Joy in the Liminal Season

“Can the liminal space also be joyful?” Someone asked me that recently, at the end of a talk I gave to facilitators of Deep Democracy in Belgium.

“Yes, definitely!” I said. “I’m in such a liminal space right now!”

If you’ve read my book or taken my courses, you know that when I talk about liminal space, I usually talk about emotions like confusion, fear, loneliness, and grief as part of the journey out of an old story and into a new one. As this person pointed out, though, the liminal space can also be a time of joy. In fact, it can be a time when we prioritize our joy as the guide that leads us into the new story.

As I write this, I’m in a cozy little apartment on the western coast of Italy. After I finish writing, I will likely walk down to the water for a while and, if it’s warm enough, I may sit at an outdoor café with a cappuccino for a few moments before I join a Zoom call this afternoon. It’s a good life I’m living, in the middle of this liminal season.

At the end of August, I stepped into the liminal when I walked away from the house I’d lived in for twenty-two years, gave away all of my furniture, packed my personal items into a storage unit, and started living out of a small suitcase. I’m calling it my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I could also call it my Prioritizing my Own Joy Tour.

When I ask myself why I did this – why I gave away so much and walked away from a home I’d poured a lot of love and care into – I come up with a few answers. For one thing, I no longer felt a strong pull to live in Winnipeg, especially since none of my daughters live there anymore and neither of my parents are alive, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live next. For another thing, I crave adventure and I love to travel, so when a few invitations to teach in Europe lined up, it seemed a good time to have a longer visit here. And for a third thing… I wanted a lighter and more agile life, with less attachment to things and less need to worry about the maintenance of a house.

But there’s something else too – something deeper. I think I knew, intuitively – like the caterpillar knows when she crawls up into a tree and surrenders to the process of metamorphosis – that it was time for change. There was a growing restlessness – a sense of something new wanting to be born in me.

Like a vision quest, or even like a gap year where students go away for a while to figure out who they are, I felt the need to re-explore my own identity and discover the ways in which I am being reshaped. For one thing, my relationship with my daughters is being reconfigured, now that they are all adults living away from me, and I need to explore who I am when less of me is shaped by motherhood. For another thing, my relationship with my work has been reconfigured, now that I am in a business partnership and we have a teaching team running our online programs. And for a third thing, I’ve completed my next book which will take my work in a slightly new direction and which is an even more deep dive into my personal stories than I’ve shared in the past.

Where does joy enter into all of this? Well… it became more and more clear to me in recent years (especially as I was writing my new book), that, in whatever ways I was going to reconfigure my life at this pivotal moment, I wanted to be more intentional about placing joy at the centre. As I talk about in the book (which will come out next year), there is a deep vein of martyrdom and unworthiness living in my body, inherited through my lineage and the systems I’m part of, and I wanted to be intentional about disrupting that narrative and living into a new story. Like the girl in the Velcro dress, I wanted to strip away the things I was carrying that weren’t mine to carry.

That’s why, on this season of liminality, I am leaning into joy to help guide me into the new story. I am being intentional about noticing what gives me joy each day and what steals my joy. Each day is different – sometimes I find joy in solitude, sometimes I find joy in companionship, sometimes I need hours of walking, and sometimes I need a day spent in bed. I’m trying not to judge those needs or desires – I’m being mindful of them and responding in the best way I can.

(It should be mentioned here that prioritizing joy does not mean that it is ALL joy. I haven’t banished any of the other emotions that pop up – especially when my dear friend Randy died in October. I let myself feel the complexity of emotions and do my best to turn my face back toward joy.)

Back in the Spring, when I was in the process of selling my house, I got the following line from a Mary Oliver poem tattooed on my arm: “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”. I’m paying attention to what the soft animal of my body loves and I’m trying to give her more of that.

In the past, I might have read a post like this and dismissed it as the empty pursuit of hedonism (especially since I was raised with a great deal of consciousness around sin), but that’s not what I’m talking about. This isn’t the blind pursuit of pleasure that obscures the needs of others and the injustices around me. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

What I’ve been learning, as I explore the themes of liberation and tenderness on this trip, is that an honest pursuit of joy that includes a disruption of the narratives around martyrdom and unworthiness, can be the most radical act of defiance against the oppressive systems that cause the injustices we’re all surrounded by. To love ourselves, to free ourselves, to live joyfully, and to treat ourselves and each other with tenderness is to dare to create alternatives to those systems that seek to bind us in their trauma and oppression.

