Great Joy: An Ability, a Capacity, a Responsibility, a Direct Experience

While in the midst of hate
to dwell free from hating is happiness indeed.
While in the midst of those who are troubled,
to dwell untroubled is happiness indeed.
While in the midst of those who are greedy,
to dwell free from greed is happiness indeed.

Verses 197-199 Dhammapada

Sharon Salzberg, in her new book Real Love makes the point that love is not a gift that either does or doesn’t drop on our doorstep. She defines it as an ability that needs to be strengthened, a capacity that needs to be developed, and in the end, a responsibility. This is true of joy as well; it is something we can practice and that we can do. This is the heart of Buddhist Ethics. Kindness, compassion, joy, and a nonreactive evenness of heart are capacities that we have and that we are called upon to cultivate. As much as we know the rightness in refraining from hating, hostility, harming, greed and agitation, we realize it is important to make an effort to grow an honest, authentic, positive attitude, one that includes rejoicing. This is extremely important.

I once heard a teaching story about the importance of using our life energy wisely. In Buddhist teachings this life energy is one of our spiritual powers, one of the factors activated when we are mindful, and a very important aspect of the eight practices that help us “to not make things worse.” This particular story (a Jataka tale, I think) revolved around a farmer who was very proud of his strong ox. He took it to many competitions, where the ox performed greater and greater feats of strength, winning every prize. I don’t remember many of the story’s details, but I do recall that the farmer finally realized––with some degree of awe––the unwavering, selfless dedication of the ox. Once he was inspired into knowing that there were far more important tasks to do with this magnificent strength than to show it off at country fairs, the farmer began a serious transformation. I mainly remember, though, that the ox’s name was “Great Joy.” The wise understanding of joyous energy is essential to a life of human flourishing.

Joy has played a steadily increasing role in my own spiritual life––both in my practice and in my understanding––over the course of many years. At one point, I hardly even knew what it meant. I spent a summer intentionally looking for, finding, and investigating the feeling of joy––in my experience and that of others. I learned that I did indeed feel it, but that I tended not to linger with it. There was really almost a felt-sense of my repelling it, as if I shouldn’t feel it or at least not feel it for too long. What was that about? Perhaps my uncomfortableness was related to the years of living with a terminal illness, which carried with it a sense of having to work very hard to stay alive. Perhaps it was also connected to my early entry into the Buddha’s teachings. The first translation I encountered of the Awakened One’s last words were: “Strive on with diligence.” Almost paradoxically, my diligent investigation of joy led me into spending more time with joy. And becoming familiar with joy was life altering.

As I looked more, my interest in joy and its qualities grew; and it began to lift my spirits. “Gladden the heart wearied by pain,” I read, in a book by U Pandita on how to develop concentration practices. In coming to be more intimate with this lovely feeling, I have recognized a subtle joy that arises by simply being attentive in this present moment. Recently in Berlin, after a period of meditation and meditative exercises, a man new to our prison group said that the time of practice with us had seemed like a vacation to him, an escape from the tribulations of his life. He’d experienced freedom and joy right there in the present moment. Every one of us in the group that day broke out in joyous laughter at his words. It was so surprising to think that relief from the mental anguish and physical pain of a lifetime was found right there within all those prison bars. Wholesome joy is right here for all of us now. It was such a pleasure for us to see how it transformed this tortured man, who had been seeking joy in the wrong places.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
––William Blake

To develop joy takes some know-how. It cannot, of course, be taken on as a grim duty, or its realization is thwarted before it gets started. A simple meditation technique to use is mindfulness: looking for it, becoming aware of it, taking an interest in and investigating it, and then lingering with the feeling. Eventually, if we linger with and savor it for a while, we may become completely absorbed in the happy state. If we don’t find it in the experience of being awake in the moment, we can arouse it through a happy memory, an image, a joyful phrase, or simply with an aspiration: “May joy arise in me now.” We can, in a sense, do it, become it (by lingering and soaking), and then, easily, we begin to radiate it. We enact it into our relationships.

One of the things about joy that I learned firsthand, during that summer when I became interested in it, is that I can see and feel it in others as well as in myself. I saw it in my friends, neighborhood children, strangers, people I didn’t like much. I saw joy in dogs and cats, squirrels, and, I think, even in the garden plants––especially in a summer rain after a long period of no rain. Amazingly, one morning while sitting at the edge of Mascoma Lake, I saw it in a school of fish! A group of very big carp was in the shallows looking for food when they started to be playful among themselves, even to the point where they were jumping up out of the water. I started laughing, and, in that moment, I had the startling realization that other beings’ joy could bring me joy. That is one aspect of what is meant by mudita, a term and a practice that is often translated as “altruistic joy”––feeling the joy of another, celebrating the good fortune of another. We can do this intentionally.

