just be it It’s about the work involved in establishing a dedicated practice to feelings of a bigger belonging through practices aimed at increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude and forgiveness
March, 2012

Joy Practice

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012


Cultivating a sustaining felt sense of joy is hard work.  No doubt, we all have our predispositions for holding a joyful attitude.  Yet, as we move through life, experiencing deeper suffering, the work becomes more challenging.  I’m extremely inspired by the person over ninety years old who still carries a joyful air with eternal possibility.  At ninety, you’ve seen most of your friends and family shed their bodies.  You’ve experienced a wide variety of injury and disease.  You’ve watched your body entropy over the years and you’ve felt the diminishing attitude our culture promotes toward the elderly.  And yet, somehow these people sustain a smile on their face that encourages me toward disciplined ‘joy practice’.

I’ve heard it said that if you’re body is still breathing, you’ve still got more than 50% working, no matter how bad off you are.  Now that’s something to be grateful for.  Gratitude is a major component to cultivating joy.  Our real work is to make space to find the gift in the given.  An attitude of joy is one of no complaint.  It’s putting attention to the fullness of life rather than what’s lacking.  It’s recognizing that we’re entitled to nothing and therefore, should take nothing for granted.  All is gift.  This is perhaps most difficult when dealing with perceived enemies, unexpected illness or injury, and ultimately, death.  And dealing with the inevitability of shedding our own bodies is perhaps the best way to cultivate the shear awe and wonder of the next arising moment while being served in these bodies.  I cultivate joy when I’m prepared to let this body go tomorrow, yet stewarding it to live beyond ninety.  This really brings me to life.  It’s what motivates me to wake to this next arising moment.  When we lose our long term vision we lose our awareness to death.  Finding hope in death, we find meaning in life.  This awareness of shedding the body should not really be about fear, but about the inspiration to appreciate life, aiming to meet death without regret. It wakes me to the truth of what life is about, this appreciation practice that yields sustaining joy, no matter what.

So how about the contrast between ‘joy’ and ‘enjoy’?  Joy is sustainable with regular practice.  Enjoyment is not.  When seeking enjoyment or pleasure, as soon as we have the experience we were grasping for, we’re filled immediately with a vacuum, a restless that produces guilt or desire for more.  Joy practice brings us to deeper and deeper conditions of well-being.  We can face conditions that don’t turn out as expected and find the gifted surprise.  We can stand tall in the face of those who aim to hurt us and hold love for them as our brother or sister.  An ever present awareness of our death is the greatest teacher in helping us to take care of life in the best way.  There’s a deeper realization that the only thing that’s permanent is change.  Consequently, in addition to gratitude, patience and awareness practice is central to our sustained joy.  With a strong joy practice, I’m less inclined to cave to my ego’s desire to react to another.  In the ’60’s I was livid with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for decisions made with regard to the Vietnam War.  He later produced an academy award winning documentary called The Fog of War. His mind opened to see the incorrect assumptions that were made, assumptions that cost fifty-eight thousand young American lives.  Sen. Robert Bird was against the civil rights movement, only to later change as a key ambassador to equal rights and peace.  I would hope that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will some day open to the tremendous harm done from incorrect assumptions made in our military engagement in the Middle East.  None of us is immune from causing harm in our reactive judgments.  Yet, when we practice patience with a non-reactive mind, our decisions and actions will cause less harm.  I’m sure we can all think back to those moments where a little pause, a dedicated ‘joy practice’, would have produced a kinder response.  It really carries the qualities of prayer as described by Brother David Steindl-Rast:

“What is it that makes prayers prayer?  When we try to put into words what the secret might be, words like mindfulness, full alertness, and wholehearted attention suggest themselves.” from Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.  p. 42

Sustained joy is the result of focused attention and wonderment.  Awareness and patience produce an open mindedness that receives sustained surprise.  Filled with wonderment and awe for the gift of the given, we meet the universe with eyes wide open.  Joy practice opens the closed mind as we cultivate our wholeness in the prayer response.  Brother David relates it to the eyes wind open of children.  He speaks of prayerfulness as that which keeps the child alive in us:

“And the child within us never loses the talent to look with the eyes of the heart, to combine concentration with wonderment, and so to pray without ceasing.”  p. 46

He goes on to say that this is very difficult work, cultivating the mindfulness, gratefulness and prayerfulness we have come to experience in those whole hearted moments.  Yet, it’s because of those whole-hearted, being moments that we know where to aim for deeper maintenance.  He speaks to the notion of this as practice:

“But for once we have managed to do it, we know at least that we can do it, and how it is done.  The rest is a matter of practice, of doing it over and over again, until it becomes second nature.”  p. 49

So the core elements of this practice are awareness, patience, stilling the thinking mind, and cultivating the whole heart response.  Brother David says we can’t be mindful without being grateful.  He also says that joy is a necessary consequence of gratitude.  He goes on to say that it’s a great ‘full’ response that comes from the heart, from the realm of being where we are one with all.

Some practices that facilitate the whole hearted prayerful response are listed below.


Pausing in no thought

Going deeper through disciplined practice

Kindness to others (so they suffer less)

Gratitude, finding the surprise in the gift of the given

Patience, stilling the separating, judgmental mind

Cultivating the open, non-reactive mind

Touching our doing with wholehearted being

So, to cultivate joy through joy practice, practice full attention to the breath and go deeper in seeing how everything changes.  From this gratitude for the gift of the arising moment comes deeper mindfulness and further awareness to our interconnection with all things.

It’s also helpful to examine our regular breathing.  Is it peaceful, harmonic and rhythmical?  Does it come from the belly or the chest?  Can we develop greater awareness to the separating nature of our linguistic thoughts?  Through meditation, can we extend the ‘no thought’ moment, can we release our attachment to repeating thoughts, and can we experience a deeper stillness?  With mindfulness and gratitude comes a sense of wonder where kindness grows.  The natural desire to reduce others’ suffering is watered and judgments, competition and the separating mind diminishes.  The mind opens in wonder to accept how little we know, with frequent use of, “I just don’t know.”  The destructive nature of the closed mind and the phrase, “I know that” is revealed.  The grasping to be ‘right’ diminishes as the childlike curious heart opens to an expanding universe.

In the prayerful response, there’s a deep felt sense that all is supported, even when it may seem the floor has given way.  This sense of Big Belonging transcends the separating nature of race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, economic status, etc.  The mindful, nonjudgmental, open mind is the mind that can sustain joy.

Yes, we all meet despair everyday.  Feelings of not being enough, not having enough and not doing enough creep in repeatedly from our competitive, consumptive culture.  I can only hope that whoever reads this finds some relieve through the implementation of joy practice.  It takes practice, courage and discipline and is no less demanding than any spiritual pursuit.  May you break open this practice and find wonderment and awe as the closed mind yields to the open mind, once again letting the sun shine in.