“The best thing about yoga,” a teacher of mine used to say, “is that it makes you more sensitive. The worst thing about yoga is that it makes you more sensitive.” We sometimes get the message that our yoga and meditation practices are there to help us feel more joy and sweetness and ease and eradicate negative emotions and suffering. That’s not the deal: if you want to feel the good things, you’re going to have to also feel the bad things.
We are a culture that is good at dampening our emotions. We do this in everyday ways, like watching TV, being really busy, or drinking, for example. But doctors have also seen that medications that address anxiety or depression can also dampen joy and excitement (and sometimes that’s necessary; those drugs can be lifesaving). Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown reminds us, “There's no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.” If you want to feel the joy, you have to be able to feel the sadness.
Interestingly, it can be just as complicated for many of us to feel the joy. Sad or stressed may feel comfortable in its familiarity, it may match up well with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t get good news without waiting for the other shoe to drop, or to start talking myself down from enjoying something in case it went away.
As it turns out, this is a common phenomenon Brown calls “foreboding joy.” Joy has an intimate relationship with vulnerability. “Our actual experiences of joy—those intense feelings of deep spiritual connection and pleasure—seize us in a very vulnerable way,” Brown writes. “When something good happens, our immediate thought is that we’d better not let ourselves truly feel it, because if we really love something we could lose it. So we shut down our ability to completely enjoy so that we can also shut down our capacity for feeling loss.”
Buddhism and Tantra are philosophies that especially espouse the idea that we should learn to feel the full range of our human emotions, to get comfortable with the fundamental uncertainty of our lives. When we love something, we’d better love it hard, precisely because it will change.
One technique for learning to let the joy in is to take the time to notice and celebrate the good things, no matter how small they may seem. Joy is hiding everywhere--sometimes even within a difficult moment, side by side with other emotions. Perhaps you and your partner are fighting, and suddenly one makes the other laugh. Or the summer is ending, but it feels so good to put on a cozy sweater for the first time in months. We can miss the sweet moments because we overfocus on the negative, or even create an imaginary negative to temper the vulnerability of joy: “I’m so excited about this new project! I’m sure it’s going to get really hard.”
As yogis, our task is not to ignore one side of the coin in favor of the other, but rather to be present with the full range of our experiences. So seek out the joy and celebrate it, even have a party for it, but don’t ignore the difficulty either. “Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. yes, it's scary. Yes, it's vulnerable,” Brown tells us, “But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope.”