How I Discovered The Simplest Thing That Is Making A Big Difference

How I Discovered The Simplest Thing That Is Making A Big Difference

How I Discovered The Simplest Thing That Is Making A Big Difference 1800 1200 Brook Thorndycraft

I grew up in a serious family. Both of my parents had experienced hard times and trauma, including intergenerational trauma, and were committed to transforming harm and bringing justice. From a young age, I was aware that life was unjust, and that many people suffered because of the actions of others. This is not to say there wasn’t joy and play. I loved to perform, do art, imagine, and make up stories with friends. But my awareness of suffering, around me and in the wider world, weighed me down. By the time I was a preteen, I was sad, overwhelmed, and anxious much of the time. 

And it followed me into adulthood. In university, I followed my family’s way of being very concerned about making the world a more just place. It felt righteous and essential and I found a sense of purpose and community. But my understanding of making justice did not seem compatible with joy or pleasure. I had a strong sense, shared by many in my community, that if we were experiencing joy, we were not paying attention. That we were checking out from making change. 

What I discovered, though, is that it is only possible to go on this way for so long, before it leads to collapse and burnout. I (and people I knew) went through cycles of pushing hard, then burning out, then pushing hard again, until I had insomnia so bad that I had no choice but to find another way. 

I quietly started meditating. But even that was in a critical perfectionist way. It was a self-improvement process: why couldn’t I be less overwhelmed, so that I could be better at making things better. It was for the most part, not rooted in joy. I found a tiny window into something different through the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, but his wisdom was like small sips in a much larger cup of “should” and “right and wrong.” And all of this was separate from the change making. I had yet to learn that the best pleasure and joy is the kind that connects us to other people and to things we care about. 

Over the last seven years things have changed. I have been on a quest to rediscover joy and pleasure, and now see it as a core part of my work to support change making organizations to work together better and feel better while doing it. Not as an add-on or a distraction, but as an absolutely essential source of capacity, restoring our natural birthright, and reconnecting with the deep knowing that we are connected to each other and part of nature. 

It started for me in 2018 when I did my first weekend intensive Somatic Experiencing training. The first thing we did was go for walks in pairs where we oriented to pleasure and shared that with each other.  The reason was clearly explained that when we can orient to pleasure, particularly in connection, it becomes a resource that creates more capacity for processing the hard stuff. I have now been through a three year somatics training and become a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and I think this lesson from the very first session is still the most profound thing I have taken away from it. It has changed my life. I integrate it into most of the work I do with individuals and with groups. 

Of course it is not easy to change our patterning.

Since then I have had to relearn the lessons over and over again. From Black feminists like adrienne maree brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Most recently from a Buddhist teacher, Arinna Wiseman, who saw that I had twisted my practice into something that I used to control myself, and who told me to stop meditating and just contemplate the “beautiful qualities” of love, forgiveness, gratitude, joy, compassion. So I stopped meditating and I went for walks where I gazed at flowers and appreciated my feet for carrying around the weight of my body. I danced a lot more and made things with my hands. 

I have learned that joy is indeed a practice. It is about paying attention to the moments that feel good and really soaking in them. It is about noticing -how- you know something feels good.

I still wake up many mornings feeling despair about the world, but the difference is that while that used to feel righteous, now I recognize that those days are the ones that I have less energy to show up for the people and causes I care about. It is being able to connect to beauty and joy in the midst of it all that feeds the energy I need to contribute to making the changes I want to see in the world.

It is both beautiful and predictable to me that I have brought this into the work I do. The people I work with are often like me: very aware of the complex crises we face, and sometimes overwhelmed and despairing about whether it can be different, how and why we do and don’t feel we have impact. These are essential human concerns. And also, we can have joy alongside them.

I love bringing this to workplaces, to help people feel better in the work. An especially wonderful thing about it is that anyone can do this, themselves. 

Here are some of the ways I have invited people to bring joy and pleasure into the work

I bring it into my work in a range of ways, for example in leadership coaching when I’m working with someone who is struggling with the deeper and often painful work of understanding their emotional reactions or interpersonal dynamics that aren’t serving them. Maybe someone is avoiding giving someone feedback that they have done something biased or discriminatory, because they are afraid of confrontation. We might take a moment to notice somewhere their body feels comfortable or supported, really feel what it feels like, and hold onto that feeling while they practice delivering the feedback. 

I bring it into trainings – particularly ones about hard topics like conflict – to support people to notice and experience discomfort with the topic or the conversation without having to escape it. 

When I facilitate difficult conversations or mediations, taking the time to really notice and feel what we appreciate about the relationship or project can completely transform how the conversation goes. We try to notice moments of laughter or connection and just pause there to feel what it feels like in the body to notice that not every moment of the conversation is painful, and that it is possible to feel moments of connection even when we don’t get along. 

You can orient to pleasure

And there is the part that I invite everyone to do as a practice, which you can easily do as well on your own. I recommend doing this on a daily basis, as often as you can.

The key is to notice when you are experiencing something pleasurable. It might be:

  • A physical sensation in your body, for example a comfortable chair or cozy clothing
  • Something you see, for example the tree out your window or the picture of a loved one
  • A beautiful sound, for example a piece of music you love
  • A delicious taste, for example a piece of chocolate or cup of coffee
  • A thought or memory that brings you pleasure
  • An activity you really love doing

Take a few moments to stay with the signals your body is giving you that let you know you’re experiencing pleasure. How do you know it’s pleasure? What feelings, sensations, thoughts or behaviours tell you that?

Make it a habit

This can feel weird and hard at first, but as with any new habit, it becomes easier with practice. I used to have to make a conscious effort to notice pleasure and joy, but now it comes a bit easier. 

For example, just now I felt a bit frustrated as I wrote this blog because I was having trouble finding the words I wanted. I took a moment to look out the window and noticed the spring light shining on the new leaves on the maple out my window. I know that this is a pleasurable experience because I can feel the tension of frustration recede just a bit from my face, and my breath is just a bit deeper. As I return to writing, the frustration is still there, but there is also a sense of light on leaves that supports me to experience the frustration in a different way. 

The ability to do this in the moment when I need it has only happened over time and with practice, but now it is one of my most helpful sources of healing and support. And this enables me to show up, both with, and for, the people and situations I care about most.