We have been raised in systems that teach us to measure our own bodies against other bodies in order to prove our own worth. We’ve been taught by our schools how to measure our intellect and our athletic ability. We’ve been told by the media and by our institutions which bodies have more merit and which ones deserve punishment. We’ve been taught by capitalism how to determine our worth based on our productivity, wealth and status.

Performance measurement, perfectionism, and punishment… those are the themes that run deeply in these systems of hierarchy and oppression. All three are rooted in trauma and we pass that trauma from generation to generation, upholding the systems as we do so. We learned these patterns in our infancy and they’ve been so present all of our lives that we don’t even notice the ways we’ve internalized them. We are largely blind to the ways that they inform our own relationships with our bodies.

Diet culture is one of the ways we punish our own bodies and measure our performance. (For more on this, read Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey & Dana Sturtevant.) Grind culture is one of the ways we sacrifice our bodies on the altar of capitalism and we internalize the perfectionism of that system. (For more on this, read Rest is Resistance, by Tricia Hersey.)

I’m no longer going to willingly participate in things like diet culture or grind culture. I’m intentionally choosing to liberate myself from those patterns of harm and I’m seeking a new path. I’m treating my body with tenderness and challenging myself every time I hear a voice in my head telling me I’m not worthy of that tenderness. I’m being tender with my fat belly, my crooked teeth, and my fussy feet that can only wear the most functional of footwear. I’m prioritizing rest and play. I’m letting my inner child speak the things that she wasn’t allowed to say. I’m honouring the longings that I’ve so studiously silenced in the past. I’m pulling away from social media whenever it sparks feelings of “not-enoughness”. I’m being especially kind to myself whenever I fumble.

I let go of a lot of physical baggage in August when I moved out of my house, and, in the months since, I’ve been working to let go of a lot of psychic baggage. I am carrying less martyrdom, less unworthiness, less self-criticism, less anxiety, and less trauma. Just as I hoped, I am living with more lightness and agility, in more ways than one.

I’ve been inspired by the writings of many wise teachers on this journey toward more liberation and tenderness. Here’s a list of some of the books that have especially inspired me:

If you, too, have a growing awareness that it’s time to liberate yourself from some of the patterns you’ve learned from your lineage and the systems you’re part of, and it’s time to treat yourself with more tenderness, perhaps you’d like to join me in Costa Rica in January for Liberation & Tenderness: A Gathering for Seekers, Lovers, and Dreamers? It will be a special time in a beautiful setting when we’ll collectively explore the burdens we no longer need to carry so that we can ALL live with more lightness and agility. We’ll do our best to put joy at the centre of our circle, while also honouring all of the feelings that might surface in the process.

On Cultivating a Lifestyle of Joy

“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
 
In The Book of Joy, which consists of a week-long conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the two spiritual teachers talk about how they approach joy not as a feeling, but as a lifestyle – one which they’ve each learned to cultivate even in the midst of extreme hardship. Both have been through wars and have been exiled from their countries, and yet, when you watch them together in their advanced years, you can’t help but be drawn in by their playfulness and delight in the world and each other.
 
With them as my inspiration, I am doing my best to cultivate a lifestyle of joy. I am intentionally chipping away at some of the old stories that tell me I am not worthy of joy, I am working to heal the trauma that gets triggered when too much joy is present, I am removing things in my life that actively serve as thieves of my joy, and I am finding daily practices that help to grow a strong foundation of joy.
 
If you have been following along on my journey over the past several months, you will know that, after helping my daughters launch into their own lives, I have sold my house, packed my belongings into a storage unit, and set off on a nomadic journey for at least six months. I’ve got some in-person workshops to do in Europe and then in Costa Rica, and then… I don’t know where I’ll settle (or if I’ll choose to wander for a while longer). I’m letting my heart be my guide. Right now, I’m in a seaside town in Spain, and though I planned to spend only a week here with a friend, I’ve already booked additional days because my body feels so relaxed and peaceful here. That’s how I intend to make decisions for the next six months (and hopefully the rest of my life) – by checking in with my heart and body and not just my often-overactive mind.
 
