When I talk to people about how much they experience joy, most say, “Not so much.” Joy is not a frequent visitor, and when it does appear, it’s fleeting.
Joy arises when we are open to both the beauty and suffering inherent in living. Like a great sky that includes all different types of weather, joy is an expansive quality of presence. It says “Yes to life, no matter what!” Yet it’s infrequency lets us know our more habitual posture: resisting what’s happening, saying “No” to the life that is here and now. We tend to override our innate capacity for joy with our incessant inner dialogue, our chronic attempts to avoid unpleasantness and to hold on to pleasure. Rather than joy in the present moment, we are trying to get somewhere else, to experience something that is better, different.
The great French writer, André Gide, said:
“Know that joy is rarer, more difficult and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”
Joy is an “obligation” because it is an expression of our full potential. Only if we commit ourselves to loving life, do we come fully into our wholeness. This commitment means we investigate our limiting beliefs about our own goodness and worth. It means we bring mindfulness to our discursive thoughts and judgments. And it means we challenge the values of a culture that fixate on material growth, consumerism, and the domination of nature.
There is a story of a young monk who arrives at a monastery and he’s assigned to help the other monks copying the canons and the laws of the church by hand. He notices that the monks are copying from copies. He goes to the old abbot and he questions this. He points out that if there were even a small error earlier on, that it would never be picked up. In fact, it would be continued in all subsequent copies. The abbot says, “We’ve been copying from copies for centuries, but you have a good point.” So he goes down to the vaults, way down deep in the caves under the monastery where the original manuscripts have been sitting for ages, for hundreds of years. Hours go by. Nobody sees the old abbot. Finally, the young, new monk gets really worried so he goes downstairs. He finds the old abbot, who is banging his head against the wall and crying uncontrollably. Concerned he asks him, “Father, father, what’s wrong?” And in a choking voice, the old abbot replies, “The word was ‘celebrate!’ (not celibate)”
When we get lost in habitual behaviors—in living according to others expectations, in avoiding risks, in not questioning our beliefs—we bypass opportunities to celebrate life. Joy is only possible if you are living in your body, with your senses awake. One training that cultivates your capacity for joy is to purposefully stop when you even get the slightest little tendril of a sense of “Ah…happiness.” Whenever you start feeling some simple pleasure, a sense of something you appreciate, stop. Be fully aware of your body, of sensation and aliveness. Be aware of your heart. Sense what it’s like to fully savor the beauty of a falling leaf, the warmth of a hug, the quietness at dawn. We’re not a culture of savoring. We grasp after our pleasures, but we don’t pause. We don’t spend much time with our senses awake.
See what happens if you commit yourself to loving life. Begin by remembering to pause and savor the simple pleasures. Have the intention to hold gently the difficulties. Open your heart to the life of this moment and discover that joy is never very far away.
Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)