Joy to the World

Photo by Artem Beliaikin

The word joy was always a bit foreign to me. My family and friends just didn’t use this word in conversation growing up. We talked about feeling happy, but nobody said, “I’m so filled with joy right now,” or anything like that.

When I was young, the only time the word joy came up is when we were singing Christmas carols. So, joy brought with it images of little children standing wide-eyed around a Christmas tree surrounded by shiny gifts. Then there was the Three Dog Night song, which conjured up images of hippies and chemically induced bliss. Later there was the Ren & Stimpy song “Happy Happy Joy Joy” which was nothing but crazed, ridiculous silliness. These associations all made joy seem pretty unreal, like a trend, or a commodity, or even a mild form of insanity.

I suspect joy is a much more common word among religious households. Its interesting that when you search for it online, lots of Christian blogs pop up and there is quite a bit of variation in the definitions. Some say it is happiness and some say happiness is another thing altogether. There are associated words like jubilation, exultation, rejoice, and rapture, which are most commonly seen in Catholic hymnals or heard in gospel music. There is the word triumph, which seems like something one might feel after winning a competition. And finally there are synonyms reflecting extreme states like exhilaration, glee, elation, euphoria, bliss, and ecstasy, which tend to be both fleeting and reactionary, attached to some sort of personal storyline or interpretation of events.

I’ve noticed that nowadays, people really seem to relish the word joy. It is associated with pleasure and so, of course, we want more of it in our lives – we strive after it. This is part of why it sometimes feels difficult to trust it. Seeking after joy becomes just another part of the cycle of grasping and clinging that ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, when we’re not mindful.

Learning about appreciative joy was really helpful in coming to see joy as something both beneficial and trustworthy and not just a word that rhymes with toy. Appreciative joy is rejoicing in someone else’s wellbeing. Thinking of it in this way, I can truly sense into it. Yes, I have experienced this feeling many times and it is truly blissful. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether I am witnessing the good fortune of a beloved person or a total stranger in a YouTube video – the internal experience of appreciative joy is powerful and visceral. I now tend to think of joy as a feeling of delight, awe or wonder.

Sunrises and sunsets have also helped me understand joy. Because I accept that what is unfolding before me is a series of ever changing moments of beauty coming from something outside of me, I am able to appreciate each moment without ego, attachment or craving. How wonderful that there is an uncomplicated moment of ecstasy available to us in each and every rising and setting of the sun! The practice of mindfulness opens us to these experiences through greater presence and awareness. Over time, we find ourselves noticing and appreciating more and more, the opportunities for joy hiding in plain sight all around us.

The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Serving with Wise Compassion

The love stoneIn the mindfulness and yoga community we are fortunate to have so many wonderful, loving, and giving practitioners. I have benefitted greatly from the guidance of more caring and talented teachers/mentors here in Kansas City than I can count on both hands. Much gratitude to them all!

We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world is when we live with these truths. – Desmond Tutu

The heartfelt desire of most mindfulness practitioners, caregivers, coaches, teachers and educators is to alleviate suffering.  This is called compassion and it gives great meaning to our work. However, many of us do not get the kind of training needed to work with the most vulnerable people who are drawn to the practices. These include those who:

  • are suffering so intensely that they need more than we alone can provide, – or –
  • lack the insight required to prevent harm to self and/or others.

In these cases, our beneficent intentions may not be enough. Although we may feel a strong desire to help, uninformed or misguided action can actually make things worse in the long run. Our attachment to our identity as helpers and healers can override reason. Kind-hearted souls may end up doing inadvertent damage. It can be quite complicated.

My experience as a psychologist has shown me that not all caring, well-intentioned as it may be, is skillful. Benefiting others does not always mean giving someone immediate satisfaction. We are taught to believe that if someone is unhappy with us, we have done something wrong. We forget that one’s thoughts and feelings are more reflective of one’s inner experience than external conditions – and we can’t fully know someone else’s inner experience.

In the yoga community we endeavor to maintain a healing energy in the studio and in our minds, so we sometimes avoid confronting harmful behavior and setting boundaries. In meditation circles, we often practice non-reactivity and acceptance, so we may let harmful phenomena wash over us. We try to embody right speech and ahimsa, so we are careful not to “gossip” about others. We are giving, so we patiently listen, holding space again and again.

These are usually quite useful practices and qualities, but if taken too far, they can discourage us from speaking up when something seems wrong. A pattern of damaging behavior can be allowed to escalate. We may inadvertently enable, through reinforcing with loving attention, behaviors and qualities that should not be encouraged. As hard as it is to believe, some people do not understand the language of patience and compassion – they mistrust and defend against it or they misinterpret it as weakness and exploit it. By the time we realize we are really in a pickle, the situation is much worse than it ever needed to be. In the long run, this causes more suffering for everyone involved.

