Ditching Perfect for Joy
What a Qigong Grandmaster, Meghan Trainor, and a pandemic pity party taught me.
It was month 15 of the pandemic, and I probably don’t need to tell you how tired I was. The Sisyphean piles continuously disappearing and reappearing on my kitchen counters and dining room table; the endless screens (Zoom school! Zoom camp! Zoom playdates! Zoom “grandma time”!) followed by post-screen dysregulation and lethargy; the same maddening conversations on repeat with my husband and two children. I was at a breaking point—everything sucked, I was over it all, and if you offered me a one-way ticket to anywhere-else-but-here I’d have my bag packed before you finished the offer.
Yes, the pandemic presented itself as a perfect hook, readily available to bear responsibility for all manner of ills. (Take my kids’ screen addictions! And this never-ending argument about whose fault it is we’re out of milk again! And while we’re at it, let’s throw in bad hair days and 24/7 pajamas!) But as the hollowness of my pandemic routine drudged on, I was forced to face the increasingly stubborn signs that I’d clearly screwed up somewhere long before the masks, the endless Zooms and the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.
Take, for instance, this bit of charmingly insidious math I’d set up for myself on any given Tuesday: if my kids “behaved” and my house wasn’t too messy; if I got my workout done and I drank my 64 oz. of water—well congratulations, I got to feel happy (maybe). However, if I lost my temper, or I couldn’t find my phone when I was already running late (again?!), or there was something smelling up my fridge, but I didn’t have time to clean it all the way out—ooh, sorry, thanks for playing, but I just didn’t earn joy today.
As the hollowness of my pandemic routine drudged on, I was forced to face the increasingly stubborn signs that I’d clearly screwed up somewhere long before the masks, the endless Zooms and the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.
“Can’t wait to get back to normal!” everyone chirped, from the masked clerk at the grocery store to the rabbi presiding over Shabbat services on Facebook. Outer-me smiled and nodded in polite assent. But inner-me wasn’t so sure. Did back-to-normal mean reverting to a prioritization of Almighty Work above all else? Back to a never-ending hamster wheel of tasks on a to-do list? I felt hopeful when I read about people envisioning their own versions of a post-pandemic “new normal.” Was there some version of a new normal out there for me that was free of the merry-go-round shame-fest that had been fueling too many of my days—pandemic or no?
It was this longing that drove me back online and into a daylong online meditation retreat entitled, Embodying Joy with Qigong. I kind of knew what Qigong was. Something about moving your body and changing the flow of your energy. But I wasn’t exactly sure what “embodying joy” might entail. Perhaps post-retreat-me would forevermore glide through her days, ferrying Amazon returns to the post-office and sweeping desiccated taco meat off the dining room floor with beams of blissful radiance streaming from her now-flawless pores? A girl could hope.
When I clicked “Join Meeting,” I was surprised to see over 200 participants already on the call, frazzled fellow humans also looking for their new normal. The Grandmaster sat in a simple chair nearly engulfed by the leafy potted plants that surrounded it. He wore round spectacles on his shining face, and a gold-colored silk jacket with intricate fabric fasteners down the front.
Hellooo... He smiled. Then paused, inhaling and exhaling serenely.
I leaned forward, tapping the volume button on my keyboard. Maybe this was the secret to embodying joy—talk less, smile more? When at last he did resume speaking, he explained that humans often look around for things in life that will make them happy.
We’re happy when something good has happened for us—we got a good job—we are happy. We got more money. We have a new car. We call this “happy.”
He smiled, paused, took a sip of water then put down the glass and held out his hand. But joy is not like this. Coming… He swept his hand gently to the right. Going… he waved it slowly back to the left. Now you have it. Now you wonder where it’s gone.
Joy… is always… here. He touched the center of his chest with the tips of his slender fingers. We can always experience joy.
Did back-to-normal mean reverting to a prioritization of Almighty Work above all else? Back to a never-ending hamster wheel of tasks on a to-do list? I felt hopeful when I read about people envisioning their own versions of a post-pandemic “new normal.” Was there some version of a new normal out there for me…?
