The Nature of True Joy


Midweek Faith Lift

October 7, 2020

The Nature of True Joy

Rev. Deb Hill-Davis


In the current multiple crises mode we inhabit, focusing on the nature of joy feels like a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it?  I must confess it is taking every spiritual practice and discipline I can muster to stay “out of the weeds” of cynicism, frustration, futility and downright gloom.  I don’t think I am alone in that, either.  Mental health is truly being challenged in our country with reports of many who had been able to function fairly well now finding it much more difficult to do so.  We all need to see each other smiling and to have a big hug-fest to feel better!  Where is our joy and how do we find it in this time and under these conditions?


Several years ago in March of 2017, the Wednesday night class read together The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.  This book is essentially the reporting by Doug Abrams of five days of meetings between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmund Tutu of South Africa. They met at the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.  These are two Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have survived more than 50 years of exile and “soul-crushing” oppression.  And yet, they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.  How is that so? 


It seemed a good time to revisit this story to perhaps discover how we can walk a different path in these times we inhabit.  There are three parts to this book: The Nature of Joy, Obstacles to Joy and the Eight Pillars of Joy.  My plan is for this to take us to November 22 because the next Sunday, Nov. 29 is the first Sunday of Advent.  Today is the Nature of Joy, then two Sundays on the Obstacles to Joy and 4 Sundays on the 8 Pillars of Joy just to map it out for you.  I will be away the last Sunday in October, which may or may not bring you joy!! And you are invited to Rev. Elizabeth’s church.


So here we go….what is the nature of true Joy?  Well, right off the bat, there is the need to separate happiness, an emotion, from joy, which is something much deeper but is for sure associated with happiness.  The feelings associated with joy are pleasure, amusement, contentment,(a deep sense of well-being) excitement (in response to novelty or challenge), relief (following fear being resolved) wonder, bliss, exultation (when something good is accomplished) radiant pride( for our children or family) unhealthy jubilation also called schadenfreude (rejoicing at someone else’s suffering) elevation (being uplifted by witnessing an act of kindness) and gratitude (appreciation of an act of kindness or generosity of which one is the recipient.)  These are all on p. 33 of The Book of Joy.


As I reflected on all these experiences, I could see how I had done them all including relishing someone getting their just desserts for doing something reprehensible.  I could also see how right now, fear and a desire for relief as well as a sense of unease resulting in a lack of contentment are eating away at my joy!  Perhaps you, too, can identify one of these feelings that is eating away at your joy by contributing to your unhappiness!  When I do watch the news, I experience that sense of elevation when there are stories of the kindness and bravery of our fellow humans, especially right now.  These are the emotions connected with our experience of joy.  But there is more.


Buddhist scholar and former scientist, Matthieu Ricard has added three other, more exalted states of joy noted on p. 34 of The Book of Joy:


…..rejoicing (in someone else’s happiness, what Buddhists call mudita)

      delight or enchantment ( a shining kind of contentment)

      spiritual radiance (a serene joy born from deep well-being and benevolence)


What we are seeking here is this deeper joy that is a way of being that was evident in the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu who both have significant reasons to be morose and anything but joyful.  So how do we cultivate this deeper joy that is a way of being?


The Dalai Lama asks a thought-provoking question, quoting Buddhist master, Shantiveda who wrote, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection?  And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” p. 36, The Book of Joy.  I have to admit that is a powerful question and it caught me up short!  It goes along with that adage, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  I had to ask myself the hard question of “Do I revisit all the stuff that causes me pain right now so that I can make sure that I am suffering?”  Where do I draw that line for myself between pain and suffering?  That is a difficult but essential question for us right now, and clarity around it is perhaps a key to finding true joy.


Perhaps in my own experience of pain, I can find commonality with the pain others experience without devolving into suffering.  That is a wider perspective that can contribute to this deeper sense of contentment that is joy.  My analytical thinking pattern wants to continually catalog all that is wrong in the world right now, and keep a list in case anyone is interested! But I don’t believe that will contribute to my joy or to actually doing something constructive about it! 


