The Joy of Sadness

August 27th, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Last night a thunderstorm passed through Las Vegas.  The thunder was so loud and the lightning so bright that I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to get up for a while.  Around 3am I went downstairs and enjoyed a banana and a cup of herbal tea.  Then I went outside and sat in the backyard watching the storm.

The storm was moving in from the south, and I saw several bolts of lightning striking nearby every minute, followed by booming thunder that rattled the windows.  As the storm came closer, the wind picked up, and it began pouring rain, but the temperature remained around 75 F (24 C).  I was sitting beneath an overhang, safely protected from the rain.

I sat outside for about an hour, contemplating the nature of existence as I often like to do.  In particular I was pondering the different emotions we experience during our lives.  Some people are sad.  Others are happy.  Some are angry.  Others are fearful.  Some are apathetic.  Others are hopeful.  It’s all impermanent though — no emotion lasts forever.

I noticed that these emotions tend to arise spontaneously in response to certain events.  Something happens, and we have a certain emotional reaction to it.  For the most part this response is automatic and involuntary.

Emotional feedback

Some people enjoy their emotional feedback and even look forward to it, since it’s usually a positive experience for them.  For example, a person who’s in love or in a state of passion would probably be grateful for their emotions.

Other people dislike the emotional feedback they receive.  Some regard their emotions as a problem and drug themselves to disable the connection, while others take the feedback to heart and realize it’s a signal that change is needed.

I regard my emotions like a feedback display in a computer game.  Such a display may include details like ammo, health, and location on the map to reveal how my avatar (character on the screen) is doing.  Here are some possible interpretations of how my emotions may align with the experience of my on-screen avatar:

  • When I’m happy it means my avatar has a good supply of ammo, good health, and is making steady progress on the map.
  • When I’m confused maybe my avatar has gotten lost, or he’s still figuring out how the game works.
  • When I’m stressed my avatar may be low on ammo and/or health, not feeling prepared for the challenges ahead.
  • When I’m afraid, my avatar may need to practice a bit more before tackling the next challenge.
  • When I’m frustrated or overwhelmed, my avatar may need to recruit help from other characters or simply slow down a bit.
  • When I’m feeling driven, my avatar is in the sweet spot of challenge.
  • When I’m sad or disappointed, it’s time for my avatar to let go of attachments (such as the cool armor he just lost) and open himself to new experiences.
  • When I’m bored or apathetic, perhaps my avatar is done with the current level or difficulty setting, and he needs a new, more interesting challenge… maybe even a new game.

When these emotions arise, they sometimes seem like the storm that rumbled around me as I sat outside last night.  But even in the presence of such a storm, there’s a calm center that can be reached.  Although your emotions arise within your consciousness, they are not your consciousness, and you are free to stop, breathe, and rise above them.  This will not eliminate the emotions — they’ll still be present — but you’ll begin to see them from a third-person perspective instead of identifying with them.  Similarly, as I sat amidst the lightning, thunder, wind, and rain, I calmly observed its presence, but I chose not to identify with it.  I observed the storm without becoming the storm.

Observing your emotional storm

When you experience strong emotions, do you observe the storm or become the storm?  Do you witness the happiness, sadness, anger, etc. as they surge through your avatar’s mind?  Or do you stop and remember that this physical person is not the real you… that it’s merely your avatar in the physical world?

I’m not suggesting you can control the storm or that you even need to.  The storm just is.  When you observe it, it has already arisen.  But by shifting your perspective, you do not have to identify with your emotional storm.  You can simply observe it.

When you play a computer game, you may experience strong emotions at times, as any experienced gamer will attest.  Those emotions can include fear, sadness, frustration, and more.  But even though in real-life we may label such emotions as negative, when playing a game they’re considered part of the fun.  How is that?  Can you play a creepy game that makes you feel scared and actually enjoy it?  Yes, because you know that you are not your avatar.  You realize it’s a simulated experience and that the avatar’s fate is not your fate.

You can apply this same perspective shift to your physical life as well.  Your physical person is your avatar in this physical universe.  Now shift your perspective beyond that physical person to the level of the consciousness that is experiencing this reality, this game if you will.  Allow yourself to have fun, even when experiencing seemingly negative emotions, by experiencing them without identifying with them.  Observe the storm without becoming the storm.

You do not have to believe in God, immortality, the soul, or any kind of higher self in order to rise above the avatar level of consciousness.  You are simply assuming a higher-level perspective.  Notice that you can take on the perspective of a character in a game or a movie as you experience it; even though the character is fictional, its perspective still influences you.  You don’t have to alter your spiritual beliefs to enjoy a game or a movie, nor do you have to alter your beliefs to shift your perspective beyond your physical person.

Joy

When you experience this perspective shift, you’ll begin to notice a subtle background sensation.  I hesitate to call it an emotion, since you won’t feel it on the same level in which you feel your other emotions.  The best analogy I can give is to imagine playing a scary computer game or watching a scary movie.  In the moment you may be feeling tense, anxious, or nervous.  But behind that is a more subtle sensation you might call fun, enjoyment, or pleasure.  You’re enjoying the larger experience of the game or movie, but this enjoyment is on a different level than your low-level experience of the current on-screen situation.

Similarly, when you feel sad, angry, or frustrated, you may stop and notice a different sensation behind that emotion.  To observe this sensation, you must step outside of the temporary storm and simply witness it for a while.  I tend to think of this sensation as joy, but you may label it something else entirely.  It is a pleasurable and expansive yet soothing sensation.  Some people might call it ecstasy, God consciousness, or a feeling of oneness.  Again, I hesitate to call it an emotion, since it isn’t felt on that level.  It’s more like a state of consciousness.

