Reflections on Joy ©
Sometimes I tell my clients this story. About thirty years ago I was reading (I have no idea what the book was), and I came across the line, “Joy is the sign of spiritual development.” My jaw dropped open, I put the book down, and reflected on the meaning. I wasn’t all that happy at the time, and I thought if that were true, then I had my work cut out for myself.
Years later I purchased a Great White Pyrenese dog. After visiting the dog several times, I went to pick him up. The owner and I talked about dog care, his needs, and after getting all the instructions, I loaded him into the car. The last thing the owner said was, “He’ll give you a great deal of pleasure.” I had to really think about that. I had never thought about it just that way — that Bear was going to provide a “great deal of pleasure.”
I remembered the line about joy and decided to focus on and get clear about what provided pleasure and what I was enjoying. I purchased a calendar, the kind with a picture on one side and seven sections on the other for each day of the week. I resolved to write down each thing that I had enjoyed that day, or that week. It was a bit disconcerting at first, as I experienced the days rolling by, and I wasn’t writing very many things in my calendar.
In our culture we tend to have a pretty materialistic view of happiness. We feel happy when we’re opening special presents, when we’re eating something delicious, buying something we’ve been looking forward to, succeeding in a business, when we’re winning a competition, or if friends or family are being affectionate or validating us.
In psychological training and in psychotherapy, the focus tends to be on pathology, disorders and addictions, negative symptoms, and problems, Previously, only limited areas of psychology focused on developing the human personality to the higher ranges of human development. In therapies that integrated religious and spiritual dimensions into the therapy process, the view of human development reached into the positive areas including topics of courage, discipline, integrity, empathy, and compassion. More recently, in the field psychology, what has been termed positive psychology or the psychology of happiness has been explored and researched.
It’s very interesting that the core of Buddhist teaching is that grasping, clinging, and craving, which is called attachment, is what causes suffering. In Western culture we grasp and cling and crave most of the time. To try to practice the opposite, non-attachment, is a totally foreign endeavor. If we attend to what really are positive qualities, and really work daily, moment by moment, it is possible to increase positive qualities, and reduce negative ones. In Christian contemplative writings, Teresa of Avila writes that virtues increase both passively and actively. They increase actively if you work on a daily, moment by moment effort, and they increase passively through contemplative prayer. Buddhist literature describes the same phenomena. Virtues, or positive mental factors increase actively through intent or passively through the daily practice of meditation.
The Buddhist scripture called The Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra says that the practice of the Buddhist way of emptiness (and interconnectedness) “relieves all suffering –this is truth not mere formality.” This is an amazing statement -- that a practice relieves all suffering. What happens is that reducing attachment or craving, letting go, and deep acceptance eventually, with a great deal of effort and practice, can lead to joy.
I’ve read the book, Crooked Cucumber, five times. It’s the biography of Shunryu Susuki, a Japanese Zen priest and Zen master who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. I underlined so many quotes in the book that one time during Christmas break I decided to input all of the quotes into my computer. Before it was done, I had asked SFZC to see if the author of Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick, would email me. On New Years Eve I received an email from him. “What’s up?”, he wrote. I told him what I was planning to do, and he agreed that I could send him the quotes when they were done. It turned out to be twelve pages, which now can be found on the Crooked Cucumber website.
On page 325, David is describing the funeral of one of the senior students at SFZC. Suzuki delivered a eulogy, and in it he said, “Because of your complete practice your mind has transcended far beyond your physical sickness, and it has taken full care of your sickness like a nurse. A person of joyful mind is contented with his lot. Even in adversity he will see bright light. He finds the Buddha’s place in different circumstances, easy and difficult. He feels pleasure even in painful circumstances, and rejoices. For us, for all who have this joy of Buddha mind, the world of birth and death is the world of nirvana.”
With effort and practice you can come to a place of acceptance and joy. And you will find that you have a wondrous amount of things to record in your enjoyment journal like the color of the sky at sunset or the sound of rain falling through the trees. Then you can experience for yourself that joy – IS the sign of spiritual development.