Joy is our birthright, and something sought by people of all cultures. If this is true, then why is there still so much anxiety, fear, anger and violence in the world? Could it be that we are looking for joy in all the wrong places?
“Being more joyful is not just about having more fun,” I read in The Book of Joy. “We’re talking about a more empathic, more empowered, even more spiritual state of mind that is totally engaged with the world.”
Cultivating joy is a subject of great interest to me, one I have actively pursued with the goal of experiencing more joy, and hopefully, giving an example of joy to my children. So, when a friend recommended a book she was reading — The Book of Joy, a collaboration of discussions between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, compiled by Douglas Abrams — I was intrigued to learn what they had to say about the subject. This month I will turn 60; it seemed like a good time to take stock of the ways I’ve discovered to nurture joy. I was curious to see if the suggestions given by these spiritual teachers resembled my discoveries. I had a feeling they might be.
Over time, periods of joyfulness for me have come more often and lasted longer, especially in the past four years since I started practicing Reiki. Before getting into the book, I sat down and contemplated some of the practices that make me feel joyful. So here is my list:
• Nature makes me especially joyful — walking on the beach, watching birds and other animals like the deer who visit us each day, and being surrounded by trees and the elements.
• Times of play, when I feel like I’m 10 again, give me great joy. I joyfully play volleyball on the beach each week and I swear I don’t feel my age then, not even close to it. We joke and play around, often listening and swaying to music as we wait for the ball. In most circumstances I can act like a kid at the drop of a hat; I love looking at life with the playfulness and wonder of a child.
• The act of creating gives me much joy. I design glass mosaic pictures and tables. While making these, I lose all sense of time. I began writing poetry and stories a few years ago. Writing has become a way of life for me now. It helps me to look closely at the minutiae around me, and I believe this awareness is also a path to joy.
• Alone time is precious to me and can lead to joy — reading, writing, contemplating.
• Feeling gratitude also brings me great joy. Each day what I am thankful for changes somewhat, but many of the core elements, like gratefulness for my family, remain the same.
• Music makes me joyful, activities with my family, holding my purring cat, also acts of kindness. And when I’m completely open to experience, that brings me joy.
• Genuinely bonding with people, even with strangers, gives me joy — even if it’s just a smile, a few words, or attentive listening.
• This leads to my easiest, quickest way to experience joy — through Reiki. The instant I feel Reiki’s energy in my body and flowing out of my hands to another person, an animal or myself, I relax, I breathe deeply, I let go. To me, Reiki is a spiritual practice, a way to live that is part of everything I do. It fosters my faith in goodness, my connectedness with life. Each morning I do a Reiki meditation for thirty minutes to an hour and I sometimes do another again before bed or if I wake up during the night. Often it is difficult for me to bring these sessions to a close because I feel so peaceful. The longer I practice Reiki, the more joy and tranquility it has given me, but even from the beginning it gave me a special feeling.
Eager to Read
Once I made my list, I was eager to read The Book of Joy and interested to see what these remarkable men who care about living beings so deeply had to say about joy.
“The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu,” the book told me, “are two of the great spiritual masters of our time, but they are also moral leaders who transcend their own traditions and speak always from a concern for humanity as a whole.”
I greatly respect that — a realization that the human being is more important than the credos of whatever religion we practice. They agree that no dark fate determines our future; we do. “Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet.” This makes me think about the fear the world is experiencing now as we abide in this global pandemic. I sincerely believe that joy can be cultivated even in circumstances as difficult as these.
The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop have lived real lives filled with pain and turmoil, and still in the midst of these experiences they have been able to find peace and joy. Suffering is inevitable, they concur, but how we respond to the distress we encounter is a reaction we are free to choose. “As [we] discover more joy, [we] can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters, experience hardship without becoming hard, and heartbreak without being broken.”
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the playfulness between these two spiritual leaders. They laughed, they joked, they were mischievous, and I could feel how they honored their friendship and the other’s religion. Abrams says what he has seen in the time he has spent with the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop is a generosity of spirit. They are “…big-hearted, magnanimous, tolerant, broad-minded, patient, forgiving, and kind” — excellent mentors for living life to its fullest.
How to cultivate it
When asked by Abrams, “How can people cultivate that sense of joy as a way of being, and not just a temporary feeling,” they agreed — by not denying pain and suffering but shifting the perspective from anguish to compassion for others.
This reminds me of a difficult time in my life 10 years ago when my father died suddenly. I was with him playing cribbage one afternoon and the next morning when I went to see him, he had passed. He had lived on the same property for 16 years where I lived with my husband and two children. We loved each other very much and had many of the same values — except in one crucial area: he had an addiction to alcohol. To be honest, there were times during those 16 years when I wasn’t sure how much I would grieve for him if he passed. We went through some incredibly challenging experiences because of his drinking.
