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The Uses of Sadness

Why feeling sad is no reason not to be happy

Questions & Answers

Why did you write this book? Have you had a lot of sadness in your life?
I would describe myself as a deeply happy person, so writing a book called The Uses of Sadness may seem like an odd thing to do. While being aware of living a truly fortunate life, I am drawn to the mystery of sadness. For me, learning to digest sadness is a fundamental part of learning the art of making happiness. Looking back through my toppling stacks of journals and notebooks I see that I have been exploring this gentle art of sublimation for many years.

I am very grateful to say that the sadness I have experienced has not been the outcome of traumatic events, but rather the everyday challenges of living, loving, longing and letting go. And what a journey that is; there’s more than enough difficulty—and joy—right there!

When we refuse to accept any mood other than a superficial ‘everything’s perfectly ok and see me smile’ because we have made sadness wrong and even shameful, then we do not allow ourselves access to the deepening power of soulful sadness, and a dry, brittle depression or a serious addiction can easily be the result. In my experience, soulful sadness is part of creating a deeper emotional intelligence; it is one of the flavours to cook with, to grow with. This is why I wanted to explore it and write about it.

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How did you come up with the ‘Cycle of Soulful Sadness’?
I believe our attention has great power; under our steady and compassionate gaze things can transform. In my experience, this is how an experience of sadness opens up and releases its gifts—through our generous attention, steady presence and sense of adventure.

I decided to watch sadness in this way. I asked myself: How do I know when it first arises; what happens next; how does it change; which activities are useful during sad times and which ones are not; and very importantly, what is the point of sadness? As I closely observed sadness arising and subsiding, I noticed that there seems to be a discernable pattern of seven phases. This book is based on that seven-phase cycle which I have called the ‘Cycle of Soulful Sadness’.

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'Soulfulness is the deep enrichment that happens when life lives itself uniquely through us and we decide to be truly present for the ride.'


Is the cycle a ‘blue-print’ for dealing with sadness?

The cycle is not a blue-print or a set of rules for getting sadness ‘all neatly sorted’. On some level sadness always undoes us a little; that is part of its transformative power. People are individuals and their experiences of sadness will not always follow a predictable pattern. However, the cycle can be used as a set of moveable signposts for travelling with awareness and creativity in the territory of sadness. Each of the seven phases has a particular flavour and represents a doorway of opportunity for learning and enrichment.

By experimenting with the seven phases you will begin to penetrate your unique experience of sadness and gather skills in working creatively with it. Your sense of resilience will grow as you shed a little of the fear that can accompany sadness. You will discover unique ways of moving more fluidly through it and bringing what you learn forward into your life. Your deeper knowledge of the territory of sadness will also help you to recognise when you have become stuck and need help. These skills can be shared with others either professionally or in your own personal life.

While recoiling from sadness is not the answer, neither is holding onto it for too long. The essence of any cycle is movement and the idea of taking up the valuable opportunities that each phase of the cycle offers is so that we can allow sadness to move and transform.

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What is the difference between sadness and depression?
As a society we often confuse the two and think that sadness is depression. Increasingly we are reaching for medical solutions whenever sadness arises. While depression is a serious and wide-spread illness that deserves professional care, sadness is not depression. Sadness is an emotion and it is a healthy and appropriate response to experiences of loss and disappointment, whether personal or global. In the face of the loss of species, war and cruelty, why would we not feel sad? And deep within our being as we face disappointments and shed ideas, relationships and dreams that can no longer sustain us, sadness helps us gather the momentum for change. We can allow our times of sadness to deepen our connection with ourselves and others, and lead us to insights and appropriate action.

Paradoxically, it is through embracing and accepting our times of sadness that we are able to flow through them more fluidly. It is when we are resisting and recoiling from those times that we can more easily get stuck and freeze into depression. Learning how to digest sadness with a generous heart and keen perception, yet without self-indulgence, is part of learning how to be happy.

However, sad times can be very dark and sometimes help is needed to find a chink of light. An important skill in anyone’s ‘sadness repertoire’ is recognising when you need help and knowing how to ask for it. There aren’t any hard and fast rules about how to navigate sadness. No one else can really judge what effort and skill is being applied by another, or where their breaking point is. The more you come to know yourself as you travel within the spectrum of sadness, the more you will trust your own judgment about what is healthy and life-giving for you. I hope that the cycle of soulful sadness offered in this book will assist people to get to know their own territory of sadness better, and become more skilful at extracting its gifts—and that includes knowing when help is needed.

