The Yin/Yang Dance of Grief and Joy
Imagine that you are holding a beautiful flower in your hand – the most exquisite treasure you have ever seen in your life. Notice the radiant beauty of its colors, the perfection of each petal.
Now imagine that you are standing on an ocean beach, looking into a sunset that almost rivals the flower in its beauty. Just take a moment to immerse yourself in the experience of this natural beauty.
Take a deep sigh, and experience yourself releasing that flower into the ocean. Watch it slowly drift away into the sunset, until it is gone forever.
How do you feel?
Most likely you are feeling joy, a wonderful, expansive emotion that arises when we behold something exquisite, when we experience the beauty of nature, or when we are being well loved and supported.
But perhaps you are also feeling something else.
That sigh, watching that beauty disappear forever, might have evoked a heavier emotion along with the joy… sadness.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Happiness and sadness, joy and grief, often dance hand in hand within us.
Joy lifts us up and dissolves our boundaries, opening us up to the Oneness of all things.
In this way, it has a Yang quality, of lightness, growth, and expansiveness.
Joy is one of the most spiritual emotions, because it helps us feel connected to each other, and to all of life around us.
I probably don’t need to spend much time describing joy, as (hopefully) we are all familiar with it. But we are often less familiar with joy’s counterpart, the other emotion that connects us with the Sacred: grief.
We experience grief when we have lost something that we cannot get back – either when someone close to us has died, or when we experience the ending or death of something else important in our lives.
Grief helps us accept what has happened when we have lost something precious, and to adjust to the new, forever-changed reality.
This acceptance and time of readjustment is the sacred process of letting go.
Grief pulls us downward toward the Earth, grounding us, taking away our energy and inviting us to surrender.
Grief feels heavy, like a tremendous weight, crushing and immobilizing us. In all of these ways it has a Yin-like quality, seemingly the direct opposite of joy.
But like joy, grief reminds us what is sacred, and connects us with something greater than ourselves.
When we are grieving a serious loss, it pulls us right out of normal space-time, into a liminal and otherworldly state of being.
Shamanic people would even say that grief is essential for the dead to be able to cross over, to rejoin the ancestors in their soul’s journey.
Our tears create the river that carries them across to the other side, to an honored place where they can support us rather than haunt us.
Sadness and grief also come up in a softer way anytime we witness death around us and pause to honor what was lost, such as watching a funeral procession passing by.
But unfortunately this honoring doesn’t automatically happen; it requires a choice on our part to allow our grief in, and choose to flow with it – even just for a moment.
Grieving those who we have lost brings us into contact with the other world, and connects us with those who are now on the other side.
Even though grief pulls us downward, and joy lifts us up, they both take us to the same place in the end.
Just like how the Yin and the Yang flow into each other and together create a whole circle, joy and grief are meant to flow and dance together in our psyche.
Believe it or not, the more we are willing to feel grief, the more we are able to feel joy.
Because joy arises in moments of deep connection and communion, and grief gives us a deep connection to those we’ve lost, diving into the deep waters of grief opens the door for us to feel more joy.
And because joy waits at the end of any powerful and meaningful journey, it often follows the life-affirming work of grieving.
Happiness also shows up in the midst of grief, since the entire purpose of happiness is to give us a much-needed break from the trials of life. You'll see this in people who are grieving, in the moments of humor and laughter between the tears.
And conversely, sadness is often present in genuine moments of joy - as we saw with the beautiful flower fading away into the sunset.
These “tears of happiness” prepare us to let these wonderful life moments go, because joy is always fleeting by nature.
And because grief helps us to ground and stay in our bodies, it balances the upward and dissociative lift that joy brings.
And that upward lift can feel like a sweet relief when we are feeling the weight of deep and heavy grief.
It can feel easier to simply rise up out of our bodies and dissociate when we feel the pressure of grief, rather than to accept its weight and allow it to bear us downward.
But when we choose this option too often, we never end up taking the time to feel our grief, to mourn our losses, and honor what has left us.
This causes real problems in our psyche because grief doesn’t just go away when it is unfelt; it stays, and builds over time as we experience more losses in life, like a lake being fed by rain.
But in this case, the bigger the lake of unfelt grief grows within us, the heavier it weighs us down, and the harder it becomes to feel any happiness and joy at all.
With Grief, this saying is never more true: “the only way out is through.”
The more unfelt grief we carry, the less we are able to feel joy. And because we often turn away from our grief in the pursuit of more joy, it follows that trying to always feel joy has the exact opposite result.
Despite what all the well-meaning but (emotionally) clueless spiritual teachers would have you believe, joy is not meant to stay around forever… and here’s why.
As I mentioned earlier, joy has a dissociative effect on us. In the process of opening us up to the Oneness of life all around us, it pulls us upward and right out of our bodies. But as you can imagine, that isn’t a healthy place to be all the time.
Experiences of joy are often called “peak experiences” because they feel so ecstatic. And because it makes us feel so good, joy can actually become addicting!
Joy is meant to be special; to mark the most precious moments in our lives. And even if we could feel it all the time, that would probably cause it to lose its magic.
Chasing after the “high” of Joy can lead us into an unbalanced state, similar to mania.
This is often connected to an underlying fear of “coming down”, because that requires feeling all the heavier, uncomfortable emotions that we’d rather not have to deal with.
Part of this “coming down” is our grounding, our ability to fully inhabit our bodies, which is intrinsically tied to our ability to feel sadness and accept loss.
So if we try to always stay “up,” we will become more and more ungrounded, and run the danger of becoming disconnected from reality.
And this disconnection is a real trap, because it feels good, since happiness is the only emotion being felt! So once a person is in that place, it can be hard to make a different choice.
This is why I feel we need to be careful with any philosophies or religious teachings that promote feeling happy or joyful all the time.
Don’t get me wrong, happiness and joy are wonderful and important things to feel. When we don’t feel enough of them, that is definitely something to address in our emotional life.
But seeking joy all the time actually makes it more elusive.
The true nature of all emotions is transitory; they are meant to come and go, to ebb and flow, in our authentic responses to life.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the best way to feel more of the emotions we want to feel is to let them come and go in their own time.
The more we allow our grief to flow through us, the more happiness and joy we feel, and the more joyful we feel, the more sadness and grief will move through us.
This dance between the Yang and Yin of our emotions is what keeps our hearts clean and clear of any stuck emotional energy.
The ancient Taoists understood the need for balance, and that all disease has its root in excess and deficiency. And imbalance is exactly what happens when we avoid grief and try to feel joy all the time instead.
Our hearts want to feel, robustly and fully in response to all the highs and lows that life brings. And therein lies the key to a healthy emotional life.
How does this resonate with you? I would love to hear your stories of dancing with joy and grief in the comments below.
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