The Fullness of Joy
Joy is not made to be a crumb.
~ MARY OLIVER
The above photo is a pair of cornhole boards that I made for my mom's 65th birthday last July.
I love art (I was an art major in college). I love bright colors. I love creating cool stuff, especially with other people. I wrangled the whole fam – including my 88 year old grandmother Emelia – to pitch in and paint. Gramma even sewed the bean bags!
Click to enlarge photos
I absolutely loved it.
It was one of the most fun, hands-on creative things I've done in a LONG time and it filled my heart to the brim. Mom loved them, too. Obvi. 😉
I'm sharing this story with you because this project was a much-needed reminder for me that it's okay – and in fact, critical – to prioritize JOY. This is one experience of joy that felt so cheerful and buoyant.
I also want to share a very different experience of joy. One that, for me, was completely unexpected.
In the fall of 2020, my dad was dying of brain cancer. He was diagnosed in June of 2020, and by early October, he was declining quickly. Especially in that last month, there was very little that I or my family members could actually do. I distinctly remember thinking, in so many moments, this is just the hardest thing ever.
As he continued to grow weaker and less connected to his outer world and to us, my practice became simply bearing witness – to his experience of suffering and to my own. The practice of bearing witness comes from Buddhism and means taking a wholehearted seat in our lives to be present with whatever is happening, without reacting habitually or trying to change it in any way.
I remember sitting and fully opening my heart. Feeling the depth of my grief. Feeling the loss. Feeling the pain in my mom and brothers and my partner Ryan…and in our extended family – all of it showing up in different ways. And feeling the sharp chasm of uncertainty – not knowing what would come next, and how queasy and anxious that made all of us feel.
The teaching kept coming back to me: When we don’t know what to do, we sit and open our hearts and awareness to the truth of what’s here. Again and again. Then we notice what happens from that space.
I was (and still am) amazed by how powerful that practice was. In those tenderest moments, I learned what was most important was just loving dad. And loving myself. That was all that I could do, and it was more than enough.
I took this picture during one of the more peaceful moments of bearing witness. Dad was napping in his favorite chair. He was wearing a shirt that my brothers and I made for him when we were kids…with our little handprints on it. He had the sweetest, most peaceful smile on his face:
I will remember this moment forever. The memory is right here, front and center in my heart, alongside all of the really, really hard ones.
One of the most profound things I discovered during this journey with my dad was that, as I practiced bearing witness and opening myself fully to all of the moments of sadness and heartache, I was also opening myself up to feel a new and different dimension of joy. With Dad. With nature. With my one-year-old niece Lila. With my morning cup of coffee. With a total stranger, who I learned was also losing their dad.
This wasn’t the bubbly joy I was familiar with, but a much more deep-rooted version of joy that was settling down into my being. It was a joy that I could feel only because of the struggle that was opening my heart so wide. I was seeing clearly that not only can joy coexist with struggle, but they are co-constituting – partners, dancing together. This dance is the birthplace of meaning. And resilience. And the most authentic connection I’ve ever felt. And it creates something unbelievably beautiful.
I found this poem just the other day and it resonated deeply:
Of all of the gifts my mindfulness practice offers, this one is at the center: the space to meet this life just as it is. Relating to sadness with kindness and openness tenderizes our hearts and helps us heal. In the process, we become more receptive to joy in its many dimensions.
At one of my first mindfulness retreats back in 2017, a woman from Guatemala was asked why she practiced mindfulness. I'll never forget her beautiful, uncomplicated response:
"Because it helps you do the suffering. And it helps you do the happiness. And you don't have to choose."
So, what if this current period of struggle we’re all feeling is actually a tremendous conduit for opening? What if these times are not a barrier to joy, but a doorway to help each of us wake up, bear witness, and stay open to the radically different ways that joy might show up in our lives?
From colorful cornhole boards to death to the intense comfort of a poem…what if this tiny crumb of “joy” is so much more than we think it is?
Don't Hesitate by Mary Oliver
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
About the Author
Rena founded Pause in 2015 with her partner Ryan to help people find a greater sense of peace within themselves. As a striving A-type and a lifelong overachiever, Rena leaned into meditation as a source of healing and a way to find greater balance and ease. Her practice continues to have a profound impact in every sphere of her life.
She brings 16 years of personal practice, a degree in business, and health coaching experience to her teaching. She is a qualified Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction teacher and trained professionally with the Mindfulness Centers at Brown and UMASS. Through work with thousands of meditators, she is amazed and inspired by the depth of support these practices offer. Rena currently guides classes for the Pause Studio® based in Portland, Oregon, and facilitates Pause at Work® programs and resilience trainings for corporations, nonprofit organizations, schools, and hospitals worldwide.
Beyond her work with Pause, Rena enjoys camping, Irish + hip-hop dancing, and loving her amazing family. Her favorite place to meditate is in the sunshine.