I am calling this my Liberation and Tenderness Tour. I want to continue to liberate myself from old stories and limiting beliefs and I want to find more freedom from the bounds of oppressive systems like the patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. I’m doing my best to challenge things like internalized fatphobia, misogyny, martyrdom, and shame. I believe that tenderness is the path toward the liberation I seek, and I believe that joy is the outcome. In other words, it’s not hedonism I’m talking about, but a deep, intentional, and sturdy joy.
 
Cultivating a lifestyle of joy doesn’t mean that I expect to be always happy. No, life continues to have its challenges, and I don’t intend to gloss over anything with spiritual bypassing or avoid feeling the hard stuff when it comes. At the beginning of this journey, for example, I spent a few days with my beloved friend Randy, who is dying of ALS, and I carry the grief of that anticipated loss with me everywhere I go. Instead, like the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, I want to create a bedrock of joy that offers a solid foundation for whatever may come.
 
“’Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,’ the Archbishop added, as we began our descent, ‘save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.’” – The Book of Joy
 
Last week, when I was in Italy enjoying a week-long food, wine, and art tour in the Abruzzo region, I noticed exactly what the Dalai Lama talks about in the above quote. As I opened myself to more joy, I was feeling ALL of the things more deeply. I stood in the crypt of a twelfth century abbey and felt the grief and longing of centuries of spiritual seekers who’d stood there before me. I stood in a cattle barn, and the familiar smell flooded me with grief over the loss of my dad. The grief was real, and yet… none of it diminished my foundation of joy. If anything, the moments of grief made the joy even more vibrant.
 
I don’t believe you need to pack up your belongings and set off on a quest like mine to cultivate a lifestyle of joy – I believe you can do it right where you are, right now. Here are some of my thoughts about how you can begin to cultivate a lifestyle of joy:

