It seems that joy is in high demand and short supply these days. At the intersections of increasing cost of living, less free time, and an abundance of social and political upheaval, it's not a surprise that many of us are looking for more skillful ways to deal with life's stresses and find more joy.
Like happiness, joy can be illusive. We know what it's like to feel it, but the cause of yesterday's joy might just turn into the cause of today's pain.
The Buddha described this kind of joy as Dukkha, as it is uncertain and in the nature of change.
But what if we could connect with a much deeper and more reliable sense of joy, a type of joy that is unconditioned and innate? This is not only possible for each and every one of us, but it is our birthright.
As a kid, teenager, and young adult I spent many years fighting with my inner emotional experience. When I felt uncomfortable or stressed, I was more likely to reach out for a cookie than the hand of a friend.
Though no matter what delicious food or video game I enjoyed, a subtle sense of inner hollowness and disconnection seemed to always follow me.
The idea that inner contentment and joy could be cultivated was a foreign concept a majority of my youth. I only began to encounter it when I first started discovering meditation and Buddhism as a young adult.
These days meditation is often framed as a self-help technique and within a commodified value system that thrives on keeping us hooked to searching outside of ourselves for happiness.
True inner joy is not something we can buy or produce. Rather, it is something innate that we uncover in dependence upon the basic goodness of ourself and others.
Uncovering it is a strangely subtle process, and one often in opposition to the status quo of the explosive highs we are conditioned to seek in our modern materialistic culture.
Though in an increasingly individualistic and lonely world, connecting with our innate inner joy can actually be a much needed radical act of compassion.
At the core of the Buddha's teachings lies a passion for discovering how things actually are. How the body, feelings, mind, and the phenomena that we perceive function and abide.
The Buddha advised us to develop this passion strongly, and to not just leave it as an intellectual curiosity.
He taught the practice of meditative awareness to help us develop a direct understanding of the nature of our experience.
There are many styles and practices of meditation, but what we are fundamentally getting used to and growing our familiarity with is our natural capacity to be aware. This includes meeting and becoming aware of experiences that are not necessarily pleasant.
Ultimately we are not trying to control, manipulate, or do anything special with what is arising within the body or mind when we meditate. We simply let be with awareness and connect with whats arising.
To some this may sound like the opposite of joyful, but when we really check, joy is not found in isolation. It is found in our constructive relationships with others, and in our ability to meet and find freedom within our emotional vulnerabilities.
So we learn and practice becoming aware of our internal experience. As soon as we become aware of our experience we don't have to do anything with it. We simply feel and observe, letting be in a way that's uncontrived and free of manipulation.
When we let be in this way we may come into contact with something that's a bit vulnerable or tender, and that's okay. We are giving space for that as well. We are giving freedom for whatever needs and wants to arise.
As our awareness deepens we are better able to meet our thoughts, emotions, and others with a more open and unbiased attitude.
Instead of banishing our unwanted experiences to the desert of a closed heart, we practice offering them a gentle space to just be. This can be an important act of compassion in a society that refuses to let itself feel.
In conclusion, how we show up with our body and emotions matters. Experiencing a lasting and consistent joy grounded in compassion is actually dependent on it.
In these times of political and social polarization it is absolutely vital that we connect with and nurture a sense of our own inner joy. This is not just a matter of self-care but a matter of survival.
When developed, our innate joy cannot be contained and hoarded just for oneself. It is contagious in the most wonderful way and is a much needed medicine for the darkness of these times.