From Everyday Joy – Chapter 1
THE FIRST STEP: SAYING “YES” TO WHAT IS
As I sit down to write this chapter about saying “Yes” to whatever is true in the moment, I realize that my chest feels tight. I´m worried that I could slip into a second round of bronchitis if I´m not careful. “Careful” means drinking Echinacea tea all day, resting on the couch with a good book, and staying out of that blustery, January wind outside. I hate being sick. I go to great effort to avoid it. I eat healthy, exercise daily. I gave up caffeine, sugar, wheat, and dairy years ago. I take Chinese herbs to strengthen my immune system. But I still spent the first two weeks of 2003 in bed with a mean respiratory infection.
It makes me chuckle. Here I am writing about saying yes to this moment and I don&acut like this moment. My rebellious kid inside smirks at me with her upper lip curled. “Why?” she asks disgustedly. “Why would anyone say ´Yes´ to being sick? I wanted to ski this morning and create a workshop this afternoon. I have a dinner date. This sucks.”
Sound familiar? Nobody wants to be sick, or hurt, or depressed, or feel rejected. And so we resist. We resist whatever we don´t like. We resist what frightens us. We resist things that make us uncomfortable. We resist change. We resist the unfamiliar, the unexpected. In fact, as you will see as we look at resistance, we resist most of life.
It´s human nature. We love feeling happy and successful. We love falling in love. We love having a hot date or going skiing all weekend. But we resist “negative” feelings like the plague. We don´t want to feel sad, or disappointed, or rejected, or lonely. We love the honeymoon stage of relationship, but as soon as we smell conflict brewing in our relationship, we start thinking we might be with the wrong person. In short, we love getting what we want, and go to great lengths to avoid discomfort.
Unfortunately, whenever we resist “negative” feelings, we shut down our capacity for joy. Buddha explained this human dilemma over 2,500 years ago. He told his students that we have a propensity for clinging to pleasure and avoiding discomfort. He taught that this aspect of human conditioning is how we create more suffering for ourselves.
I´m sure, though, that Buddha had no idea the lengths we would go to in order to avoid pain and discomfort: Anti-depressants. Anti-anxiety pills. Over-the-counter pain killers. Over-the-counter soda pop, injected with caffeine. Espresso stands on every street corner, mini-mall, and airport. Legal and illegal drugs. High-speed on-road and off-road vehicles that kill and maim hundreds everyday. Satellite TV. Twenty-four hour access to the Internet. Life-threatening sports. The list goes on and on.
After all, who has time to bother feeling sad or lonely if we can get rid of it with a pill? Who wants to feel any “negative” feeling if we can push a button and lose ourselves in mindless entertainment? Who wants to bother becoming a more compassionate, loving spouse if we can just file our own divorce papers and jump into bed with someone new. Who wants to heal our poor, aching planet if we can keep stockpiling more personal wealth? Who wants to “wake up” to the soft, vulnerable beings that we are inside when we have so many ways to distract ourselves? Resistance looks easier, and a whole lot more fun. It just carries a whopping price tag.
Resistance is so insidious and pervasive that we don´t even know when we are resisting. Most of the time, we sleepwalk through our life, planning the next exciting moment instead of feeling this present one fully. When we don´t like the present, our knee-jerk habit is to distance ourselves from it by judging it as good or bad.
“No. Not that. Not me. Not now. This can´t be happening to me. I´m not ready yet. I hate being sick. I can´t be depressed — that only happens to other people. If only he hadn´t cheated on me, if only I´d looked the other way…. Let me savor the hot sex a little longer before I have to deal with conflict in my relationship. Let me finish writing my book before the cancer disables me.” This is how resistance sounds inside our heads.
LIFE EXPANDS AND CONTRACTS ALONG WITH THE UNIVERSE
To stop creating suffering for ourselves, we need to better understand how things work. The Universe moves in continuous waves of expansion and contraction. Ocean waves expand and contract. The cycles of the moon expand and contract. Our breath and heartbeat expand and contract. Our bank accounts expand and contract. Our health and creative expression expand and contract. We feel blessed, on top of the world during the expansion times. Yet, when our lives contract, we act surprised, even indignant. We think the Universe is playing some mean trick on us, picking on us. When the economy contracts, and recession follows, we contract in fear. We want to blame someone, as if we´re not supposed to feel down sometimes. Behind closed doors, we exclaim, “It´s not fair!” But in truth, we are simply experiencing the natural ebb and flow of the Universe.
