The Value of Sadness

It's January. Although we just celebrated those hopeful holidays which insure the return of light and life to the world - Yuletide, Kwaanza, Christmas, Chanukah, Buddha's Enlightenment, Winter Solstice, New Year's Day - for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere the bleak days are just now becoming entrenched. There are still months of snow ahead, the coldest days yet to come. And the days are still short, the dark nights long.
Some people during these months deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The acronym names the major symptom: SAD. It seems that without enough natural light, some people have marked physical changes which manifest most clearly as sadness, ennui, mild depression. Treatment is phototherapy - light - and supportive measures. While not diminishing the experience of people who live with the condition, and whose circulating hormones may show clinical values away from normal, there is a more widely felt malaise. It is called Winter Blues, Winter Blahs, Cabin Fever and probably many other regional and cultural folk names.
If they are not bad, nor even good, what are these winter blues? They are, like other things, grist for the mill. Raw material, usable for spiritual food and shelter with a little skillful transformation. The tools, as usual, are mindfulness and compassion. What the carpenter and cook within are creating with those tools are - guess what - mindfulness and compassion. End and means are the same.
A typical trigger for perceptions of bleak midwinter is post-holiday let-down. Call it post-party depression. Jozef figures it results from either or both of two things: one, the disappointment that the holiday reveling just wasn't as fun, as warm, as idyllic, as your hyped-up hopes. Second, the distractions of a change from routine are gone .
What does it mean that many people find themselves sluggish, draggy, bummed at this time of year? When we experience these feelings, we usually have one of the two responses we've learned so well: blame something outside ourselves or blame ourselves. Uncommon indeed for us to question that the syndrome itself is bad. That badness is such a given we don't even name it. Let's take the three doors just presented and open them. The doors are as follows: first, that Winter Blahs are a bad thing. Second, if we have the Winter Blahs it is imposed on us, done to us. Third is a popular alternative to the second and that's that we do it to ourselves.
I'll examine the second and third assumptions quickly, then respond to the first at more length
Sleet Happens
Winter blahs just happen to us, many complain. The weather. The flu. The lousy car is cold. The snow needs shoveling, the icy rain, the holiday credit card bills are due not to mention heating fuel bills and the kids won't go outside and its too crowded in this house or its too lonely in here because no-one visits in the winter after the holidays are over and you have to wear so many clothes and why do I always lose one glove? Such projection, blaming, is a low level response to perceived problems. The ego keeps up this chatter to prevent you from actually taking any responsible action.
Winter-whipped Wimps
Some people assume that if they experience Winter Blues, it is because they are personally flawed. If one didn't have a weak character, one would be only and ever cheerful, fit and optimistic, the thinking goes. Anything less is not acceptable. Of course such superhuman standards are only applied to oneself, rarely to others. If we examined such beliefs from a stance just a bit to the side in our busy minds, if we observed them with compassion and humor, we'd see them for the silly ego arrogance they are.
Many of us have such entrenched habits of ego-driven self-deprecation that we may equate self-charity with self-delusion. Many have been taught, by parents, catechisms and culture, that self-charity equals selfishness. We have somehow lost the critical distinction between the two in our education of our children - therefore of ourselves! In experiencing the two, the difference is obvious. Selfishness is born in fear and self-charity is born in love.
It is unfortunate that so many of us bear our own hearts and lives with so little love and tenderness for our human selves. We, as every other person, are due honor and charity.
The Fragile Fortress of Thoughts
Now for my main thesis, which is the idea that the Winter Blahs are not a bad thing. Nor even a good thing. In a typical early morality structure, such as a child uses to define the world, virtually everything is charged with the value judgments of good or bad. Even such seemingly neutral things as color. And the judgments are changeable - a boy states red is bad this week although it had the top spot last month related as it was to Rudolph's nose and Santa's suit.
As adolescents and adults reading this we should know that most of our own value judgments are often just as transient, and usually unconsciously formed and held. Nor does physical or intellectual maturity guarantee a mature morality. Many, many people still find comfort in simplistic divisions, based on fear and confusion, of the world into good and bad, us and them, black and white. Such thinking gives one a sense of security, but it is a fragile sense, built upon ego constructs of fear and separation. Such security is that of ramparts, walls, fortresses of thought. Such ego armies must always be armed, always vigilant; the troops must be constantly rallied with tales of the badness of the enemy. This is truly a fragile structure unconvinced of its proclaimed goodness, for goodness should not need constant propaganda.
If the ego stops talking for a minute, just one minute, then the structure may bee seen for what it is, an illusion. Such clarity makes the walls transparent and non-existent. They may crumble in a cloud of star dust, or disappear in flash of heartlight.
In the above paragraphs my intent was to analogize the internal militia-mindedness that many people possess. But such low level morality, such militaristic ego-head is also externalized into massive thought structures such as fundamentalism, racism and homophobia. These structures, too, are built on such flimsy stuff as ego and must be fueled and stabilized by propaganda.
Propaganda may seem a strong word, a word the colors of politics, a fighting word not suited to a letter about spirituality. And I have used it here to indicate an unsavory means of communication to an end I have painted as illusory at best. The word propaganda comes from the same root as the word propagate. We can propagate life-enhancing or soul-murdering ideas.
