On that note

October 14th, 2007

We’ve been having so much fun around here talking about happiness that I wanted to strike a different note to the tune of full disclosure.


What about when you’re sad? What about when bad things happen or good things don’t? What about tears and disappointments?

It’s easy, as long as you’re in the mode of self-improvement and life betterment, to think of sadness as the enemy of happiness. To think of bad times as the opposite of good. But they are only opposites in the realm of antonyms and synonyms. They are only opposites in your thinking mind, the mind that compares and judges things to be one way or the other. In the real world, happiness and sadness, highs and lows, spring and fall, occur in one place – the same place – your life.

So is being sad somehow less than good? Is it wrong?

Sadness can be a springboard to a spiritual practice. Because most of us suffer when we are sad, and cause others to suffer too, it can lead us to seek solace and resolution. Sadness is always a good guide and even a good sign. You might notice, for instance, that when you begin a meditation or yoga practice, or when you find a church home, that you begin to cry for no good reason at all. This can indicate that you are releasing long-held emotions and fears. It feels good to cry. And it feels good to stop too. By itself, crying always ends, eventually. Sadness changes to something else. Because all things, even emotions and thoughts, change when we let them.

One time I went to see Maezumi Roshi after a meditation session in which the tears streamed in rivulets down my cheeks.

“I’m sitting in a field of sadness,” I said to him. I was a tiny bit pleased by my poetic expression. I thought we might talk about it, rooting out the cause, and apply a kind of treatment.

“When you’re sad, be sad,” he said. And that was all he said. I confess I found it abrupt, considering my experience with other kinds of counselors. He didn’t criticize me, he didn’t correct me, he just didn’t dwell. He didn’t dwell.

In life, nothing dwells. The wind blows and then stops. The blossoms burst forth and then fall. Things come and go. The melody drifts back onto an aching E-flat and then back to E again. The song of your life is played on white and black keys.

I won’t linger but I am likely to post again about sadness as a cornerstone of Buddhism, as an essential truth of human life. I won’t dwell. I won’t build a hut. Promise me you won’t build one either. Not while the song is still playing.


  1. How’s this for sad: this post made me cry! Truly beautiful words, Karen.

    In my experience, the essence of depression (not really the same thing as sadness, of course) is the sense of total hopelessness and feeling that the feelings will never change.

    Don’t dwell. I’m going to remember that.

    Comment by Mama Zen — October 15, 2007 @ 2:02 am

  2. Is grief sadness? How many kinds of sadness might there be? Mama Zen noted that depression is not the same as sadness, which I agree with, but what is the difference?

    Sometimes it seems that people feel they should be happy all the time, that any unpleasant feeling is wrong and must be fought against.

    When I got married I cried all through the ceremony. All but one person thought I cried for joy, but I was actually sad. Sad because my mother was dead and would never know my husband, future child, my life, I would never ask her about her wedding, everything that I never asked when I had the chance, and I just wanted to cry.

    But i didn’t feel it was okay to admit to any of that. Not appropriate. not okay. Nearly everyone around acted as if it were his or her obligation to make me feel better. Admitting how I felt seemed as if it would burden them, put them in a spot to help me, to say the right thing…

    I think I’m not making sense…but I think it is okay to allow people to be sad. We don’t have to jump in with fixes and self-help. Being sad (if it isn’t depression or destructive) is okay. And usually the minute I allow myself to be sad, is the minute I stop feeling that way.

    One time I was heartbroken (is that sad?) and crying, and one of my best friends in the world, after listening to me and holding my hand, said in the middle of my tears, “Look, I’ve got a ponytail.” She was so proud that her hair had grown long enough for a ponytail. Watching ehr flip her ponytail, put the heartbreak in perspective. I stopped crying. And now ponytails almost always make me feel better…

    I’ll stop rambling now.

    Comment by marta — October 15, 2007 @ 3:24 am

  3. And like many great pieces of music, there is a feeling of sadness AND. . .
    I am learning that when I allow myself to feel sad instaed of run away or ignore, I open myself and in the opening there is sadness and so much more. sadness and happiness, joy, bliss, confusion, fear, gratitude, longing, contentment.

    Comment by bella — October 15, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

  4. I feel sad at the moment.

    Also tired, overwhelmed, uncertain, clueless, all of which contribute to the sadness.

    It bears repeating: I feel sad.

    Comment by kathryn — October 15, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

  5. “The song of your life is played on white and black keys.”

    I love this.

    There are always specific sections in your thoughtful posts that really resonate with me. This is one.

    It does feel good to cry and being sad is usually a springboard for change, often for positive change. It is, however, so hard to realize this while in the throes of sadness.

    I love your eloquence in pointing out the many different facets of sadness. I can’t wait to see what more you have to say on it.

    I truly love your blog and your writings.


    Karen Beth

    Comment by Karen Beth — October 15, 2007 @ 5:46 pm

  6. A motto that has served me well, happy or sad or mad or anything: Emotions are temporary. We think happiness is a destination (if I lose 20 pounds I’ll be happy) and until you get there you have to be miserable, but it doesn’t have to works that way. When you’re happy, be happy; when you’re sad, be sad. Don’t ignore it, don’t dwell in it. Why do we have all these emotions anyway? All I know is if you were never sad, you couldn’t be happy.

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — October 15, 2007 @ 6:20 pm

  7. My father always said that emotions are information about the world, in the same way that red can’t be good or bad, sadness can’t be good or bad. Sometimes it’s very useful information, that one is sad (whether or not you are that one, eh), but it’s just information, not in the realm of morality.

    He died while my wife was pregnant with our first child; it was astonishing how great sadness and great joy could commingle. He never met my daughter, although he did hear me crying when I called up to report we’d heard her heartbeart in the doctor’s office. She’s never met him, although she shows bits and pieces that also were in him.

    I often find sadness wash over me in this (East-Coast) fall season, as the leaves drop and the days grow short. But it’s such a beautiful sadness, the air is so clear.

    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — October 15, 2007 @ 7:20 pm

  8. Friends, as much as I love to chat, I’m not going to dwell. I am humbled by the beauty of your musings. There are 6.6 billion kinds of sadness and all of them are sad. The answers to everything else are in the post–no wait, closer than that. In you.

    Comment by Karen — October 15, 2007 @ 9:26 pm

  9. All I can say is thank you. I am catching up on your posts and you are doing what a no-Zen teacher does so beautifully. You remind me of my own true wisdom before it gets smeared with conditioning.

    Comment by Leah — October 16, 2007 @ 1:36 am

  10. Sadness descends upon me about as often as euphoria does … I treat them both the same by recognizing them and then sleeping them off. Though, I must confess that I prefer those euphoric moments, Maezen.

    Comment by Shawn — October 16, 2007 @ 2:06 am

  11. I read this when it was first posted. I thought about what I would reply about the thought of sadness. Being sad. Crying. Dwelling on it. Life. Thought about it. Thought about it. Nada. I have nothing to say, yet here I type. πŸ™‚

    Comment by denise — October 16, 2007 @ 5:22 am

  12. Thank you for posting your thoughts on this.

    Comment by Moanna — October 16, 2007 @ 11:28 pm

  13. Definitely a post I needed to read, having recently smeared Preparation H on my face to hide the swelling from tears. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Mary P Jones (MPJ) — October 18, 2007 @ 1:59 am

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