The purpose of sadness

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Can you sit with your own sadness? Photo by Josh Adamski on Unsplash

A lot of publicity gets given to the so-called positive emotions.  We are all supposed to be open , happy, curious, accommodating, relaxed, peaceful bananas.  It is as though half of our biological self is not of interest to self-development.

So what about the other emotions, the more painful ones?  Do they have a purpose in a healthy body and mind?  In particular, why might sadness be good for us, and form part of a healthy personality.

WHAT IS SADNESS FOR?

Imagine a person incapable of sadness.  What would they be like?  What would be their special abilities and disabilities?

On the positive side, such a person might be more pleasurable to be around.  They would be unlikely to give out signals that indicate the world is a horrible place, because they would not feel the pain of regret.  Sadness is how we experience our wish that the world might be otherwise, and how our body gets used to our discomfort and deprivation.  But a person who did not experience sadness, would not express discontent with the world as it is.  All worlds would be equally bearable.

On the down side, such a person might be less sensitive to how the world could be improved.  Imagine someone who was completely insensitive to others’ suffering – who did not feel any sadness when other people suffered.  They would have no useable experience of what it feels like to lose something, and would be in danger of failing to recognise other people’s distress.

THE CONTAINER THEORY OF HUMAN EMOTION

Some psychologists believe that we are like containers.  A sensitive person can ‘hold’ different emotions, just as a good container might be able to hold a diversity of drinks.  A healthy person, can hold sadness without spilling it over everyone (in the form of anger, for instance), overflowing (in the form of manically weird behaviour, for instance), or breaking (in the form of a breakdown, for instance).

I don’t subscribe to that theory (I think it’s invented by people who can’t cope with flow!).  But it’s handy to think of your mind as a container that needs to be able to hold sadness, for long enough to experience compassion.  If I can’t feel the sadness of loss, then I will be less appreciative of others’ experience of loss, and I perhaps won’t realise when I cause other people distress by taking things from them.  In that sense, the ability to be sad acts as a kind of internal conscience, enabling us to have a ‘heavy heart’ when we need to be slowed down and become aware of loss.

LOSS AND VALUE

Take the most obvious of losses, the loss of a close relative or friend.  Being able to experience the sadness of the loss, is part of recognising the value of what has gone.  If the person had no value for us, then their absence would not be felt by us.

The wider our compassion goes, the more we see that value in strangers, foreigners, people whom we have never met.  The ultimate compassion, one could say, is that which feels the loss created by all change everywhere.  Imagine if you could feel the sadness of suffering half way across the world, of millions of people without enough food to eat… just imagine what it would be like if you were properly sensitive to that.  You might be very motivated to help.  But instead, most of us sit and focus on our own immediate surroundings.  The ups and downs of our friends and relatives form the backdrop and the theme music to our lives.  But it is a very narrow story.

A funny thing happens when our compassion gets wider still.  Imagine seeing the whole universe, and realising that all change is inevitable.  There is still suffering, but it is caused by minds not adapting to that change, not accepting that change.  So the ultimately compassionate mind perhaps plays a double game.  For itself, it is not sad, because it sees the inevitability of change.  For others, it is sad, because it sees their suffering, and wishes that everyone could know the peace of acceptance of the inevitable.  For this mind, there is no loss in reality, only imagined loss.  The motivation is to help others to learn that loss is only imagined, and that acceptance brings peace.  Sadness is seeing that continued suffering in others, and therefore wanting to help others to reduce it.

AN EXERCISE

Think of something you have lost, that is personal to you.  Spend some time with that loss.  Then think of someone you know well, who has suffered a loss.  Spend some time imagining what it must be like for them.  Then, if you can, imagine someone half way across the world, who may be suffering a loss right now.  Take some time to sit with that loss too, and experience sadness if it comes.

Don’t try to do anything with those feelings, just sit and feel them.  When you are finished, you may find that your actions through your day are widened, and that you naturally act in the interests of a wider range of people and things, and are less selfish.

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SUMMARY

Sadness is ultimately how we become sensitive to others’ experience of distress.  Without it, we cannot know what it is to suffer, and we would therefore have no motivation to help others out of their suffering.  We need to learn to hold sadness long enough to appreciate its existence.  At first, we might only be sensitive to our own distress.  Eventually, through training, we might learn to be sensitive to all distress.  This can motivate our compassion, as we may find it unbearable that others are suffering, and therefore naturally want to help.   Compassionate meditation can help us widen our appreciation of loss, and make us less selfish.

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