I'd like to think of Metaphoria as a gift of thoughtfulness, even mindfulness. Neo-dharma or humanistic dialogue or prayerful offering to the ongoing discussions of what it means to be a loving human. We'd like to encourage intrapersonal and interpersonal compassion, and interbeing. If such aspirations make Metaphoria propaganda, then so be it.
Allow Fallow
If I judge the Winter Blahs as neither good nor bad, am I assigning them no value? Am I attempting to neuter, by claiming neutrality toward, them? No and no. Winter blues are anything but neutral.
When people describe the winter blues, it is as experiences of emotions: either too much of emotions we don't like, or too little emotions we desire, or a seeming absence of emotions at all, a numbness. Nasty, negative or numb, but not neutral.
These desert times, these bleak winterscapes are part of the soul of creativity. These are the secret sacred agony of artists everywhere, the inglorious intervals of non-production.
There is in our (Calvinist) society a contempt of non-production. One is considered of value based upon what one can produce, be it artifact or service. The same mercenary and monetary basis informs attitudes toward art as toward other endeavors. Recognition and acclaim may be the siren hymn that signals the imminent downfall of an artist's esteem in the eyes of the dominant culture. Public acclaim turns to public disdain if the artist dares to grow, to change, or worst of all, to have a fallow period. Such disdain is one reason why artists - and we are all artists - must find their meaning from a vastly more adequate source - love. Love does not judge. Love knows the cycles of creativity, of relationship, of our lives.
Respectful Recycling
As the wheel of the year turns, we see the cycle of life and death and life. It is the natural order of things, gloriously obvious here in the temperate zone. Dormancy is the seed state, a sleeping and tiny seed which appears inanimate and dead. Of course the seed is not dead, but dormant. It is the stored energy, the mini-matrix containing hidden potential. Potential. Potent.
The cycle will move through quickening, birth, growth, flowering, fruition, decay, entropy, disintegration, dormancy - the seed, the winter - to the quickening thaw and again and again.
Let us have the compassion, patience and earthy sense to allow these cycles. Allow cycles in ourselves and others. Respect the cycles of the world. And, especially have patience when you realize that different aspects are at different points on the wheel at different times. Such overlapping of our personal and relational patterns can cause confusion and anxiety.
Patience and love, an underlying trust in the process, helps a great deal. The trust is born of experience, and we have all already had the experience over and over. Perhaps we have rolled through the cycles unconsciously, fearfully surviving the winters in our hearts, so relieved when the spring comes that we never acknowledge the great gifts of winter. Those gifts are dormancy, gathering energy, repose. The muse does not desert us. She just needs sleep.
What we name numbness may be only many dormancies. What we name despair may be named more tolerably decay. No, I am not negating the perceived and felt reality of one's present emotional state, and yes, I am advocating awareness of and empowerment through language itself.
The stories we tell ourselves and one another are how we identify ourselves, anchor ourselves. Everything is metaphor. We choose, consciously and unconsciously, the metaphors we live by. The more conscious we are of the process, the more free we are to choose.
Choosing Muses
How would it feel to honor the metaphor of a muse, one who inspires your creative life? You may invoke her with incense, with song, with sharpened pencils or stretched canvas. How about the culinary muse, the kitchen god?
What about your patron saint of parenting, your guardian of gardening, your spirit animal of daydreaming... you can populate your interior with so many helpful beings. Their playfulness, their patience, their deep wisdom will amaze you. They are metaphors.
Some of us will do better to practice some population control in our minds. There are already way too many voices in there: parents, teachers, advertisements, Mother Church, Fatherland, friends, coworkers. A cacophony of opinions, rules, agendas. The wise voice of your own heart may be hard to discern in the tumult, but it's there. So, you may choose to depopulate your monkey mind.
There is great power in the stories we tell ourselves. So often our tales are full of guilt and fear. As we recognize our inherent dignity and worth, we may reframe our stories with a charitable, compassionate hand. The process works both ways: as we apply compassion to our tales, we recognize our inherent dignity and worth. And that of others.
Cultivating Compassion
The meditation practices that interest me most are those focused upon developing compassion. Loving kindness, non-judgment, the feeling with - compassion. Of all the anthropomorphic representations of deity displayed in this house (at last count over two dozen) by far the most common are boddhisattvas of compassion: Green Tara, Avalokiteswara, Kwan Yin. The classical Tibetan - Buddhist practices of lojong - awakening compassion - are being taught at an accelerated rate in response to the deep need in our world now. And, the lessons and practices of A Course in Miracles and Attitudinal Healing are flowering worldwide with a core message of deep forgiveness and compassion.
In the community called alternative or human potential or personal growth, there seems to be a shift recently. Confidence is on the rise and judgmentalism is on the decrease. There is a renewed emphasis on serving others and a relaxation of defensiveness. There is more of the maturity of experience, which allows tolerance of diversity, and the expansion of one's sphere beyond oneself. There is more compassion. There is more desire to learn how to serve others well.
