“Do what makes you happy. YOLO!” It’s a popular and pervasive sentiment these days. We often think of our level of happiness as the yardstick for how well we’re doing in life. After all, the point of life is to be happy while you’re living it, right?
But as we all know, it’s a little more complicated than that. Things aren’t always sunshine and rainbows. Life inevitably throws something at us (as it tends to do) and sadness creeps in like a dark cloud, fogging up our perception. Sadness obscures reality by spinning negative stories in the mind, sending us into an endless spiral of rumination: “This is horrible,” “Why me?”, “It’s hopeless,” “I’m not good enough,” etc.
Resisting sadness when it arises, however, either by attempting to stuff it down or replacing sad thoughts with happier ones, is often counterproductive (trust me, I’ve tried!). Grief, sadness and loss are real, visceral emotions that we experience on a deep physiological level—our whole body-mind is affected. Though we’d like to be able to just wish them away, these emotions can’t be ignored or denied; and if we try to, it often just makes things worse.
“The ego says, ‘I shouldn’t have to suffer,’ and that thought makes you suffer so much more. It is a distortion of the truth, which is always paradoxical. The truth is that you need to say yes to suffering before you can transcend it.” –Eckhart Tolle
Easier said than done, Eckhart. Who wants to say yes to sadness, pain, and suffering when they weigh on us like a ton of bricks? Well as it turns out, in addition to being inescapable, sadness can also be incredibly useful. It motivates us to take needed action; for example, when we witness social ills like discrimination and violence and feel sadness, that spurs us to do something about it.
Sadness also unites us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since seeing Inside Out, Pixar’s latest critically acclaimed, animated film (which is amazing, by the way, and you should totally see it in 3D if you can!). The movie takes you inside the mind of Riley, the 11-year-old protagonist, as she copes with the loss of her life as she’s known it, when her family suddenly packs up and moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her emotions–Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust–are personified as an eccentric cast of characters in her head. Each emotion has a different role and interpretation of what’s going on in Riley’s life.
Spoiler alert (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know!): Joy tries to keep Sadness in check so Riley can adjust to her new life in San Francisco; but as Riley struggles with the loss of her friends, school, and in many ways, her childhood, Joy can’t hold off Sadness any longer and Anger starts to get the best of Riley. It’s not until she finally opens up to her parents about her sadness that she is able to accept and be OK with it. Her parents share that they, too, are missing Minnesota, and they are united as a family in their shared emotion–giving rise to compassion for each other.
“Despair is what happens when you fight sadness. Compassion is what happens when you don’t. It will not feel ‘good,’ it will feel alive and this aliveness is the path to bliss.” –Susan Piver
So how can we start embracing sadness instead of fighting it, so we can be more alive, compassionate, blissful human beings? Here are some ideas:
1. Stop putting happiness up on a pedestal. Instead, aim for equanimity. If we make it our goal to be happy all (or even most) of the time, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and fighting the natural flow of life. Everything in nature arises and passes away, including moments of happiness and sadness. This is the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Acknowledging that “this too shall pass” makes it a little easier to not only abide, but actually “sit with” our sadness.
Equanimity, as opposed to happiness, is mental evenness and calmness in the face of life’s ups and downs—or as I like to think of it, “being OK with it all.” One of the words for equanimity in the Pali language of Theravada Buddhism is a combination of the words for “there,” “all these things,” “middle” and “to stand or pose”—so one translation of equanimity is literally “to stand there in the middle of all these things.” Practicing Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and observing your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in meditation are two great ways to experience equanimity in the framework of the body first, so you can then take it into the rest of your life.
2. “Name it to tame it.” This phrase is used by mindfulness expert Dr. Dan Siegel to describe a relatively recent discovery in neuroscience: that when we acknowledge difficult emotions like sadness when they come up (by giving them a label), the brain produces soothing neurotransmitters that calm the emotional response.
I experienced this firsthand the day after seeing Inside Out for the second time (that’s how much I loved it). After being swept away on a train of self-deprecating thought, I found myself thinking, “Welp, there’s Sadness again.” The mere recognition of my sadness instantly made it feel less serious and more manageable. By noticing sadness when it arises, observing how it feels in the body, and getting more familiar with how it influences our thoughts, we start to identify with it less and create more space between the sadness and our reaction to it.
3. Open your heart to sadness and welcome it in. I know, I know—it sounds more like something your hippie-dippy yoga teacher would say than something you can do in real life. But you probably already practice this: Think about what you do when your best friend or a loved one calls you because s/he’s sad. Most likely, you don’t brush them off by saying, “It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to me. Just get over it.” This is essentially what we say to ourselves when we deny our sadness or try to push it away.
You’re much more likely to empathize with your friend and say something like, “Aww, I’m sorry. I know that must be hard.” Because you can feel their pain, you comfort them and remind them that everything will be OK. So why, then, don’t we do this with ourselves? Why don’t we act like our own best friend? Thich Nhat Hanh, the highly revered Tibetan Buddhist monk, says, “You should cradle your suffering like a baby.”
Tonglen meditation, a traditional Buddhist practice, can you help you do just that. Often, yoga and meditation teachers will instruct you to “breathe in all that is good” and “breathe out what no longer serves you.” In tonglen, we reverse this pattern to practice opening our hearts to suffering and transforming it into compassion for ourselves and others:
— Begin by thinking of a way in which you (or someone you know) has been suffering.
— Take a deep breath in as you contemplate this suffering, and just observe the sensations that arise in your body. Pause for a moment in the gap at the end of your inhalation.
— As you exhale, imagine sending out love, kindness, and compassion. Pause in the gap after your exhalation.
— Repeat this visualization and breathing practice of inhaling suffering, pausing, exhaling compassion, pausing; and just take note of how you feel after.
The best thing about accepting and embracing sadness is that when we allow ourselves to fully experience the happy and the sad in life, we gain a deeper appreciation for the whole human drama. We live fuller lives and become stronger, more compassionate people. “YOLO” to that!
Also by Annika: 3 Free Meditation Resources / Apps to Grow Your Practice
Photo: Guillaume Delebarre via Flickr