By Sarah Halweil, January, 2008

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.—Albert Einstein

Turning Over a New Leaf: Recognizing that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin.

Winter is a time of old growth passing so that new growth can take form. Trees shed leaves and gardens have ripened most of their fruit. Corn stalks and potato vines that remain in the field decompose and slowly become soil so that their parts can give life to new crops the next year. In the face of the natural cycle of endings and beginnings, it is also a time of looking at the past and future, contemplating regrets and making resolutions.

This seasonal cycle pervades our lives and it is evidence that all sorts of opposites—pain and pleasure, death and life, and joy and sorrow—are two sides of the same coin. Each cannot exist without the other. Failing to recognize this often prevents us from leading a fulfilling life, and instead, life becomes an emotional roller coaster.

Of course, every day we’re exposed to the reality that life is always in a state of flux, and we can usually cope. But occasionally, the events of our lives are so momentous that they challenge us to remember that joy is part of sorrow and sorrow is part of joy.

In my own case, this was particularly true in the past year. My 32-year-old brother died unexpectedly on Oct 24th, 2006 and my first child was born almost one year later on Nov 13th, 2007. On the surface, these two events could not have been any different, and yet they both turned my life upside down and ultimately inspired me to be a better person. And, on some level, I closely and profoundly relate the two events.

My brother, Matthew, was a champion of living in the moment, fearing nothing, and embracing his life with open arms. We are still mourning the tragedy of his sudden passing, but, from the rubble, my family has slowly been able to draw inspiration from his life and use it in our own lives. “Matthew would have wanted us to celebrate and not mourn,” my sister said at one of the memorial services. Matthew also did not allow room in his life for regret or hesitation, and I’ve tried in the past year to follow his example. It is easy to imagine that Matthew lives on as part of everyone who knew him. I plan to teach my daughter, Clio, about her uncle and his outlook on life. As the end of one life segued into the birth of another, sorrow and joy migrated so close to each other.

These emotional dichotomies are not really that different from the physical shift of turning our bodies upside down when we practice inversions. Whether handstand, downward facing dog, standing forward bend, standing splits or legs up the wall, inversions change perspective, energize us as blood and energy shift in the body, aide in overcoming fear, and create receptivity in the body and mind.

This shift has a way of boosting our confidence and even preparing us for new possibilities and the unexpected. For example, a couple of years ago, I set a goal of improving my forearm stand. After steady practice, the pose became easier and, with my chin floating above the floor, I thought, “Wow, I did this. What else is possible? What can I try and what can I endure?” Undoubtedly, this feeling lingers. After spending sometime upside down, we are more receptive to events that may turn our worlds upside down.

Even if at times we might “get it” or have a moment of clarity, finding balance is still something we have to practice again and again. If I were to experience another death right now, it wouldn’t be any easier and somehow I would have to learn again that joy and sorrow will always be present, and we have a choice as to how we experience them. The point is not to become numb or zombie-like as we pass through life but to experience every moment with open arms. Even the not-so-pleasant or tragic periods have to be accepted. When we fight them, we suffer. For ourselves and the people around us, this is not productive or helpful.

During these periods, the tools that we practice such as asana, meditation, pranayama, chanting, and kindness and compassion towards ourselves and all others must be cultivated and used. This is easier said than done. When we spiral out of control, when we get lost, we need to come back to whatever practice may be helpful to move us towards a place of contentment. Try spending sometime upside down and then sitting, and wherever on the spectrum between joy and sorrow you may be hovering, accept that place. Welcome it, but don’t hold on to it. Inhale welcome, exhale release. Evenly, easefully.

Only one thing is for sure, wherever we may find ourselves between joy and sorrow, that place will change. Even what we thought was joyful or sorrowful will change. The question is: can we accept what is to come and let go of what has passed and realize that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin?

Inspired by and dedicated to Matthew Paul Horton and Clio Matthew Halweil.

Sarah Halweil

Sarah Halweil is a graduate of the 2004 Yoga Shanti Teacher Training Program. She graduated from the University of Colorado in Latin American Studies and Environmental Science, and Georgetown University in Nursing. She is also a graduate of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) Program, and is the clinical coordinator for the Urban Zen program at Southampton hospital.

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