I sit here,
Dappled by the sun filtering
through the leaves, a child chases a pigeon,
the old man naps there on the bench,
a white moth flits by,
occasions of joy,
always right here.
Say the word joy, and what comes to mind? To me, joy seems to come unbidden, just erupting at the oddest times. It isn’t possible to plan for joy, yet when it comes, it is an unmistakable overflowing of feelings of delight in the world and its mysteries.
I remember the morning that my dear friend Robert died, after a long night of struggle. It was one of those bright, early September mornings when the sun rises at just the angle that portends the waning of summer light. The nurses left me in the room for several hours, and I sat with his body. I chanted, I thought of our times together, I said good-bye, and then it was time to leave. When I stepped out on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 77th Street, just a few feet away was a flower stand bursting with the season’s colors. I stood transfixed, staring at the beauty of chrysanthemums, asters, dahlias, and zinnias. The sounds of morning traffic, the people moving down the street, the flowers, the sun, and the sky all seemed to be a joyous celebration of life itself, now seeming so precious after witnessing my friend’s long night of letting go.
Yes, that joyful feeling was oddly present. It was as if a vibrant, fresh energy possessed me, like a brilliant dye coloring my whole being—the joy of life all around me. The intensity of his death, the long night of witness, and the early morning of saying good-bye all worked together to encourage a readiness to experience joy. Does that sound strange? It felt strange. After a moment or so, I was stunned at the feeling I was having. And I was grateful. Suddenly I was experiencing the vitality and immediacy of life itself—in the flowers, the people, the clamor of traffic—without the walls of resistance that human beings are heir to.
Related: Lighten Up!
What is this resistance? Why do we again and again resist our feelings of joy or happiness or love? We don’t do it intentionally, but our conditioning, our habits of mind, and our culture all seem to work to build up the walls between what we naturally feel and what we allow ourselves to feel. Ironically, it is often the times when we are forced to feel intensely—times of grief, sorrow, or physical pain—that catapult us into feeling joy. That is why we often hear people say they are grateful for the losses or difficulties they have encountered. They are grateful because the shock forced them into an intimacy with life that had been hidden from them. Intimacy seems hidden, but it is actually available to us all the time: in the world we inhabit with people, in the natural world, in our work, and in all our relationships. Once we are willing to be directly intimate with our life as it arises, joy emerges out of the simplest of life experiences. Something happens—a mourning dove coos, the eyes of another person meet ours, a cat stretches, we notice the sensation of breeze on our cheek—and at once we are intimate with our life. It can be so subtle. You’re hurrying along the street, and suddenly you notice a drop of dew on a leaf. You stop and allow that surging feeling in your chest to just well up. The moment passes, and you are back in the diffused attention of the street you’re walking in: the people going by, the errand you are on, the way the day is settling on you. Yet this quality of joy hangs around the edges, allowing you to open yourself to being awake and new with each experience you encounter. Joy wells up when we leave room in our consciousness for it to come.
Joy can come as a surprise, when we least expect it. I recall sitting in a dark, airless, funky “multipurpose space” we called the meditation room at an HIV/AIDS health facility in New York City. This was before the arrival of lifesaving medication, and the center was very busy. Twice a week, I would ride my bike across town, walk into the dingy room, stack the chairs, vacuum the floor with our portable vacuum, unlock the cabinet, put out twenty meditation cushions, and wait for anyone who might come in. There were a few regulars who came to each meeting, and there were drop-ins, often those who were waiting for the acupuncture clinic next door. We would sit in meditation, talk about it a little, and then it would be time for me to repack the cushions, reset the chairs, and leave the room. It’s hard to explain, because there was a grimness to the scene, yet somehow joy always arose in that little room with those who joined me there. Sickness and addiction were all around us, but the joy of connection, of being able to offer what little I could and in turn receiving the warmth and humanness of others, made those days of service uplifting and alive. No matter how tired and irritable I may have felt going in, I always seemed to leave with a flutter of energy in my chest: simple joy. Such a gift coming from a modest act of service to others! No matter how small or large our effort may be, the activity of giving and receiving in relationship generates a field of joy when it is not encumbered by our grasping for ego gratification.
In the midst of our work, whatever it is, to recognize our joy is a wondrously beneficial experience. Although the intense feeling may fade, the sense of internal gratitude and respect stays with us. This is especially true when we are working in a group for some mutual goal. When we gather to clean a park, make food, or write a document together, there can be a quality of joy within the whole group, a kind of dropping of our usual preoccupied selves—the selves that want to be gratified in one way or another or to avoid pain—and instead, there is the joy in the efforts we offer together.
What is this intimacy, this joy, this being so close to what is in the moment that we are filled with awe? When we think of joy, we think of a buoyant, upward-moving feeling of delight, pleasure, and appreciation. We may associate joy with happy things, with falling in love, or with getting what we want. But actually there is a deeper, more resonant, soulful feeling: the joy of life no matter what the circumstances.
We may associate joy with happy things, with falling in love, or with getting what we want. But actually there is a deeper, more resonant, soulful feeling: the joy of life no matter what the circumstances.
