Many of you know that in some of my previous sermons I’ve tackled such heavy subjects as torture, justice, and the nature of reality. When thinking of today’s topic I thought, why not talk about something really difficult, like joy.
Here are some definitions of the word:
Intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness.
The expression or manifestation of such feeling
A deep feeling or condition of happiness or contentment
Something causing such a feeling; a source of happiness
An outward show of pleasure or delight; rejoicing
The emotion evoked by well being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires: delight
The expression or exhibition of such emotion: gaiety
A state of happiness or felicity: bliss
A source or cause of delight
Here is how some have described joy:
Agitated with delight as a waving sea —Arabian Nights
Exhilaration spread through his breast like some pleasurable form of heartburn —Nadine Gordimer
Bliss … as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle --Katherine Mansfield
Ecstacy warm and rich as wine —Harvey Swados
Enjoy life like a young porpoise —George Santayana
Her heart became as light as a bubble —Antonia White
Joy … felt it rumbling within him like a subterranean river —André Malraux
Joy leaping within me … like a trout in a brook —George Garrett
Joys … like angel visits, short and bright —John Norris
There is much written about joy. I like this description by Jerry Rosser on his “Psychology of Joy” website, “Joy is a unique state of consciousness that generates a heightened, sustained happiness that is at once subtle serene and yet dynamically active. Joy is a unique synthesis of elation of feeling, lucidity of thought and positive intention. Joy is a special wisdom that creates a clarity of understanding which can guide our choices in life to create even more joy, deepen our sense of self and bring a dynamic aliveness, meaning and intelligence to our relationships and creative expression.”
Usually, the description about a feeling of joy is that it is fleeting or impermanent. A question that commonly arises is “How can one stay in the state of joy”? That question is equally as many times answered, as “You can’t stay in a state of joy.” That answer is always taken on its face... it is not challenged, but simply accepted as a truth. But I’m not so certain about that. I’m not playing with semantics here, but I believe people too often confuse ecstasy for joy. Ecstasy is a state of intense joy or delight. It is so intense that one is carried beyond rational thought and self-control. And that definitely doesn’t last for long.
You see, I believe you can stay in a joyful state if you make a practice of finding joy. Put another way, you can live in a general state of happiness that is punctuated by joyful experiences. Those experiences can be sought out and incorporated into your life. The key is conscious attention to the way joy operates.
Notice that joy is most often experienced when it is shared... when in, connection with or relationship to someone or something else. In Buddhist practice, this is called mudita, meaning happiness in response to a person’s happiness, success, or good fortune. This is a genuine feeling of happiness, not one that is forced. I believe that to experience more joy in our lives we can adopt a simple strategy of feeling happy for another’s happiness. A Buddhist sutra points out that, “a single lamp may light hundreds of thousands of lamps without itself being diminished.” A Swedish proverb says “shared joy is a double joy.” And William Shakespeare wrote “joy delights in joy”.
In an article entitled “Appreciating Joy” Marcello Spinella wrote of this shared quality of joy that “Appreciative joy is the closest we will get to a free lunch. As the Dalai Lama has said, when we feel happiness in response to another’s happiness, our odds of being happy go up by about 6 billion to one. The Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera said, ‘your life will gain in joy by sharing the happiness of others as if it were yours.’
However, appreciating joy is not limited to appreciating the joy of others. We can also feel joy in response to our own joy. We may feel happy about some circumstance, and then feel happy about feeling happy, the exact same way we would feel happy for someone else. Why not get the most out of it?
Feeling joy nourishes us, and gives us more reserves to deal with difficulties when they come along. Besides, in experiencing our own joy, we in turn radiate that towards others as we interact with them, making a contagious and virtuous cycle.”
Another way joy operates is that it is often disguised as something else. Watch out for this. Contentment, equanimity, tranquility, a sense of well being, happiness, enjoyment, altruism, amusement, playfulness, gratification, delight, comfort, harmony, satisfaction, warmth, euphoria, and elation are all likely suspects, especially if these emotions persist for a period of time.