…it is necessary and very important to avoid idiot compassion. If one handles fire wrongly, he gets burned; if one rides a horse badly, he gets thrown. There is a sense of earthy reality. Working with the world requires some kind of practical intelligence. We cannot just be “love-and-light” bodhisattvas. If we do not work intelligently with sentient beings, quite possibly our help will become addictive rather than beneficial. People will become addicted to our help in the same way they become addicted to sleeping pills. By trying to get more and more help they will become weaker and weaker. So for the benefit of sentient beings, we need to open ourselves with an attitude of fearlessness. Because of people’s natural tendency toward indulgence, sometimes it is best for us to be direct and cutting. The bodhisattva’s approach is to help others to help themselves. It is analogous to the elements: earth, water, air, and fire always reject us when we try to use them in a manner that is beyond what is suitable, but at the same time, they offer themselves generously to be worked with and used properly. – Chogyam Trungpa

One of the most wonderful things about yoga and mindfulness communities is they tend to be inclusive and welcoming of differences. This creates a powerful sense of safety and belonging, and brings a richness to the practices. However, we also have to realize that a rare few people are on the “fringes” because their chronically harmful or abusive behavior alienates others. When this becomes apparent we must practice wise compassion so we don’t inadvertently support the proliferation of suffering.

Sometimes taking a step back, consulting with others, or setting a boundary is the most compassionate course of action.

Wise compassion can be firm and even fierce, but it is never angry. In both yoga and Buddhism we have the imagery of the spiritual warrior, understanding that love can be a powerful force for transformation. It takes courage and determination to set and maintain a boundary or to sit unwavering in the burning heat of another’s disapproval. Remember that setting a limit does not mean closing your heart. It means seeing the bigger picture and allowing your intention to help outweigh your desire to be comfortable.

…forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed? – bell hooks

The Four Loves: Lovingkindness

Field with dandelions and blue skyOne of the four loves or sublime attitudes in Buddhism is lovingkindness or metta. It involves the understanding that all sentient beings (capable of thinking and feeling), including ourselves, desire happiness and wish to be free from suffering. It also involves an attitude of friendliness and well-wishing toward all beings, including ourselves.

When we cultivate lovingkindness we are able to see our fundamental interconnection – that all beings are united by a common desire for fulfillment and freedom from misery. This understanding cuts through differences and allows us to see others as interchangeable with ourselves.

Lovingkindness provides the basis for two of the other loves, compassion and appreciative joy. Encountering the suffering of another with an attitude of solidarity and open-heartedness, we experience a spontaneous desire to alleviate that suffering. This is compassion. Likewise, seeing others as interchangeable with ourselves and witnessing the success of another, vicarious happiness naturally arises. This is appreciative joy.

Practicing lovingkindness meditation (LKM) is one way to cultivate this beneficial attitude. Research has shown that LKM is correlated with relaxation, feelings of social connection, increased empathy, compassion and positive emotions, decreased negative emotions and bias, improvements in migraines, chronic pain, PTS symptoms, and the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, increases in gray matter volume in the brain, and longer telomeres (indicator of decreased aging in chromosomes). Some degree of positive impact can be measured immediately, even in small doses, and the effects seem to persist over the longer term.

For one who mindfully develops
Boundless loving-kindness
Seeing the destruction of clinging,
The fetters are worn away.

– Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones

If you would like to try LKM, please enjoy this guided practice from the University of New Hampshire:

Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
long, large,
middling, short,
subtle, blatant,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.

Let no one deceive another
or despise anyone anywhere,
or through anger or irritation
wish for another to suffer.

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.

With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.

– Karaniya Metta Sutta: Good Will

The Four Loves: Appreciative Joy

beautiful sunset on the beachOne of the four loves or sublime attitudes in Buddhism is appreciative joy, sometimes also called sympathetic or empathetic joy. It is the vicarious experience of taking pleasure in the true happiness of others and its causes, free from attachment and self-interest. We experience appreciative joy when we delight in some else’s  well-being regardless of our own situation.

I declare that the heart’s release by sympathetic joy has the sphere of infinite consciousness for its excellence. – Metta Sutta: Goodwill

This attitude naturally arises when we are clear-minded and present – not caught up in attachments, aversions or afflictive emotions. Most of us have experienced appreciative joy when we’ve observed an innocent child, puppy, or kitten happy at play or witnessed an act of kindness. It is more difficult; however,  when other people succeed where we have not or when they receive things we want. It can also be difficult to appreciate another’s happiness when, by comparison, we feel they are undeserving. There is certain amount of fearlessness and courage that is required in order to rejoice in others’ happiness, because we have to let go of the worry that there may not be enough happiness left over for us.