  1. Make peace with the fly. For this piece of wisdom, I must credit my friend Randy, whose body has been ravaged by ALS. When I spent time with him just before leaving for Europe, the mobility in his arms and hands had become limited to about five inches of movement in his left arm. He is now completely dependent on other people for all his physical needs. Yet even in his dying and dependency, Randy embodies the kind of joyful lifestyle that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop talk about. His eyes still sparkle when I walk in the room and his grin still frequently flashes across his face. “I was lying in bed one day and there was a fly in the room,” he said to me, in one of the brief moments when he had enough energy for conversation. “It kept landing on my face, and I could do nothing to chase it away. I simply had to practice accepting the fly.” For Randy, after years spent cultivating a rich spiritual life and mindfulness practice, the fly became his teacher and the practice became acceptance of what was. Ever since that conversation, every time I experience a frustration (a person who annoys me or a situation that’s outside of my control), I try to ask myself “can I simply accept the fly?”
  2. Laugh at broken doorknobs. This point is a lot like the last one, but it’s worth mentioning separately. On my second day in Italy, in the bedroom of an Airbnb I was sharing with some people I’d just met, the doorknob on the inside of my bedroom door broke off in my hand and I was left trapped, with no other escape route. Fortunately, I had my phone with me and could text the other occupants of the house to come and rescue me, so I wasn’t trapped for long. We shared a good laugh when they opened the door, and it became a shared memory that we could go back to later in the week when other situations seemed outside of our control. Sometimes you simply have to surrender to the ridiculousness of a situation, let other people rescue you, and then have a good laugh.
  3. Let other people’s emotional journeys be their own. Some of the greatest thieves of our joy are other people’s problems – or rather, our attachment to their problems. Because many of us have codependent tendencies, we attach our own emotions to those of the people we love and we think we can only be happy when they are happy. We try to fix their problems because their problems become our problems and their anxiety becomes our anxiety. And sometimes, if we’re too happy, codependent family members or friends become resentful or afraid we’ll abandon them, and they try to drag us into their drama because it makes them feel more safe. But nothing is truly served in sacrificing our joy for other people. We can’t make them happier by giving up our happiness. We can hold space for them and help to soothe their fear of abandonment, but they must find their own pathway to joy. Holding space, as we teach about in the Foundation Program, is all about loving detachment.
  4. Slow down and be mindful. Many North Americans (and probably other places in the world, but I can only speak of what I know) are addicted to busyness. In a culture built on capitalism, where productivity is highly valued, we think we only have worth when we are busy and making a meaningful contribution. But busyness numbs our emotions, keeps our nervous systems on high alert, and makes it hard for us to listen to the deeper longings of our hearts and bodies. Deep, embodied joy is cultivated in slowness and mindfulness, when we take the time to breathe deeply, smell the flowers, slow our nervous systems, listen to the music, and enjoy the flavours of a lovingly prepared meal. Last week, in Vasto, Italy, with a guide who understands what it means to live a good and intentional life – a life not driven by capitalism – I learned to make homemade pasta, to savour the flavours of olive oil from ancient trees, to bake bread in a brick oven, and to paint with the petals of a flower on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. All of it was slow and mindful and all of it helped to soothe my nervous system and give my body a place to feel safe and at home.
  5. Pluck only the chin hairs that matter. If you’re over 50 and living in a female body, you know about the chin hairs. Nobody told me that this would be a thing! When I arrived in Italy, after spending a very busy couple of months packing up my belongings and helping my daughters settle into new places, I looked in the mirror and realized how little time I’d spent tending to my appearance. There was a vast array of long hairs sprouting from my chin. Since I was about to spend time with a dozen women I’d never met, I pulled out my tweezers and started plucking. As I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, I made a very intentional choice. “I will only pluck the chin hairs that matter,” I said to myself. “I’m going to leave my eyebrows bushy, and I’m not spending a lot of time fussing over my hair or putting on makeup.” It wasn’t just about chin hairs, though. It was about accepting my body as it is and treating it with tenderness. It was about liberating myself from the pressures to conform to a patriarchal beauty standard. In the week that followed, my commitment went far beyond chin hairs. When other women on the tour criticized their own bodies, talked about how they needed to “earn” their gelato with exercise, or worried about the pounds they might put on because of the abundance of food we were offered, I stayed silent. I was determined not to speak one word of critique of my body, not to contribute to the talk of food restrictions or body shame, and simply to be in loving relationship with my body. (For more on this, I recommend the brand new book Reclaiming Body Trust, by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant.)
  6. Let go of martyrdom and performative acts of sacrifice. This has become one of my most important areas of personal growth lately. I was raised with a very strong narrative around the value of martyrdom and acts of sacrificial service. I continue to unpack the ways in which my religious and family lineages taught me that sacrifice is next to godliness and I continue to question the ways that I act out of a subconscious belief that I only have value when I am being sacrificial. While I was traveling with other women last week, I could see so clearly how some of them had been raised with a similar value system. They were eager to give up the best room to someone else, eager to be the first to jump up to do the dishes, and eager to be of service even when that service was not requested, plus they expressed guilt when other people served them. As I witnessed this and noticed the same tendency in myself (especially when surrounded by others doing it), I tried to be mindful of what was genuine generosity and what was rooted in martyrdom as a conditioned response (for myself – I tried not to make assumptions about others’ reasons for doing it). There’s a fine line between generosity and martyrdom and I’m trying to find that line in myself, trying to allow myself pleasure and accept generosity without rushing to sacrifice myself for others. There is a way, I believe, of being of service to other people while also unapologetically receiving service from others and welcoming pleasure without guilt. (Just before I finished writing this post, the friend who I’m staying with in Spain decided to go for a swim at the beach just outside our front door. At first, I was going to stay inside and finish this post, but then I asked myself why I was denying myself the pleasure of a swim, and I closed my laptop and went outside.)
  7. Stop trying to change other people. One of the other thieves of our joy is our attachment to the way that others should behave. Other people should be kinder, more patient, less angry, more generous, less chaotic, more playful, more mature, less serious, less critical, etc., etc. In other words, they should be more responsive to our needs and create a world that is safer and more comfortable for us. But when we attach our joy to other people’s behaviour we become, in a sense, enslaved to them. And… let’s face it… everyone has their own problems and insecurities and they’re all trying to get their own needs met just like we are, so they won’t always behave in the way that suits us. Last week, in a moment in which I noticed some agitation with other people’s behaviour, I looked around and could suddenly see the little child in each of the others I was with – a little child who had developed behaviour that was simply an adaptive strategy to help them cope with whatever they’d faced in their childhood. That awareness helped me be more patient and accepting of them, knowing that I too have such a child within me. To cultivate a lifestyle of joy, instead of trying to change people, we need to stop allowing their behaviour to control how we feel, and we need to “tend our own membranes”. (That’s a term that comes from my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership.) Through a lifelong practice of self-exploration, we can become more aware of our own needs, we can discover who has the capacity to help us meet those needs and whose behaviour hinders us from having those needs met, and then we can develop healthy boundaries that help protect us from the behaviour that is harmful to us. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” – Prentis Hemphill

 
Admittedly, I am far from perfecting any of these points, but some of my joy comes from accepting myself as a work in progress. I take solace in the fact that I still have several years to catch up to the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. I’ll be patient with myself and keep practicing. I invite you to do the same.

