“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.” ~ Viktor Frankl
You can be overwhelmed, underwhelmed, or just plain whelmed. You can be disgruntled (upset), but you can also be gruntled (pleased or satisfied). You can be ruthless (devoid of compassion), but you can also experience ruth (compassion for the suffering of another). I offer these examples because I love discovering things about words I did not know.
I especially love the origins of everyday words. One of my favorite origin stories is that of the word “enjoy.” The first version showed up in the 14th century in the form of an Old French word enjoir which meant “rejoice, be glad.” The prefix en- means “make.” So, the original meaning of the word enjoy was “to make or give joy.”
Nowadays, we often use the word enjoy in a different way — more of a “get joy from” rather than a “bring joy to” approach. We look to circumstances as being the source of our internal experience. While circumstances certainly can trigger internal experiences, they are never the source of them. Until someone shows me proof of an invisible form of energy that is injecting emotion into the human body, I will continue to believe that the source of what we feel is always our nervous system.
What this means is that learning to work skillfully with your nervous system has a powerful impact on the quality of your life. And there are two areas of life where most of us received very little training:
Working peacefully with discomfort. In general, we do our best to avoid discomfort or situations that we associate with discomfort. We tend to procrastinate or purchase our way around discomfort whenever possible. And we live in a comfort obsessed consumer society that reinforces this strategy at every turn. Few of us have been taught how to sit with discomfort, how to observe it carefully, how to accept it for what it is, and how to respond to discomfort based on deeply held values and commitments. We miss out on the wisdom and clarity that comes from being with the complete range of human experience. Most importantly, in an effort to avoid our own discomfort, we often numb ourselves to the needs and stuggles of others. This has profound implications for our relationships, communities, and indeed, our species.
Two ways to practice:
Practicing mindfulness — sitting quietly everyday. This can be a powerful way to learn to work with discomfort. If you sit quietly, you will be feel bored, restless, anxious, distracted — all the normal stuff of being human. The point to sitting is not to “feel better,” it is to be with whatever it is that you are feeling without resistance or indulgence.
Taking a cold shower — getting under water that makes you cringe. Seeing and releasing the urge to contract and resist is great practice. Tensing up and swearing does not warm the water — you can take a cold shower breathing deeply and calmly. This is a great metaphor for other challenging experiences in life — we can face them tight and snarling or open and smiling. Either way, the water is cold — the choice is in how we relate to the experience of discomfort.
Cultivating positive internal resources. Gratitude, compassion, wonder, joy, love. These are powerful things to feel and lenses through which to see the world. We do not have to wait for our circumstances to trigger these feelings. We can cultivate these everyday. Who or what do you really love? Who or what are you most grateful for? What absolutely blows you away about humanity, the natural world, or existence itself? How much time do you spend each day bringing your attention to these things and feeling the sensations in your body? With practice, you can get really good at accessing these whenever you choose.
Two ways to practice:
Beginnings and endings — falling asleep and waking up. What do you think about when you go to bed at night? What do you think about first thing in the morning? These are perfect opportunities to focus on what you care about most, what inspires you, and what connects you to others and the world. You do not have to spend this time ruminating about problems to be solved or emails to be sent.
Waiting — stuck in traffic and standing in line. There is so much time in life when we distract rather than engage. We stare at a small screen rather than look at the miracle that surrounds us. There are living, breathing, laughing, crying, struggling, celebrating miracles of human existence all around us. Look for small acts of kindness being performed and you will see countless examples. Look for an opportunity to make eye contact and smile. Look for opportunities to reach out and do something tiny to help someone else.
The bottom line is this: If you look at life as being something that is supposed to bring you joy, then it will often disappoint. If you look it as an opportunity to make joy or to bring joy to life, then there is no end to the possibilities. I encourage you to consider enjoyment as a practice, rather than a result of getting circumstances just right. After all, it is a complex universe with countless uncontrollable variables and, as far as we know, this is the only life you have. Why not enjoy it?