“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” —Joseph Campbell

A few years back I heard this quote by Joseph Campbell and as the times we live in have become increasingly tumultuous and hard to bear, it’s come back to me over and over again since. I don’t get the sense that things will settle down anytime soon and as a result, I think it’s important we learn how to live with what is, and I don’t mean numbing ourselves so we don’t feel what’s happening, or getting so stressed that we become incapable of functioning in our own lives.

I want to preface this conversation by clearly stating that I don’t claim to have the answers about this quote or to know with any certainty exactly what it means. But I think it’s important in general, and right now in particular that we discuss what it really means to participate joyfully in the suffering of the world because it seems there is something that can break our hearts on a daily basis.

What this quote has to teach us is two-fold.

The first is this: To participate means to stay engaged.

It takes an incredible amount of energy to stay engaged, but in my experience, this is often because we don’t allow ourselves to feel each tragedy fully when it occurs.

When a large national tragedy occurs, we must take time to feel it fully. To stop for thirty minutes on a regular basis and actually allow ourselves to feel it, enables us to sustain ourselves through the onslaught of one thing after the next.

We can trick ourselves into thinking we’re staying engaged by watching the news, but often that’s actually us numbing.

We stay bombarded in order to imagine we are staying engaged and then we self-care with a massage, ping-ponging between not feeling because we stay overwhelmed and not feeling because we use ‘self-care’ as an excuse. Truly staying engaged is important, real self-care is important — and so is actually taking the time to FEEL and allow ourselves to be impacted.

Is it OK if I feel something good when so many people are in a state of suffering?

He didn’t say participate happily, he said joyfully. To me, joy runs so much deeper in our being and it connects to the part of us that’s also noticed the beauty. There is a way in which the joy we feel can hold the suffering also.

The second part is this: Joy is available in every moment – even when we are sad.

Last year, on a day when I was already feeling emotional and frustrated on account of some things that were happening in my life, I found out someone who was instrumental in my life died suddenly. I got hit with a wave of emotion and felt discombobulated. I was at my friend’s house with my children and they destroyed something in her garden and I was suddenly so irritated with them and felt myself getting cranky because everything was all wrong.

So I put myself on a timeout. I told them to go and play a few feet away and I went and sat on a bench. I felt everything swirling inside me—anger, sadness, grief, irritation. I wasn’t trying to get away from my feelings or push them down, but I wondered if I could feel them and simultaneously broaden my gaze and see what was beautiful. I looked around. I noticed the birds and the flowers and my son and daughter playing sweetly together and I started to cry.

My children came to either side of me and I felt myself wanting to push them away from the overwhelming feelings but I softened instead. Then my daughter began kissing me from the top of my head to my toes and her love was too much I almost couldn’t hold it together. Then my son started on the other side and I couldn’t contain it anymore—I start sobbing uncontrollably. I’m sobbing, they’re kissing me, looking at each other giggling and suddenly the whole thing became hilarious, and I was still sobbing & also laughing with them.

Every single one of us deals with all the things. We struggle just to juggle careers and family and challenging relationships, but on top of that, we have national and international tragedies that traumatize and overwhelm us. Life is incredibly challenging and yet, we must learn how to live it.

One practice that I believe is invaluable at this time is to remember beauty. And it’s not just to ‘see the good’, fake ‘gratitude’, or pretend the bad doesn’t exist – it is to expand our awareness as I did on the bench that day, to all that is heartbreaking and still include all that is beautiful in the world.

Maybe it’s clearing an area and making a simple altar with pieces of nature that remind you of the ever-changing seasons, or pausing in the midst of your day and feeling the breeze or the sunshine on your cheeks, or stringing marigolds to hang in your living room so you’re reminded of the incessant power of mother nature.  Whatever it is for you, beauty is vital for us for these times.

The final piece of this, is that most of us don’t really take the time to fully feel what we’re feeling in each moment.  Anger when there is anger; hopelessness in moments of hopelessness; peace when you feel peaceful; silliness when it arises; turn-on, grief, rage, playfulness…..  When we don’t allow ourselves time and space to truly feel and express all that we feel – through our bodies – we get pent up and overwhelmed.

In this time we have to do things that allow us to get wider so we can hold all of it. As Leonard Cohen said:  “If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick everyday.”

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