I am proposing something that may be radical, perhaps antithetical to your thinking. No matter the circumstances of your life, you possess an essential inner joy that you can access even as you navigate whatever turbulence or disharmony may be present. How can that be? You’ve had this great loss, disappointment, betrayal. How can you possibly feel joy in the grief of the moment? Perhaps at that moment you can’t. But there is always another perspective waiting to present itself. Eventually, what’s next or how you can move forward is revealed. As you allow this process to unfold, joy is waiting patiently to glow again inside you.
Assuredly, when things get better we feel happier. But this isn’t the joy I’m writing about. Though the words joy and happiness seem interchangeable, I’d like to make a distinction between them. Happiness is a fleeting thing. It’s dependent on outside circumstances—objects and people, situations and events. It is future oriented: “When [blank] happens I will be happy.” We’re happy when we fall in love, land a terrific job, have a great achievement, dance up a storm, or watch a beautiful sunset. But love changes, the job may become routine, our creativity lags, or there’s no time for fun. Life can become dull, discouraging, or difficult. When something feels wrong or missing, we seek out things to fix or replace it with: chocolate, a movie, a video game, a new relationship, etc.
In our culture, we resist anything that has to do with suffering or discomfort. Yet, paradoxically, we are constantly looking for what’s wrong. Our media reinforces this by presenting every type of disharmony present in the world, and then reruns videos of the events again and again, lest we forget.
The media also offer the perfect elixir to alleviate discomforts with the promise to make us beautiful and loveable, healthy, and happy again. We allow other people to influence us and give them rights to our happiness. We give away our power to the media and authority figures and seek approval from others. We allow politics, plights in the world, and all that we lack personally to make us feel unhappy. Praise at work makes us happy, and we go home and treat our spouse, children, and dog better than we did yesterday. Expectations of “happy holidays” with family and loved ones may not pan out; instead there are arguments and disapprovals from the very start, leaving us feeling distraught and believing that family harmony is unattainable.
Welcome what is
Joy reveals a different story, as it is not dependent on outside conditions. It’s part of our basic nature, our inner spirit. It expresses itself as a softer, subtler, yet stronger feeling than happiness and connects us with a sense of inner peace and well-being. Joy can be experienced virtually anytime. Find it in the wonder in a child’s face, an octogenarian couple holding hands—even the mundane, like taking out the garbage, driving the kids to school, or seeing how sun shines on a spring leaf.
Surprisingly, joy can co-exist with suffering. Rumi says in his poem “The Guest House”:
“This being human is a guest house, every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness…..comes as an unexpected visitor.”
Discouragement and disappointments, large and small, are part of everyone’s lives. At times it may seem as though we are being tested to determine how much we can handle. It’s so easy to slip into the pity pot of “why me?” But Rumi ends his poem with the notion that however suffering may show up, it:
“may be clearing you out for some new delight…
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Stuff happens. When it does, obsessing about negative events and letting fear and anxiety control us keep us stuck in suffering. One technique I find helpful is to reframe the situation by stepping back and viewing all its aspects, which helps us reframe the circumstances with a new lens.
An example from my life: during a recent bathroom remodeling project, I had to wait for over a week for a new bathtub valve; in the meantime I had to listen to constant trickling of water, which grated on my nerves. In the midst of this annoyance I decided to reframe the experience. I chose to hear the sound differently—it became rain dripping off a rooftop and then, better still, a Zen fountain with water gently trickling out of a bamboo spout. This reframing enabled me to experience a kind of playful joy, which helped me focus on far more challenging things in my life.
Years back when I experienced the shock of Dennis abruptly ending our relationship, in due time I found myself saying, “It’s his choice and I must honor it.” I began to reframe the breakup and see a bigger picture of what transpired in the relationship, in which there had been much love and happiness. Through the sadness I reflected on the joy of having given and received love. Instead of feeling broken, I actually felt more whole for having had the experience. I felt liberated to find new ways to renew my joie de vivre, the joy of being alive rooted in an inner joy and not dependent on anyone or anything.
Make the connection
While joy may be a favored guest in our guest house, when suffering knocks, are we to turn it away? Knowing our own suffering can help us experience compassion for others in their pain. Joy can be found in the feeling of connection to loved ones. When we are suffering, those trusted ones around us can help us see things through a different lens. Feeling connected helps instill feelings of inner strength to help us respond to every life circumstance, be it joyful or painful.
Life is constantly calling us to live fully. When we make friends with all of life, suffering as well as joy, we learn to welcome, rather than resist. Practice saying yes to whatever shows up at your door. Learn to witness your thoughts, feelings, and how you react to things.
I’ve heard happiness described as rising bubbles that quickly dissipate, while joy is the oxygen—ever present. Caring and gratitude and welcoming all guests increase that oxygen. Cultivate joy by reflecting on what you value most in your life. It’s possible to allow joy to emerge in virtually everything you do—to experience joy, no matter what!