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Learn more about holding space for yourself and others, and about cultivating the lifestyle and relationships you want, in our upcoming online Holding Space Foundation Program.

You can also learn from me in-person at one of my in-person workshops.

Embracing Laughter

(from the Holding Space Card Deck)

Recently I learned about the Navajo ceremony that honours a baby’s first laugh. Whoever is the first person to make a baby laugh is expected to throw a dinner party on that baby’s behalf. In one account of this tradition, the person who had to throw such a party (the baby’s aunt) also had to give that baby the gift of turquoise.

The Navajo believe that when a baby is born, she belongs to two worlds: the spirit world and the physical world. The first laugh is seen as a sign of the baby’s desire to leave the spirit world and join her earthly family and community. Further, the Navajo believe that laughter is a sign that people understand the meaning of k’é (kinship).

This ceremony (and the belief around it) delights me for so many reasons. First, it feels so meaningful to give laughter such an elevated place in one’s spiritual journey. (Maybe that’s why some of my funniest friends are Indigenous – they know the value of laughter.) Second, while it’s an expensive commitment, I love the idea of placing the responsibility for hosting the celebration on the laugh-instigator. Playing with a baby takes on a whole new meaning when you might be the one to set this all in motion. Third, I love the idea of community gathering for a feast in honour of laughter. It seems that a community built on that foundation has a lot going for it.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to appropriate this ceremony or belief, I wonder how we could let it inform us. How might it change our spiritual practices and gatherings if we believed that laughter is as spiritual as prayer or anything else? What if we gathered for feasts to honour a person who’s been on a hard journey and has learned to laugh again? What if those of us who are facilitators and community-gatherers put laughter on the list of priorities for every gathering?

Though I grew up in a spiritual tradition that’s not known for placing laughter at the centre, I was lucky enough to be part of a family that knew the value of laughter. Whenever we gathered, especially if my dad’s sisters were present, there was certain to be laughter in our midst. The sound of my aunts laughing is one of the things that feels most like home to me. 

We’ve all been through a lot in the last year and a half, with the pandemic separating us from our communities and diminishing our opportunities for laughter. I think that right now, as we emerge from this pandemic, we’re in a moment in history when we are especially in need of the healing power of laughter. We need to gather with our families, friends, and communities and we need to feast and laugh until our bodies feel reconnected with each other and with the spirit world. 

Reflections from a place of joy (my thoughts as 2018 draws to a close)

I can’t remember if I picked a word at the beginning of 2018. I used to choose one faithfully, but that practice hasn’t had as much of a draw for me in the last two years as it once did. In the early years (starting with the year I chose fearless), my word helped pull me forward as I got closer and closer to the authentic and meaningful life I longed for. I made some big life-altering decisions in those years, partly because my annual word helped clarify my intentions and chart my path.

This past year, though, there’s been a shift, and my life has felt deliciously close to what I was dreaming of all of those years when I was choosing words. I don’t feel as much like I need an annual word to draw me forward anymore.

The only thing I can think of for 2019 is “more of the same”.

This year, instead of choosing a word at the BEGINNING of the year, I’m selecting one at the END that reflects what the year has been. For 2018, that word is Joy.

This is a unique place for me to be, and, as I wrote earlier this year, there’s been some uneasiness claiming joy.I’ve become much more familiar with grief and struggle in my adult life, and so joy feels like a foreign country. But after a year of deepening my practice around receiving and appreciating joy, it’s become a more comfortable place to live and I don’t plan to leave any time soon.

As this year of joy draws to a close (only ten more hours, as I write this), I’m doing some reflecting from this place of joy. Here are some of my thoughts…

1.) When you find contentment, stay there until you feel restless again. In choosing “more of the same” for 2019, I am acknowledging that I’ve arrived at a place of contentment and “enough” and I’m in no hurry to change anything. HOWEVER… I know my patterns well enough to know that I will continue to need growth and change in coming years, and so I surrender to the ebb and flow of life, resting when the time is right, and moving when I start to feel restless again.

