Joy. What a strange, borderline inappropriate topic to wax philosophical about during a pandemic.
But the world still spins on its axis. Literally. And that axial tilt brings in the changing on the seasons without regard to public health, economic collapse, or personal suffering.
In Chinese medicine, there are 5 seasons corresponding to 5 elements and connected with specific organs. Summer is the season of joy and its element, appropriately is fire. The heat of the weather is connected with passion and vigor in living. Barbeques with loved ones, boating, fireworks, beaches. All under a hot sun.
In my family, July 4th is our high holiday. Not because we are particularly patriotic, but because we thrive in the heat (my people are from the Dakotas, so warmth is a rare and wonderful thing). My brother and I used to save up all of our allowance to buy stupidly large volumes of fireworks and light them off at the big family reunion. We would stay up late, take rest from school, and cram as much fun as we could within a few precious months.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the primary organ associated with summer and fire is the heart. Much like in western poetry, the Chinese conceived of the heart not just as a mechanical pump, but as something which connected to passion and purpose. The concepts of being on fire with passion for something, the metaphor of heat, they all work perfectly together regardless of whatever tradition you may come from.
Interestingly, Chinese medicine believes that imbalances in the heart can be not just insufficient joy, but excess joy. Perhaps this speaks to a version of mania, or of taking an excess of pleasure which can burn you out if too much. Anxiety and insomnia can also be manifestations of a deficiency of joy. A lesser known organ associated with the fire element is the pericardium, which helps protect the heart against either kind of imbalance and should keep you on a more even keel if working properly.
In Reiki and Ayurveda, joy is also associated with the heart chakra. Described in the Upanishads as a tiny flame inside a heart, this fourth of seven chakras sits right smack in the middle. It is central, and the focal point for balance. It is represented by the color green, an appropriate note for the summer season when everything is at its full ripeness. In Sanskrit, it is anahata, or “unstruck.” A peculiar name, but perhaps it is a missing sound because joy and love which cannot be captured through speech or words, or which precedes the verbalization through the throat chakra. Or maybe it is the absent hurt and pain of heartbreak, because the essence of joy is to thrive despite pain.
Reiki itself translates as rei-ki. Ki is a variant spelling of qi, the energy we speak of flowing through your bodies. Rei is that energy we can draw into ourselves from the universe to heal and thrive. Standing in the full sun of summer is a perfect way of recharging your battery and filling that reserve.
My recent foray back into grad school has me focused on the concepts of optimal health and positive psychology. Most of the field of psychology is just fix the bad stuff. Take away the depression. The anxiety. The trauma. Then, surely you’ve cured someone. But perhaps there is more than that. Perhaps the next great leap is finding ways to actively augment joy (and the correlates meaning, purpose, and connections) in someone’s lives. Perhaps health is more than the absence of disease, and true mental health is living in a state of jouissance (from the French, literally enjoy-ment). Ment as in mentation; the willful decision we can make every day on what feelings and emotions to focus on and the purposeful cultivation of pleasure.
Where does that leave us in these strange times? It is unlikely that we’ll barbeque or gather in quite the same ways this year. And yet, perhaps we can start to see more of each other outside in the better weather. For many of us, joy has always meant connecting with other people. Parties, events, dinners.
Indeed, we cofounders here at Integrative Alchemists are both “fire types,” thriving in the warmth and exuberance of summer. This was to be a time of tubing and chilling on the deck and continuing to grow this business, our passion project. Yesterday, I listened in to a streaming graduation as one of my mentees just got her master’s degree and thought about the truncation of anticipated joy for so many who have worked hard to get to this moment and cannot fully celebrate it, at least not in the usual way.
But perhaps in this season we may find some ways to experience joy more individually. Bare feet in the sand, sun on the face, alone connecting with the most literal universal source of energy.
We continue in these modified practices in spite of the pandemic, in a defiant act of resistance. Resistance to the tendency to shut down, to withdraw, to give up. We still may have hard, shitty days. And no one wants to hear from a pollyanna how they should be feeling and when. As I write this, it is still unseasonably cold and grey and my own week was pretty much a C minus. As they say, we aren’t all in this together. For some, the worst they’ll feel is disappointment over canceled summer activities. For others, loss of loved ones and economic stability will come in varying degrees. How then can we speak of joy at all?
It’s not about forcing or manufacturing joy, but noticing it when we glimpse it, and relishing in it. It’s about finding it in places we weren’t necessarily expecting, and disrupting our assumptions of our usual go-to sources for comfort. We are fortunate beyond measure if we can take the good days and moments (however rare in these times) where we can and squeeze every ounce of pleasure from them.
“Fire, like Summer, is expansive, radiant, outgoing, and warm…The power of fire comes from the capacity to liberate heat and light and realize joy and fulfillment. Fire types need to temper their chemistry and contain their fervor, conversing as well as sharing their resources, withdrawing and separating as well as embracing and merging.” (Excerpt from the fabulous Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine)
How are you making room for joy? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
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