Joy is contagious. It spreads like wildfire between anyone it is shared with. A research study performed by Harvard and MIT researchers documented that the spread of happiness (or sadness) is contagious, with spreading patterns similar to communicable diseases like the flu. They found that being full of joy is not only good for you, but also for those around you. Researchers conducted multiple studies associated with joy that scientifically prove physical benefit of being joyful. A group of American psychologist discovered that positive thinkers live 7.5 years longer than more pessimistic people. Having a positive attitude towards aging has proven to have greater effect than physiological measures like blood pressure and cholesterol. And, of course, we’ve all heard of the studies that conclude laughter helps overall health.
Joy is an aspect of love. You could say they are kissing cousins. It is one of the profound ways that joy operates, and is manifested. Most of us know, or can easily bring to mind, the thrill of love in all of its flavors – romantic, erotic, platonic, familial, religious, and agape. We actively seek out the pleasure of those deep connections we have with others. Psychologist Erich Fromm maintained in his book "The Art of Loving" that love is not merely a feeling but is also actions, and that in fact, the "feeling" of love is superficial in comparison to ones commitment to love through a series of loving actions over time. In this sense, Fromm held that love is ultimately not a feeling at all, but rather is a commitment to, loving actions towards another, ones self, or many others, over a sustained duration. I would say that joy operates in a similar manner to love... that both emotions, or feelings, are, as Fromm says, more of a commitment to an action that embodies those feelings of joy or love... or more likely, a deliciously sustaining combination of both.
Joy is an aspect of peace — another of its kissing cousins, and another profound way that joy operates. I am not talking about the peace that is an absence of violent conflict or hostility. I am talking about the peace that Robert Fulghum described when he wrote, “Peace is not something you wish for. It is something you make, something you are, something you do, and something you give away.” Here again, is a description of the nature of a thing that does not directly define it. Joy is like subatomic particles that cannot be directly observed, but effects of which can be seen in what are called cloud chambers. The words peace and joy are often commingled in the Christmas season. They both suffer from the burden of being thought of as unattainable over a long period. But the question is, why does that have to be true? We all understand, at least in an intuitive way, that inner peace is the road upon which joy takes joy rides. Find peace and you will find joy... guaranteed, all the time.
Joy is like being kissed by God. It opens us to unexpected vistas, clarity, and connectedness that lie beyond our normal experience. I love what Katherine Mansfield said about joy “... as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle”. Amen, sister Mansfield, for bringing us such a powerful image of how joy operates. Joy sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle certainly captures the transcendent nature of it. The image reinforces my own thoughts on joy. I like to think of joy as the subatomic particles of our life experiences. Joy flavored quarks, charms, leptons, electrons, muons, bosons, and gluons are what I’m talking about. I utterly reject the notion that life is supposed to be about suffering and pain. I firmly believe it is our purpose to be happy... to hunt relentlessly for those “joy jewels”. The feeling that you are being kissed by God should be in indication for us that we are awash in a universe of joy — that joy is the substance of all there is. And I believe that one day physicists, who so diligently seek to explain what they now call the consciousness that underlies all existence will some day look up from their calculations and say “Eureka... consciousness is joy! It’s the way God dances!”
So, Clovice, you might say. “How do you find joy?”. My answer is that joy can be planned for, and even expected, but have you noticed that the actual feeling just comes over you spontaneously? Planning for joy doesn’t take a lot of work. You can simply put yourself into situations that invite joy’s presence. Purposefully sit down on a rainy day with some hot cocoa and curl up for a few hours with that book you’ve wanted to read. Play music, or better yet, learn to play an instrument so you can play music. Play you favorite sport. Notice that “play” figures prominently here. Playing is one of the great attractors of joy.
