Joy: Happiness, Bliss, and Peak Experiences
The Sun in Your Heart
Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
-- Abraham Lincoln
You can discover and let go of ways you make yourself unhappy and replace them with thoughts and acts that bring you great joy. Every language has many words for feeling good: joy, enjoyment, happiness, delight, pleasure, cheer, gladness, bliss, and ecstasy. Just hearing these words is reassuring. We’d all love to be able to go to the store and buy happiness, but it’s not for sale. You have to find it within. Happiness can be momentary or enduring. You feel it when you obtain something you want or when something good comes your way unexpectedly. You also feel happy when you’re doing something enjoyable or worthwhile. And you probably feel happy when you bring others happiness. In Swami Ramakrishananda Puri’s words, “Happiness is like perfume. We can’t pour it on someone else without getting a few drops on ourselves.” But for many people, it’s all too easy to get locked into routines so hectic that they leave little room for happiness. You can, however, increase your ability to be happy, or even joyful. Vietnamese Buddhist monk and meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests using the metaphor of watering flowers: “Cultivating joy means to . . . organize our daily lives so that the positive seeds are watered every day, and the negative seeds are not watered.”2 How do you water seeds of joy? A good starting point is to notice your thoughts that contribute to making you feel bad and move your attention away from them. In their place, you can amplify thoughts that make you feel good and act in ways that help you feel optimistic instead of pessimistic. Also, notice whether you set limiting conditions for letting yourself feel good. If so, you can let go of those conditions and become more accepting of being in each moment. Observe when you’re tight and tense--since it’s hard to feel good then--and use whatever tools you know of to relax. We can learn something about watering seeds of joy from Gestalt therapist Stella Resnick, who had a thriving psychotherapy practice, a hectic life, and pervasive feelings of dissatisfaction. “I did yoga,” she writes. “I meditated. I exercised. I became a vegetarian. Why wasn’t I happy?” At the age of thirty-four, she closed her practice and moved to a house in the country where she lived alone for a year, read Thoreau, and contemplated her life. She discovered “how little I knew about how to be happy on a daily basis. I knew how to drive myself to succeed. I knew how to criticize myself. . . . But I didn’t know how to take on a day and enjoy it. . . . I suddenly realized: It isn’t enough to know what you are doing wrong. You have to . . . learn how to . . . enjoy your life--moment by moment and day by precious day.” The following meditation can help sow seeds of increased receptivity to joyful states of mind.
YOUR SPECTRUM OF ENJOYMENT
Remember large and small events that have brought you great pleasure, happiness, or joy. Think about pleasant events in your recent past. Then think back to your childhood, your teenage years, and your adulthood prior to the recent past and recall your most enjoyable times. Finally, contemplate potential enjoyments that you seldom or never allow yourself. When your recollections slow to a trickle, scan through those old and recent memories to see which sources of enjoyment are an active part of your life today and which are not. (For instance, perhaps when you were a teenager you spent pleasant, lazy afternoons with friends, but now you never do.) In your mind’s eye, survey the range of enjoyable experiences that you allow yourself. Then shift the spotlight of your attention to experiences that lie outside that range. Are there past pleasurable experiences that you’d like to make part of your life now? Are there opportunities for enjoying life that you’d like to allow yourself more often than you do? Is there something you’d like to try that you’ve never done? Finally, choose one neglected source of enjoyment that you’d like to allow yourself to do this week--and make a commitment to do so.
Variations in Technique
As in the above technique, recall various memories of happy moments. Now focus on just one or two of your most meaningful events. Take a few more minutes to reflect on the feelings and sensations you experienced in these happy moments. Enlarge these feelings from past happiness and let them saturate your present awareness. They live inside you. At any time, you can recall them by remembering the moments in which they arose.
Points in the Process
Contributing to others’ joy or happiness can increase your own. Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and all the other great prophets and saints had this in common: They recognized that finding your own happiness, joy, or bliss is just one step on the path to self-realization. It’s still attachment to ego: “I am the one who must be happy. I am the one who must be saved.” The next step is to help others. Buddha used this metaphor: Once we’ve built a small boat and crossed the river from samsara (illusion, or your mind going around in circles) to nirvana (in which we discard illusion and live in abiding clarity and joy), the next step is to give up hanging out in bliss and go back across the river to the realm of toil and tears where most people live. There we can build a larger boat to ferry others across. He called one who does this a bodhisattva.