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  • Alicia Waters

Holding Both: Experiencing Joy and Suffering at the Same Time


There's a specific and troubling pattern I've been seeing a lot in the yoga community recently, where leaders and teachers shut down any difficult conversation or feedback by saying something along the lines of "good vibes only!" And while I'm all about putting positive energy out into the world, I also acknowledge that there are big issues that need addressing in the realm of wellness. Things like elitism, racism, accessibility of the practice, body shaming, corporatization, appropriation of sacred traditions, and the list goes on.

Too often, when these important topics are brought up, they are dismissed with faux-spiritual sentiments like "you sound angry - don't let your anger get the best of you" or "I prefer to turn my attention to the light" or "I want to focus on what's working rather than what's wrong" or "let it go and practice equanimity."

Full transparency: this tactic drives me nuts!

Typically when I see someone deflecting feedback or shutting down productive conversation with these tactics, I go straight to judgment. I tell myself that person is immature, that they are more concerned with their comfort and their paycheck than upholding the integrity of the practice. I know that might not seem very yogic of me, but it's honest. And isn't choosing honesty over attempting to project an image of spiritual goodness what this is all about?

There's a technique in non-violent communication (NVC) where you look for the needs of another person in anything they say or do. In other words, whenever someone acts in a way that you find upsetting or obnoxious, you can acknowledge that they are trying to meet a human need and not necessarily trying to annoy or attack you personally.

So I started thinking about what need those people might be meeting for themselves that causes them to turn a blind eye to the pressing issues that confront the yoga world and the world in general right now. Because I do believe that lack of engagement is harmful all around.

The brilliant thing about this technique is it puts you in the other person's shoes. You have to imagine what they might be feeling - or feeling that they need - to cause them to act the way they do. And that elicits compassion and understanding.

What I come up with is that the challenge of addressing tough topics head-on feels like too much. It's awfully depressing to confront the ways in which the world is unfair, unethical, oppressive, exploitative. And it's a serious ego check to examine the ways that we are contributing to those systemic injustices. It definitely doesn't make us feel "good vibes only."

And this is where I think the disconnect comes. We all need to believe that we are kind, decent people. We all need to believe that the world is somehow going to be okay, that things can work out. All humans need to have faith that love can truly conquer all - that's what we call hope. When hope is lost, that's what we call despair, which is a dark place to be indeed. We need to feel peace, and that peace is disturbed by the knowledge of "ugly" realities like systemic violence, inequality, and environmental degradation. We need joy, and it's hard to hold onto joy when we peer into the abyss of suffering.

When it comes down to a choice between our innate need for faith, hope, peace, and joy on one hand and our responsibility to engage with the inequities of our world on the other, most of us will choose the feel-good option every time. Wouldn't you?

So from where I'm sitting, the only productive way forward is to stop making it a choice between two binary extremes. We have to learn how to hold both.

At first, this seems like an impossible task. Aren't joy and pain irreconcilable opposites? How can you experience both at the same time? It is possible.

We have to start by acknowledging that joy is not just the absence of pain. If we define all the "feel-good" emotions by saying that we can only experience them if no difficult emotions are present, we're setting ourselves up to fail. Suffering doesn't go away just because we feel happy, so if we ignore and repress any pain we encounter in an effort to experience joy and peace, we're turning a blind eye to those in need (including the suffering parts of ourselves - which we all have).

And we can't heal what we refuse to acknowledge.

Ideally, this means that we drop the notion of "good" and "bad" feelings altogether. If we can do that, we can see the symphony of feelings that make up the human experience as complimentary and interdependent. Meaning that true joy can't exist without pain. True peace can't exist without suffering.

Think of it this way: how real is your joy if it can be stolen away by a moment of pain? How deep is your peace if it shatters at the mere thought of violence?

But just as it's irresponsible and unrealistic to avoid all discomfort to preserve our "good vibes," it's equally unhelpful to wallow in the ugliness within and without. If you only focus on the problems, it's hard to get out of bed in the morning. Why would you? Losing all hope and letting despair take over breeds cynicism, pessimism, and bitterness. Not a great way to spend your precious human life.

Earlier I said that it's hard to hold onto joy when we peer into the abyss of suffering. That's true, it is hard. But it's possible. And if we truly want to heal the ignorance in ourselves, in the modern yoga community, and in the larger world - it's not only possible, but necessary.

So here's to learning how to hold our peace in one hand and our pain in the other. May they balance each other so that we stay joyful as well as tender-hearted, so that we can encounter pain and discomfort without recoiling, so that we engage with ourselves and the world in helpful ways without burning ourselves out.

With love,

A xo


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