David sat in my office stubbornly exclaiming, “I want a divorce.” It was their second couples session. “I tried to tell you for a whole year what wasn´t working for me,” he said, glaring at his wife, “and you wouldn´t listen. You never listen. You always interrupt me. You always override what I want with your wants. I´m tired of it.”
Of course, the “D” word gets everyone´s attention. Sara quickly apologized for her habit of overriding him. She begged him for one more chance. He agreed. In individual therapy, she came face to face with her fear of abandonment — the fear that had successfully sabotaged her two previous marriages. She finally saw all the ways she had been unconsciously pushing David away. Suddenly, she identified the culprit causing this havoc. “I hate hearing ´No.´ Ever since I was a kid, I´ve been terrified of feeling rejected. But look, Carolyn,” she smiled, “now I have to deal with the big ´N-O´ as in David doesn´t want me anymore.” She broke down and cried. “I´ve spent my entire life jumping through hoops, trying to controlling people, anything to avoid hearing ´No.´”
After facing that fear and being willing to see it when it arose, her desperate need to control David dissolved. She was able to listen to his needs and feelings and respond with love. He felt the shift immediately. Now comes the interesting part. Sara´s shift brought David´s own mistrust into the spotlight. An abused boy, David felt suspicious of anyone who said, “I love you.” He had trouble trusting her change. “She´s just doing this because I threatened divorce,” he confided. During an individual session, he realized how terrified he was of letting love in. As he breathed directly into this gripping fear in his heart, it released. He stopped holding Sara at arm´s length. He stopped needing to find fault with her to hold her love away. In their last couple´s session, he said, “I can´t divorce her now! Things are going better than they ever have between us.”
We all have our favorite ways of buying into fear and holding love away. Whatever is true in the moment, we often want it somehow to be different, better, easier, more in our favor. After each hurt or disappointment, fear convinces us to resist life even more. Staying safe takes precedence over everything else, including our own joy and aliveness. Resistance becomes a way of protecting our hearts in an unpredictable, changing world.
Unfortunately, we pay a high price for fast forwarding through the uncomfortable parts. Whenever we judge feelings as “negative” or “bad” to avoid discomfort, we cheat ourselves from receiving life´s gifts. As the saying goes, “What we resist, persists.” Worse yet, we lose aliveness and rob ourselves of joy. We grow more and more loyal to the voice of fear, which always sounds so practical and reasonable. But it´s still just fear.
SURRENDERING OUR FALSE SENSE OF CONTROL
These days our world is changing so rapidly, it´s hard to keep up. Amidst such rapid changes, familiarity can offer some sense of control, even if it´s a false sense. We humans cling to what we know, even if “familiar” is hurting us, or stopping us from growing up. In this fast-paced life, it´s easier to pretend, to ourselves and others, that we´re not really vulnerable, tender human beings. We like to believe that, if we´re just clever enough, if we just play the game right, if we´re smarter than the next person, if we exercise and eat right, if we have enough money, we can avoid pain and discomfort.
But the first noble truth of the Buddha is that life is suffering, and when we feel suffering, it doesn´t mean that something is wrong. He taught that one way to end suffering is to stop resisting what is. He wasn´t just speaking to some of us. He was speaking to all of us. The truth is, we can use every experience (good or bad) to wake up.
Unfortunately, no one ever told us this. No one said that living our lives completely means letting all of life flow through us – the joy and sorrow, the pain and discomfort. Instead, we learned to identify with our young, defended, less mature egos. We learned to listen to the stories our egos tell us. We bought into the human conditioning that´s been passed down for centuries: that pleasure is good and pain is bad. We´ve gotten used to our egos convincing us that, by resisting and denying our pain, we are better than all those people out there struggling. This blinded thinking cuts us off from our heart´s deeper wisdom. It blocks us from connecting with our pure joy of Being.
Tim recently stopped treating his ego like the voice of God. He stormed into my office for his weekly session. “I spent the last two hours looking for an apartment,” he declared. “Rachel and I keep butting heads on how to parent Leo (their two-year-old son), and I´m sick of it. I´m sick of her need to control.” In his upset, Tim jumped right over his own vulnerable feelings and into blaming Rachel — a habit he had refined for years. Without questioning it, he bought the story that fear was painting in his mind—how his marriage was hopeless and Rachel was the problem.
