every rending can be repaired; not every crack can be made beautiful with gold. We transform together when we can stay awake and aware of both the hurt or harm caused and whether or not repair is possible. If repair is possible, which it isn’t always, we need to practice skillful means to get through it.