It seems to me that ‘joy’ is a word that has become unfashionable and, perhaps, lost meaning for the modern age. My aim is to explore the meaning of joy, the ways in which we can develop a capacity to tap into joy, and the qualities of being that contribute to this capacity.
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What is the relationship between joy and delight and how can we cultivate joy and delight in challenging times?
Joy and delight
I think those things that delight us may often connect us to joy. But for me joy has more of a sense of rapture, bliss, ecstasy, and transcendence than delight.
In my 2019 post Revisiting Joy I described joy as a momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is, a moment of total connectedness and as existing only in the ‘now’.Saint Thomas Aquinas describes joys as ‘delights of the soul’ – yes, this sums up the distinction beautifully.
Opening to joy and delight in challenging times
In challenging times, I believe it becomes more important than ever to nurture and tap into joy as an underpinning of resilience and hope. I have worked consciously for more than a decade to cultivate the capacity for joy. So part of my ability to remain open to joy is simply ‘practice’. A key element of that practice is regularly and consciously opening out my senses into the now. Over time, this has become a normal way of being. This brings with it a constant stream of small joys that feed my soul and connect me to all that is. That sense of connection is fundamental to my understanding of joy.
Cultivating our capacity to experience joy is also a process of honing our ability to connect, as well as to contain and to accept every shading of existence. This encompasses both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world, which in the end is simply another manifestation of all that is whether you define this spiritually or in terms of particulate matter.
Implicit in and emerging out of ‘connection’ are love and compassion for all beings.
If you develop a strong sense of concern for the well-being of all sentient beings and in particular human beings, this will make you happy in the morning, even before coffee . . . Joy is a way of approaching the world.
Perhaps, too, the recognition of the existence of that unlimited capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human, both heart-filling and heart-breaking enables me to maintain my connection to joy even in times of suffering.
There are, of course, moments when I lose the connection, times of utter weariness and despair. But I have learned that these times pass, to rest easy with them. I don’t force my way back. But I do try to continue to open my awareness, to some extent to ‘fake it till I make it’, to rest in faith. I retain a sense of trust in the calm that runs underneath the turbulence always.
Delight in the everyday
I am constitutionally curious, and my curiosity reaps an abundance of delights!
Sometimes what draws me is something not previously perceived in an everyday experience; the musicality of dancing across frozen ‘puddle-drums’; the shadows cast by individual pieces of gravel on the road in the stark, bright sunlight of an early winter’s afternoon; the exquisite crystals forming at the bottom of a bottle of maple syrup. It might be natural beauty, which often illuminates some interiority. Or perhaps an interaction with another being; the infectious chuckle of a baby; a leisurely conversation with a dear friend; the knowledge that, in some small way, I have been able to make a difference, whether to loved-one or stranger; the now familiar gentle knock of our favourite squirrel on the window; the regular visits of the Cardinal lighting up our bird-feeder. Invariably, implicit in the flashes of joy there is some sense of flow and connectedness.
I realize that joy is often, for me, a multi-layered experience that instinctively links me with deeper knowing. I feel delight in what my senses are gifting me; the breathtaking majesty of a mountain range; the wondrous lake that is the backdrop to my life; the fractious flurry of goldfinches fighting for a place at the window feeder; the scent of lavender. But beyond that delight exist additional layers, rooted in association, symbol and insight.
My eyes may be drawn to the mountains, but the soaring of my soul reflects an awe that extends my awareness outwards into all of creation.
The lake tethers me to the constancy of change. it reminds me that there is a place of deep calm within me too that remains even in the midst of the wind’s tumult or the immobility of ice. I remember that it is the moments of absolute stillness that most fully reflect the light.
My delight in the goldfinches links me back to my Grandfather’s love of ‘all things great and small’ and to the benediction of his transmitted wisdom. The lavender is my Grandmother’s gentle, loving presence.