I pressed pause. “How is this feeling familiar to you?” I asked, knowing this question would get to the root feeling, underneath his projection. “I´ve never felt understood!” he blurted out in anger. “Even when I was little, my parents never understood me. My girlfriends in college, my first wife,… nobody gets me.” He began to weep softly. “I´ve felt so lonely and isolated my whole life.” As Tim touched his vulnerable feelings, he identified a core belief about himself: “I don´t fit in.” I asked him if he would like to change this belief. “What would you like to be telling your inner self?” I asked. “That I do fit in, of course,” he replied. “That even if my wife and I in conflict, I´m understood.”
Afterwards, he went home and told Rachel about his session. In sharing his pain about not feeling understood, he felt closer to her. She felt safer to tell him how terrified she was about him leaving. Together, they agreed to keep each other current about their fears and doubts. He got his deposit back on the apartment the next day.
RESISTANCE COMES WITH A HEFTY PRICE TAG
If I didn´t know better, I´d say, “Go for it! Avoid all the pain you can for as long as you can.” If I hadn´t witnessed the elaborate suffering we cause ourselves by resisting discomfort, I´d keep quiet. But I´ve seen too much. Clients and students have shown me time and again the physical illness and emotional pain we cause ourselves by resisting what is. There is Paula, whose migraines went away when she stopped hiding behind confusion and began writing her novel. There is Linda, whose uterine cysts healed when she faced her guilt and grief about having an abortion. There is Neal, who ended years of stomach pain when he expressed his rage and fear about being molested by his mother.
Jack Kornfield tells us in A Path with Heart, “When we come into the present, …, we encounter whatever we have been avoiding. We must have the courage to face whatever is present—our pain, our desires, our grief, our loss, our secret hopes, our love—every-thing that moves us most deeply.” Whether we are agonizing over a stubbed toe or immersed in dark depression, a mild cold or money fears, the healthy direction is facing whatever is true directly. It´s never as scary as it looks from the starting line.
Saying “Yes” empowers us. Saying “Yes” dissolves resistance instantly. Saying “Yes” helps us stand on both feet and find the courage to handle whatever arrives on our plate today. It blows the town whistle, alerting our inner wisdom to come to our aid.
Saying “Yes” teaches us that we are safe to be totally honest—with ourselves and our loved ones: “Yes, I am feeling depressed and sad today, and yes, it is scary to feel this way.” When we say “yes” to what is, love and acceptance share the same space with whatever we are feeling, whatever is up for us. It says, ” I love myself for feeling depressed and said, and for hating feeling depressed. “Yes” reassures our tender, vulnerable inner self that “I can handle it, even this.” It engages our curiosity to wonder, “What is my body, and my heart, trying to tell me here.” Total honesty allows us to stay in integrity with our inner Being. No white lies are required to defend or protect our ego.
Slowly, as we keep saying “Yes” to what is, our vulnerable inner self begins to trust life. We start to trust that we are having exactly the experience we are supposed to be having. It may not be the one we expected. It may trigger varying degrees of fear and discomfort at times. But we say “Yes” anyway. Soon, each issue on our plate feels more workable, more manageable. For example, Jed and Sara came to see me for couple´s counseling eight years ago. She wanted to break up. He acquiesced. But Jed was terrified to grieve this huge loss. Instead, he drank more. He dated several different women with no intention to commit to anyone. His ego convinced him, “I didn´t need her. I don´t need anybody.” This plan worked for two years. But Jed came back to therapy. His need to grieve had grown so intense, he was having panic attacks. Alcohol wasn´t working. The casual sex became boring. He needed to face his pain.
In my office, he closed his eyes and breathed into the tightness around his heart. He quietly wiped the tears from his cheeks. “I haven´t cried in forty years,” he admitted. I encouraged him to keep breathing directly down into the tightness in his chest. Tears kept flowing. When he was done, his eyes met mine. His eyes looked radiant, as if he had released a lifetime of sorrow. “I feel good,” he said with a huge grin. “I feel all bubbly and happy inside. I´ll have to cry more often.” As he stood up to leave, he added, “You know that fear that came up so strong at the beginning of our session—the fear that nobody will ever love me. It´s gone. So is the heavy pressure in my chest.”
