The Value of Sadness
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
ev'ry grief and pine
Runs a joy silken twine.
It is right it should be so
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.
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.
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.
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.
great night my heart will go out.
Toward me the darkness comes rattling.
the great night my heart will go out.
I go about pitying
while I am carried by the wind across the sky.
and the year travel and pass away:
also the day, also the wind.
flesh passes away to the place of its quietness.
Yonder comes the dawn.
universe grows green.
The road to the Underworld
Is open! Yet now we live
going, upward going.
The question mark is an inverted plow, breaking
up the hard soil of old beliefs and preparing for new growth.
slip is not a fall.
A lapse is not a relapse.
Be gentle with yourself.
Public Radio Commentator on New Year's and other resolutions
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.
People can cope with
a lot of suffering but only a little happiness.
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
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
The inner essence
Then what are we doing
Writing about it?
words are strung out on a line
And all we see is our own washing.
© 1996 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski