Death is loud. You’re in your body, you’re doing the life thing, you’re here — and then it’s different. Really different. I believe that no matter how little noise people make when it happens, we all go out with a cosmic bang. But often, death is also a thunderclap of change in the world that goes on living.
In the profound racket of meaning and energies that followed lots of death all at once over the last two years of my life, I lost track of the sound of something very precious in my life — my joy. In the sorrow of so much loss, I got lost from the harmonies and happiness of regular me. I was a perpetually arched-back broken record of the same thought, Everybody’s dying. Right now.The thought wasn’t, everybody dies eventually. Or, everybody dies at some point. Against my better reason, my mind and body seemed convinced that everybody was dying, presently.
Eventually, through all the grief, I got the idea more strongly that I needed a way to retune myself, just like any musician tunes an instrument, a way to bring my joy frequencies back into balance. So I did the most reasonable thing I could think to do. I went searching in the quiet. With the help of loving friends, I was able to send myself off to an eight-day silent vipassana meditation retreat. There, away from the chaotic din of my one little corner of the world, I was able every day, with every breath and every step, to go voicelessly from the dining hall and the meditation hall out into the woods and back to my bed each night, doing the same thing — listening. I listened and listened and listened. And in the hush and surrender of the love that burns on through my own spirit, and the greater spirit that suffuses all, through time and space, I was able, mercifully, to catch the tones of joy once again.
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I’m pretty motivated to be joyful. Yes, I need my joy simply because I’m human. But I also need my joy to go to work every day.
As a psychotherapist, one of my responsibilities is to be a stand-in for the hope many clients need in times and moments when they are adrift, feeling hopeless, or lost from their own joy. Without my joy ready on hand, I run the risk of colluding with my clients’ sorrows to unhealthy and even dangerous ends. Put another way, when swimming through the deep ends of sorrow in therapy sessions — perhaps then more than ever — I need my joy to continue humming along with me at a volume loud enough such that I can still harmonize with the sometimes very faint notes of my clients’ joy. Within this greater harmony that my clients create with me, the melody and meaning of life can be woven, helping my clients come through some of the toughest experiences in life. This kind of social and therapeutic harmonizing around joy has a lot of names, and it is finally catching the attention of research psychologists.
A 1970s Western neologism, compersion, or the joy you feel in relationship to another’s joy, we learned from my last post has been called mudita in Eastern Buddhist practice for thousands of years. Mudita is often translated into English as sympathetic joy or vicarious joy, pointing toward a collective or shared quality of joy. Now, Western scientist Barbara Fredrickson has given new texture to our understanding of compersion through her work on what she calls positivity resonance. For Fredrickson the positive feelings that arise through the human or animal experience of love can be studied scientifically and are at their core processes of resonating psychobiologies. My whole body experience of love is actually a chord that is being played in the universe with some notes inside me and some notes that are something more than me. In other words, Fredrickson argues that compersion (she calls it “celebratory love”) is not just a collective experience of joy, but also a process of attuned — or, well tuned — interconnected joy harmonies.
Fredrickson’s definition of resonant joy became particularly meaningful to me while I was completing my master’s of science in clinical psychology degree because I was being called to work with joy in ways I never had before. As a practicing polyamorist, I had worked for over a decade to cultivate a field of shared, abundant joy in my personal and romantic life. But while the performance of this practice was shared with others, the composition was for the most part something I kept to myself. I was writing melodies of joy everywhere I went, love songs dedicated to others’ sovereign joy, without understanding much about how to actually harmonize around joy. As I began to work with clients in my budding psychotherapy career, I came to see the ways that I needed to grow and learn to play the music of joy as an ensemble. And in that shift, I began to feel the impact of my clients’ joy as well — the ways that their joy was already resonating with me, attuning to and harmonizing with my joy, and relying on the embodiment of my joy as a well tuned instrument in the symphony of life.