This habit of resisting “negative” feelings is so deeply ingrained in us; it often just feels how life is. It takes steady work and focused attention to shift it. I know I still work at it, whispering “Yes” under my breath whenever I think of it. Whenever I notice my mind running wild with some fear of the future or difficult memory from the past, I just say “Yes” and feel it dissolve.
RESISTING FEELINGS FORCES US TO ACT THEM OUT
A mother and daughter came to see me yesterday. Both had worked with me individually, but they had reached a stalemate in their relationship. The mother, Kathy, said she had felt a painful distance between them since Christmas. The 18-year-old daughter, Angie, was sarcastic, or avoiding contact altogether. I invited each of them to talk about their deep, more vulnerable feelings.
“I´m really sorry,” Kathy said. “I was very stressed that day. I didn´t know the boys coming to your friend´s party, and I felt scared that you might be forced to do something you didn´t want to do, like have sex. I know now I was way overreacting. Because of my own trauma, sometimes the fear overtakes me and I can´t think straight. I know demanding that you be home by 10 was ridiculous. But at the time, I couldn´t stop myself. I feel badly. Please forgive me.”
Angie, who had refused to speak other than saying “Yes, mom” or “No, mom” for two months, shared her feelings for a full half hour. “I feel horrible that I lied to you,” she said through tears. “I´m sorry. I won´t do that again. But I need you to see who I am now. I lived away from home for a whole year, Mom. I made all my own decisions, and I make good decisions. It´s easier for me to respect your requests if you just tell me what fears are coming up for you instead of laying some stupid ultimatum on me.” They forgave each other, hugged, and agreed to “talk about” their feelings more.
Nobody walks around saying, “I´m going to resist life now.” We don´t start the day declaring, “I think I´ll rob myself of joy today.” That´s the problem. We don´t think about it at all. It´s an “unconscious” habit. It occurs below our awareness. We learned to bypass “negative” feelings and we just keep doing it. We think we can avoid conflict in our relationships by withholding feelings that might trigger anger. We believe we are protecting ourselves from future disappointment and hurt by making “practical, reasonable” choices. But all we are really doing is acting out our feelings unconsciously.
When we say “Yes” to what is, we see clearly, with loving eyes, our own personalized version of resistance. We are creatures of habit, even if that habit is robbing our joy.
Lori desperately wanted to get married and have a baby. By 38, her biological clock was screaming. When Bill appeared, she fell madly in love. But six months later, when he proposed, she froze. She pulled her “judgment” card out—the same card she had used to get rid of five earlier candidates. She judged him for being “too unconscious, too insensitive, too unskilled at sharing his feelings.” In angry moments, she flat out told him he would make a lousy father. She was buying into her judgment and acting it out. In therapy, I invited her to notice her judgment, label it “judging, judging,” and let it go. She resisted. She didn´t believe she was judging him. But she agreed to it for one week.
She came back to therapy the following week a changed woman. “Wow!” she grinned, wide-eyed. “I did it. I labeled my judgments. And it felt like I saw Bill, and myself, for the first time. I ended up telling him how terrified I am about picking the wrong man and being stuck with a tiny baby. I also owned how scared I am about not being a good mother. Most of all, though,” she added, “I´m afraid of getting the love I´ve always wanted.” The two married last August. And they love their two-month-old baby.
We are all in human bodies sharing similar experiences and feelings. Daily, life experiences move through us that trigger feelings totally out of our control. Most of the time, we are unaware what we are feeling inside. One experience triggers calmness. The next triggers intense anxiety. A newspaper article might trigger money worries, or despair. Our lover´s ailing health might trigger fear and helplessness. All these are out of our control. What is in our control is how we respond. If we break through resistance by saying “Yes” to what is, we give ourselves the freedom of choice. Loving ourselves for whatever we are feeling puts the brakes on our unconscious habit of resisting life.
An important shift occurs when you say “Yes” to life. Besides breaking the pattern of resistance, you discover the tremendous freedom to be had in taking responsibility. Rather than believing “life outside me” is causing my frustration, pain, or loneliness, you are seeing the huge role your own reaction to life plays in your happiness.
