He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity's sunrise
William Blake, Eternity*
For a long time, joy was not something I could even imagine myself feeling again, but as time has marched on, dragging me (kicking and screaming) with it, I've come to see that I am in fact able to open my heart to tiny moments of pleasure, and yes, even joy. I think that in a sense, experiencing the worst possible emotional pain has freed me from the expectation that helped blind me to this possibility.
Blake's is a beautiful premise; the idea that in recognising joy as a fleeting thing, we can allow it to depart just as happily as we welcome its arrival. We can do that by fully experiencing the joy as it touches us, mindfully being aware of it in the moment.
Mindfulness is one of those ideas that have been around forever. Most agree it comes from Buddhist philosophy; but during the last 20 years or so its become a bit of a revolution. Some people love it and some think its a load of nonsense. If you're a die hard anti-mindfulness person I am not arrogant enough to think I'll convert you, especially in one short post, nevertheless I thought I'd write a bit about how I use Mindfulness and how it helps me now.
I have been doing yoga on and off for over 20 years, and mindfulness is a big part of yoga. Mindful relaxation to start with, and being mindful when adopting yoga positions, trying to be in the here and now, and fully present in mind and body, then a mindful relaxation to end the practice.
After doing a Mindfulness course some years ago, I began to embrace it more in my everyday life. I started in an easy way, doing mindful activity, like cleaning my teeth. I don't know about you, but the way I used to do this was whilst contemplating either the day ahead or the one that was almost over, thinking about what I needed to do next, or how well/badly that meeting went this afternoon. Brushing your teeth mindfully simply involves focusing on brushing your teeth, rather than anything else. For example, noticing the taste and texture of the toothpaste, the shape of the brush in your mouth, the feel of the bristles against your teeth and gums, how it feels to hold the brush in your hand. I used to brush my teeth standing up, but for the past 10 years or so I always sit down, because it sets an intention in my mind that I will just clean my teeth, and nothing else, for just two minutes.
Washing up is a great way of practicing mindful activity, there are so many sensations in that small task, using so many senses. The smells: washing up liquid, even the subtle smell of the water. The sights: dirty crockery, shiny, clean dishes, bubbles, water. The sounds: water coming from the tap and sloshing around in the sink, crockery touching the sink or pieces of cutlery. The sense of touch: how the dirty plates and clean glasses feel, the warmth of the water, the feel of the soapiness. Who knew there was such a sensual side to washing the dishes?
I can almost hear some of you saying "Yes, but what's it all for?"
Because our minds are so busy with the complicated business of living, we often spend very little time in the present moment. We are always thinking about what happened today, or yesterday, or last week, or what might happen tomorrow. Even when we are doing something pleasurable, often our minds are somewhere else entirely. It's human nature to worry and ruminate. We ruminate about what's already happened, and we worry about what's going to happen next.
So how much of our lives are passing us by, whilst we contemplate yesterday or tomorrow? The truth is, we have stopped noticing what is going on, while it is going on. We're only imagining how it will be before its arrived, or becoming aware of it when it's already passed.
Since Anton died (even now every time I put those two words together my heart contracts painfully) I have not worked very much. This has given me a lot of time I didn't used to have. In the context of this colossal loss, I try to kiss the joy that he always was to me, that we shared together. I hold our memories dear. I use little rituals, like lighting candles for him. But I also try to kiss the joy of a sun-warmed face, or a pretty butterfly, or a beautiful flower. I try to relish the smell of freshly cut grass, or the damp earthiness of fallen leaves, a warm wind on my face, or the sight of a black shiny beetle ambling through the grass.
I try to be fully present with my 3 year old grandson every moment we are together, laughing when he's funny, being interested in where his curiosity takes him, enjoying holding his hand or having a cuddle and breathing in his smell. I allow myself to feel the comfort of a hug, or the cosiness of my bed at the end of the day.
Are there small joys that you are not allowing yourself to feel in the moment? Could you take a few minutes to just breathe, and fully experience those magical things that normally pass you by?
The other way that mindfulness helps me is when I'm in periods of acute grief, when my heart is racing again with the horror of loss, or when I feel so low I just want to stay in bed. In being consciously aware of whatever I am doing, in staying as far as possible with my attention focused in the present moment, I am able to distract myself, at least momentarily, from the downward spiral of rumination. Because the fact is, I have been to the dark place that these thoughts will take me before; many times. And what I know about that place is that it will not help me to go there. There are no answers there. There are no insights there. There is no warmth or comfort in the black hole. There is only the darkness that rumination brings.
Sometimes there's even a sort of hypnotic urge that pulls me towards the edges of the black hole. I visualise it as a kind of octopus-like monster, whose many tentacles grasp hold of my limbs and pull me gently towards the darkness. At the same time it uses siren-like voices to lure and entice me, like Odysseus, into the deep. I have to fight against this seduction, and one of the ways I do this is to focus on the present, the pragmatic, the mundane; asking myself what can I see, what can I hear, what can I smell, touch, and taste?
Try this really useful grounding exercise if you're feeling overwhelmed or panicky, speaking aloud if possible: Name 5 things you can see
Name 4 things you can hear
Name 3 things you can touch
Name 2 things you can smell
Name 1 thing you can taste
As we, the bereaved are only too aware, there are no solutions to the pain we experience every day, only small ways in which we try to care for ourselves. Just trying to keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, even though this hurts like hell and it's scary. Each time we do, each step we take subtly alters our heart space, helping us to find a little more openness with which to kiss the joy next time it appears.
*I stole this reference to Blake's poem from Jeff Warren, who does a daily mindful meditation on the CALM app, called The Daily Trip