The next part of our journey to discover the nature of true joy is to realize that nothing beautiful happens without suffering, nothing!  Childbirth is a very real example of that.  It is actually built into our biology in utero.  According to prenatal researcher, Pathik Wadhwa, “Stress and opposition turn out to be exactly what initiates our development in utero. Our stem cells do not differentiate and become us if there is not enough biological stress for them to do so.”  P. 45, The Book of Joy.  For us to become who we truly are, stress and complexity and suffering are a part of the process, even as we want to resist it.  This means for me, that we lean into and learn how to navigate it while caring for ourselves.  Our good comes from this, but at no one else’s expense or we just prolong the pain into unnecessary suffering.


The Buddhist tradition counsels us to lessen one’s self-absorption because when we focus only on ourselves we are destined to be unhappy.  Focusing on getting what you want or avoiding what you don’t want are surefire paths to suffering and joy killers!  The instructions are to “always maintain only a joyful mind.”  Joy in the Buddhist tradition is a natural state, but the ability to experience joy is a cultivated skill.  AND there are three factors involved in cultivating this skill:  the ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude and our ability to be kind and generous.  I think we have that same message and example in Jesus in his mountaintop perspective, which is a surefire reframe of all circumstances.  How do I look at this from the highest point of view? Not always easy, but it is the path of joy.


Physiological research has revealed in the work of Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist quoted on page 56 of The Book of Joy, notes that there are actually four independent brain circuits that influence our lasting sense of well-being.  The first is our ability to maintain positive states, to maintain positive emotions and responses.  The fastest way to this is to cultivate love and compassion ala the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu!  The second brain circuit is responsible for our “ability to recover from negative states.”  These circuits are totally independent!  So you can maintain positive states but that does not impact the circuit that recovers from negative states! 


The third circuit, also independent, but essential to the others is our “ability to focus and avoid mind-wandering.”  That is what meditation helps us do, develop our circuit of focusing rather than distracting our minds.  And the fourth circuit, which is an independent part of our brain is “our ability to be generous.”  We are actually hard-wired to be generous.  We come into this world factory equipped for cooperation, compassion, and generosity. 


What we do with this factory-installed in our brain equipment is up to us!  How we use it and respond to each other is the ultimate source of our joy as a way of being.  It is easiest to do this joy practice when we are with those we love and who agree with us.  The real question is what do we do with these 4 circuits when we encounter that which does not call forth joy in us.  Archbishop Tutu had an answer for this in that he said “our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.” 


Well, that puts us right up against it, doesn’t it?  We seek that which creates a positive brain state in our mind, what activates that positive circuit, which might be creativity, music, art or some kind of expression of our inner goodness and capacity for love and compassion.  Then we cultivate the capacity to recover from negative brain states, which doesn't involve doing more positive brain state activities.  To me that one is recognizing that I have fallen into a funk, a negative slide, and then doing something to recover from that so the fall isn’t so hard or so far.  My antidote is to do something good for others, just like Archbishop Tutu said. That could be calling someone who needs to hear from me, not because I need to hear from them, but because they need to hear from me!  It needs to be very clear to me that my self-interest is not at stake for this to really improve the rate of recovery for me.


And then, right now, a continued and perhaps, expanded practice of meditation to really train my brain to stay focused where it needs to stay focused.  The Dalai Lama meditates 2 hours each morning before he begins his day.  If it is a really busy day, he meditates for 4 hours!   And finally, we are wired for generosity, to be generous and giving in our attitudes toward others.  We forget that when we rush to judgment about someone or something rather than taking that step back and just listening.  For me, that means stepping out of the “everyone’s entitled to my opinion” mode into a more generous mode of curiosity and questioning!  Hmmm, that is sure interesting!  I wonder what this is really about?!?


And in these ways, we cultivate the capacity to live from a place of true joy, lasting joy!  So be it!


Blessings on the Path!

Rev. Deb