At the beginning of each therapeutic session, I ask a question that often gives pause for thought: what brings you joy and contentment? Some say, “I haven’t experienced joy for so long that I’ve forgotten what that experience feels like” or “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt contentment.” I’ve even heard comments like, “I don’t deserve joy in my life” or “I came to therapy because I’m in such turmoil. Why are you asking me about joy?” So, why do I ask this question?
Joy is our birthright. It’s our natural state of being. When we experience disconnection, either from our own souls or from others in our life, we become distracted and pulled away from our innate capability to experience this state of being. But what is joy and how do we attain it?
Dr Abraham Twerski describes joy as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.
Why would the experience of “flourishing” encompass both pleasure and suffering? It seems paradoxical that the journey toward contentment could start by giving ourselves permission not to be content. We don’t change our state by resisting or running away from it any more than we get rid of unfulfilled desires just by telling ourselves to give them up. To move on, we must first let ourselves be fully where we are in this moment—even if where we are is frustrated, out of sorts, insecure, or scared. We may also be experiencing dissatisfaction, thwarted ambition, or anxiety.
Usually, most people are afraid to do this, imagining that they’ll end up wallowing in misery. But accepting your situation is very different from giving in to self-pity. Unlike wallowing, this inner acceptance lets you relax the inner muscle that keeps trying to control the uncontrollable, and frees you from the terrible stress of feeling that you have to pretend everything is OK when you know it isn’t.
Feelings of dissatisfaction, no matter how much we’d like to lose them, should not be dismissed lightly. Any feeling of discontent contains a message, a built-in wake-up call. When we feel truly discontent, it’s almost always because we’re either out of touch with our most authentic self or with the desires that come from our heart’s core. To achieve lasting contentment, we must be willing to examine our own feelings of dissatisfaction, to trace them to their source.
Unfortunately, most of us have learned three typical responses when we experience pain or discontent. The first response involves numbing ourselves through addiction or dissociation. The second response is becoming aggressive with ourselves in the form of self-harm and self-deprecation. Or, we become emotionally or physically aggressive with others. Thirdly, we desperately seek pleasure or comfort through food, sex, love or other compulsive behaviors. All these are temporary and destructive remedies that choke the life out of us.
There’s always an urge to medicate ourselves when we experience pain. The problem is that whatever form of self-medication we’ve chosen becomes habitual until we completely lose sight of who we are and wind up doing a performance of living.
Pema Chodron, the Buddhist monk, uses the analogy that we’re all like children who have a chronic case of scabies. We’re old enough to scratch, but not wise enough to know that when we scratch the sores, they spread and get worse. In other words, we have all had discomfort–the itch. And when we scratch we get very temporary symptom relief. It spreads and soon we’re scratching all over our whole body and we’re suffering.
In this analogy, we go to a doctor who gives us an option. The healing solution is to stay with the itch, the discomfort, practice healthy self- soothing, journal, talk to our friends, meditate or pray. Don’t deny the pain is there, but resist the urge to scratch the itch by turning to self-sabotage.
And, if we learn to love ourselves enough, we’ll stop the short-term symptom relief and stay in the present. We’ll go through the fear and we’ll stop allowing our lives to be dictated by our discomfort and reach for other ways of making ourselves content without burying the discomfort and continuing the suffering. It’s a transformative balance between acknowledging the discontent and yet taking life-giving steps towards healing.
Most of us are looking for a quick fix that doesn’t exist. It takes practice, patience and persistence. For most of us it’s a process of five steps forward, three steps back and no one does this perfectly.
But if you begin to accept both discomfort and joy, you’ll begin to value the preciousness of your whole life with its rough and smooth.
Start today to see how you “scratch the itch” and practice the willingness to stay with it instead of running away. If you aspire to work in this way, your life will be gradually transformed.
by Rokelle Lerner