When we explore the beneficial mental states, it can be useful to also understand their near and far enemies. These are detrimental mental states that undermine their beneficial counterparts. Near enemies tend to be subtle because they appear similar to the beneficial mental state on the surface, and it is only upon closer inspection that we discover they are not. Near enemies often involve comparison (especially self-referencing) and elements of insincerity or even hypocrisy. The near enemies of appreciative joy are:

  • Exhilaration – feeling exuberant about another’s happiness insomuch as it pacifies our own sense of lack.
  • Pride – appreciating others’ happiness merely in how it reflects upon us.

Far enemies are more obvious because they are mental states that are directly opposed to the original. The far enemies of appreciative joy are:

  • Jealousy – the fear that others will take what we perceive as ours.
  • Envy – the resent-filled desire for what others have.
  • Greed – wanting ever more than is needed.

We can cultivate appreciative joy by meditating first on the happiness or success of a friend or loved one. We practice this until we are able to experience genuine feelings of joy and appreciation for the benefits of what they have received or accomplished. Then we gradually move, step by step, to neutral acquaintances, strangers, enemies, and eventually all beings everywhere. Here is a guided sympathetic joy (mudita) meditation with Joseph Goldstein:

…abandoning the five hindrances, the corruptions of awareness that weaken discernment — keep pervading the first direction [the east] with an awareness imbued with good will, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth. Thus above, below, & all around, everywhere, in its entirety, keep pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will. – Metta Sutta: Goodwill

The Four Loves

romantic love in holidayThere is a beautiful teaching in Buddhism about the brahmaviharas or sublime states. They are also sometimes called the four immeasurables or divine abidings. They include: 1) lovingkindness, 2) compassion, 3) appreciative joy, and 4) equanimity. Cultivating the brahmaviharas guides our behavior and helps purify our minds of the afflictive emotions that obscure reality, hinder spiritual growth, and cause suffering.

There is a similar concept in yoga as well:

In relationships, the mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and equanimity towards those we perceive as wicked or evil. – Yoga Sutra 1.33

Both Buddhism and yoga offer practices to help us cultivate these virtuous qualities for the benefit of all beings.

  • Lovingkindness (metta in Pali) is friendliness and well-wishing – an attitude of benevolence toward self and others.
  • Compassion is the acknowledgement of suffering and the desire to alleviate it.
  • Appreciative joy is the willingness to celebrate beneficial qualities and circumstances wherever they arise, without jealousy or ill-will.
  • Equanimity is an internal state  of balance and calm regardless of external circumstances.

The first step to cultivating the bramaviharas is to develop the attitudinal factors and states of mind that support them. Strengthening concentration through meditation and behaving more ethically (ie. the yamas & niyamas of yoga) in daily life are a great way to start. This will build a firm foundation upon which authentic love can take solid root.

We can also engage in specific practices, such as setting a compassionate intention and dedicating the benefits of each formal practice session to all beings, engaging in lovingkindness (metta) or giving and taking (tonglen) meditation, and noticing and abiding with the brahmaviharas directly in daily life when they present themselves. With dedication over a long period of time, we may begin to discover that love arises spontaneously, with fewer and fewer limits, radiating out and sending beneficial ripple effects far and wide.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings never be separated from the ultimate happiness that knows no suffering.
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.

– The Four Immeasurables (Buddhist prayer)



Equanimity: Feather or Stone, 1 Arrow or 2?

CuracaoWhen it comes to uncontrollable  events and circumstances, are you more like a stone or a feather in the stream of life? A feather floats on the surface, riding the waves and eddies, allowing the current to carry it. A stone sinks into the mud where it is eroded; gradually worn away by friction until, it too, is inevitably taken by the current. In our culture it is considered admirable to resist or fight against unwanted things and to relentlessly pursue things we want. However, this approach can have problematic consequences when applied indiscriminately.

Acceptance is the decision to be a feather in the stream of experience, rather than a stone. It is allowing what is already here, rather than avoiding, pushing away or struggling against it. Sometimes it makes sense to take action in order to change our circumstances. Other times anything we do will only make things worse. Mindfulness provides space to discern and respond with wisdom.