Most recently, I have been working with another traditional mudita practice; that is, using this practice of remembering and rejoicing in my own good deeds and good intentions as a way of cultivating joy. A teacher friend told me that he had heard of a group of monks in Tibet who each had a little notebook they always carried with them. In it, they wrote down every good deed they did––big or little, thought, action, or speech. When one of these monks was dying the others took turns reading his good book back to him. As he approached death, thoughts of his goodness protected him from the danger of afflictive ruminations. I was deeply moved upon hearing this story, and I started a “good book” of my own. I don’t write in it every day but I do often jot things down in it. I have started to save thank you notes that I receive. I store them with my “good book.” I am hoping that people will read them to me while I am dying. I often remember a few of the deeds as I enter into a meditation period. It helps my attitude immensely. It cheers my heart. At the time of my recent bicycle accident, during the forty-five minutes or so that I was awaiting help, I did reflect on some of the good things I have done in this lifetime. I also looked for joy too. I found it in the easy movement of my not-broken back and my not-broken neck. I also found it on and off in the simple act of attention in the present moment, the simple joy of being alive.

We seem to be living in a very dark time. For the next six weeks or more, our northern New England world is making its annual trek into shadows, which seem deeper than usual given all the rainy days. At the same time, it seems like the ethical fiber of our nation is rapidly deteriorating. There is an increasing anxiety and a growing felt-sense of lack; the real and the imagined financial difficulties; racial oppression; intense “tribal” divisions, and an increasing contentiousness. There is a reported epidemic of loneliness. It seems that our elections, even if over for a moment, begin almost immediately to loom again. It feels increasingly important that we use our strong and dedicated ox-like energy towards creating and recognizing conditions for “Great Joy” and small joy too––all of it––babies, the exquisite purple of mountains, immigrant support work, stuffing envelopes, a transparent golden leaf, offering a meal or a smile, frost on the car, the kindness of a stranger or a dear friend––or even that of a difficult person––a ride given or received, a sunny day, people voting, old faces in mirrors, blogs detailing a son’s journey with cancer, the memory of a good deed.

When we appreciate fully the benefit of our own pure deeds,
We are filled with joy; here and hereafter
There is a celebration of joy.

Verse 16, Dhammapada

Thinking back to the story of the farmer and his strong, energetic ox, I realize that we are called upon in the ongoing cultivation of this wonderful capacity for joy to use it skillfully, to use it in service to ourselves and to those with whom we share the world––not simply to have a good time at the county fair with it, or to “win friends and influence people.” Joy played an invaluable role in the Buddha’s awakening. Sutta stories tell us that he had several happy experiences that made possible his “final breakthrough” into seeing directly how the world works. His severe asceticism had brought him to near-starvation when he had a powerful memory of feeling safe, completely contented, and joyful––it was of a time with his boyhood community engaged in a shared task. Soon after, he accepted the offer of some nourishing food. He sat on a soft pile of grass instead of a hard rock. His subsequent realizations liberated his own heart and have benefited countless millions of people directly and indirectly for over 2600 years.

A few years ago, I heard a different version of the Buddha’s last words than those about striving that I had first encountered. This one from Stephen Batchelor is simply: “Continue with care.” And this quote, purported to be from a Tibetan master: “Work as hard as you can, and take it easy.” With heedfulness and compassion as the guiding stars of our continuing ethical journey, we take on the responsibility to consider joy carefully. We pay attention to it; we become interested in and linger with it. As we become familiar with joy, we interact: we train it and give it the exercise it needs to strengthen. We share it. We feed it the insights it needs to become liberated from the bounds of self-interest until this simple, ordinary capacity for joy becomes an unstoppable spiritual power. The best definition of “spiritual” I have heard recently is important here. “Spiritual is not the opposite of secular; instead it is the opposite of ego-centered.” (Michael Pollen). How might we use this palpable, very pleasant aspect of our life energy called “Great Joy” responsibly. To paraphrase a well-loved verse from a Mary Oliver poem:

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious “Great Joy?”

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