DRMacIver's Notebook

Joy in Sadness

Joy in Sadness

From A Field Guide to Getting Lost, pages 118-119:

There is a voluptuous pleasure in all that sadness, and I wonder where it comes from, because as we usually construe the world, sadness and pleasure should be far apart. Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn't fail, mortality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful? There are songs of insurgent power; they are essentially what rock and roll, an outgrowth of one strain of the blues, does best, these songs of being young and at the beginning of the world, full of a sense of your own potential. Country, at least the old stuff, has mostly been devoted instead to aftermath, to the hard work it takes to keep going or the awareness that comes after it is no longer possible to go on. If it is deeper than rock it is because failure is deeper than success. Failure is what we learn from, mostly.

I find that I am reluctant to write about this passage, partly because I do not fully understand it.

Is there pleasure in sadness? Well, there can be of course. That which grounds you in your body is often easy to experience as pleasurable, at least until it becomes too intense, or you become bored of it, and you dissociate in order to numb yourself away from it. Feelings are experienced bodily, so can be a source of pleasure, even when those feelings are sadness - they connect you up with yourself, and you can revel in that connection.

But joy? I don't know. Sadness and joy do seem opposed to me.

Perhaps the problem is that I don't really know what joy is. I've been trying to figure out how to expand my positive emotional range, and this lack of understanding of joy is part of that.

In The Book of Human Emotions, Tiffany Watt Smith cites Spinoza:

Believing the stories of our lives were fundamentally beyond our control, Spinoza linked joyfulness to the accidental and unforeseen. It surges up when something is better than we can possibly have imagined. "Joy is pleasure accompanied by the idea of something past, which has had an issue beyond our hope."

So perhaps there can be a joy in sadness. We are bad at self-reflection, and an upswelling of sadness (if we do not ignore it) grounds us, shows us an aspect of who we are that we didn't know was there. Accompanied with the pleasure of being grounded in ourself, it's like the sudden appearance of an old friend. A joyous greeting ensues: "Hello, what are you doing here? I didn't expect to see you here at at all."

But certainly not all sadness prompts joy, as I think we are collectively discovering in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Avy observed the following earlier today:

Mindfulness is all about being fully present, and not letting your mind slip into thinking about past or future. It feels good.

At the same time, months of isolation have been all about the right now. Living in an infinite present is awful.

Not sure how to reconcile this.

I think this reading of joy has something to add here.

Mindfulness can definitely be experienced as pleasure - I do, and honestly it's usually a bit too much for me to handle for more than short periods of time - but fundamentally undifferentiated pleasure is boring.

You can see this when you use attention to turn off pain.

The next time you're experiencing pain, focus your attention on it. You can often turn it off, or reframe it as interesting and enjoyable (whether this works is somewhat variable. For example I can't do this with headaches). But how long will you last doing it? If you're like me, lasting more than scant minutes is impossible - at some point the pain becomes preferable to the boredom.

Perhaps this is a lack of skill, and once one is at the point where one can sustain a two hour seated meditation, the boredom is entirely manageable, or perhaps even the boredom can be experienced as pleasurable. I don't know. Meditation is not among my skills.

But I suspect most people lack the skill to reframe boredom as pleasurable.

If joy is pleasure in the unexpected, then it is no surprise that mindfulness can bring joy in a way that the eternal now of pandemic time cannot, because mindfulness comes with a suspension of judgement that we, for the most part, cannot manage all the time.

David Chapman recently wrote about wonder:

I suggest that wonder occurs in heightened agendaless attention combined with suspension of habitual interpretation. Heightened agendaless attention allows and perceives unexpected patterning; suspension of habitual interpretation allows and perceives unexpected nebulosity.

(nebulosity is a term he uses in a technical sense idiosyncratic to his meaningness project. Nebulosity is the property of things that seem well defined to become vague at their boundaries)

I propose that this suspension of habitual interpretation is also one of the key differences between mindfulness and pandemic time. We experience joy because we are able to put aside, for a moment, our interpretation and thus our understanding, so whatever comes next will be equally surprising.

In the pandemic we are not able to do that, partly because we are not able to maintain this suspension for long periods of time anyway, and partly because it is hard to suspend interpretation when we are under threat. Interpretation is a key part of our threat assessment and merely knowing that doesn't help us feel safe enough to do it.

And without this suspension of interpretation, without the perpetual surprise that comes with it, an eternal now is not a joyous experience. We experience only the sadness, without the ability to joyously revel in it, because we know what is there, and we are bored of it.

And without that joy, the eternal now takes a darker turn, because although an eternal now is experienced in mindfulness, it is also a symptom of depression.

I've written before about Matthew Ratcliffe's book, Experiences of Depression, and his notion of existential feelings - feelings which lack an aboutness, but are instead part of the background structure of our experience of reality. Feelings associated with the passage of time are a significant type of existential feeling.

Ratcliffe proposes that much of the depressive experience can be thought of as disruption to existential feelings. Given that, it's not surprising that we can experience the disruption to the passage of time as depression. Also, for those of us already prone to depression, I suspect that some disruption to existential feelings can prompt a broader depressive episode, through trained associations and kicking off feedback loops that drive us deeper into this depression.

What defines the difference between whether a disruption to the passage of time causes depression or joy?

I suspect part of it is agency. In mindfulness, we are in a situation which we can choose to end whenever we need to. We have voluntarily entered into that state. It's a weird, inverted, image of the difference between a rollercoaster and a genuine threat: Because we are there voluntarily, the experience of the fear is qualitatively different even when the level of fear may be the same. Because we have chosen to suspend our experience of time, we can maintain an open curiousity, and can experience that disruption as joyous.

What does all this mean?

Well, it suggests at least three routes for dealing with the eternal now.

The first is that we can end it. We can take steps to texture time for ourselves. I've been working on this a bit recently and so far my experience is that it's good but also doesn't work. Previously I was living day to day, now I'm living week to week. The world is textured but still small.

The second is that we can cultivate agency without the eternal now. We may not be able to deal with it, but we can start projects, we can control that which we have access to. I think many people are taking this route.

The third, which is hardest and I barely know where to start, but ultimately may be the only option that works, is that we can try to learn to take joy in it. We can practice curiousity, reconcile ourselves to the endlessness in all of it, and try to explore the details of the world that is available to us. Maybe we'll be surprised by what we find there.