Emotional transmutation

The interesting thing about this state of consciousness is that it transforms seemingly negative emotions into more positive sensations.  For example, if I’m feeling sad, and then I stop and rise above the sadness and just observe it for a while, it transforms into what I might call beautiful melancholy.  I realize this may sound strange if you’ve never experienced it, but the sadness becomes a very pleasurable emotion.  The sadness begins to feel so incredibly good, and I have this sense of deep gratitude for it.  I just want to soak it up and enjoy it.

Imagine watching a sad movie, perhaps one that makes you cry.  On the one hand, people may label such sadness as a negative emotion, but if you drop your resistance to it, it actually becomes a positive experience.  Watching a sad movie can in fact be intensely pleasurable, but that pleasure isn’t really felt on the same level as the sadness.  It’s like there’s a background curtain of joy behind the stage of sadness.

This joyful transmutation works for other emotions too.  These states cannot be adequately expressed with mere labels; nevertheless, here are some labels I use that may help you experience the transformation of emotional states:

  • Sadness becomes beautiful melancholy
  • Anger becomes comical indignation
  • Frustration becomes childlike anticipation
  • Apathy becomes soothing perfection
  • Guilt becomes soulful forgiveness
  • Fear becomes unstoppable courage
  • Loneliness becomes peaceful oneness
  • Confusion becomes immersive curiosity
  • Disappointment becomes loving gratitude

Raising your consciousness beyond your current storm of emotions is a beautifully transforming experience.  Instead of resisting your emotions, you accept them completely.  This makes it possible to experience the joy behind those emotional states you might otherwise find unpleasant.

When you rise above your own emotional storm, you still retain access to the message behind those emotions.  But now you’re in a more empowered state to consciously choose your response.  You can respond to the storm intelligently without getting soaked by the rain.

Accepting your emotional guidance

Most likely due to last night’s storm, many traffic lights in our neighborhood were down this morning.  This caused Erin some delays when driving.  To me that’s a wonderful metaphor for the role of our emotions.  Without our emotional signals, we lack the guidance to get where we need to go.  We get stuck and stall.  When we tune out our emotions, we lose touch with our inner guidance, and every light becomes a stop sign.

As I look outside my window right now, the storm is gone, and the sun is shining once again.  No storm lasts forever.  Of course, you can still extend the duration of a storm by identifying with it, becoming attached to it, and following it around wherever it goes.  Many people do this with their emotional storms.  But if you remain still and simply observe the storm, the storm will soon pass on its own.

When you go out and try to battle a storm, will you ever win?  Of course not.  You’ll be blown around by the wind and drenched by the rain.  The storm will only make you foolish.  But when you simply sit back and observe the storm, you may realize that it’s fun to watch.  There’s no need to resist these emotional storms, nor to identify with them.  They’re a natural part of life in the physical universe.

Developing emotional wisdom

It can be very difficult for people to come to terms with the fact that their emotions seem totally out of sync with the people around them.  But your emotional feedback is unique because your life path is unique.  Maybe everyone around you seems reasonably content while you’re constantly depressed.  Or perhaps you’re surrounded by apathetic people, but you’re really frustrated.  You must learn to trust your own emotions, even when they don’t align with the other people in your life. 

When you look at your life path and see nothing but red lights, cutting power to the lights isn’t the answer.  The answer may be that you’re stuck on the wrong path and need to make major changes — new work, new relationships, new thinking, new inspiration, and a new environment.  Those feelings will be with you a long time, no matter how much you may drug them with pills, sugar, alcohol, or other mood-altering substances.  I know it seems easier in the short term to down a few pills, especially when people you trust are passing you those substances.  But stop and ask yourself if those substances are really necessary and right for you.  Have you taken the time to step back and observe your emotional storm to see if it contains a message of truth you weren’t ready to hear?

When I notice myself feeling the urge to ingest an excessive amount of sugar, caffeine, or idle entertainment, I can trace it to an emotional storm that I’m having difficulty dealing with.  That’s when I have to remind myself to step back, observe the storm, and receive its message.  I often resist the message out of fear for what it might require of me, but when I do eventually hear it, it’s invariably more gentle and forgiving than I imagined.  I’m usually left with a feeling of gratitude.

When we become too deeply associated with our physical avatars, we can easily feel overwhelmed by our emotional storms, so much so that we block their messages.  But remember that your avatar is not your identity.  Your consciousness is capable of taking on multiple perspectives, and the low-level, first-person avatar view is only one of them.  I often find it more empowering to assume the perspective of being the conscious container in which all of physical reality takes place — a God’s eye view if you will.  From this viewpoint I can see that the physical person Steve is just my avatar in physical universe, and I don’t feel a need to resist or become overly attached to what he personally experiences.  So even as Steve may go through those emotional storms every once in a while, the higher-level observer is having fun watching it all unfold.  I think it’s best not to take life so personally.  :)

I’ve noticed that as I’ve made good progress in aligning my life with my deepest, truest desires over the past few years, the emotional storms do not cease.  However, my capacity to handle them is much greater.  But because of that greater capacity, the new storms come at different levels.  They almost always come to me at my weakest points, the parts of my life that are most out of alignment with my inner guidance.  After I successfully survive one storm, my inner guidance is steering me into rough weather once again.  It’s like playing a game where your avatar keeps going up in levels, but so do all the monsters.  However, this is what keeps the game stimulating and fun.  I feel that my real progress has been in the area of my willingness to embrace this kind of game and to keep facing down new challenges, even as they lead me to confront bigger “monsters.”  I may have a more capable avatar and greater resources at my disposal than I did five years ago, but the challenges simply keep pace.  Even as my avatar experiences a whirlwind of emotions, I rather enjoy the ride.  At times it can be scary, sad, frustrating, or disappointing, but it’s also incredibly fun.



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