It eventually came down to an ultimatum, and I often wonder why it took me so long to make it — the need to stop drinking or live somewhere else. In the end, after much complaining and bravado, he made a firm decision and gave it up just like that, and we had two wonderful years with him without this problem between us. The intensity of grief I felt when he died surprised me. It overwhelmed me. I couldn’t find a way out of it. So, I cried, I wrote, I found some books that helped, written by other people who had suffered, and finally I discovered something that took the edge off my pain. I was given the grace of understanding from the wonderful books I read that helping others could lessen my pain. That was the year my spiritual search really took off and I started volunteering and helping in other ways. I am very thankful for my father’s part in that lesson.
The Dalai Lama says, “The way through the sadness and grief that comes from great loss is to use it as motivation to generate a deeper sense of purpose.” He believes that by simply shifting our focus to another person, our own pain can lessen. We have the choice to put “…our attention on our own suffering or on that of others, on our own perceived separation or on our indivisible connection.” The joy from expressing love and generosity to others does not diminish.
In the Archbishop’s home of South Africa, the concept of Ubuntu is understood as, “when I have a small piece of bread it is for my benefit that I share it with you.” Bringing joy to others is the quickest way to experience joy oneself.
One of the principal problems that keeps us from joy is that in the modern world, many of our intrinsic goals and our education are based on external, materialistic values. There is little concern for inner development.
“If we look at today’s materialistic life,” The Book of Joy tells me, “people seem mainly concerned with sensory experiences. That’s why [our] satisfaction is very limited and brief, since [our] experience of happiness is so dependent on external stimuli.” Scientists have found that the more we experience any pleasure, the more we numb to its effects. Like a drug, it must be taken in ever-greater quantities to produce the same high. It is unfortunate that success in our society is measured by money, power, influence, and fame.
Trying to control
Another mindset that keeps us from experiencing joy is trying to control what is impermanent and uncontrollable, because we believe that what is happening to us, our loved ones, or the world, should not be happening. The Dalai Lama comments, “We have perceptions about our experience, and we judge them. This is good. This is bad.” Letting go of these judgments is a start down a path toward peace and then joy. When I have attempted to practice this in my close relationships and in world events; it has brought an eventual sense of peace that not even I could have imagined.
The Archbishop explains that “people would like to be able to take a pill that makes their fear and anxiety go away….” This is not a long-term solution. To permanently cure anxiety, we need to cultivate mental immunity over time through self-awareness. By practicing self-inquiry and meditation, we can soothe our emotional reactivity. He suggests keeping everything in perspective. “The world is getting better. We are growing and learning how to be compassionate, how to be caring, how to be humans.”
I also feel this is true, that the world is learning to care. “To choose hope is the antidote to despair…, to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that in time, the storm will pass.” This requires faith, “…even if that faith is nothing more than…the very persistence of life to find a way.”
Gratitude for our blessings in life is a much-acknowledged approach to joy. The Archbishop says gratitude is “…moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings. The Dalia Lama believes each day as we wake up we should think: “I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. Gratitude helps us catalog, celebrate, and rejoice in each day and each moment before they slip through the vanishing hourglass of experience.”
Compassion and having the courage to live with an open heart are two other traits we can cultivate. Often, we fear compassion because we’re afraid of experiencing the vulnerability from opening our heart. But compassion is an empowered state. “When we have the courage to be open, we are able to feel our pain and the pain of others, but we are also able to experience more joy.”
Taking these ideas to heart is key and in the last part of their book there are practices for overcoming obstacles to joy and cultivating joy. According to the Archbishop, “…like our physical body, where growth takes time, our mental development also takes time — minute by minute, day by day, month by month, year by year, decade by decade.” The more we practice, the more benefit we receive. According to the Archbishop, when we begin meditating or praying, we can experience what he calls “…spiritual sweets, or the tingling and calming that comes from starting to pay attention to our inner life. Like sweets, these are tasty, but the real benefits occur as we create a temporal container into which we can pour our heart and soul as we experience the joys and sorrows of life.” I have felt these “spiritual sweets” with meditation and Reiki.
The practices the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop have fostered to find joy are these: being openhearted, feeling our connection and interdependence, striving to be less self-centered and more generous; believing in the world’s goodness; having faith and trust; remaining non-judgmental; genuinely caring for others’ well-being; and understanding that with practice, the joy that seems elusive is totally attainable.
These men are beacons of light because they overcame some of the most horrendous circumstances and are able to still exhibit joy. They embody compassion, forgiveness, humility, acceptance and positivity. And as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all….”
I found out that my practices to nurture joy did coincide in many ways with techniques taught by the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop. Although Reiki is not mentioned in this book, it is a perfect blend of many of the attributes that lead to joy —love, compassion, trust and unity. Those I know who practice Reiki exemplify many of the same traits talked about by the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, especially caring, kindness and a desire to be of service.
Sometimes, my children call me when things aren’t going the way they had hoped, and they tell me they are looking for more joy in life. My standard answer, after showing compassion for how they feel, is to suggest they spend some time in silence. When we are still, we can receive ideas to guide us through difficulties. I also suggest that they try to connect with the people around them, give them their undivided attention, and if an idea comes to help someone, to offer that help. Most people are just looking for someone who cares.
I make these suggestions to my children because these are the things I do when I feel out of balance; that or I read a chapter or two from a book — like The Book of Joy — that inspires me to love more and to remember this too shall pass.