And then, I got really, really sad. For a couple of years, I went through a series of incredible personal tragedies, including a lot of close up death, that left my heart raw and aching more often than not. One night during that time I woke up in a sweat seized by the terrifying thought that my sadness was hurting my clients, or rather that my lack of joy was robbing them of an important instrument in their own joy tuning. In my supervision group that week I spoke to my colleagues about my need to attend to my own joy as an ethical concern for the wellbeing of my clients. I also shared that I had tried and tried to refind my joy tracks, bluntly hitting the play button over and over on the old cassette player of my heart. But the batteries all seemed to be dead. During that period, I came to lean on a piece by Kelsey Blackwell on balancing joy and the inner critic. But I still spiraled into the blues. I took more serious responsibility around my mental and physical health by learning for the first time how to incorporate the language of anxiety and of the higher frequencies in my body into my vocabulary of self, not just depression. Which maybe just made me a bad mixtape of Etta James careening into the Ramones on the following track. I even took radical steps to lighten my daily physical load — literally doubling my daily step count and shedding nearly seventy pounds. I went to Hawaii. I started publishing my art again.
But I was still without a dream in my heart. And at that time, I had no idea how to start the music of my joy up again in the exact way that I expected my clients to do so — to tune my joy instrument to the sounds of others’ joy. To harmonize. And it wasn’t due to a lack of my loved ones trying to harmonize with me. Oh, how they tried. But I kept banging out notes alone in my own little sound booth.
At the same time, I knew I needed to make joy resonance my goal anyway, to just go ahead and risk surrendering to a vibration that I believed in, but that I had never really heard or experienced before. And for everyone around me, everyone who I touched with my thundering storm of inner and outer confusion and pain, going on a listening quest really felt like the best thing I could imagine doing.
I found an eight-day silent meditation course on awakening joy lead by James Baraz at an insight meditation center called Spirit Rock and asked my close friends to help me get there as a birthday present six months late. In the mess of myself, I had skipped my birthday, and I was tentatively optimistic about this self-care plan. A whole week without words. For a writer and a counselor giving up words had the potential to be a wild and gnarly task, a heart wide open, ultimate effort.
In fact, I was never on my way to a silent retreat. I was, I understood, headed toward a very noisy listening retreat, listening to all the noise inside myself. In the months leading up to the retreat, I steeled myself for the job ahead by getting into a habit of weekly phone conversations with family members across the country, listening deeply to my people who I had ignored for years. I joined a grief group to listen to the pain and strivings of others moving through similar losses.
Feeling confident, I headed off to a place where everyone had agreed to the same task of listening — listening to the noise and sorrows of the universe to catch all the sounds of all the world together and in there some joy, too. But as soon as I got to Spirit Rock, I realized that it wasn’t listening to announcements of pain from others that I needed to practice. What I had been missing was just listening alongside others. I needed the acoustics of a shared present stillness, not another’s old tape recording for nostalgia’s sake, a remix spun in current circumstances. At the retreat, no one spoke. We all listened. And while I was sitting for five hours a day not speaking with a hundred other people who did not speak, I discovered something truly magical.
Spirit is a tuning fork.
For thousands of years, Buddhist mindfulness or insight meditation practitioners have been making contact with the spirit within us. This was news to me. For a long while I had gone on thinking that there were two parts to meditation: one, you have a thought, and two, you let the thought go. In fact, I believed that meditation was something entirely to do with thoughts. It’s pretty obvious now that I’d been missing something, well, obvious.
In my days at Spirit Rock I traveled through an entirely new territory of meditation, a middle way — grappling. My teacher Maxine Crump several years ago told me over a fried fish dinner in southern Louisiana that grappling would be an important concept and skill for me to learn. As I think about Maxine now, a thought arises — How did she know!? — and before I send the thought away, I pause and allow it. And, as needed, I engage with the thought, keeping one part of my awareness in touch with the way that I am letting myself be with this thought right now. Me and the thought, grappling. Only as long as we need to, though. In not too long, the thought is ready to leave. How did she know!? packs up her things from around my mind, more sorted now, and turns to my awareness to say goodbye. We bow toward each other and bid each other adieu. We’ve tangled and untangled, and for now, we are both ready to part ways.
