The Buddhist path offers more than somber contemplation and quietude; the experience of deep stillness from a sustained meditation practice can cause a river of joy to flow through our everyday lives.
It happened one sunny morning after meditation. I was cycling down the street, and all of sudden I wanted to burst into song. I couldn’t help myself so I started humming a tune. Moreover, I felt warmth and friendliness toward everyone I saw.
An unstoppable smile radiated towards all the pedestrians and commuters I saw. Some of the people I passed on my bicycle, as well as those I encountered when I did my shopping at the organic store, seemed to sense and reciprocate my joy, smiling back at me.
It felt as if my whole being was dancing!
The greater the distress and passions,
The more one can be blithe and gay!
What happiness to feel no ailment or illness;
What happiness to feel that joy and suffering are one;
What happiness to play in bodily movement
With the power aroused by Yoga.
To jump and to run, to dance and leap, is more joyful still.
“What happiness to sing the victorious song,
What happiness to chant and hum,
More joyful still to talk and loudly sing!
Happy in the mind, powerful and confident,
Steeped in the realm of Totality.
Remember the sunny side
Buddhist teaching starts out not on the sunny side, but with the truth of suffering. This is the insight that life is always bumpy. In Pali, the language the Buddha likely spoke, the word dukkhais usually translated as suffering. A direct meaning, however, is a wheel with a broken axle or a squeaky wheel. Think of it, in modern terms, of driving a car with shot suspension; it’s an uncomfortable ride. That’s the truth of suffering.
The second truth is the cause of this is craving, and specifically always wishing for things to be the way we want them, rather than the way they are. That’s where all our irritation and aggression comes in. “Damn, this hot, sticky weather sucks!” Or, “Oh god, not another traffic jam!” We want things to go our way, and when they don’t, we get peeved.
Based on these two foundational truths of Buddhist teaching, it’s easy to assume the Buddhist path is a rather gloomy one. However, it’s important to know, this is just the starting point of Buddhist philosophy, and by no means the end point.
The good news is, there is so much beauty, joy and celebration on the Buddhist path. Yes, we must look deeply into our own suffering and its causes, but this results in us relaxing and becoming much more available to experience life in its fullness.
The joy I’m talking about here isn’t your usual run of the mill happiness. It’s not what the Buddha called “worldly joy” or pleasant feelings. That’s the kind of joy one experiences on vacation in the tropics or while drinking champagne and grooving at an outdoor party. Though this can be fun.
I’m talking about “unworldly joy”, or sometimes called non-sensual joy. This is joy that arises without any reference point. In other words, it’s not caused by anything outside of us, any sensory or mental stimulation. It’s not a result of us getting what we want, and avoiding what we don’t want.
On the path of Buddhist yoga, the arising of this unconditioned joy is a sign our practice is going well. It’s a sign we’re letting go of all our little gripes about the world because it won’t play the way we want it to. This loosening and relaxing means we are more here, more open, so we can truly appreciate life.
In the Buddhist tradition such an experience of joy arises out of sustained mindfulness practice.
A support for awakening
Sometimes referred to as rapture, or delight, coming from the Pali word piti, joy is also described as one of the Seven Factors of Awakening – it helps us wake up. Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says, “Piti has the function of refreshing the mind and body, like a cool breeze on a hot day.”
Again, this isn’t ordinary, worldly joy. Nor is it the same category as unconditioned joyful feelings previously mentioned. This refers to specific experiences that occur as our mindfulness matures, such as our meditation becoming effortless, goosebumps or trembling in the body, sudden jolts of energy, waves of thrilling sensations arising in the body, a sense of weightlessness and floating in the air, and a sense of happiness so sweet it’s beyond words. It’s important to note, not all of these experiences are always pleasant; in some cases they can be intense and unsettling.
Practitioners are encouraged to cultivate the Seven Factors of Awakening, including joy, by paying close attention and contemplating certain things. In this case, rapture or joy is said to arise out of steady mindfulness, not just on our meditation cushion, but on our yoga mat, while we wash dishes, wait in a long line at the bank. Each of the seven factors aid our journey towards full awakening.
Lighten up, okay?
We have to be careful, however, not to beat ourselves up for feeling the other side of the spectrum as well: sadness, melancholy, grief and anger, for example. Joy is not something to chase or get self-aggressive about. As Pema Chodron beautifully explains:
Don’t make such a big deal. The key to feeling at home with your body, mind, and emotions, to feeling worthy to live on this planet, comes from being able to lighten up. This earnestness, this seriousness about everything in our lives – including practice – this goal oriented, we’re-going-to-do-it-or-else attitude, is the world’s greatest killjoy. There’s no sense of appreciation because we’re so solemn about everything. In contrast, a joyful mind is very ordinary and relaxed.
~ Pema Chödrön
The truth is that like all great adventures, the path of Buddhist yoga includes many ups and downs along the way. At the beginning especially, as we take a deeper looking into ourselves through meditation, revelations might be unsettling and can sometimes shake us. And these are also valuable and important. We don’t reject anything. Having a trusted teacher to talk about these experiences with is very helpful at this stage (as well as later on!)
The trick is to maintain a sense of humour. When you notice yourself getting all uptight, all serious, and solemn, be curious, look closely, and remember to lighten up.
Letting go of perfection on the mat
This serious killjoy attitude can sometimes affect our asana practice. We get too hung up on perfecting “advanced asanas” or being regimented in our practice, perhaps chasing chiseled abs for our bikini body.
Or maybe, in these self-referential times, we find ourselves performing our asanas for a camera so we can share images and videos to garner us more followers on Instagram. A kind of avaricious mentality develops around this, and we suddenly find our practice becoming anxiety inducing rather than joyful.
This is a sign to lighten up, and pay closer attention to our experience. It’s an invitation to slow down, to be more curious, attentive, gentle and softer in our practice. As we do this, our attitude changes, our body relaxes, and we take this lighter way of being with us, off the mat and out into the world. This is yoga.
Joyful for others
Another way joy is discussed in Buddhist yoga, is the Four Brahma Viharas, or sometimes called the Four Immeasurables. Brahma is the Hindu god who created the universe and vihara means dwelling place. So Brahma Vihara means the “dwelling place of Brahma”. This suggest an attitude of godliness, in the sense of godly conduct. The Four Brahma Viharas are:
- Loving-kindness (maitri)
- Compassion (karuna)
- Sympathetic joy (mudita)
- Equanimity (upeksha)
As our aggression and complaining start to decrease and we become more available to the world and the beings around us, it’s natural we begin to have warmer feelings and more empathy towards ourselves and others.
Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the feeling of rejoicing in the happiness and success of others. We might be walking down the street and see a couple embracing, and we feel this tender joy for them. Or a friend might land an awesome job, and rather than being jealous, we truly feel their joy and celebrate for them.
Unlike some ideas in positive psychology, sympathetic joy isn’t self-orientated or self-congratulatory; it’s flows outwards towards others. Rather than constantly cycling in thoughts about our own success and failure, we start wishing others happiness and success and rejoice when they experience it.
A beautiful life
This cultivation of joy leads to more beauty and celebration in life. We can afford to lighten up, laugh at ourselves and smile. We stop laying big trips on ourselves and others.
Instead, we want to bound down the street, humming a cheerful tune, and smiling at random strangers. Sound cray-cray? It’s not. It’s like seeing flowers blooming in spring.
Ever had an experience like this? If so, it’s a sign your practice is going well. I would love to hear about it in a comment below!