I’ve been thinking about joy a lot lately. These past 6 months, I’ve experienced more moments of pure joy than I’ve probably ever experienced in my life. This joy has been a gift to me and something that I’m hoping to cultivate more consciously in my life.
Yet, as little as five years ago, I would have been very skeptical of this kind of joy. I had grown uncomfortable with joy — I didn’t trust people who seemed to have a lot of it. It always felt false to me. How could anyone honestly feel that much joy? I thought it just wasn’t possible and so joyful people were immediately suspect in my eyes. To me, they were hiding behind this mask of joy. I demanded their truth.
But I didn’t know the truth about joy. Not yet. The skepticism I’d been holding on to seemed so rational. I had to learn to let that go.
How can one choose joy when the world seems like it’s falling apart?
It seems transgressive to talk about joy when it feels like the world is falling apart around us. Jenny Offill speaks to this idea as she described her latest book in a recent New York Times profile: “The question I was thinking about in this book . . . Can you still just tend your own garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?”
There has probably never been a time in my life that I’ve worried about the state of the world more than I have in the past four years. Even as I say that, I question my memory. Really? Memories are short and can you really remember the intensity of your feelings from just a memory? I guess it depends on how traumatic the event was — and how my world view has evolved.
What I do know is that we’ve had many other world events in the past century that have been just as or even more fraught than today. Yes, the rate of animal and natural resource extinction has never been higher, but there have been plenty of other world wars and catastrophes that have been more dire. “Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe,” Hans Rosling argues in his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.
Our entire perspective about the world is based on the fear of the moment. We’re captivated by the drama and addicted to the emotional intensity. It somehow makes our life more interesting even if we think we hate it. I’m not going to blame the media or technology, even though they both have a major role to play. It’s we who must wake up and start choosing differently. It’s we who need to start a revolution.
Focus on what you control
We let so many fears and worries, over which we have absolutely no control, affect our daily being. We think by worrying about these many existential threats, we’re accomplishing something in some way. Why else would we devote that energy to worrying? This is why the serenity prayer is such a powerful prayer in AA. It teaches you how to surrender those things you can’t control. It releases you from that very useless bind of anxiety so you can live a freer life. It gives you the space and opportunity to choose joy.
When you free your energy to focus on the things you can actually control, you naturally feel lighter because you can progress. Progress feels 100x better than the limiting energy you get from worrying. Worrying is like a hungry ghost. The more you feed it, the hungrier it gets and the worse you feel. It’s easy to become addicted to this cycle even if it makes you feel miserable. You don’t easily notice the cycle when you are in it and so you keep feeding your hunger thinking you are getting sustenance.
This has been showing up for me big time in our political environment. I have been through many phases of this and have improved by leaps and bounds over the years. But, while I’ve given up sharing or talking about politics in social media (which I used to do rampantly in the early years) and have deleted my social media and news apps, I still manage to get stuck trolling Twitter — through my browser, in the app’s absence. I do this in spite of how I end up feeling afterward, drained of energy, frustrated, and full of angst. While I am starting to consciously cultivate more joy in my life, this habit remains a major impediment.
Learn to float
“Don’t postpone joy until you have learned all of your lessons. Joy is your lesson.”
— Alan Cohen
I heard about this concept in a class I’m taking called “The Work” based on the ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff. Instead of identifying with your various mechanical triggers throughout the day, you learn to float above the episodes and observe. Observing these moments gives you the insight and distance you need to practice other ways of responding. “The Work” reveals your multiplicity, the programs you’ve created from past experiences that end up ruling how you respond to current experiences in your life. When you are able to experience your life more consciously, it is easier to actively choose joy. You can even have deeply traumatic experiences and still be resolved to live your life from joy. Grief and joy can coexist.
But don’t try too hard… joy takes a light touch
Trying too hard has always been my Achilles Heel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this same phrase used to describe me. I can be a very determined person, but inevitably this grit-teeth determination hampered my progress. One of our Work teachers quoted this Aldous Huxley poem in our last class and how I wish I had come across it when I was young.
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. …”
Choosing joy doesn’t have to be difficult. It just has to be conscious. It may help if like in Weather we grasp onto the idea to “treat each person we encounter as if they are our beloved.” Especially ourselves.