How is joy like falling in love? They seem similar yet slightly different. When we fall in love with a person or an idea or a project, there is also that upward sensation, that flow of energy that feels really good, almost magical, but the difference can be a subtle one. Falling in love or achieving great success is euphoric, an intensely felt elation that is dependent on the relative success of our attachment to the object of our love. True joy, with its sense of wonder and reverence, comes of itself and neither depends on nor arises out of our personal ego attachments, our projections, or our needs. True joy comes of itself, rather like the ancient Taoist notion of tzu-jan—that which naturally emerges from what is present in this moment, this situation. Often this is the simplest of moments: a surprising joy that lifts you up when you feel a cool breeze on a crowded city street; a flash of inspiration as you glimpse the moon behind the clouds, a drop of water on a leaf, a toddler laughing. It is just what is actually coming up in this moment if we are free enough to notice it.
We can’t control joy. It is something that bobs up when we are truly alive and meet the whole world in an instant. We can experience joy in every aspect of our life, in working, in caring, in creating, and even in suffering. I think the key to experiencing joy is, as we say so often, being awake. What is “being awake”? Isn’t it our capability to let go of our grasping onto what we think we want, what we think is happening to us, to drop all of those presumptions and be exposed and intimate with what is here, right now? I believe it is our resistance to what is right here, right now, that blocks the natural flow of joy.
You could even say that it is the search for joy that brings us to practice meditation. We may call it something else: freedom from our fear, our anxiety, our obsessions, our sadness, or our grasping (greed). Yet, if we go a little deeper, we may find that the key to our liberation from our fears is getting really close to ourselves, finding our own being deep within: the one who is not afraid, anxious, or grasping; the one who is simply here now; the one who spontaneously experiences joy in the ordinary stream of life. How do we get in touch with that deepest, clearest, most intimate self? Isn’t it through the practice of stopping, breathing, bringing our heart-mind back to this breath, this reality, whatever it may be?
In that practice of intimate meditation, we enter what the ancients called the “gate of ease and joy.” This phrase, from an early Chinese meditation manual, evokes the ease that Shakyamuni felt as he settled onto a cushion made of kusha grass offered by the milkmaid who gave him the sustenance after his many years of struggle, intentional hunger, and self-denial. The offering of something of ease helped to turn him toward a “middle way” between asceticism and excess. Such is the ease evoked in the phrase “gate of ease and joy”: an ease that gently smoothes the sharp pangs of life that invade our mind and leaves a space within us for joy. The joy in the phrase is like the joy evoked in the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha says that those who respond to the teachings with joy will go forth in various places among various people, who will themselves respond with joy and go forth and in this way share joy throughout the world. The infectious quality of joy is like when a baby laughs or an old person smiles; we don’t know why we experience joy, but we do, because it is joy arising.
What is it that opens the gate to joy in our ordinary, day-to-day lives? I’ve been calling it awakeness and awareness: the simple practice of sitting quietly, breathing in and out, dropping our obsessive thoughts and resistance to the freshness of the moment that is exactly here. It is amazing, our resistance to tapping into the joy that is like the blue sky surrounding this earth. Joy is always here if we can just for a few moments stop our constant ruminating and grasping for what is not here. Breathing in, we drop our preoccupations and thoughts, and we simply breathe in, enjoying that in-breath. Breathing out, we again simply enjoy that out-breath. In this way, we experience things as they are. Appreciation and gratitude suffuse our whole being, and joy arises.
Maybe it doesn’t always feel exactly like that. When we hang onto our stories and ideas about ourselves, it doesn’t feel joyful; it feels tiresome. We say, “Oh no, that thought again, that desire, that frustration.” But if we take a breath and calmly, without any self-recrimination, see the distraction and let it go, we are back in the reality of this moment. We are at once aware of what we were thinking and of the present moment.
Related: An Introduction to Zen
This dual awareness, a split-second really, helps us to recognize the truth and vitality of being awake to this moment. And as we clear away this old debris, a deeper truth emerges. It is like the story of the Chinese Zen Master Dongshan, who was asked, “Is there joy in your practice?” He replied, “It is not without joy. It’s like sweeping shit into a pile and then picking up a precious jewel from within it.”
Of course there’s shit; shit is part of life. It is what is left over from our actions, smelling of all the aspects of life. If there weren’t shit, we wouldn’t appreciate the jewel. An old Buddhist theme is that in the mythical “heavenly realm” where everything is perfect, true liberation is not possible. I would add that true joy is not possible in a world without suffering. The suffering (the shit) enriches us, gives us wisdom and compassion. The jewel is this joy of life itself.
When we are willing to be intimate with what actually is here now, to look directly at all of our experience, we might recognize that this is our life, however different from our thoughts and ideas about it. It is as if we hunker down and actually get very real, recognizing that our thoughts of gaining and losing, good and bad, happy and sad, are what distance us from ourselves. When we breathe in fully and pause, we clear a space in our mind without judgment. If we are willing to hang in with the practice over and over again, noticing how our thoughts of gaining or losing distance us from ourselves and from what is, we open ourselves to a whole new reality. We enter into intimacy with everything; we enter a world of joy that is so close, so pervasive, that we are surprised we haven’t been aware of its presence all along.
Once Dongshan was asked, “What is the deepest truth? What is the wisdom that liberates?” His response was, “I am always close to this.” It is the closeness itself—the intimacy with what is here with us now—that is the truth that liberates us. Imagine being so close to your experience of life! This is true joy. To be so close to your experience of life, so intimate with your world, that you are filled with awe. You are like a child lying in the grass, staring up at the vast starry night.
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