It’s hard to escape the comical irony that I was asked to write this article about joy on the very day I entered one of the darkest, most painful and frightening experiences of my life – an episode which sent me to a hell of my own creation, where for a while I lost my mind.
Taking part in an intensive course of self-enquiry last week combined with various other factors released deep traumas, which left me trusting nobody, overwhelmed by paranoid delusions and an all-pervading sense of fear.
But even in my most desperate moments I retained the ability to appreciate the wonderful ridiculousness of life. To be tasked with writing about joy whilst experiencing this state of terror, distrust and desperation seemed nothing short of absurd. However, I feel the insights I’ve gained make me just the person for the job in hand.
A couple of hours ago I was hula hooping on the beautiful terrace here with its expansive views across the Mallorcan countryside. As I listened to AWOLNATION’s Sail at full volume on my headphones, I was lost in the moment and felt a deep sense of joy. A joy made all the more intense as it was in the same spot where I’d spent the night so tortured by my demons and fear two nights before – an interminable night on that very same terrace with two people sleeping next to me to ensure that I remained safe.
“The hurt you embrace becomes joy,” Rumi
Without the hellish experience so fresh in my mind maybe I would not have felt the same sense of joy. Knowing how close I’d come to the edge had given me a deep appreciation of not only hula hooping and music but also the preciousness of life and the joy of just being.
In my darkest moments I felt I couldn’t take the living hell any more and my mind became filled with compulsive thoughts.
The visceral pain and terror coupled with the feeling that I had lost my mind pushed me right to the very edge, and as an endurance swimmer I have a pretty high threshold for pain and suffering. I was so close to the precipice that both I, and everyone around me, felt that I needed to be supervised around the clock to ensure my safety.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy,” Rumi
But somewhere at the back of my mind I was conscious that I had a looming deadline to write about joy and as a former journalist I live and die by a deadline. When I commit to deliver an article I will meet it come hell or high water. I’ve filed articles in some of the most difficult circumstances and hostile environments on the planet but nothing compared to my inner hell. Writing whilst crashing through towering waves on a 60-ft racing yacht heeled over at 40 degrees in gale force winds in the North Pacific or from a hospital bed in Hong Kong whilst in isolation with a potentially life-threatening disease were no match to this challenge.
I wondered what I could possibly say about joy when I was as far from that state as I could imagine. But three days on I feel like that very experience has given me the insight I needed. As they say, if you don’t know the darkness you can never know the light, and having experienced some very dark nights of the soul this week, and also throughout my life, I feel like my sense of the light is stronger than ever. My thirst for life and life force has started to burn strong, the inner fire stoked by the sorrow and pain.
In contrast to the last days, today has been filled with many moments of pure joy yet nothing has changed in my external circumstances. The past is exactly the same as it was a week ago. The shift has happened inside myself, reminding me that in our oneness we are everything at the same time – joy, pain, freedom and suffering. It is what we decide to focus on that determines what we feel and how we behave.
“Joy is a decision, a really brave one, about how you are going to respond to life,” Wess Stafford
In this moment I have chosen joy. That’s a very empowering feeling. Knowing that the joy is always there, even in the most desperate moments of despair. It is just waiting for us to open our hearts to it.
Last night after everybody had gone to bed I danced alone on the terrace under the stars in candlelight feeling a sense of joy rooted in being alive and in the moment. It was all the more intense as it was the same terrace I’d been frightened I would throw myself off a couple of nights before.
In those moments the thought of ever dancing again seemed impossible. And there I was experiencing the joy of losing myself in the music. It was all the more precious not despite what I’d been though, but rather because of what I’d been through. It was the deep inner joy of being alive and in the moment. It’s amazing how going so close to the edge makes us appreciate the simple pleasures in life, and the joy of just being. Maybe that is also the reason I push myself so far in the water.
“Without pain, how could we know joy?” John Green
Today has been interspersed with moments of joy from appreciating the beauty of a bright red hibiscus flower with its bright yellow stamen to floating on my back in the pool supported by a yellow foam tube with the cool water soothing my limbs.
Lying in the shade down by the pool reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a brutally honest account his depression as uplifting Cuban music wafted down from the kitchen. Lying flat on my back on the cool tiled marble floor.
The joy comes from a sense of being present in the moment. I know that it is always there and we can always find it, even when all hell is breaking out around us. The dark nights we experience only amplify the feeling and appreciation for it and enhance our capacity to sense deep joy.
I’m not recommending that anybody go through what I’ve been through in order to experience joy, but I feel deep gratitude that I was able to go through it with so much support and love surrounding me. I know the pain and trauma of my past has made me into the person I am today, not only able to swim for more than 26 hours non-stop but also able to experience such joy.
People often ask me where I find the strength to swim in the ocean for so long pushing myself through cold, darkness and stinging jellyfish – far beyond what most people think would be tolerable, to get to the other side. I reply that I find that strength in the pain and despair I have experienced, reaching the lowest moments and coming back. I have achieved what I have not in spite of my painful past, but rather because of it.
There have been moments in life when I felt an immense sense of accomplishment, which came when all the hard work paid off. Swimming from England to France and returning to find the Union Jack flying in my honour. It was a great feeling that still lives inside me but I know it was not joy – it was a sense of indelible achievement that never wears off. Contrary to what people might think, I experienced joy whilst I was swimming through the darkness, cold and exhausted, but present in the moment and being my true self.
People often tell me that I exude joy and inspire joy in others and it’s true that I have a deep appreciation of joy, but I’m certain that is rooted in the pain that I’ve experienced in my life. The pain puts the joy into perspective, knowing how transient life is makes us squeeze out every last drop from our existence.
In “The Fault In Our Stars” John Green also argues that joy can only be experienced after you have over come some type of affliction or struggle. I’m certain my pain and sorrow has given me a perspective on life and an appreciation for joyful moments that I wouldn’t have had without the darkness. Without a doubt, the people with whom I’ve shared the deepest moments of joy are those who have also been through the darkest nights.
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive you will see it,” Thich Naht Hanh
Despite the difficult and personal subject matter, I’ve felt a sense of joy writing this, being in the moment and being alive. I feel gratitude for being asked to write it even if it did seem an utterly ridiculous proposition at times. It has helped me process what I have been through and I hope that sharing my account has provided some insight into how our experience of pain enhances our capacity to experience joy.
After all, without the darkness you will never see the stars,