Joy and delight in challenging times

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.

Bodily delight

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.

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