The immediate, unexamined reaction we have to feelings of aversion can contribute enormously to our suffering. This is illustrated beautifully in a Buddhist teaching about the second arrow:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow &, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. – from Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Wisdom comes from a willingness to see things as they are rather than the way we think they should be. A consistent practice of mindfulness, or non-judgmental observation of what arises in any given situation, allows us to gather information we might otherwise miss and to learn from it. This patient accumulation of knowledge creates a sense of trust in experience and cultivates equanimity – balance and calm amidst difficulty.

Meditation teacher Shinzen Young said, “Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence,” calling it a “balanced state of non-self-interference.” Instead of being mindlessly dragged around and dominated by strong emotion or pain, the wisdom and equanimity cultivated through clear seeing bring a calm, undisturbed space in which we have the opportunity to choose our response. We develop the freedom to ask ourselves, “In this moment, will I be a feather or will I be a stone? Will I feel the pain of one arrow or two?”

For a learned person who has fathomed the Dhamma (truth),
clearly seeing this world & the next,
desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His acceptance & rejection are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.

Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state,
he discerns rightly,
has gone, beyond becoming,
to the Further Shore.

– Sallatha Sutta

Seva & Bodhicitta: Compassion in Action

MuckyDuck2016hugCompassion is concern for suffering and the desire to eliminate it. Seva is a Sanskrit word spoken in yoga circles that means selfless service. Bodhicitta is a Buddhist term, one form of which involves doing good for the sake of others. Both represent compassion in action performed selflessly. There is an intention to eliminate suffering with no attachment to outcome – no expectation of repayment or reward.

A sense of equality and interconnection also lies at the heart of selfless service. Unlike acting out of pity or sympathy, when we act out of compassion we recognize the universal in suffering and we experience a mutual uplifting. We are not helping the helpless, saving sinners, or assisting the disadvantaged. We are simply benefiting each other.

When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union – Bhagavad Gita

Ultimately we all suffer together and elimination of suffering in one reduces the suffering of all, if only incrementally. As the saying goes, hurting people hurt others. When suffering is decreased, hurtful behavior often decreases as well. The world becomes a better place to live for everyone. Selfless service is a devotional practice that often benefits both receiver and giver. In fact, there is a growing research base showing that compassion is good for our health.

Anyone can practice compassion in action. It is the intention that matters most.

Helping out is not some special skill. It is not the domain of rare individuals. It is not confined to a single part of our lives. We simply heed the call of that natural impulse within and follow it where it leads us. – Ram Dass

Through these selfless acts we soften, become more open, and transcend ego to connect with the universal. We begin to see through the conditioned stinginess and defensiveness that can be our habitual reaction to the school of hard knocks. In this way we develop a broader perspective which allows us to be wiser and happier.

Attitudes of Mindfulness: Compassion

Chennai Temple: Photo by Sean Ochester

Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law. 
The Dhammapada

When Nelson Mandela died it got me thinking about the many exceptional people throughout history who have benefitted us all.  I was thinking about people who took great risks, suffered or gave up worldly pleasures and pursuits like Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, Jane Goodall, Desmond Tutu, Harriet Tubman, and the Buddha. People who lost their lives for their cause like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus. I even considered modern humanitarians like the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Bono, and Warren Buffet – and I reflected that there were surely many others that I do not know about or who didn’t come to mind.

I feel very fortunate to be able to make such a long list of those who have bettered the world. Many of these individuals embodied the Buddhist concept of bodhicitta – selflessness and compassion for all beings. Compassion is the desire to eliminate suffering and its causes.

In this culture we find ourselves swimming in a sea of fear – immersed in stories and images of danger and loss, its easy to feel we are barely able to keep our own heads above the fray. We unconsciously begin to live as though harmful people and things await us around every corner. And if we are so harmed, we are taught that it is our own fault for not seeing it coming and preventing it from happening. So, we tend to carry a certain level of skepticism, defensiveness and stinginess with us at all times. The costs of this approach to life are many, but at its core is a life lived regretting missteps of the past and anticipating the dangers of the future, rather than truly experiencing each moment as it unfolds. We are less present in our lives.

How do we escape this conditioned, habitual way of being and cultivate compassion? We do it in much the same way that we cultivate the other attitudes of mindfulness – through practice. First, we set an intention and a wish for the happiness, the end of suffering and the causes of suffering for all beings (including ourselves). Then we engage in formal practices, such as lovingkindness (metta) or Tonglen (sending and receiving) meditation that help us realize this intention in our daily lives. We relearn how to open to experience and see things as they are without judgment, even in the face of great difficulty. We begin to accept uncertainty. All of this creates space within us for allowing suffering – our own and that of others – so that we can respond skillfully and with wisdom, fulfilling our intentions.

When I was about six years old I received the essential bodhichitta teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”  Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice. – Pema Chodron