NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Joy” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
What draws many of us to babies is how they seem to experience life with excitement and wonder. This is our natural state, of joy in being alive and in the world.
Unfortunately, life experiences and our self-protective responses to them, sometimes beginning as early as infancy, add layers of difficulty on top of that joy, each one burying it deeper and deeper in us, until it may seem as if joy never existed. Once this has occurred, instead of touching our innate joyfulness, we seek to find “happiness” from external sources – in people, experiences, things – and forget that all we are actually doing is awakening something that is already inside us. So our essential joy remains buried, sunk below our awareness, inaccessible. This is not a phenomenon new to our complex time. As William Wordsworth observed two centuries ago, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. . . . We have given our hearts away.”
Trauma, and the deeply engrained pessimism that often grows from it, can mask joy. So can depression, anxiety, fear, physical pain, loneliness, isolation, sadness, anger, jealousy, betrayal. But it’s still there, trying to break through, like a dandelion pushing through a crack in the pavement.
Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche retells an old Buddhist story about a wrestler with a jewel in his hair. “During a match with other wrestlers, he received a blow to his head, and without his realizing it, the jewel dropped into the wound. When the wound healed over, the jewel was covered up by the scar. The poor wrestler spent the rest of his days looking for the jewel, never realizing that it was inside him all the time. That’s the position in which most of us find ourselves. We believe deep down that we’ve lost something precious and are seeking it outside ourselves, never realizing that we are carrying it within us wherever we go. But if we just look beneath the scars, the wounds we’ve experienced in life, we can rediscover that jewel.”
One impediment to retrieving joy is always wanting and seeking “more,” striving for “better.” There is nothing inherently wrong with self-improvement or success, and certainly, neither stagnation nor true deprivation is life-sustaining. However, many of us already have most of our basic needs met and we do not need “more” in order to be joyful. If our focus is on “more” and “better” rather than on what we have and who we are, then implicitly we are saying to ourselves that our present conditions are not sufficient for us to feel joyful. Joy is, instead, postponed to some future time when there is “enough.”
In the weeks following my brush with death in Albany, I was in a great deal of pain much of the time. Although my body was mangled and my mind felt as if a bomb had exploded in the middle of my head, I was determined to at least regain my mobility. I lived in the country at the time, and it was winter, but I forced myself outside with a makeshift cane in my hand and a coat over my pajamas and robe, and I walked. At first I got only about 20 feet before I had to turn back, but with each successive foray, I increased the distance. After a few weeks, I made it all the way from my apartment to the highway leading into town, about half a mile.
As I sat on a rock at the highway intersection, resting until I had the strength to make the return trip, I looked out at the snow-covered fields, the yellow construction vehicles in a nearby subdivision, the rushing cars and trucks obediently whisking their occupants to wherever they were going. I felt the cold air on my hands, the numbness of my toes, and watched the fog of my breath as it condensed in the dry, chilly air. And I thought, “I’m back.”
At the time I didn’t know what was “back,” but I did feel a surge of invigoration and the sensation of things suddenly clicking. I think now that what was “back” was access to the intrinsic joy from which I had been separated most of my life. Some of the layers surrounding it had been stripped away by the rebirthing of the near-death experience, and it had taken until that moment, at that intersection, for the trauma and haze of my hospital experience to recede, and for my connection to joy to occur. New experiences subsequently led to new distancing from joy, but the effect of that plugged-in moment was profound. Now, even in the darkest times, I’m still aware of a tiny joyful bud wanting to poke through the concrete, and sometimes that awareness alone is enough to enable it to blossom.
The trick to joy is not in acquiring, because there is no end to acquiring, nor to ending all pain and suffering, because pain and suffering cannot always be ended, and inevitably they will come again anyway. The trick is to find the joy even in the midst of lacking what we want, even in the midst of pain and suffering. In Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” he writes, “And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers.” The garbage and the flowers are always in flux, one turning into the other and then back again. It’s all there, all the time, if we look with our hearts open to experiencing it.
When it is hard to be open and aware, sometimes we need to have joy reflected onto us, like a beam of warm sunshine coming through the window, from our friends, families, community.
Or we need to deliberately point ourselves at reflections of joy. Music can open the heart, as can singing, dancing, laughing, a sunset, a snowfall, a flower.
Each of us also has our particular ways to release joy. For me, motorcycling brings joy, as does talking with friends, the feeling in a movie theater when the lights go down, and playing with children, who have not yet learned to bury their joyfulness.
These activities allow the joy that’s always already there to surface again.
Eating, drinking, if I do them mindfully, with my thoughts and perceptions on nothing else, brings out joy. Caressing, kissing, sex. The look in someone’s eye. A flash of insight. A moment of quiet. A breath, when I remind myself that at one point it was uncertain I would take another, and that at some other point it is certain I will not.
We can also generate a light and reflect it back to ourselves, taking in the joyfulness in our own creations. Making mandalas, writing, and creating photographs are like that for me: when I look back on this work, I am warmed by the glow of the fire I created.
“What brings you joy?” I recently asked a young friend who, despite a difficult past, is now solidly on a spiritual path. “Everything!” he said. Even pain and sadness, he explained, bring out joyfulness because previously he would have fled from them, cutting himself off, lessening his access to himself and to the world. Now, fully experiencing even the most painful emotions, feeling them in his body, makes him also feel, at the same time, joyful, because he knows he is no longer numb.
I live in an area where sodium streetlights were recently installed. In addition to the venetian blinds which were already there, to block out the bright orange light for sleep, I hung light-blocking shades. When I raise the shades in the morning, sunlight permeates the blinds. When I open the blinds, it rushes in.
Joy is like that. It is rolling up the shades, opening the blinds, letting the light stream in and then basking in its warmth and brilliance, like a cat in a sunbeam. The light streams in as long as the sun shines. And even when it’s nighttime, we know that it will stream in again the next morning.
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Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.