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The Dynamic Relationship of Joy and Fear

It can be so difficult these days to think about joy. Joy is such a short and simple word, yet it means something both basic and profound. It can be of such benefit yet many of us create obstacles to it in our lives or have had obstacles created for us. What is joy? What happens inside us when we’re joyful? How does joy affect our outlook and ability to think and act?

Sometimes joy can be like discovering a secret that you can’t wait to share. Sometimes your hands want to rise up, your body wants to dance, your face to smile, as if you were embracing the world, and yourself.

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails over the years, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends came to visit, I felt joy. Or when I was a student, on snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. Or when a burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

Joy can be what pushes back against fear; fear can dissolve joy. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the periphery. For example, love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with love? Maybe because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can be vulnerable, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

Meditation on Joy

One way to understand joy and feel it more often and more powerfully is provided by meditation or simply letting yourself remember a moment of joy and what it felt like. Meditation can assist mental clarity and the letting go of internal impediments. Sit in a relatively quiet place in your house, or garden, and turn off any phones or other devices.

Close your eyes partly or fully. Allow your back to be straight but not rigid. Place your attention on the breath, feeling the in breath and then the out breath. Just one thing at a time. Breathe in and notice how it feels to breathe in. Notice how your body expands as you breathe in. And as you breathe out, notice your body letting go, settling down, feeling more at ease. Put your attention on one area of your body, like your shoulders. Feel the shoulders expand as you breathe in. And settle down, relax as you breathe out.

With the next breath, allow to come to mind a moment of joy or a time you felt joyful. It could be just a touch of joy, or something almost overwhelming. It could be a simple smile or a true source of happiness. Just allow yourself to feel the joy or recall the moment. If you’re imagining a time in the past, where were you? Were you alone or with someone?

What does joy feel like? Can you picture the smile you create when you feel joy? Can you imagine your body filled with this feeling? Sit for a moment with the sense of joy.

What came to you when you thought of joy? Was it just a touch of the emotion itself filling your heart? Was it a memory from the past? What did you feel? A sense of lightness, bubbling, or overflowing? A weight lifted from your chest? A release of something deep down, a sense of letting go or coming alive? An opening?

Fear and Joy

In general, joy opens your mind so you can think more clearly, while fear makes clear thinking difficult. It depends on how you respond to the emotion. If you hold on tightly to joy, it becomes clinging, a form of fear. If you fear fear, it persists, and you use thoughts and worries to build a wall around your image of yourself. But if you open to fear, it can be a wake-up call.

When afraid, what do you do? You wake up for a moment and then feel pressure to turn away. You might feel threatened with the possibility of pain or of hurt. You might want to run away or hide from others, or from a memory — or from the openness of joy. This is the flight-freeze response.

When afraid, you want safety and control. You might try to gain a sense of safety by rigidly controlling your life. You bind up time by filling moments with the simple and familiar, so nothing unknown and unfamiliar can occur. You worry about the unknown or what might emerge from the unknown.

Worrying can seem like a magical mental device you use to ward off what you worry about. You think, deep down, “if I worry enough, what I worry about won’t occur.” You fill your mind with thoughts you’ve had hundreds of times before, warding off the possibly dangerous with the safe and known—with what you have already lived through.

One problem is you can create what you want to avoid. In order to maintain a wall around yourself, you have to create a sense of there being dangers outside the wall that must be avoided. You want to live. But by walling yourself off, you wall away excitement, friendships, a sense of being fully alive. When you rigidly control the moments of your life, you don’t actually feel safe. You feel rigid. Rigid is another way to say fragile and fearful.

You have to let the light in in order to see what you have or could have. You have to take chances in order to know you are capable of doing so. You have to embrace life, even when it’s difficult, in order to feel embraced. You can’t totally wall away the sense of vulnerability, because within it lies hidden not only life, but love and joy.

Previously Published on irarabois.com

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