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The Urgency of Joy

Skeleton performing zazen on waves by Maruyama Okyo, 1787, Daijoji Temple, Hyogo, Japan. Image via Al Billings

With every closing of the year, I choose a word or a theme for the next. This year, the word that came to me is JOY. If there is anything that encapsulates the fool best, it is their indefatigable joy. But what is joy? Where is it found? My heart understands joy. How, though, is it translated for the mind? With the help of others, I will do my best!

In my experience, joy is a feeling that is rarely ecstatic, but rather experienced as a deep hum of contentment. It is the equanimity of releasing the grip of one’s opinions. It is a feeling of belonging. A moment, a conversation, an experience aligning with one’s heart. Joy is speaking with words, or a gesture, or a glance and being understood by another human. What a miracle that is! Joy, however, does not happen by chance. Joy is a choice. It is choosing to lean into gratitude even when the rapture of bitterness is so enticing. It is choosing what would make my inner child feel most safe. It is choosing to say “fuck yes!” when it feels right. And choosing to say “fuck no!” when that feels best. It is living beyond simply obligation - to the status quo, to pleasing others, to maintaining the ego. Beyond the shoulds. It is living in communion with others in a way that honors and never sacrifices one’s truth. It is remembering that it is impossible to ever be alone in a world that contains the elements that created our very being.

What does joy mean to you?

From the film, Amélie.

An extremely wise and beautiful friend of mine is currently in the process of dying of ALS. If you are unfamiliar with this uncompromising disease for which there is no cure, let me tell you in brief that it is a painful and steadfast process of all your physical faculties slowly breaking down, from your ability to walk down to your ability to talk, eat, and finally breathe. My friend is facing this degeneration of her body with more grace than I’ve had when I couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee. In facing life and death “without blinking”, as she says, she has come to realize the importance of joy in a way that feels urgent when she speaks of it. She wants people to not waste another minute living in a way that closes off the heart to joy. In her view, it is our judgment, complaining, gossiping, and grasping that keeps joy away. She encourages us to work diligently and make a commitment to create the causes and conditions that create joy. Two suggestions she has is to focus on gratitude, really make a commitment to staying open to gratitude, as small or big as it might be. Even if it’s simply gratitude for the sun rising another day. And to get quiet. Get really quiet. Quiet enough to hear the guidance within. Get quiet so that we can come to know how we close off and, in turn, how we open up.

Ruth King, Buddhist teacher and founder of the Mindful Race Institute, offers this simple prayer: “May I live with an open heart. May whatever blocks my heart be dissolved.”

In his book Consolations, the poet, David Whyte, says “joy may be made by a practiced, hard-won achievement as much as by an unlooked for, passing act of grace arriving out of nowhere; joy is a measure of our relationship not only to life but to death and our living with death, joy is the act of giving ourselves away before we need to or are asked to, joy is practiced generosity.

To feel a full and untrammeled joy is to have become fully generous; to allow ourselves to be joyful is to have walked through the doorway of fear, the dropping away of the anxious worried self, felt like a thankful death itself, a disappearance, a giving away.”

Death Café. Image from

I belong to a Death Café. This is a group of people who gather to talk about death in an open, agenda-free way. The objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. It is refreshing to sit with a group of folks and contemplate our mortality. It is, technically speaking, a morbid conversation, but beneath the words there is a hum of joy as we strip away the illusion of our immortality. The topics range from witnessing death, the aftermath of the death of a loved one, the funeral industry, death meditation, spiritual beliefs about death, death rituals, our own “good death”, and even evolution and cosmology. In this exploration what rises to the surface is that this life is a fleeting gift. In this relationship to life via greeting death, it feels especially ignorant to spend too much time complaining, gossiping, and upholding a rigid identity with our attachments. Thank goodness our time is limited! My friend who is dying urges us to “Forgive. Soften. Open to all of it. But don’t blink.” Let us use this life to access a “full and untrammeled joy” and “become fully generous.”

"It's a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy."

- Lucy Ricardo, one of the greatest fools of all time.


Journaling Prompt* : What causes and conditions in your life help you open up to joy?

Leave a comment below or email I'd love to hear your reflections.

*Journaling tips can be found here.


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