The Necessity of Joy

I grew up on the east coast, whose gentle hills and particular blend of evergreen and deciduous trees still soothes me. On the weekends, we would drive about two hours north to the Hudson Valley of New York state, where my grandmother had the privilege and good fortune to own a small country house.

Her name was Joy, and we called her “Nanny Joy.” I spent many hours as a child walking through those woods, finding streams, mossy clearings, and groves of trees that still seem magical in my mind. One of my favorite places to spend time was in the limbs of a great, old White Pine near Nanny Joy’s house.

I’d often climb high into the tree’s arms—as high as her branches would support my small body. Near her crown, I would wrap one arm around her trunk and rest there, looking out over trees, fields, and the small, dark pond with cattails along the far shore. When the wind picked up, the great old tree would sway gently from side to side, rocking me in her arms. Her sticky sap would often remain glued to my skin for a few days, an indelible imprint of having touched that quiet, vast space near the sky.

As human beings, we need more than food, air, water and shelter.  I believe that in each of us there is a powerful need for the heart to be nourished. Just as a plant will wither without adequate water, so too our hearts can lose a certain quality of buoyancy, moisture, and brightness without adequate nourishment.

To do any kind of work—and especially work of service, healing, and social change—requires both external and internal resources. We need resilience to face pain. We need strength to persevere through challenge. And there’s nothing quite like joy to bring resilience and strength to the heart.

The Door to Joy

There are countless ways to access and experience joy. It’s one of the wonders of being alive that we can take delight in so many different ways. Yet all of them seem to rest on one basic capacity: the ability to receive. To feel joy, we must be willing to let things in, to allow ourselves to be touched by life. (Even the joy we feel in an act of giving depends on our ability to receive the beauty of contributing, the gratitude of the recipient, or the kindness in our own heart).

This receiving is characterized by qualities of openness and connection. It’s not so much something we do as something that happens naturally when we slow down and give ourselves time and space to be—like looking across the land from high up in that old, great pine tree. It’s the quality that emerges when you stop and close your eyes to feel the sun on your face; or the inner quiet that comes as you gently shut your eyes and lean in close to smell the fragrance of a flower. It’s the feeling of ease we experience when spending time with a good friend.

How many gifts and moments of joy do we miss in life because we’re moving too quickly, too busy to actually receive and allow joy to arise? How often do we slow down enough to linger and allow ourselves to receive the goodness of our lives?

We need resilience to face pain. And there’s nothing quite like joy to bring resilience and strength to the heart.

Mindfulness Means Receiving Life

The way it’s often taught, mindfulness can become overly associated with a tremendous amount of “doing.” Yet the practice includes both active and receptive elements. The proactive aspect of mindfulness is the part that helps us to direct our attention and connect with the object of our meditation (the breath, the body, etc.) The receptive aspect of mindfulness is about lingering and tasting the flavor of that experience. We sustain our attention by sensing, with a spirit of curiosity, “How’s this feel?”

More often than not, this receptive quality can become overshadowed by the focus of directed attention. The part that says “What is this?” overpowers and crowds out the part that listens and receives, “How is this?”

And it’s that receiving, that listening, that opens the heart to joy. The more we learn to sustain a felt connection to what’s happening, the more deeply we can experience joy.

The great strength of this joy is that it isn’t dependent on getting what we want or experiencing pleasant things. It’s an inner happiness that comes from simply being connected to our experience, be is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It’s an innate quality of joyful interest that arises when the heart/mind touches felt experience directly. When sustained, this can give way to a deep and pervasive satisfaction.


With Nanny Joy, Pine Plains NY c.1999


Practicing Joy

It takes practice to find the good, to let things in, and to remember joy. I have a dear friend and colleague with whom I take a walk through one of the local parks every few weeks. We always begin our walk by taking turns sharing “celebrations”—bits of our lives that are going well, small successes that we appreciate or want to celebrate. It’s a wonderful practice to train the attention to notice and drink in the good.

These days, I find joy in many things. My partner and I often take walks in the evening together after work, holding hands and talking about our days. I enjoy sitting quietly in meditation, breathing in and breathing out. It brings me joy to teach, to write, and to share with others the little bit that I’ve learned so far about living a meaningful life.

On the shelf above our kitchen sink is a small altar with a bronze statue of the Buddha, pictures of our families, and an old worn photo of my Nanny Joy. Every morning, I light a stick of incense and place it on the altar to honor our ancestors, and to remember joy.

What brings you joy?

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