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Sad Joy - Thoughts on Pema Chodron's Exploration of Tenderheartedness

The sun has found new angles to stream into my bedroom. This means a new season is on its way. I live in a ground floor apartment which is located in the back of the building with windows that view a quiet courtyard. As fall approaches the sun is lower in the sky and the sun’s rays have a chance to poke through the two narrow slots on either side of the building across from the courtyard. I never do get a whole lot of sunlight in my apartment, but as the cold weather approaches the light gets less and less. When it does find its way into my bedroom, I know that my room was graced with warmth and life even when I am not there.  There is something sad and joyful in the change of season. We let go of hot sticky nights, warm toes in the sand, cold watermelon dripping down our chins. We welcome layering sweaters, steamy bowls of soup, red noses from running outside in the foliage.

I spent the last week of August in Red Feather Lakes, CO about 2 hours Northwest of Denver attending a meditation retreat with Acharyas Pema Chodron, Gaylon Ferguson, and Adam Lobel.  When I arrived it was as hot as summer could get and by the last day, September 1, the temperature was in the low 60s.  As we said our goodbyes to each other that fresh sunny morning, there was a palpable sad joy in us.

Ani Pema Chodron spoke about sad joy.  She explained that joy comes after sadness.  We need to go through the sad part gently, awake, and present which then allows the heart to break open.  From the open heart the joy flows out. This is how we cultivate a tender heart.  She reminded us that if we skip this process, joy is brittle and full of fear.  

When we soften our attitude or position we cultivate a tender heart. We become less fixed on having things turn out our way and begin to open to uncertainty. It’s this softness that gives us courage and strength, not tights fists and absolutes. Sad joy is goodbyes and hellos, winning and losing, deaths and births. This is the beauty of being alive, laughing until you cry or crying until you laugh.

We become open to the tender heart through the process of meditation, sitting quietly and still, observing the breath, training the mind. It’s no picnic or day at the beach, but the benefits are beyond words. Two weeks after my return, I am feeling the bliss from this concentrated and disciplined time I spent on my cushion. I kept waiting to write about my experience until it felt organic. I feel different. Many years of 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there on my cushion has added up like money in the bank of freedom. Not monetary freedom, but freedom from a cluttered confused mind allowing for space and clarity. I know that I can’t hold onto to this state of being as this is fluid, too.  There is sad joy in everything.

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