Love Does Not Always Feel Good
Here's the secret: Love does not always feel good. I'm not speaking of the wild roller coaster of romantic love with its acute delights and pains, nor of some puritan character- building no pain no gain attitude. I'm responding to the childish morality that still drives so many, the notion that if you behave right (low-fat, exercise, positive thinking) then you will never suffer and if you do it's because you, well, sinned. Perhaps you let a negative thought intrude, a venial sin, better get back on the wagon quick before a shadow catches up.
When I say, "love does not always feel good", I invoke the lyric poetry of William Blake, who, centuries ago, wrote:
Joy and woe are woven fine
Clothing for the soul divine
Under ev'ry grief and pine
Runs a joy silken twine.
It is right it should be so
Man was made for joy and woe
And when this we rightly know
Safely through the world we go.
Have you ever had the experience of great joy? One of those inexpressible transcendent moments when the divine glory suddenly illuminates your mind - heart - being. You are so full, so complete. You are connected with everything. This epiphanic moment may occur only once in a lifetime. It is written and painted and danced of by people through all our histories, and today. It is called peak experience, epiphany, samadhi, yoga. When we try to describe it to one another, we often say, "joy." Joy is something richer than "happy." It is like being struck by lightning. This experience is considered the ultimate aim of much religious teaching.
Wonder of Sorrow
But, what about the related experience of great sorrow? This is not the same as depression, which is a shutting down of feeling. Nor is it personal grief. It is even beyond despair. When you practice compassion, open your heart, both great sorrow and great joy rush in to fill it. They are very similar. Perhaps in our humanity, we can only perceive one at a time or perhaps we can only make sense of it by remembering it as one or the other. I don't know. I do know that great sorrow is a misunderstood value in our culture. It is considered negative and it is not sought by most spiritual seekers. We call great joy an ultimate healthy state and one which universalizes us, connecting us to god in all things. But, we fearfully choose to denigrate and deny great sorrow by calling it personal pathology.
Great sorrow is transcendent. You are connected with everything, you are full. You are illuminated. It feels like a flood. It is not depression, but profound sadness. If you respond with fear the experience may indeed change to depression, but of itself, great sorrow is part of love. Great sorrow, like great joy, is inspiration - breath of god. Compassion practice can be like plugging your heart into the power plant and learning to make of yourself a transformer to change the high voltage into house current, usable in the world.
Great sorrow, the transcendent epiphany, probably happens to one less often than great joy. We have few cultural constructs to explain or contain it. Only recently has the dominant culture begun to accept and study even personal grief. We have no context for a healthy transpersonal sorrow.
Some readers may find this a difficult concept and may rebel against the notion that sorrow and joy are both good. Many of our readers are students of Attitudinal Healing, a major teaching of which is "Love is letting go of fear." Sadness and sorrow have been presented in our culture as bad - they feel bad. They're negative. They're dark. If there are only two emotions underlying all others and these two are love and fear, then it may be easy, seem natural, to call sorrow a form of fear. Depression and anger come from fear.
Great joy comes from love, and so does great sorrow. I base these statements on years of experiencing wisdom literature, poetry and music; hearing people's personal stories: and experiencing transcendent moments of both great joy and also great sorrow.
If you practice compassion, if you ask your heart to be open, you may be surprised by joy, and by sorrow. These great gifts leave you humble, open, and full of gratitude. You may feel as though your newly opened heart is breaking but it is not. That is merely the last ego shell, the carapace, creaking and falling away to reveal your tender heart. If it happens to you, be grateful, and accepting. Rest in the knowledge that you are only given what you can handle.
In the great night my heart will go out.
Toward me the darkness comes rattling.
In the great night my heart will go out.
I go about pitying myself
while I am carried by the wind across the sky.
The moon and the year travel and pass away:
also the day, also the wind.
Also the flesh passes away to the place of its quietness.
Yonder comes the dawn.
The universe grows green.
The road to the Underworld
Is open! Yet now we live
Upward going, upward going.
The question mark is an inverted plow, breaking up the hard soil of old beliefs and preparing for new growth.
Saul Alinsky
A slip is not a fall.
A lapse is not a relapse.
Be gentle with yourself.
Vermont Public Radio Commentator on New Year's and other resolutions
"Lo" is the conditioned mind the mind that harbors, thinks, schemes and plans and "jong" is to purify. So lojong is a teaching to purify the conditioned mind, which is compassion or Bhodicitta, may be revealed.
Lojong is sometimes known as the training of the mind in compassion.
Sogyal Rinpoche
People can cope with a lot of suffering but only a little happiness.
Padampa Sangye
The enigma of things deepens Into the Fathomless beyond.
From mystery to mystery is the gateway Into the streaming wonder of existence.
Tao te Ching
The sap is mounting back from that unseenness darkly renewing in the common deep, back to the light, and feeding the pure greenness hiding in rinds round which the winds still weep.
Rilke 1924
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
Theodore Roethke 1966
The inner essence
Of peace
And therefore
Beyond words,
Then what are we doing
Writing about it?
Our words are strung out on a line
And all we see is our own washing.
John-Francis Phipps
© 1996 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski