Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

In the Buddhist tradition, there are four immeasurable qualities, four qualities of the awakened heart. They include compassion, lovingkindness, joy and equanimity. I think of myself as a compassion and kindness person, but joy, I’m not so sure it is for me. I feel happy and content, but joy feels a bit too active (and uncontrollable) for me. But joy can serve as both the input and the output of our practice as Thich Nhat Hanh describes above. I don’t have to feel it in any particular moment, but I’m always able to explore it.

As I prepared this week’s session, I gave myself time to intentionally practice joy. Joy is close cousins with gratitude so it seemed appropriate for the season. Beginning with gratitude can be an on-ramp to joy as we recognize the good things in our lives and the circumstances and people that brought them about. But it is important to specify what we mean by joy. The Pali/Sanskrit word Muditā means a certain kind of joy, an Appreciative or Empathetic Joy. One of my favorite meditations on joy comes from Brian Dean Williams and can be heard below.

Williams offers four phrases to silently repeat as we visualize someone we know who is doing really well right now:

May your happiness increase.
May your success continue to grow.
May you continue to create the conditions for peace and freedom in your life.
I see your success and I wish for it to grow. 

While meditating on joy can help settle the mind and make one feel more connected and happy, the most exciting quality to me is these empathetic qualities. Usually we think of empathy in terms of identifying and connecting with difficult emotions in others. But can it work the other way around? By finding joy in others, we can awaken the joy that lives in each of us. And there are many gates to joy including integrity, generosity, gratitude, trust, mindfulness and connection.

I’ve been practicing with an image of my son recently, who is doing really well. As I work through the practice, repeating phrases like “May you continue to create the conditions for peace and freedom in your life,” I open up a bit. I say to myself, “Wait, things are going pretty well for you as well.” Its okay to be joyful now.

How beautiful to think, “I know how you feel” when we see another person full of joy and delight! This activation carries the secret – that we hold the tools for joy inside of us. With presence, mindfulness, and of course practice, we can find joy and experience its benefits. This joy can be abundant and boundless, able to be experienced by others without limiting its effect.


smile.jpgTwo additional practices we worked with in our session were “Smile and Return” and Coherent Breathing. Mindfulness practice can be boiled down to three things: catching yourself, being gentle and beginning again. We do this over and over, no matter how many times we become lost in thought or distracted by a feeling. In our workshops, we have practiced returning our attention and even naming our distraction. In this practice, we use a physical smile to gently guide ourselves by to our breath, the focus of our observation. Try it out here:

Another nourishing practice is called coherent breathing. Turns out, they’ve even patented it (how can one patent breathing?) In this practice, you balance the rhythm of breathing, allow the breath to easily flow from inhale to exhale. At its simplest, you can simply count to 5 or 6 during each in breath and begin again, counting to 5 or 6 on the out breath. This practice can take us out of our reactive, fight or flight mode, by regulating the body and calming our emotions. Try it with this great guided practice from Jonathan Foust.


Blog-Post.jpgWhat brings joy to your heart? Let us know what you think and visit us to learn more. I have written and spoken extensively about joy in these and other articles: Where Does Joy Come From and How Can I Get It?More Time for Joy, and The Power of A Smile

From the Dhammapada

Live in joy,
In love,
Even among those who hate.

Live in joy,
In health,
Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy,
In peace,
Even among the troubled.

Look within.
Be still.
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of living in the way.

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One thought on “Cultivating the Heart: Joy

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