For example, Melanie went through a dark, painful four years. Her oldest daughter was arrested for drunk driving. Though she tried a few times to tell her husband what she needed, he failed miserably at supporting Melanie through this difficult time. She withdrew. This only confirmed her belief that she couldn´t trust anyone with her deepest feelings—not her husband now, not her angry mother when she was growing up. For four years, Melanie built a fortress around herself. She remained in the relationship, but she rarely spoke to her husband. Instead, she busied herself with work, projects, and TV.
When they came to see me, I asked Melanie what her part was in not getting her emotional needs met. She looked at me in disbelief. I persisted. “Would you be willing to talk about your hurt feelings without blaming yourself or your husband?” I asked. She sat silent for a long time. Finally, she told her husband, “I felt devastated when Suzie got arrested. It´s the most traumatic thing that´s ever happened in my life. I needed you to hold me, comfort me, tell me we would be alright. But you were so busy trying to fix things, you never just listened. When you didn´t seem capable of giving me what I needed, I shut you out of my heart.”
He stood up, moved over to her chair, and held her. She wept softy. Once she was able to take responsibility for her part by voicing her real feelings, and once she received what she needed, she could quit withdrawing from the relationship. They both agreed to “talk about” their vulnerable feelings weekly, and to listen respectfully to each other.
The simple act of saying “Yes” to what is helps us make friends with life. It´s one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. As our own self-awareness deepens, we come to see that what our mind expects, and what our actual experience is, rarely coincide. The mind measures life against an “ideal” perspective, which means that most of life, including who we are, and what we have accomplished, is not good enough. What a cruel habit.
When we say “Yes” to what is, it feels like waking up from a long sleep. We stop responding with the same beliefs, attitudes, and judgments that we inherited as children, when our heart-felt wisdom was much less developed. We stop sleepwalking through our relationships and recognize that each day, each moment, is too precious to withdraw and withhold feelings for four years (or four days, or four minutes, for that matter).
Suddenly our eyes see more clearly—as if some invisible blindfold has been removed. Our ears have more space to hear the music of everyday life, including the voices of those we love. Suddenly, all those plans, thoughts, doubts, and judgments whirling through our minds carry much less weight. There´s much more breathing room—in our day, in our relationship, in our feelings and longings. We slow down. We take deeper breaths. We stop to really notice that Blue spruce towering outside the patio window.
And we know, in our hearts, that we are good enough, just as we are. Even in this moment—if my body is experiencing illness or my heart struggles with loneliness—we can remind ourselves that, deep in our hearts, we are safe and we are loved, no matter what. When we dare to touch this tender soft spot in our core, we remember that being lovable is not something we have to strive for or earn. It´s who we are. The more we respond to life from this loving place, the more we can soften and trust the process of life. And the more we can lean into life´s mysteries, even the painful parts, with joy.
Practice the following tools until they become your familiar way of responding to life. Take your time; it´s not a race. It took you years to build up your resistance. Give yourself at least the next few weeks to become familiar with the ways you resist life – in your body – to begin to say “yes” to it all.
- The easiest place to identify resistance is in our bodies. Most of us resist such common symptoms as a headache, neck and shoulder tension, back pain, or stomach tension. As an experiment, take five minutes to lie on your back, close your eyes, and deep breathe in your belly. After several deep breaths, let your awareness move slowly up and down your body, as if you are simply listening to your body. Notice whatever is true in your body in this moment (and notice any resistance or judgment to the tightness, tension, numbness or pain that you don´t want to be feeling). Say “Yes” to whatever you are noticing. Often, focusing our attention on pain or tightness, rather than resisting it, decreases its intensity.
- Now take a few moments to deep breathe in your belly and notice any feelings inside. Say “Yes” to whatever feelings might be up for you without judging them. Just noticing. If you feel sadness or tiredness, just acknowledge it to yourself. Promise yourself a time, later, to be with those feelings. Saying “Yes” to whatever you are feeling throughout the day allows them to flow through you.
- Setting an intention is a powerful way to counteract habits. Before getting out of bed, place one hand over your heart and one hand over your belly. Say, “I´m willing to say ´Yes´ to whatever feelings come up for me today.” Or “I´m willing to say ´Yes´ to any tension in my body today and hear what that symptom is trying to tell me.” Or “I´m willing to stop share my feelings with my partner.