In the near space between myself and the other meditators during that glorious week of no speaking, far away from the rush of technology and the honorable work of everyday life, a field of questing for joy arose among and around us meditators. In that field many of my own thoughts and feelings and sensations flooded me, demanding that I grapple with them. Resting in that hall of communal quiet, all that noise right there inside me began to be heard — by me. And front and center in my noise, demanding my attention, was a voice, a spirit, who lives deep in my heart.
In the last two years, one loss above many has cast the widest shadow over me — the death of one of my most beloved friends. Twisted up with all the other loss, I moved through my life for months as a human knot, the wind in my lungs tumbling through me, low and off key today, staccato tomorrow. On my first day at Spirit Rock, I sat in a chair with my legs uncomfortably crossed up off the ground. Thought after thought after thought of her, of the pain of life without her, flew into my head, and I wearily tried to send each one away, my body uncomfortably slumping and hovering above the ground. I took myself to bed that night gently, only to become dazed by the complexity of a plain white ceiling. The turkey gobbles woke me in the morning before my alarm went off. By the first morning sitting meditation on day two, I decided to move my knotted body down to the floor. My zafu was her zafu. My bright pink sweatshirt was her bright pink sweatshirt. She was everywhere inside me, so I brought her along to be everywhere outside me, too. What the hell, I figured. If I was going to find my joy again, there was no way I was going to do it without her. I pulled my spine up and I turned my inner gaze on the places where she bubbled up in my thoughts, and I welcomed her. I got down to it and grappled with sorrow right there in that field of questing for joy.
We had full conversations in my head. She told me not to identify with sadness about her, demanded that I not make sorrow about her the definition of who I am, because that would make her sad. Remember! You can’t help me if you aren’t ok yourself! It was the same thing she’d told me almost a decade ago when she was in the hospital. Of course, she had lots to say to me. That was her way. This place with no joy, Anna, is so not like you. She told me that we could still laugh and spend time together, but to remember the rest of my life. At one point she got really quiet, and I was shocked. Then I realized somehow that she had just left for a moment, her spirit had wandered away momentarily, and when she came back she was still buzzing around like her usual self. I laughed out loud, right there in the meditation hall, covering my mouth from shame for stealing others’ silence. You see, I thought for a moment that this being so well-known for her talkativeness was actually learning to be quiet. I’m glad, actually, that I was wrong. Many times when she showed up I also cried, softly, leaking tears of fear and sadness, or just simply pain, everything from guilt that I had hurt her somehow, to some fear that my joy in my living while she was dead was hurting her even now. And then she told me that she was also trying, still, to feel joy in her spirit, and that I was bringing her down. Well, shit.
And that’s when I understood. I can still practice resonating around joy with her spirit. And we both deserve that. I still feel sad many days missing my friend. I’m still learning many things about grief and loss and how to grapple with the flood of feelings and thoughts that come like passing drummers to the circle of my inner being, setting up their drums in my heart and mind before I have personally welcomed them in, grappling with allowing them into my own reverberations anyway, even after they’ve started banging out their own glorious rhythms, and responding with an inner music that works for me. But the space between me and the world that I love, between me and my clients, too, I now understand, is imbued with spirit, always, and that spirit is a tuning fork, a psychobiospiritual resonance with my joy, wherever I find myself, with and without the ones I love physically by my side.
This blog post is part of a series, Exploring Joy Resonance in Psychotherapy Practice. What happens when a psychotherapist makes a conscious decision to include and attend to "the joy in the room”? What Barbara Fredrickson calls “celebratory love” is a personal and professional aspect of any psychotherapy with process outcomes, consultation considerations, and ethical imperatives. Through each anecdotal process encounter, the author’s writing journey reveals greater understanding of joy resonance in psychotherapy practice than can be attained through an analytical discourse alone.
Photo by Anna D. Hirsch.