These do not need to be conscious or articulated thought processes. But as I have cultivated joy, they increasingly underpin and amplify my experience. Joy, it seems, for me at least, can be cumulative.
Saint Thomas Aquinas distinguishes bodily delights from the delights of the soul and thus joy. I’m guessing he is referring here to ‘pleasure’ and ‘sensation’. I think, though, there are other dimensions to bodily delight.
Like many of us as we age, I see my mother in my hands. I sometimes hear her in the words that emerge from my mouth. I think the delight I feel lies in a sense of recognition, perhaps even of presence, of continuity and, again, of connection.
As I spoon round my husband each morning, there is always a flash of joy. Yes, that dear familiarity, that skin on skin delight in touch is still the first layer, even 30 years on. But it also connects me to the whole of our history together, all the growth, learning and co-creation, the deepening of mature love.
And, recently, I seem to have moved into a new relationship with my body as simultaneously separate from and integral to that which constitutes ‘I am’. With this has come an unaccustomed tenderness and compassion, as well as a stream of fresh awareness and delight. A fleeting perception of my body as a community of cells within that greater community that is existence was just the kind of momentary glimpse of absolute belonging within the flow of all that is that forms part of my definition of joy.
Joy and gratitude as an act of resistance
Whether it’s the transcendent joy of sacred ritual or the simple joy of cultivating a garden, the pursuit of joy amid great struggle is a way to tend our humanity when it is most threatened. . . Joy is also a manifestation of abundance.
Although a key focus of my life has been an ability to help create the circumstances that support change for individuals and organizations, I’ve never really identified as an activist. I have always believed that the deepest and most enduring change always begins with the individual. So in looking at joy and gratitude in the context of resistance my focus is a more subtle, personal form of resistance.
At the most basic level, if joy underpins resilience and hope then it offers each one of us resistance against the negative emotions, the despair that might otherwise overwhelm us in dark times. There is great power in this.
To lay claim to joy and gratitude when the collective mood is one of loss, fear, grief and anger is to reassert our humanity, our vitality. By choosing to cultivate our capacity for joy, we retain the ability to expand rather than contract, which in turn drives our ability to embrace and energize change and so to move forward.
Similarly, in challenging times, the rootedness of joy in connection holds back the tides of isolation and alienation, certainly for self and possibly for others. We remain able to function from an abundance mindset.
Whilst it may seem counterintuitive to be joyful in the face of social ills and struggle, joy actually increases our ability to engage with the world empathically and effectively.
The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but . . . to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.
These last few difficult months have gifted many of us with an opportunity to turn our gaze inward. Although I have, like most people, struggled at times, I have been surprised to discover an increasingly persistent undercurrent of joy. Sometimes this brings feelings of guilt. How can it be OK to experience joy when so many are suffering?
This takes me back to that sense of joy as underpinning the capacity to encompass both the ecstasy and the agony of living and being human. Those of us who are able to tap into this capacity and to keep joy alive are, to an extent, light bringers and keepers of the flame. I can’t think of a much more profound act of resistance.
In these challenging times, it is hardly surprising when fear creates a knotted tangle of resistance, control mechanisms, and doubt. It can be difficult to hold on to an awareness of light.
Awe versus awful
A friend commented to me that maintaining an awareness of awe didn’t seem to help that much when instead faced with awful. I think the reality is that awe, wonder and gratitude are important in nourishing joy and resilience. They are not a preventative measure or an insurance policy – life happens. But greater resilience and the ability to find joy in even small, everyday things, can provide the necessary glimmer of light to help you get through the tough times.
Not mine to fix
It is easy to find oneself on a slippery slope of self-blame or loss of faith when life doesn’t go as you hoped and expected, when illness or adversity strike. I realized in the last week that, whilst I am mostly able to understand and accept that it is not up to me to fix others, there is a part of me that wants to cling to the belief that, if I ‘do it right’, I can fix myself. It was illuminating and freeing to understand that it is also not up to me to fix myself!