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What is ‘soulful’ sadness?
There is certainly no single correct definition. Each of us will bring our own nuances and experiences to our understanding of what it means and I am hoping that the term ‘soulful sadness’ will take on a deeply personal meaning as readers explore the cycle in the book.

To me the word ‘soul’ means the essence of who you are as an individual—the unique and wondrous expression of you, like no other has ever been, or will ever be. From this perspective soul encompasses your personality, your stories, your dreams, your values, your sense of meaning and your life trajectory. If soul is your unique identity and potential as an individual, then something becomes ‘soulful’ when it enables you to more fully uncover and express those things. Soulful activities build or uncover layers of richness and character. They help round you out to the fullest expression of who you are given your unique emotional, physical and spiritual constitution, and the particular combination of experiences that come your way.

Sadness becomes soulful through our open-hearted engagement with it. It becomes soulful when we approach it consciously and respectfully in order to learn from it. We know that sadness can transform when it has been truly attended to. The cycle of soulful sadness gives us a method for engaging with sadness in this soulful way.

To me, one of the main features of soulful sadness is a call for stillness and retreat. It is a time for pause and reflection. Poetry, music, drawing, writing and staring into space might be part of this time. Remembering and missing people and yearning for that indefinable something might also be present. Silence and solitude are often involved. Admitting that you are wrong and sighing may also be elements of the experience. Letting go is definitely a key feature. Feeling that, after all this time and after all that trying, you still don’t know—wondering at the unsolvable mystery of it all—can be a prominent theme as well. Reassessing our goals and values and how we make meaning and choices for ourselves is also part of it. Anger and greed and envy are not part of it, but they can be features of the time before it; the second that these things are let go, the sweet state of soulful melancholy comes flooding in.

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'Our own big-hearted, courageous and respectful attention to everything we experience-the good, the bad, the ugly--and the just plain embarrassing--is very powerful.'

What are some of the uses of sadness?
Sadness can be a potent time for reflection, a call for down-time and retreat, a sign of transition, a force for change in how we do things, a time for taking stock and discovering the gentle art of being quiet and alone. Sadness can help us heed our soul’s longing for greater wholeness and connection, it can deepen our capacity to listen, it can slow us down, soften our hard edges, teach us to let go, cause us to sharpen our intention and purpose, and help us discover a world of beauty. It is a rich time for practising creativity and a sense of fearlessness. It is a time for honing our ability to notice the tiny moments of upliftment that are sparking throughout the day.

Sadness can be wistful, soft and sweet, or it can be hot and searing. It can shake us to our very foundations. However, in recoiling from our sadness too quickly we lose the opportunity to experience the gifts that sadness can bring. What if we decided to move closer to our sadness? What if we became curious about it? Rather than trying to fix it or banish it, what if we decided to remain present as it evolves within us, noticing how it subtly changes and following its lead? This book offers suggestions for how to be with our times of sadness in creative and productive ways. The reflections and activities suggested in this book will help us to navigate sadness with a little more ease and allow ourselves to be naturally drawn up into refreshed engagement with our world once again.

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How is sadness explored in this book?
Sadness is explored in a number of ways in this book, firstly through stories. Some of these are drawn from my own life and some come from the lives of others, including children. Some were gathered especially for this book, some emerged in workshops when the material was being developed, and some were drawn from the lives of well-known people. Except for the stories of famous people, all names have been changed.

Readers will find many quotes and suggestions for activities dotted throughout these pages. These simple, enjoyable and hopefully soulful activities can be used to explore the different phases of melancholy as the cycle unfolds. They include things such as sitting in a café or garden, finding objects, creating collages and maps, responding to questions, drawing and painting, listening to music, reflecting quietly, carrying things around in your pocket, body movements, and my particular favourite—lying on the floor doing nothing. Many of the activities feature journalling and other creative writing techniques. Writing is a powerful tool for distilling thoughts, gaining perspective and connecting with what lies beneath the surface. There is great power in being able to name and describe a feeling or experience—even if it is painful and sad. It is deeply healing to find the right words and images for our stories. Through this we let our own creativity, which is a life-enhancing force, flow freely through our veins.

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What do you hope readers might get from the book?
There is a word that used to be part of the English language, and perhaps it is now time to reclaim it. That word is ‘unsoulclogged’ and it means ‘not weighed down in spirit’. I hope that the seven-phase cycle of soulful sadness explored in this book will offer people ways of making peace with sadness as one of the many flavours of a rich life. I hope that the cycle will enhance our capacity to move through sad times towards engagement with our lives in ways that leave us feeling lighter, more joyful … and unsoulclogged! I hope that through the book readers may shed a little of their fear of sadness and come to know more fully that feeling sad is no reason not to be happy.

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