The other day I was painting an experiment: “Make marks in joyful colors with joyful motion; combine them into one piece of art.” Before I started painting, I imagined the motions I used to make with my paintbrush when I was happy. I could envision the swoop and flourish of them (not unlike the swish and flick of Harry Potter’s classmates trying a levitation spell.) Sadly, my hand can’t make those motions anymore. The nerve signals to my fingers are too damaged by MS. When I first started this session of painting, feelings of anger and sadness arose. “Darn it! I should be able to do that! It hurts!” My hand doesn’t hurt physically, but it is painful to lose the ability to do something that I so enjoyed. I took deep breaths to make space for those emotions. I kept painting and before long I lost myself in the beauty and surprise of color on paper.

I experienced the whole dance of chronic healing in that painting session. First I was overwhelmed by physical change and my emotional response. I took some moments to retreat and breathe. I brought tender curiosity to discover what is true now and moved toward loving acceptance. Then I could move forward with joy, immersing myself in sensory celebration.

Reaching for joy when I live with a chronic illness may take more effort than it used to do, but it is worth it. Discovering delight – even in the midst of pain and weariness – makes life worth living.

I use the words “joy” and “delight” when I’m talking about an inner lift in mood that makes the corners of my mouth turn up and my heart begin to sing. I like those words because they capture in-the-now flashes of mood. Happiness speaks to me of a longer-term state of being that, frankly, I can’t manage on those days when pain (from spasticity) is breaking in every few seconds. There is always room for joy.

Here are some ways I invite joy into my life:

  • .Make room for the hard stuff. If I push away the frustration and grief I feel, they become stronger and the pushing takes all my energy. If I open space for them and allow them to be part of my journey, they become quiet, familiar companions, rather than the monsters they may first appear.
  • Notice delight. Each day I choose a Delight of the Day, even on those days when I have to rack my brain. When I look back over my week, the delights are strung together like beads and my life is a shining necklace.
  • Find sensory beauty now. Even in the midst of difficulty, if I bring my attention to a beautiful color, a lovely smell, a surprising sound, a luscious taste, or an intriguing texture, my mood lightens. Often, if I really pay attention, I find beauty where I might not expect it.
  • Return to the breath and smile. Every now and then (especially if I’m feeling stressed), I take three conscious breaths and smile. I say to myself, “breathing in, I relax body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.” (Thích Nhất Hạnh, 1987)  Smiling has hormonal and physiological consequences which make us feel better and want to smile more. Smiling self medicates and heals. (Furnham, 2014)
  • Create a joy vocabulary (and use it). As usual, my creative experiment was an invitation to play with metaphor. How do the colors and motions I use when I paint joy give me clues about adding more joy to my life? Because my abilities and interests are always changing, so will what brings me joy. The greens and pinks that appear remind me to schedule a trip to the zoo or conservatory this winter. The gray of city snow gets wearying.

 I think of myself as a compass with joy my magnetic north. Busyness, inattention or pain may knock my needle to the side, but I want to return it to pointing toward joy.

 Paying attention to what brings me joy and moving toward it, being fierce about choosing joy each day, I find delight.

[Kind promise: I will live joyfully for no reason. Original compass graphic Copyright: dmstudio / 123RF Stock Photo]