I may aspire to physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, may do my best to adopt positive choices and practices. But it is not a weakness, a failing in myself, if physical or emotional issues do not resolve immediately in response to my actions – or even ever. I simply do not have that level of control over life – no one does. There is no point, therefore, in judging and finding myself wanting. Nor does this invalidate the choices and practices. What I can do is sit with myself compassionately and with acceptance of what is. I can listen deeply for what I need and tap into that ability to connect with resilience and joy and the underpinning awareness that the light is always there.
Shining a light
When we align with who we really are, who-what we are designed to be, we unfurl. Benefit in all directions abounds that has little to do with us. We are simply being . . . and the benefit that happens, in a way, is none of our business.
~ Kim Rosen
Sitting in meditation with these ideas swirling around me, I had a delightfully ‘silly moment’ when the thought that popped into my head was ‘I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!’ Beyond the thought, though, lies a deepening understanding that it is not mine to fix anyone and a continuing commitment to the growth of authenticity. This is helping to reframe my ongoing desire to ‘make a difference’. It struck me that this was a personal expression of what Kim Rosen suggests in the quote above (revisited from my Soul School post). Playing with the thought, the poem below was my destination!
I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up!
I want to be a lighthouse when I grow up, to stand tall and true at the edge of the world mostly unremarked and unremarkable but there, a steady light radiating outwards from within.
It is none of my business whether the light is witnessed or serves any purpose.
But, on the darkest nights, when storms rage and rocks reveal their fangs, just maybe my light may ease some being’s passage and help them come home to themself.
When you let go of the career and life goals that have driven you forward throughout adulthood, it is hard to escape the questions ‘who am I now and what is my purpose in being?’ Earlier this year I identified that for me, at this point in my life, my most important role is as sage in training.
The unexpected adventure of growing old
I am very much at the beginning of this life-stage, the start of an exploration that will underpin however many years I may have ahead of me.
As we enter our later years all of us are fools in the sense that we are stepping off the edge of our early lives in order to explore new territory, that of elderhood, a place unknown and strange to us.
Friedman reflects that, in Hindu tradition, sixty represents a point of transition from ‘householder’ to ‘forest dweller’, one who begins to separate from the daily demands of life in order to spend more time in contemplation and in preparation for death. Though I am not sure I can make such a complete shift in our modern age, I love the idea of embracing at least parts of the identity of ‘forest dweller’!
It is perhaps important to remember that it is only relatively recently that many of us have had any significant expectation of life beyond sixty. Jean Houston observes that
The years beyond sixty, the years of our second maturity, may be evolution’s greatest gift to humanity.
At a more individual level, Leah Friedman speaks of an increasing coherence, perhaps a reconciliation with the paradoxes that so often define our humanity:
By our seventies we have lived long enough to forge our oddities and our conventionalisms – these disparate and sometimes contradictory qualities – into a more or less coherent whole. We can begin to see all of our characteristics as demonstrations of our selfhood.
She encourages us to let go of the ‘depressing D words’ (decrepitude, decline, diminishment, death . . .) and instead embrace the ‘encouraging E words’ (expansion, experience, expertise, enlightenment, equanimity, emancipation). We can choose how we focus our gaze.
Elders practice contemplative disciplines from our spiritual traditions and come to terms with their mortality. They harvest their life experiences, pass on their wisdom to younger people, and safeguard the health of our ailing planet. Out of their late-life explorations in consciousness, elders bestow upon the world the life-giving wisdom it desperately needs . . .
To my surprise I discovered thatFrom Age-ing to Sage-ingwas written some twenty years ago – it’s a fairly laborious read but repays the effort! At that time, I was working in dementia care, increasingly conscious of the lack of any clear social valuing of aging and feeling a strong impulse towards redefining a model of elderhood. Of course, in my early forties, life took over and that impulse was temporarily shelved.
