Awakening Joy, Even in Challenging Times

A few years ago on New Year’s Eve, I looked around the house for a blank journal to write in. As I flipped through an almost empty notebook, I unexpectedly came across a note my life-partner Kate had written a couple weeks before she died. “Dear friends, family, loved ones,” she began . . .

Photo credit: Jennifer Mathews, 2013

As Kate’s cancer progressed, she and I had used the CaringBridge website to keep people updated about her life and process. I recall her mentioning that she drafted something to post online, but she never brought it up again. And then almost a month after her graceful exit, I found her handwritten words.

I’m compelled to share them with you as we enter a new calendar year. May they be a reminder that it’s possible to experience freedom and joy amidst challenges and suffering. No matter what you experienced this past year, or what is on the horizon in the coming year, my prayer is that you, too, remember to taste and savor the sweetness of life.

The found (and profound) note

Dear family, friends, loved ones,
The other night I dreamt that I was at our local Nordic Center. I had my snow pants and blue jacket on, a hat and my sunglasses. I was all ready to go – my skis placed parallel to my feet.

I felt my excitement as my boots clicked into the bindings. Off I went, a little weary at first as somewhere I knew of my diagnosis, and knew that I really “shouldn’t” be out here. So I started off slowly, skis alternating as I glided forward. “Hmmm, this feels really good,” I thought. 

The day was crisp, sunny, blue skies – just the way I loved it. The more I skied, the more my body got into it. It was feeling good, strong, vibrant, alive. My pace quickened and I could feel my endorphins releasing like crazy. 

I woke up from that dream.

It could have felt like a rude awakening – coming back to the “reality” of where my body is actually at in the present. But instead I felt so much joy in my heart. 

I knew, not intellectually, but knew that I HAVE that experience inside of me. I knew that all the amazingly wonderful experiences in my life are all inside – and that I can access any one of them in a very visceral way, through meditation or dream time, etc. We all have all of our experiences. (Kate Asch)

An invitation for the new year 

At the time, I thought of Kate’s words as an invitation. She invited those of us who love her to know we “have” the experience of her inside of us, and that we can access it at any time. I have deepened my understanding of this over the years by connecting to her presence rather than her absence. It’s been a profound lesson to learn.

Today, I realize she also wanted to share this dream as a way to remind people to get in touch with the experiences that bring us joy, and to be intentional about bringing gratitude into the present moment again and again. She was saying that it’s simple. Simply envision the feeling, remember the experience as if it’s happening now.

In other words, if you re-experience the feeling of joy by imagining it with your mind, this IS joy itself and it IS happening now, no matter when you had the original experience!

In small ways every day, we get to choose the “rude awakening” of the circumstances around us or choose to call forth the blessings of our lives. Imagine what the coming year can be like if you tap into the experiences that have filled you with happiness, even when external circumstances are challenging at best.

Rather than “waking up” into the harsh physical reality of her body and cancer, Kate chose to wake up into the knowing that the reality of her inner world was up to her. Likewise, the reality of your inner world is up to you.

Remember that you can choose to access love, freedom, strength, joy, peace, comfort, connection, courage and hope whenever you need to, and especially when you need to the most. Simply breathe, imagine it, and know that you HAVE these experiences within you.

No amount of suffering can ever erase experiences of joy you’ve had in your life. And yet, calling forth your experiences of joy CAN relieve suffering.

This year, may you awaken and bask in the joy-filled moments.

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Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

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8 thoughts on “Awakening Joy, Even in Challenging Times

  1. Thanks for reminding me of Kate’s most profound teaching for me during those days when she prepared to leave her physical body. Her teaching for me was – and is – JOY. I need reminding! So thank you both. You are dear to my heart.

    • I need reminding too! So much of the gift of writing about Kate and my process is reminding myself of her joy, and of how I can choose joy too. BE the joy, indeed. Thanks, Ana.

  2. Yes ,Jen, thank you for sharing Kate’s radiant knowing of joy – even as her body was preparing to release itself into the cosmos. This is a fitting reminder for all of us entering the new year – that joy is within us always. Blessings all!

    • Thanks, Mary! Such a reminder to myself as well to live my joy, to choose joy. You certainly emanate joy whenever I see you ; )

  3. Thanks Jen…and Kate. Much love to you as we begin another year full of possibilities and also full of opportunities to appreciate all the blessings of our lives…past, present and future. xoxox

    • Thanks, Bayla! I so appreciate your support and encouragement and yes yes yes to appreciating the blessings in our lives. You are among mine ; )