2.) Joy may look different from what you expected. Embrace it anyway. There was a time when I was certain that a joyful life would be one in which I was well-partnered, with someone to come home to who would know just how to give solace to my weary heart when I’d been out in the world too long. That hasn’t happened for me this year, and though I still welcome the possibility of it in the future, I have found this single life to bring more joy than I ever expected.

3.) Find people who’ll hold space for you not only in sadness, but in joy. As I often discuss in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, though it sounds counter-intuitive, it’s often easier to hold space for someone when they’re sad or lonely or have some kind of need you can fill. When they’re joyful and content, it can feel like they need you less. But a joyful person needs deep friendships just like a struggling person does and I am so very grateful for the people who’ve shown up for me in my joy just like they did in my grief.

4.) Joy may show up in places you expect it least. One of the most joyful days of the year was in one of the poorest places in the world, surrounded by people who know struggle, who’d lived through conflict and poverty, and yet who know how to dance and laugh. In Kitgum, Uganda, I laughed harder than I have in a long time when, at the Kindergarten graduation, the women invited me up to dance and I made a fool of myself trying to move my hips the way they do.

5.) It is easier to give from a place of abundance. If you want to be generous and to make a difference in the world, fill your own cup first. This year, I was able to give away more money than I’ve ever given, I held space for more clients than I ever have, I lent money to a few people I care about who are struggling, and I taught well over a hundred people through my online courses and in-person retreats. I could do all of this without feeling depleted because I’ve done a LOT of radical self-care the last few years (and continue to do so). I went to therapy, I’ve found spiritual practices that sustain me, I took sabbaticals and vacations when I started to feel depleted, and I spent time, energy, and money making my home feel more like a sanctuary. Some of what I’ve done for myself might look selfish to an outside observer, but it allows me to give generously without resentment or exhaustion, so I make no apologies.

6.) Boundaries help nurture and protect a joyful life. Becoming increasingly fierce and protective of my personal boundaries has helped me find this place of joy and protect it from those who might seek to diminish or destroy it (because of their own lack of joy). Because I know that my joy is worth protecting AND it helps me do better work and serve more people, I have become much more intentional about saying no when I’m depleted, limiting the time I spend with people who diminish my joy, and guarding the time and resources I need in order to feel well-resourced.

7.) Healthy relationships help grow a joyful life. Much of my joy comes from the time I spend with the people who matter to me. I have grown and deepened some beautiful friendships this year and I have been intentional about carving out ample time for deep and slow conversations. I have also been blessed with the best clients in the world who fill my cup every time I am in circle with them. AND I have three daughters who bring me joy. I spent as much time as I could with them this year, taking them on two vacations, knowing that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when they will all move away from home. One of my favourite weeks of the year was a joy-filled week of play at Disney World with my girls.

8.) Joy isn’t always about ease – sometimes it comes as a result of considerable struggle. There have been many moments this year when joy came after a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears. As I wrote about my time in the Netherlands, a retreat that took us through some hard liminal space was one that ended with deep learning and much joy. This has also been true as I’ve renovated my home and backyard. I find great joy and satisfaction in completing something that stretched my physical and/or mental capacity.

9.) And then, sometimes, it IS about ease. I have found deep rest and relaxation this year – times when I’ve spent a long afternoon lounging in the hammock in my new backyard, or when I’ve taken a long leisurely hike through the woods. There was very little external stimulation needed in those times – just spaciousness and ease.

10.) Doing good and meaningful work is one of my greatest sources of joy. A year and a half ago, I launched the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Since then, I’ve taught about 200 people through the online program and in-person retreats. It took a LOT of work to build this program from scratch and it continues to take a lot of work to grow it and teach it and hold space for the people who come to it. It’s a deep program and it’s not always easy to support people who have to dig deeply into their own blindspots, fear and internalized oppression in order to grow their comfort with the liminal space. AND… despite how much it asks of me (and perhaps BECAUSE of how much it asks of me) this work gives me more joy than I ever could have imagined.

I hope that in 2019, you, too, will find joy and contentment.

* * * *

Want to learn more about holding space? Check out my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next session starts in January 2019.

 

What gets in the way of joy? Some thoughts on fear, guilt, and “fleshly desires”

Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.

I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.

Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.

If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)

As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.

Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)

Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”

There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.

For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.

To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)

Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.

And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.

Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)

I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.

It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.

That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.

While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).

There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.

As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.

My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.

There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.

It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.

As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.

I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.

Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.

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