Growing up, my parents seemed to throw around the word joy a lot. So did some of the church communities I was a part of. At some point the idea lost its luster, like something parents try to pass on to kids to hold on to their innocence a little while longer.
The older I got the more joy seemed an emotion relegated to Hallmark cards and nurseries. For a time, unless a sermon or movie or TV show acknowledged the unbearable tragedy at the heart of existence, it just rang hollow.
For years my wife and I tried to conceive unsuccessfully, going through several stages of testing and fertility treatment. At the time, my personal narrative had become one of failure and this was the icing on the cake.
Eventually, though, we were able to have a son, and as any parent knows, there’s a new dimension of life that opens up. I finally caught a glimpse of what my parents had been writing in all those birthday cards. A new capacity opens up and there’s only one word that adequately captures it: joy.
It’s an abiding thing. It’s a state of being. As my wife recently mentioned in a sermon of her own drawing on C.S. Lewis’s distinction in Surprised By Joy, happiness is what we feel when things go right. Happiness is contingent, whereas joy is that abiding experience independent of externals.
There’s some partaking of a transcendent mystery in becoming a parent. Something about being part of new life coming into being. Something about facilitating, fostering, and caretaking, and cultivating that new life.
For me, becoming a parent served as a wake up call that joy is still available, still possible. It’s a reality that is possible to experience. So much of the time we’re caught up pursuing happiness instead.
The problems can set in when we start to fixate on external sources to that joy, like children or partners or our job. If the obstacles to joy aren’t acknowledged and released, it becomes clouded over. Our spouse can leave. Our child turns out much different than we wanted. There are a thousand things to be dealt with.
Abiding in joy takes the work of relinquishing, of letting go.
When my son was born there was a glimpse of a kind of sustained radiance. But it is even more deeply true that joy is available regardless of circumstance.
Describing the contemplative life, Anthony De Mello says we become like the sky. When suffering comes along, it’s like throwing black paint up at the sky. When we cultivate true awareness and get in touch with our true nature, there’s nothing for the paint to stick to.
At the same time, when we confuse isolated experiences as joy, we sow the seeds of unhappiness and misery. William Blake puts it this way, “He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy/But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” This might be the most concise description of the Eastern notion of non-attachment that we have. Allowing the process to unfold, taking joy in the process of our lives, without clinging.
Here are the ingredients for joy. In acceptance. In becoming dependent on anyone or anything for our joy. But it does take dedication, understanding, and vigilance to recognize and remove the obstacles to that kind of openness, and that kind of joy.
Author Eckhart Tolle writes of awakened doing, or our work in the world in a fully wakened, fully conscious state, “the modalities of awakened doing are acceptance, joy, and enthusiasm.” If we are not in one of these three states, we are like in a state of egoic clinging in some fashion, and creating unnecessary suffering, either for ourselves or others.
The only way I know of to develop that kind of sustained awareness, that cultivates joy as well as helps us recognize and remove the obstacles to joy moment to moment is the contemplative path.