Thursday, September 9, 2010

When Pain Crowds Out Joy

Yesterday, I forced myself to take a half-hour walk in a local small forest preserve. It was a small measure to take some time for myself doing something I enjoy. I love nature, the weather was cool and lovely and I wanted an opportunity to slow down and just be. I willed myself to not burden my mind with worries and problems and to just observe the still green leaves. I focused on smelling that scent that comes with the first start of the leaves changing - that musky, smokey, sunny smell! I looked for birds and other small wildlife and observed a large number of turtles on the murky pond. I listened to the muffled sounds around me. I also took the walk to give myself some exercise and have tried the past weeks to take a half-hour walk on as many days as I can.

Right now I'd say I've hit the bottom. Things are pretty bleak socially, emotionally, and financially. I'm barely able to afford decent groceries for the month and now have a needed car repair costing $600.00. My close girlfriend is busy starting her new job as a teacher at the high school and we haven't been in touch lately. It is necessary for me to look for and obtain new employment and I'm worried about that.

Now here's the thing I want to reflect on today. In the past, I'd say that once my life is more stable, then I'll feel better and be happier. But that is the wrong mindset to have. Turns out, the way we should be thinking is the exact opposite: in the toughest of times, we should be concentrating on building up our happiness stores. Because we won't be able to face and overcome the challenges and difficulties without it.

I came across this concept in a short article printed in the magazine "Whole Living body + soul," which is from the publishers of Martha Stewart Living. This article is from the October, 2006 issue, titled "How to Be Happy," written by Thich Nhat Hanh.

"When Pain Crowds Out Joy - If you're experiencing a difficult time in life, you'll need to bolster your feelings of happiness before you can work on your challenges. It might seem as if the reverse were true. But by nourishing yourself with happiness first, you lay the groundwork to address your pain."

"Life is full of suffering. If we don't have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair. With mindfulness, we can preserve a certain amount of inner joy so that we can better handle the challenges in our lives. We then create a foundation of freedom, peace, and love within ourselves."

Well, this concept pretty much blew me away. I have thought a lot about it. The article recommends meditation and living in the moment as techniques. I sure wish it had provided more suggestions for people who've really hit rock bottom and in great despair. I suppose the ability to simply focus on the here and now and be more mindful is about as basic a suggestion as you can get. Like focusing on our breathing.

I guess in the end what I am more aware of is the need to focus on happiness and joy even in the midst of this life crisis. Taking a nature walk for me is a great treat and doesn't cost a cent. More on this topic in the future.


  1. I was always mystified that for the sake of self improvement I was pressed by others to embrace fear and change, when I had absolutely no resources to do it with. Hello?!? First fill up the tank of happiness. Bravo, Thich Nhat Hanh.
    I reached for the easiest resource in the overwhelming chaos that was my life after my husband died. A glass of wine or two at the end of a day. I was a little worried that I was enjoying that glass of wine a little too much. I told others about my drinking to keep me accountable on that score. Another invaluable resource I relied on: prescription help in the form of SSRIs (I would encourage you to seek antidepressants from a qualified person with your interests at heart). I then began engaging in healthy pleasures like exercise, which you are doing, too. Good for you. Put yourself first. Fill up your tank.
    I identify with your needing to build a completely new life from the foundation up. I agree with other posters that addressing one's financial health is first. If we all can be your cheering section, let us.
    Long story short, 5 years later I 'knew' I had enough inner resources to wean myself off the SSRI's. This is when I really began to experience the rich rewards of skills hard won. I still enjoy my glass of wine at the end of my day. But I've also given myself the gift of health. I have turned into a darn good cyclist. Something I took up after he died. I am strong. I am safe. I am loved by me. I am full'ish'.
    Hang in there. You are a good woman.

  2. I SO agree with Flo and have been wanting to say this for a while, but didn't want to step on your toes.
    Please talk to your doctor about the benefits of antidepressants. I would not be here if it were not for those meds ..... I can guarantee you that.
    Not everyone needs them, but what's the harm in looking into it? A chemical imbalance in your brain (which grief VERY often causes) is no different than needing meds for high cholesterol or insulin for diabetes.
    It's a physical problem .... not a mental one.

  3. This is such a beautiful post. Nature feeds one's soul like no other resource. Many is the day that a walk in nature, in all its forms, has absorbed my tears of grief, pain, fear, and loss. May it do the same for you.

  4. Flo - Thank you for your very insightful comments. I agree that we are pushed into the hell of fear, pain, and confusion that loss brings at the absolutely worst time for us to face it. And for some of us, we simply lack the strength and resources to move forward. This whole concept of seeking happiness first and then dealing with the pain and loss is so novel to me but it makes sense after all I've been through. I wish I'd had this strategy much earlier.

    I've tried to stay away from much drinking (even a glass or two) because the boys have had to rely on me as the sole driver, and I've always worried about getting a DUI and totally incapacitating our family. And I suppose because my Mom was an alcoholic, I've worried that I could take it to that level if I started. But a glass of wine now and then sure does sound good. Sometimes I refrain when I'm alone and even know I won't be driving because I'm alone and I suppose part of me thinks it is wasteful to enjoy a glass of wine by myself. But why the heck not at this point? I'm ready to break out the good china anyway. I am finding that it is more wasteful to not do things instead of the other way around.

    I am at the point where I'm ready to make an appt. w/my doctor to discuss anti-depressants/anti-anxiety meds. Again, there is absolutely no harm in checking into them and even trying them out and seeing the outcome.

    I find it wonderful that you have become a cyclist. I hope I can look back on this period some day and find that I too overcame the obstacles and became something more, developed new talents and interests, and grew in positive ways as you have.

    Janine - I appreciate your concern and recommendation about checking into meds. I do not consider it stepping on my toes at all, but kindness. I am also aware of the actual changes that occur in our minds during periods of grief, although I'm not sure how well known this is with the general public. It should be.

    Cape Cod Kitty - I really think that in the end, it comes down to and back to nature. But we have lost sight of that in modern society.

  5. Flo, I also enjoy cycling, but it was something I enjoyed before my husband passed away also. I agree that being amongst nature is soothing and life-affirming. My counsellor has a good analogy when it comes to happiness - that you have to fill the bucket with good experiences so you have the reserves to take out when times are tough. So it totally makes sense to me to work on your happiness first before tacking problems that crop up.
    I've only just started on anti-depressants. How it was explained to me is cutting off the cycle of low mood/low thought processes. So far so good. I think it may be worth considering for you.