Lesson 17 — Routes to Joy
My mother was an early riser, and a cheerful one. What’s more, she felt that this was appropriate behavior for the whole family. One of my earliest memories involves being awakened in a sunshine-filled bedroom by mother standing at the foot of my bed singing Yellow Bird:
Good morning little yellow bird,
Good morning little yellow bird,
How are you?
Sometimes she sang other songs, but they were all in the same rise and shine genre. High on her list for a couple of years was “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the hit musical of the day, Oklahoma! These cheery songs, sung in my mother’s happy, upbeat voice, had the desired effect. I came to think that waking up and starting a whole brand-new day was great stuff.
Later on in life I discovered that many people were not infused with this same sense of early morning joy. Also, it soon became clear that singing Yellow Bird to them just made things worse. Why is it that some people tend to be cheery in the morning and others not? What’s going on here?
Despite Mother’s efforts and relative success, I do not always bound out of bed, delighted to greet the rosy-fingered dawn – let alone a gray one. But I have looked carefully at my early-morning moods and feelings in an attempt to discover the difference between a delight-filled morning and an “Aw, yuk” one. I discovered that blah mornings were blah mornings because something was missing. That something was joy. Blah mornings were joyless mornings.
Where did the joy come from on those other, more upbeat days? And is there a route to joy, a way to find that mental space more reliably? One thing I noticed was that whenever I had something to look forward to — some fun or meaningful element in the day ahead, something enjoyable — the joy was also there when the day began. Some sort of inspiring daily activity, then, is one route to joy, and we could take the approach of trying to put at least one enjoyable activity into the structure of each coming day. We could make an effort beforehand to set up something to look forward to.
I recall a difficult time in my life when I used this approach. A demanding family situation was threatening to drain the joy from every moment, but something deep within said, “No, I’m not going to let that happen.” My way of finding enjoyment was to get up each morning an hour before the rest of the family. That hour was mine alone, to devote to my projects, to activities that excited me and put me in a joyous state of mind. Waking up at 5 a.m. became a special treat, the entre to an hour of fun. And the joy which arose during that hour lingered on, helping me deal with the more demanding aspects of the day.
Even our daily work can sometimes be structured so that anticipation and excitement draw us joyfully into it. Some writers use the trick of stopping their day’s writing in the middle of something interesting, and leaving it unfinished. The interesting unfinished task then becomes the bait that draws the writer enthusiastically into the next day’s writing. Even if your work seems totally devoid of interest, perhaps you could work something enlivening into your lunch break: Lunch with a friend? Reading the book you’ve been eager to start? Listening to that new tape?
Sometimes restructuring our time is impossible; we simply can’t modify existing activities or squeeze in new ones. Appreciation, however, is never ruled out, and appreciating life is a second route to joy. Can we reactivate our appreciation of each moment? Perhaps we could take a few moments each morning to consciously affirm our good fortune at being alive. When we can bring ourselves to appreciate another day of living in this wondrous universe, joy just naturally arises. The task is to recapture that sense of wide-eyed excitement we all experienced at age four. Since we are still continuously surrounded by the marvelous and wondrous it shouldn’t be hard, but it often seems to be. Sometimes it takes a brush with death to awaken us from the deadness of inattention and undervaluation. Sometimes an encounter with some new-to-us aspect of nature does it — discovering, right before us, some little miracle that we never before noticed. Perhaps it’s time simply to stop — then look, listen, and wonder. Opening up to wonder can bring us joy.
A third route to joy is to practice smiling. Long advocated by some spiritual teachers, scientific research recently confirmed that this practice really works. We have always known that when we feel joy it tends to make us smile. But it is also true that if we smile, it tends to make us feel joyous. Try it. Consciously smile your way through a day or two, and see if it doesn’t lift your spirits.
There is one more route to joy. It is the most radical way, and the least often pursued. Yet it is the most direct, most basic way. This way comes out of insight into the nature of joy itself. This fourth way to find joy is to realize that joy is part of the ground of life, and just practice being joyful.
Joy, it turns out, does not require any external cause at all. It is Joseph Campbell’s bliss — naturally there when our lives are on track, perpetually present when not displaced by distress or boredom. It is the primal Ananda of Brahman. It is Chogyam Trungpa’s Basic Goodness. It is the natural mental space of babies and young children when they are not distressed. Joy is experienced whenever we stop getting distracted from, and stop interfering with, the experience. Joy is experienced whenever the mind becomes quiet and drops its wanting, craving, rejecting, condemning ways. Joy is experienced whenever we allow it to be experienced.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
Like a Zen koan (a mind-tuning, paradoxical puzzle) Dostoyevski’s statement that “We are always happy, only we usually don’t know it” has teased me over the years. “How absurd! How could that be?!” But it felt like it might really be true, and it was not a statement to dismiss lightly from a man who had faced a firing squad and been pardoned at the last second. Maybe Cop has made sense of this seeming absurdity with his reference to Chogyam Trungpa’s Basic Goodness: “Joy is experienced whenever we allow it to be experienced.” What do you think of this?
What are your favorite routes to joy (and is it really joy, or something less)?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
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Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.