Now, using The Sage-ing Workbook to provide focus and structure, I am diving into what I think will be both a challenging vision of what aging can be and an excavation of my own story. This is core work for a sage in training.
The curriculum of life’s second half involves more than the completion of our biological imperative. It involves the evocation of soul and spirit . . . a homecoming with our inner nature.
Further, the authors identify five key roles of old age, which I think of as the ‘5 Ms’
Potential tasks of elderhood might include:
Coming to terms with our mortality
Healing our relationships
Enjoying and celebrating our achievements
Healing the earth
Visioning / pathfinding
Phew, not much to tackle then!
Where am I now as a sage in training?
My aspiration, perhaps the most fundamental focus of this period of my life, is to become truly an ‘elder’, not just an ‘old person’, exposing new dimensions of personhood, new strength of being, the continued and marked evolution of uniqueness and discovery of ‘am’. My aim is to embrace ‘eldering’ as a state of growth, not a static condition. My job is to become a sage, an elder, a wisdom keeper,
Implicit in this is a commitment to spending time looking inward, yet also to reflecting this outward. As I age, I hope increasingly to be able to draw on my reserves of knowledge and wisdom while letting go of that which no longer contributes to my wellbeing – a shedding of leaves.
This is our time of ripeness, of the harvest of all that we have been.
As a sage in training and based on my reading so far, as I look ahead, I seek
to weave together the needs for solitude and for connection.
to allow meaningful transformation.
to process at the deepest level my past, my story.
to learn gratefully and gracefully to receive, to accept what I need.
to be ‘an agent of evolution’.
Elders function like old cobblers and dressmakers, sewing us back into the fabric of creation. Through their compassionate relatedness to all of life, the reduce our sense of alienation by helping us rediscover our sacred roots. And they do this without suffering from the disease of deadly earnestness. Elders have a wild, almost prankster-like quality that enables them to see the humor in every situation.
Joan Halifax, Anthropologist
Positive images of ageing
The initial exercises in the Sage-ing Workbook focus on existing perceptions of elderhood. I had a lot of fun creating a collage to represent the positive images of ageing that I have internalized! I am fortunate to have in my life some amazing role models for positive ageing who provided real inspiration as I thought about this. All the women pictured are in their 70s, 80s or 90s and all are feisty boundary pushers in different ways!
My ideal elder
An extension of this exercise was to create an image of my ideal elder, flowing out of those positive perceptions. What came to me feels like a blueprint for becoming.
My ideal elder
remains active and engaged within whatever constraints they may experience.
is open-hearted and loving, with a continuing zest for life.
is curious and continues to be engaged with their own growth.
has many connections with people of all ages.
is able to accept what age brings and to let go of what they can no longer do and what no longer serves them.
is authentic and full of character but also humble – they don’t pretend to have all the answers!
finds ways of being that support and inspire others.
is feisty and funny.
is deeply connected – to self, to the wider community, to nature, to mystery, to spirit, to all that is.
Elders are the jewels of humanity that have been mined from the Earth, cut in the rough, then buffed and polished by the stonecutter’s art into precious gems that we recognize for their enduring value and beauty. We sense their radiance in our youth, but we cannot contain it. It requires a lifetime’s effort to carve out the multifaceted structure that can display our hidden splendor in all its glory.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, The Sage-ing Workbook
Even the greatest love stories have their moments! For many years I have referred to this as ‘the 5%’. From a personal perspective, my husband and I rub along pretty well for 95% of the time – sometimes better, sometimes worse, but generally OK. Then, suddenly, love in the shadows; the unfathomable distance between separate identities becomes insurmountable, overwhelming, unbearable.
What I’ve realized is that, although these times feel like a threat, are full of pain and anguish, they are but another part of the gift of enduring compassionate partnership.
The Shadow Hordes
The Warrior Queen rises up from the shadows, fierce, proud, self-righteous, magnificent and lethal. She seeks only to protect her realm, yet her wild, wounding words are laden with destruction.
