Easeful Depth: Exploring Sadness as an Asset to Our Emotional Landscape

I implore you to consider this question: Does sadness always have to be heavy and burdensome?

It is easy for me to be effervescent, joyful, and rapturously excited about beauty, possibilities, and ideas. I’m apt to be excited.

And yet, I am not this way all the time. I can’t be. Or at least, the zest of the joyful zenith would not ripen so magnificently if it were not counter-balanced by strife, struggle, and general unpleasantness.

Sometimes I do not feel great about myself. This is said too innocently — sometimes I really feel horrible, ashamed, insignificant, and the worst yet — profoundly unloveable. And to add to this, the feeling presents itself as permanent and untreatable — a mere condition of my personhood, a scar to my soul.

What is there to do with that? It gnashes against others who want to help me heal, I fear. It’s razor-sharp with ragged edges. It growls at those who try to touch it lightly and lovingly. It wants to be left alone to stew until it eventually, finally, evaporates completely…only to return again at a later point, deeper and with greater rage and sorrow. Alas, I am learning to forgive and accept that I have this ferocious anger towards myself sometimes, to be patient with it and tame the part of me that judges how I am against the most unrelenting perfectionist standards.

Alas, self-consciousness and self-anger are emotions that confound and complicate the situation of our cultural inability to express and sit comfortably with negative emotions. For both self and others, it seems, negative emotions get pushed away. We avoid them. They seem like unwelcome guests in the house of our emotional well-being and peace of mind. We become apathetic instead because it’s easier to be lazy than to feel fear for too long or too intensely.

With this comes an inability to be present to another person when they are experiencing great sadness, anger, injustice, or loss. There is an urge to do something. We desire, with all the best intentions, to cheer one another up. We do not like to see those we love or even just like upset, crying, or dealing with grave, sad circumstances.

But it does not have to be so bad. Just because I am sad that something did not work out the way I had intended or would have liked does not mean that I have to feel…bad about it. It just sucks a little bit. But that’s okay. I don’t have to try to fix the situation. I don’t even need to change my perspective about it. I don’t need to keep trying in something that just does not feel right.

What I want most to have others acknowledge is that my suffering is present and that I feel sad about it, but to not be scared or burdened about my sadness. I don’t want others to feel like they have to look out for me or take care of me in any way. I don’t want to feel guilty for choosing to be alone sometimes, or for needing to spend some time with myself just trying to slowly comb my way through my own emotions.

I wonder how this polarity between “positive” emotions like happiness, joy, ecstasy, satisfaction, eagerness, excitement, rapture, and so on, came to be considered so good and constructive, whereas “negative” emotions like sadness, anger, fear, distress, uneasiness, confusion, loneliness, and some on, came to be considered so bad and destructive. It’s like we always want to push these negative emotions away and get them over with so we can move back towards feeling at least ease and calm.

My friend Judith introduced me to this beautiful phrase “easeful depth.” She explained that we can allow ourselves to feel depth and intensity of emotions and psychological states as easeful rather than overwhelming.

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is taught that the cause of human suffering is to attach to pleasant phenomena and avoid unpleasant phenomena. Yes, exactly! We suffer not because there is sadness, but because we are attached to the notion of being happy in a certain way, and we are avoiding feeling the sadness that is present. It is the fear of the reality of the experience which is actually present that really causes the suffering, and perhaps not actually the feeling itself.

So how can we respond compassionately to others who experience negative emotions? If a loved one or even a stranger is deeply sad and hurt from something really terrible that happened to them, then what is there to even say? Why do we rove around our brains anxiously trying to find the right thing to say, or to do? What is there to really say, anyway?

For me, the best response I ever heard someone say to the news about my ill health or my bad luck with my PhD being so unfulfilling was, “That really sucks.” And I quickly responded, “Yes! Exactly. It really does. Thank you so much for saying that.” What else is there to say? So many “You’ll get through it” might offer some reassurance or encouragement, but sometimes I just need to have confirmation that it is OK for me to feel that this somewhat unfair thing happened to me that I cannot control and that it just sucks. And I think I cannot be the only one who feels this way sometimes.

There is no where to go! There is nothing to do! There are no words that are quite right! Sit with me in the dark. Please. Just sit with me in the dark. Be silent, be still. Let me feel. And I will, in turn an in time, I promise, do the same for you when you will need it.

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