Recently a very dear friend of mine announced she had finally been offered a job she’d been trying to get for more than two years. I was excited for this new chapter in her life, thankful that she was being rewarded for her determination, and proud of her for her achievement.
I was also sad for myself, however, in that I wouldn’t get to see my friend as much anymore and our relationship would inevitably change into something unknown, a feeling exacerbated by other recent departures. In addition, I was also preoccupied by a number of work-related issues that required my sole attention, and the pressure and burden of these decisions were starting to get to me.
The fear of the unknown future ahead of me distracted me from my enthusiasm for the unknown future ahead of her. It was important to me that I practice sympathetic joy, being as full of joy for her as I could, regardless of any personal circumstances or events, particularly as she experienced the inevitable nerves that come with any change.
It can be difficult for us to get over our own challenges and obstacles when someone we love has a significant achievement. The converse of sympathetic joy would probably be Schadenfreude, pleasure taken in the suffering of others, but while we may wallow in self-pity watching some trashy television melodrama in private, most of us want to support our loved ones without regard to whatever else may be going on. In the most important moments, we want to be able to dig deep, act with character in a manner that will best serve our friends and selves, and be truly happy for others no matter what.
Part of being able to do that is based in our yoga and meditation practice, some of which I’ve talked about in prior posts on self-study, cultivating the opposite thought and the four abodes. All of these are good exercises, but what about them creates the real internal shift to allow you to put your own pettiness aside and be open to others?
In my opinion based on my current understanding, these practices allow a person to acknowledge and accept whatever thoughts and feelings may be occurring without completely identifying with them. Just as we play different roles without necessarily being them, our thoughts and feelings are just like sounds that arise for us to notice, engage, or allow to pass by. As we work through our practice of self-study, we build a tolerance to examining the unpleasant aspects of ourselves without granting them control over us.
When a thought, emotion, memory, or experience becomes overwhelming, we can call upon our practice of cultivating the opposite thought to carry us through the moment until we can process it. But what can we do when we are struggling with even this? How do we feel connected to others when we feel as though we are on a trapeze without a net? What if we feel too isolated and alone to overcome the challenges, particularly when our different emotional state makes us feel more distant from other people? How can we allow ourselves to feel sad while still feeling deeply and authentically joyful for another as a result of the same event?
In yoga, there is an idea of Atman, a higher self. According to philosophy, we sometimes misassociate our sense of self with a lower, base ego. The practice of yoga is supposed to get us in touch with a higher, connected Self. In some interpretations of yoga, this Self is the soul, in others it is the internal reflection of a communal deity to which all beings are connected, and in still others it’s similar to Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. One of the yogic principles I alluded to in a prior post was ishvara pranidhana, which is about surrendering to an aspect of this Self, or faith. It is this idea that, for many styles of yoga, forms the basis for those who say that yoga is a religion. Depending on individual’s interpretation of Atman and Ishvara, it sometimes is.
For me, it is more similar to the ideas expressed in John Donne’s Meditation 17, known best for the short passage quoted below. The poem discusses how to come to terms with death and morning, and in doing so suggests a web between all of us, a connection that causes us to be made less with the loss of any one of us:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The first time I read this, around 20 years ago, I thought how the slightest action of one person might connect to the actions of others in hidden and unseen ways. Arguably, this idea is the central plot of works including How I Met Your Mother and Stephen King’s Needful Things: tiny, anonymous actions can have big effects on others and no one will ever know.
It is this idea of an unseen social network that has kept me “involved in mankind,” and I have observed when small things have lead to something completely different and unexpected. I own a yoga studio for no other reason than requiring a unit of PE and meeting people who changed my life. I was able to earn enough in high tech to put myself through college for no other reason than once calling a tech support number and having someone I knew answer, which never would have happened if I hadn’t quit my printing job over a fishbowl of business cards dumped on my desk by someone else. I met my newly employed friend solely on the basis of searching resumes on Indeed for a list of keywords. All of my life events, in these moments and as a result of these moments, are connected to each of these people as well as the unknown people who lead to their presence in my life. It is this deep sense of connection with all people via the ‘simple complexities’ of human experience I think of when I think of the Divine Light of Namaste.
What does any of this have to do with overcoming obstacles? Take my earlier example of harnessing sympathetic joy for my friend when it mattered…
Through self-study, I was able to discern the different emotional responses without identifying excessively with any of them. With compassion and lovingkindness, I was able to observe the different emotions without trying to suppress them with judgment. With cultivating the opposite I reminded myself to be thankful for the relationships I have and be grateful for my blessings. Finally, by meditating on this unseen network, I was able to overcome my sense of loss.
In a sudden moment it occurred to me that just as I have millions of hidden connections to others based on what they have done in my life, I have participated in the lives of others. That just as I have connected to my friend in hundreds of ways, so have I connected to others, and so has she. By being aware of this unseen network of people, many of whom I will never know, I realized that I was not alone in my sorrows any more than any human has ever been.
All chapters close, and new ones begin. All pages must be turned, regardless of our wishes. But those chapters and pages are never torn out of our stories. It is remembering this that helps me remember that we are all connected, even when we most feel otherwise. Living in an era when we can significantly quantify this phenomenon with social media networks allows us to remember we are not alone.
Without my having to ask, I have had my network appear around me solely to let me know they are there. Without seeing it, and without even calling upon it, I am thankful to have this net to support me and give me the sense of security I need to soar. It is residing securely in this sense of connection with our fellow humans, regardless of how long or closely we have known each other and regardless of whether we have an explicit example in front of us, that can help illuminate our perspective in our darkest times.
It is OK that I am sad and will miss my friend, because her influence on my life is significant. It is also OK that this time is ending and a new one is beginning for both of us. As I reflect on the people and connections that have entered my life but never really, truly exited, I welcome what new connections and experiences are in store for all of us.