Recently, I’ve had two episodes of feeling overcome with sadness. Not depression, but awash in sadness. You might have had times like this, too. They seemingly come out of nowhere and when I experience them, I feel compelled to figure out what’s going on. My hope is that I can defuse the melancholy as soon as possible, once I understand it. Thinking can take me out of the experience of being sad, as I build a narrative around the emotion. Sometimes the sadness is simply a black cloud that envelops and it’s not something to be understood. And of course, at other times there are triggers.
More than 30 years ago, I learned an important lesson from a friend, an ex-Buddhist monk.Tom had been a monastic in Burma for years and chose to leave the order to live as ‘an ordinary person’. He confessed to me that, after having spent so long wrestling with negative emotions while in the order, he had a lot to learn about his feelings.
In the early days of Tom living in the “real world”, if you asked him what he felt about something, the most he would say is, “I don’t like it” or “I like it.” Over time, his palette of emotional colours gained more depth and breadth, but he was in a steep learning curve.
Tom pointed me towards one of the great learnings in my life. He was my confidant when I was having relationship problems. On one visit with him, I broke down sobbing. When I could catch my breath again, he told me how beautiful my face looked, softened and washed by tears. Well, I never! I trusted his words and came to believe over time that tears can be beautiful. And not just my own. Accepting my sadness and tears let me embrace those of others.
I thought of Tom in relation to a young woman I recently met at a party. She told me that she had been in a yoga class where she felt a stab of physical pain and ended up in tears. She said that she just allowed her emotional and physical pain to surface, as well as her tears. Remarkably by the finish of the session, she was completely better, both in her body and mood.
It’s much better to be sad when that’s what’s real and to be happy when that’s what’s there. For one thing, it takes less energy to accept a mood rather than to grapple or resist it. In my experiences with sadness, the mood can be transformed by acceptance. Not always, but often enough.
I like these words from Australian social psychologist, Joe Forgas:
“It’s not only okay to feel gloomy sometimes, it’s actually good for you….It is nice to be happy, but we have to realize emotional fluctuations are just part of the kind of monkey we are.”
Embracing our monkey-ness seems like good yoga practice to me.