Awakening to Joy

This past week Sojun guided our discussion, continuing on the topic of Joy, but focusing this time on practical advice for bringing appreciation to moments of happiness in our lives. Below are his notes on what was a very fruitful talk.

Joy is fundamental to successful practice, but joy does not always come easily. Taking joy as the focus of my practice this last week my experiences ran the gamut from carefree and joyful, to absolutely desolate and miserable. Over the course of the week I developed five approaches to joy, like five medicines of increasing strength, to help relate to joy even when it feels far away.

These five approaches I call:

  1. The Subtle
  2. The Opposite
  3. The Comical
  4. The Absence, and
  5. The Compassionate

The Subtle approach is for days where joyful practice comes easily. We need nothing more than to sit and experience the flow of sensation through the body like birds twittering through our limbs. One practitioner likened this feeling to the title of Walt Whitman poem, “I Sing The Body Electric.” These are the subtle changes in the senses and the world outside us that are constantly with us.

But we don’t always experience these sensations as joy. Sometimes they can appear to us as fear or anxiety. There is an element of interpretation that makes these sensations feel to be either joy or something else. An emotion is after all, a physical sensation matched with certain thoughts or mental images. The sensations themselves are often quite neutral, and as such, we can flip the switch on them and re-interpret negative feelings as their opposite. I like to use this technique in the morning if I’m resisting getting out of bed. I try to experience my anxiety about the day as excitement.

The Comical approach is useful when flipping the switch doesn’t work. We can see ourselves as the curmudgeon, the Mr. Wilson who refuses to see the play of a child as a joyful event.

Sometimes it feels as if we are pushing away joy on purpose. Perhaps we feel that we are not worthy of it. If we find ourselves doing something absurd like this, it is useful to follow this to its logical conclusion. Imagine yourself completely empty of joy. Nature abhors a vacuum. You may begin to feel joy from all around pushing into you like water pushing into a deep sea diving bell. This exercise never fails to make me giddy. This is the approach of absence.

But, of course there are times for all of us when joy seems as remote as the moon. We can’t remember any reason to feel good about anything, and the attempt to find joy is simply galling. At times like this it is helpful to remember the feelings of compassion that are present in you. That you would never wish this suffering on anyone, and that you would like nothing more than to see everyone freed from this misery. There are countless being in the world who wish the same for you. Even when you cannot feel it yourself, you can rely on the compassion of others to awaken joy within you.