As for the idea that you can sustain a state of joy, here are some tips on staying in joy over a long time:
Forgive yourself and others. There are few things that create a rich, fertile ground for joy more than forgiveness. We all do and say stupid things. We hurt one another, we are not perfect, and we all are in need of improvement. My Unitarian Universalist bones do not believe in “sin” in what has come to be the conventional sense of it. Sinning is to miss the mark. In that way, I believe we are all sinners. We often miss the mark. It is in our nature to fail on occasion. So, learn to forgive yourself and others and join the human race of fellow emotional klutzes. Learn to spread forgiveness liberally upon the cake of life and it will be sweeter.
Avoid unhappy people. Just remove yourself from the presence of people who you are negative or deplete your energy. Surrounding yourself with happy and successful people is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. Who says you have an obligation to help unhappy people become happy? That’s their responsibility. From this day forward be clear that your responsibility is to be as happy as you can be. And if that means you need to remove yourself from unhappy people to do so, then do that. Besides, sometimes you’ll find that your presence simply feeds into a codependent dynamic for an unhappy person. Breaking that cycle could be good for them as well.
Be open to change. Learn to be flexible and open to the opinions of others. Sometimes fear is what limits our growth. When we embrace change fear has little room to grow. Andre Gide said “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of shore.” You can fight change, you can accept it, or you can embrace it. Encourage and embrace change the way you would hug a bad little boy with loving arms. If you do that then change will soon be your friend and will take you to some of the best places you can’t imagine.
Be appreciative. Ralph Marston says “Be appreciative of the truth, even when it is painful. Be appreciative of each moment, of each circumstance, of each encounter, for everything can add richness to your life when you allow it.” Appreciate the gifts in your life. That includes people, circumstances, possessions, and your health. In fact, appreciate the fact that life itself is the greatest gift. That appreciation, when you truly incorporate it into your daily existence simply cannot help but invite joy.
Discard the illusion that you are in control of anything. Chaos is a fact of life in this universe. This is not to say you can’t influence events in your life and that you can’t make the attempt to control some things. Perhaps it is better to say not to worry about the things you can’t control. Some of you have heard about my rule number one: “People will do whatever they want to do whether you want them to or not.” I tell you, that rule has personally helped me live a more joyful life.
Live in the present. You’ve heard that a million times from people who quote Eckhart Tolle, who wrote “Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” My friend, Eric Lieber calls anxiety about the future and past “futuring” and “pasting”. Frankly, he drives me crazy when he points out to me that I am futuring, but I do appreciate the reminder. Joy can only be experienced in the moment called now. Understand that and you will find joy.
This week, while writing this sermon, I started what I call a “Joy Journal” because I wanted to demonstrate how I’ve found joy, simply by looking for it:
Talking with Carol at breakfast on a stormy, rainy morning and the sun suddenly appears.
Feeling the graciousness of the tree in our front yard as its branches reach out in all directions.
When I talk to my daughter, Keely, about the baby she is expecting
The way my cat, Neo, looks at me and reaches his paw to touch me when he is stirred from one of his naps
Looking closely at a blade of new grass
The moment when a just purchased wireless router connected all of our computers in our new house to the internet
Thinking about how running water and an indoor toilet must have provided endless joy to some people 150 years ago.
When Studebakers has a fresh croissant with cream cheese to accompany my quad decaf espresso
When I've taken a walk in the fresh cool Fall afternoon between rain storms
When my deceased friend, Laurie, come to visit me by planting a funny insight into my mind. She calls them upgrades to my head.
When I visit with my friend Shanda and her newborn baby daughter
When one of my fourth graders nails a complex rhythm I put on the chalkboard
Watching my cat, Bastet, hug Carol on the couch as they curl into each other
Closing my eyes and lowering my head while improvising a solo during a Blue Collar rehearsal until I can smell the rosin and varnish between the neck and body of my cello. I am then transported beyond time and space. I come back to realize we band members are Gods playing music together.
This week there have been joys for me too numerous to record, too sublime to capture, and too rich to plumb. I can honestly tell you that I live in a general state of happiness that is punctuated by such joyful experiences. Those kinds of experiences can be sought out and incorporated into anyone’s life. The key is conscious attention to the ways that joy operates. Summon joy when you are fully present in the moment and I promise it will come to you like a beautiful bird that has been awaiting your call.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!