Joy (sukha in Pali) should be our natural state of being. Unfortunately, though, we’ve been brought up in a society that emphasizes wanting things and having things as the primary path to happiness. Wanting things actually destroys joy, while having things brings only a short-term burst of pleasure that fades quickly.
In fact, thinking that joy depends on things outside of ourselves is a trap. It makes it harder for us to experience real happiness. True happiness comes from our attitude toward things, not from things themselves.
Despite its seeming elusiveness, it’s possible for us to spend much of our time in a state of joy, and here are a few suggestions for moving in that direction:
Remembering to smile has a potent effect on how we feel. It sparks off a whole chain of mental and physical events, and promotes a sense of happiness. We can even smile in the face of pain and fear. This reminds us that basically things are OK, right now. Yes, things are not “perfect,” but we can deal with it.
Rick Hanson, the author of The Buddha’s Brain, reminds us that the mind has a built-in negativity bias. We’re more likely to pay attention to potential threats than to benefits — even benefits that presently exist. As he puts it, the mind “is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Smiling implicitly connects us with the positive.
Along the same lines, appreciation supports the arising of joy. This is true both in meditation and in our ordinary lives. When people were asked to write a letter of appreciation to someone who had benefitted them, they were measurably happier for weeks afterward. Explicit appreciation is the most effective. When we say words of thanks to ourselves, even in our own heads, it makes the appreciation more real — probably because it involves more of the brain.
So in meditation I have a practice I sometimes do of saying “thanks” for all the things that are going right. I notice that the climate is livable (even if it doesn’t fit my narrow conception of “ideal”) and say “thank you.” I notice the room around me, appreciate that it’s sheltering me from the elements, and say “thank you.” I notice that the electricity, gas, internet connection are functioning, and say “thank you” (I’ll do these separately, but I’m abbreviating the process here for the sake of brevity). I’ll say thank you in this way for:
- Living in a country where there’s law and order,
- The presence of other people around me, some of whom I have loving relationships with,
- The presence of furnishings (this is unimaginable luxury for many people in the world),
- Individual body parts that function, day in, day out,
- Functioning senses,
- Functioning utilities — internet, water, electricity, etc.,
- A world round about me that’s filled with beauty.
This practice can be very detailed. In fact it’s best that it’s very, very detailed, so where I’ve said “individual body parts” above, you can in fact do a detailed body scan, identifying each part of the body in turn and saying “thank you” to each. Even where there’s pain, you can note that the body part is still struggling to function for you, and trying to heal. (This, incidentally, can free us from the tendency to blame the body for being sick or in pain.)
3. Imbue your experience with a sense of lovingkindness
To be loving is one of our deepest needs. The experience of loving is deeply beneficial to us, and helps bring about a sense of wellbeing and joy.
Jan Chozen Bays, in her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant, writes very beautifully about the practices of “loving gaze” and “loving touch.” You can simply evoke the experience of looking with love (for example, remembering looking at a sleeping child) or of touching with love (for example, placing a hand on someone who is in pain). By recalling those ways of interacting, we can bring a sense of love into our experience right now.
As you become aware of your body in meditation, for example, you don’t have to do that in a cold and clinical way. You can “gaze” (not literally, but in terms of being aware) inwardly in a loving way, and fill your entire body with a sense of love.
4. Feel loved
It can also be very helpful to feel loved. In one traditional form of the lovingkindness meditation, we begin by recalling someone (“the benefactor”) who has shown us kindness. By doing so we can recapture the feeling of being loved, which again is an important support for a sense of “everything being all right.”
If it’s hard to recapture that feeling, you can imagine being a baby in your mother’s arms, warm and loved and cared-for.
Sometimes I’ve found it useful just to imagine that there’s a source of light and love in the world, that I can tap into. I’ll imagine that I’m at the receiving end of a shaft of light, and that this light touches me in a loving way, flooding my being with lovingkindness.
I’ve also sometimes imagined that I’m meditating with the Buddha, not in an idealized and iconic form like you see in Tibetan paintings, but just as an ordinary man sitting beside me. And I’ll drop into my mind the phrase “feel the love of the Buddha.” What then happens is that I’ll feel a sense that the Buddha is radiating love, like an aura, and that I’m on the receiving end of his blessings.
5. Savor the positive
Notice and appreciate any positive experiences that rise, however ordinary they may be. It could be the simple feeling of a coffee cup warming your hands, or seeing the sunlight shining through a window. Or it could be a pleasant feeling that arises when you think of a friend. In meditation, this could be a pleasant sensation of energy in one part of the body, or the simple rhythm of the breath, or a sense that the body is relaxing, or moments of calmness beginning to appear in the mind, or a sense of light, or any spontaneous and pleasing imagery that may appear in the mind
Your attention may want to slide quickly onto something else, but this is just an instance of the mind’s tendency to take the positive for granted and to go looking for something to be troubled with. So notice anything positive in your experience.
Don’t grasp after such experiences though, and don’t cling to them. All experiences pass. In fact experiences are passing as we have them. So let them go, and don’t mourn their passing. Just appreciate them as best you can.