Imagine yourself sitting on a granite boulder at the edge of a crystal-clear glassy lake, the reflection of the majestic mountains perfectly reflected in the still water. As the day turns to dusk, your reverie is broken by a buzzing in your ear and the bite of a mosquito. Soon, you’re swatting at your arms and legs, muttering, “If only these irritating mosquitoes weren’t here, then I’d be happy.”
This familiar refrain, “if only _______ were different, then I’d be happy” appears frequently for many of us. We find faults in things and then wish that those problems would go away, assuming we’d be happier that way. When a problem actually is absent, however, we often fail to pay attention and miss the opportunity to feel joy at the absence of the phenomenon.
So last week, when I was up high in the Sierra mountains, marveling at the stunning peaks, mirror-like lake and the flutter of birds around me, I paused and noticed what wasn’t there. There were no mosquitoes. Or any other biting insects for that matter. None. Which is a pretty rare occurrence in the Sierras. Granted, I was already in a gloriously beautiful setting, appreciating what was there: soaring mountains, brilliant blue sky and crystal clear lake. And certainly the presence of these stunning visuals brought a lot of joy. But when I noticed what wasn’t there (biting insects), I was especially joyful. I reflected that I have been on countless camping and backpacking trips where the buzz and biting of mosquitoes created conditions that were unpleasant, distracting and diminished my experience.
To take this idea further, a more personal absence I noticed on my trip to the mountains was the absence of pain in my ankle.
Several years ago I sustained a compound fracture of the talus bone in my ankle during a severe bicycle accident. Since then, my ankle has been restricted in its movement, which has limited the physical activities I can do. Before the accident, backpacking was one of my favorite things. I loved being in the serenity and beauty of the wilderness. I loved the high of the physical challenge as I scrambled over boulders, traversed waterways and scaled steep inclines. I backpacked into the mountains each year as a pilgrimage to connect with nature, something bigger than myself.
After my bicycle accident, I was no longer able to carry weight or walk long distances. Being unable to backpack was one of the biggest losses. This summer, however, I got into the backcountry by horse to Thousand Island Lakes in the eastern Sierras. I was back in the wilderness, embraced by beautiful peaks, chilly waterfalls and the scent of sun-warmed juniper trees.
It was easy to attend to the presence of all the things that bring joy in the mountains, and attending to the absence of pain in my ankle added to my joy.
I must admit there were times when I’d notice the young, strong women passing by, carrying their packs on their backs, lithe and healthy. I’d compare my movement-challenged condition to their strength and envy and sadness would arise. Quickly following that, I’d feel a strong dose of fear about the future health of my ankle. But then I refocused on what was present in the moment (the sights and sounds of nature around me) and what was absent (my ankle was not currently in pain). All of which brought joy. Gratitude replaced envy and fear. Sure, I didn’t hike up there myself, but with the help of a horse I was enjoying the beauty of the backcountry, which I’d thought was inaccessible to me.
In that moment, I made a choice: Instead of lamenting my injury, I could choose to feel joy in the absence of pain.
Noticing the absence of a phenomenon doesn’t come naturally. Because I often experience pain in my ankle and monitor it, I naturally notice when it’s not there. It’s harder to generate the thought I’m joyful because I don’t have cancer right now, because I’ve never experienced cancer. But having just gone for a walk with a friend who is undergoing chemotherapy, it’s easier to feel joy at the absence of cancer in my own life. This isn’t schadenfreude. I’m not finding joy in her pain. Instead, I’m feeling joy at my own absence of cancer. Pain will visit me in other ways, this is certain. But if it’s not here in this moment, that’s a great cause for joy!
So I invite you to experience more joy by noticing when you’re not in pain. No toothache. No sadness. No fear. No hunger. No headache. Because freedom from pain—physical or emotional—is one of the greatest joys in life.
Lori Schwanbeck is a Search Inside Yourself Certified Teacher and a mindfulness-based psychotherapist practicing in San Rafael and San Francisco, California.