The Grandmaster invited us to explore this theory by thinking of a time we’d experienced joy. I scanned my memory for a prospect. As I rummaged around, it dawned on me that what I’m looking for isn’t something mental. To “remember joy,” I must conjure internal sensations—a certain warmth in the chest, a sweet weight in the belly. The simmering glow of an autumn afternoon in my heart mixed with a jazz-cool sense that all is right in the world. That’s how joy works in this body. And the moment I landed there, my nephew’s face flickered into my mind’s eye.
The memory I saw (or, rather, felt) is my arms full of a bouncing Oliver, a chubby-faced, 18-month-old fire ball. His flaxen hair keeps falling into his giggling eyes as I dance and sing a silly Meghan Trainor pop song. I dip him back, then pause just long enough for him to cheer “Mo’!” and start all over again. We are two beings thinking of nothing except this moment, relishing each other, metabolizing love. Together, we are pure joy.
The grandmaster then coached us to take that feeling of joy and use a soft inner smile to bring the joy up to our brains, sing-songing a playful greeting, “Hellooooo brain!” Next, we visualized our brains smiling down to our hearts, singing, “Hellooooo heart!” Then we smiled our hearts down to our livers and, finally, to our spleens.
Yep, this guy’s life framework consists of talking brains, livers, and spleens. And, nope, I have no idea what my spleen’s for, nor where it might be located inside my body. This grasp of biological accuracy was of no concern to the Grandmaster, who guided us through a morning of smiling, talking, and even singing to our organs (imagine the “Om” from a typical yoga class but with a bunch of different vowels and tones). If I ever lost touch with my joy during the meditations, I’d search once again for the image of Ollie’s grin and our easy embrace. And there it was, a reservoir of joy just waiting to be remembered, now streaming through my body, shockingly simple.
It was this longing that drove me back online and into a daylong online meditation retreat entitled, Embodying Joy with Qigong. I kind of knew what Qigong was. Something about moving your body and changing the flow of your energy. But I wasn’t exactly sure what “embodying joy” might entail.
I felt good at the end of the retreat. Maybe not totally brand-new. But something has undeniably shifted over the past months. Oliver’s giggles have begun to follow me across my day. I’ll be standing at the sink, folding towels in the laundry room, or unlocking the car door, and, suddenly, there it’ll be—the rush of warmth in my chest, the beautiful rightness with the world. My brain will smile down to my heart, and then even further down to the place I imagine my spleen might be. I recognize the truth for myself: I can always experience joy. Joy is always here, right inside my body.
Not that I’m blissed out all the time now—not by a long shot. (My nine-year-old will be happy to tell you that I hold the title “grouchiest mommy” on quite a regular basis.) But what I’ve realized about joy in these past months since the retreat is how completely wrong I was about what it is and how it works. It’s not a circumstance outside myself—my kid aced the test! I finally lost those last 15 lbs! It’s not a commodity I can earn or accumulate—like money or graduate degrees. It’s not a dangerous barrier to productivity either, sneakily stifling my motivation to get stuff done or change.
No, joy isn’t a yardstick to measure myself with, a geometric proof constructed to reveal yet again that I’m failing. Joy is an observance, a sacred gift we carry in our bodies. Ready to be surfaced and unwrapped when we simply take a moment to remember.
This morning as I write, my phone chimes across the room reminding me of the appointments and obligations I’ve set up for today. I’m deep in a contemplation of joy, and here comes a dollop of old-school irritation bubbling up. I don’t want to be reminded and pestered by my agenda just now, so I get up to grab my phone and swipe it away. Just then, my husband sweeps me up into a hug as he comes downstairs from his shower.
I smile and fold into him. He’s a big guy and when I wrap my arms around him, my fingers hardly touch. His arms wrap almost double around me, covering my shoulders, my neck—like a fleshy stole. His cheek rests on top of my head and our feet stick out awkwardly—this hug wasn’t a planned thing—but we’re comfortable enough to linger.
The phone in my pocket gets bossier with its dinging, urging me to keep my scheduled time for a run. My hamster-wheel to-do list beckons, and I start to pull away. But then, I remember. I remember that the last time we hugged I declared, “We should do this more often.” I remember that this man chose me, and I chose him, and I feel simultaneously wonderful and filled with wonder. I remember that we are two bodies right here, right now—hearts contracting, swelling, quivering, thrusting, singing. I remember that I know the name for this delicious sensation in my body, and the only place I want a one-way ticket to is this moment, right now. So, I turn and dive back in—surrendering heart, brain, and spleen—to joy.
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