Beside her a weeping Child begs for comfort, “what about me? See me, love me, save me!”
Behind them lurk the Troll of resistance barring the way forward, the Grey Goblin of anxiety wringing her hands, and more.
The many voices of the shadow self become a cacophonous clamour that threatens to drown out any possibility of perspective or partnership.
Love in the Shadows
Where else do we have the safety to confront the shadows so openly? Love is possibly the only power that can talk us down from the ledges. It is only in the context of love that we can see the damage our shadow army inflicts on self and other. And it is only in the context of love that we can find the compassionate understanding to forgive ourselves for their existence within us.
If we never allow ourselves to see the shadows, we lose the opportunity to know them.
In truth, it is not the purpose of the Warrior Queen to destroy, of the Grey Goblin to disable, of the Troll to stand in the way; they seek to protect. They bring shadow, darkness in which to hide, to find safety. They are the wild, untamed aspects of our psyche. They are capable of evil but they are not inherently evil in and of themselves. Indeed, they can be instructive and empowering aspects of who we are.
Only as we develop our capacity for compassionate love can we begin to realize how to embrace our shadows, to acknowledge their purpose, to befriend them enough to listen calmly to their promptings, to draw on that wild wisdom without unleashing their destructive force.
This, to me, is the gift of the 5%. We are challenged at the deepest level to engage with all that it is to be human. This offers us not only the opportunity to make peace with ourselves but also deepens our compassionate understanding of shadow as it manifests in the world around us.
If you have found some value in this post, you may also enjoy Love Stories
Why is it
that so many of the ‘great love stories’ seem to end just when the real work of
love begins? ‘Happily ever after’ is such a cop out!
Why is so
relatively little written about love that has had decades to ripen and mature,
forged and strengthened by the shared joys and pains of a lifetime together?
culture, it seems that we glorify the exhilaration of new love, extol its
romantic and sexual highs. We talk so much less about the depth and richness
that develop when we genuinely choose to partner with another.
in the night . . . reaching out and linking arms like otters as we drift back
into a sea of sleep.
comes. Holding each other close, we welcome the day and the joy is like a shaft
of sunlight, even when the world outside is dark and gloomy.
that endures the decades is not the sentimental, delusional stuff of glossy
romance. Time has exposed unexpected strengths and skills, but also vulnerabilities
and inabilities. There is nowhere to hide.
narrative, the rich colours of joy and contentment, of achievement and
fulfilment, are intertwined with the darker shades of despair, of doubt, of
dashed dreams and struggle. These form a resilient rope of experience that
connects us ever more deeply, yet never binds.
this long this close is to witness both the best and the worst of self and
something truly profound in knowing that your loved one has, at the very least,
caught glimpses of your shadows, your demons, and not run screaming for the hills.
I call this ‘embracing the 5%’. Sometimes I think it is harder to accept this
gift than it is to give it.
passing of time, I have come to understand that love exists not ‘despite’ our
human imperfection but rather ‘because’ of it. The beautiful ability for true
compassion is nourished by this understanding, not by the sterility of perfect
people living perfect lives.
another deeply is also to know how much you can never know; exquisite closeness
and unfathomable distance co-exist.
been sure of the idea of a soulmate – sometimes this seems to be represented
more like a narcissistic reflection. It also sets us up to expect something
that ‘just happens’. Yet so much of learning to love requires the choosing of
an investment of our deepest self.
into a crowded gig and knowing instinctively where to find you – even then, a
fine thread connected us.
Red roadside poppies on Valentine’s Day (no, it can’t have been; it must have been a birthday!) and the importance of blue moons . . .
Shared dreams and adventures, the same words tumbling at the same time from two mouths, passing kisses, flirtatious glances (yes, even thirty years on), the hugging, the holding; our story.
years have tested and strengthened that thread with the countless strands of
our shared existence.
hard not to imagine that this connection might endure beyond time and space . .