Joy Is a Radical Act
I originally wrote this article for Tricycle Magazine’s Meditation Month. To read it in its original form please visit: Joy Is a Radical Act
Joy is a radical act. That’s not how people usually think about joy, which is neither considered radical nor an action.
Joy, as we typically understand it, is passive and reactive; it’s caused by something else. A new promotion, a “yes” to a marriage proposal, or a sudden fortune makes us feel joy. Then with time, that joy fades into a dull memory. That type of conditioned happiness is part of what the Buddha called dukkha, or suffering.
But there is another type of joy, a much subtler and more sustainable joy that we can uncover. This joy—which I will refer to here as innate or unconditional joy—cannot be exhausted because it resides within us at all times, though it is often hidden. No external stimulus can evoke it, but as we expand our awareness, our joy is revealed to be increasingly vast and exquisitely infectious. This innate joy is a radical act, because once we learn to recognize it, we can begin to toss aside the everyday understanding of happiness at the heart of our culture as well as any harmful systems that depend on or benefit from our underlying dissatisfaction.
As with many Buddhist notions, the subject of joy can be taken up philosophically, or it can be understood through direct experience. Here, I will do both. I’ll begin by discussing how conditioned and unconditioned joy look in the world, and then I’ll lay out a meditation practice that can allow us to uncover innate joy over time.
Sure, you may think, joy sounds great, but how, in a society founded upon the “pursuit of happiness,” is it radical? The term radical typically conjures up the image of a political extremist or a progressive revolutionary, but what really makes something radical is the extent to which it challenges conventional paradigms. In order to make a radical change, we first have to return to the root of the problem: our fundamental understanding.
In this sense, supporting a political party or lobbying for a cause is not radical. That doesn’t mean that both sides are the same or that activism can’t be important, righteous, and noble, but when we fixate on our views and contract into our limiting beliefs, we are accepting the underlying framework of the conflict itself. A truly radical act, on the other hand, goes deeper, uprooting the whole system of how we perceive ourselves in the world in order to start anew. Innate joy does just that. It changes the game.
Finding unconditional joy is especially subversive in modern Western culture, where the dominant paradigm equates happiness with conditional joy, which often means material or social gain. I know that in my youth, the idea that inner contentment could be cultivated was totally foreign. I looked for happiness the way the people around me did—in things. Yet, no matter what delicious food I ate or video games I played, a sense of hollowness and disconnection seemed to follow me.
This experience is neither rare nor unique to our era. (During the Buddha’s time, the dharma wasn’t exactly common sense. Otherwise his enlightenment would have been no big deal.) But as our technology advances and makes the world smaller, our conditional view of happiness is accelerating toward its ultimate conclusion: if joy depends on consumption and the things we consume are limited, then there is a finite amount of joy in the world and we must take from others in order to have more for ourselves. Some systems try to redistribute this commodified joy evenly, while others give a disproportionate share of joy to a select few (who do or don’t deserve it, according to one’s worldview). What makes innate joy radical is that it denies the basic idea that happiness is a zero-sum game. Instead of joy being fleeting and dependent, it is revealed to be ever-present and unconditional. By cultivating innate joy, we can turn scarcity into abundance and undermine the whole economy of commodified happiness.
It is in this way that joy is also an act. We tend to only consider something to be an act when it exerts an external force. And while joy can effect change, even before it does, it is already an act—an internal motion that flips the proverbial chess board. We place a disproportionate emphasis on figuring out external solutions to the world’s problems, when it is just as important to consider how we approach life from within. That said, a joyful person will be almost incapable of keeping their compassion from overflowing, whether it is through charity or advocacy or through subtler and smaller kindnesses in everyday interactions (more on this in the practice portion). Joy is also an act in another sense: we need to cultivate it. For most, inner joy is developed over time through regular practice.
If the notion of joy as a radical act sounds like an abstraction and idealism, let me assure you that there are concrete steps that we can take to connect with this deeper sense of joy. It is not only possible for every one of us—it is our birthright. I learned a practice for uncovering joy from my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche that remains an important part of my life. It is an exercise of allowing the feelings and emotions in the body to be, without the pressure to immediately fix an uncomfortable experience. This is a progressive method, in the sense that rather than joy being a conditioned product, we uncover it through seeing our feelings and relating to our inner habits more clearly over time. By connecting to our inner life with kindness, we slowly begin to heal. Over time, we start to see that our emotions are not as monstrous as we thought they were, and out of this experience, innate joy can eventually be uncovered.
Here is a practice for getting in touch with this innate joy:
Take your seat in a comfortable but attentive position. (You can close your eyes to go inward, or, to stay more alert, keep them open and instead let your gaze soften and fall to the floor.)
Once you are settled in, we’ll begin with a mindfulness of the body meditation. First turn your attention to your body and start to feel the sensations that arise. Remain curious as you allow your awareness to shift to whatever feelings come up, letting go of any previous thought or sensation as you pass into the next moment. If you find yourself thinking about something, simply return to the body. You are not trying to control, manipulate, or do anything special with what is arising within the body. You are simply connecting with what’s arising and letting it be with awareness.
Eventually, an uncomfortable sensation or emotion may come up. Try not to shove it down. Give it space to be, and allow your awareness to simply meet it in the body as it is. Part of the process is attuning to our world of emotions and sensations, and part is in offering the kindness of nonjudgment. For some this may mean working through common fears that arise when meeting an uncomfortable feeling. For others this may mean backing off of the practice completely or working with a teacher, if the fear becomes too overwhelming.
When you become aware of a particular feeling, you don’t need to do anything special with it. Just watch and allow it to stay or go. You are not trying to get rid of it, but you aren’t clinging to it, either. (Aversion and desire, of course, are two sides of the same coin.) The core of the Buddha’s teachings lies in a passion for discovering how things actually are—how the body, feelings, mind, and the phenomena that we perceive function and abide. This includes meeting and becoming aware of experiences that are not necessarily pleasant.
As you sit with an uncomfortable experience, you may feel like you are moving further away from joy. But as we come into contact with feelings that are vulnerable or tender and let them be, we begin to see our suffering without bias or shame and begin to meet it with compassion and softness. Instead of banishing our unwanted experiences to the desert of a closed heart, we practice offering them a gentle space to just be.
In time, you may begin to experience what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls “essence love,” which is the root of our own innate joy. It’s not an excited feeling; it’s more a sense of contentment, like being happy for no reason. Even though nothing changes on the outside, a feeling of deep inner contentment can arise internally over time. This feeling might be familiar because you experienced it as a child, running around with an inexplicable joy and endless curiosity—being just as happy to play with a new toy as the box it came in. (It’s important to keep in mind, however, that with this practice, it can take time before one’s innate joy is uncovered more fully.)
The final step is to keep practicing. But once you begin to cultivate this innate joy, you’ll be eager to develop it further.
As an inevitable consequence of developing innate joy, we realize that this feeling that resides inside us also resides inside every other sentient being. The cultivation of unconditional joy is inextricably tied to a capacity that we share with all other beings—our buddhanature. This nature is unconditioned and embodies our underlying capacity for freedom and interconnectedness. In other words, when we see the value in ourselves, it’s easier to see the value in others, and vice versa. Realizing this, we might find ourselves less willing to view people within limited categories or to see the world as black and white. Our inner well-being and joy feeds our compassion and our sense of our interconnectivity, which in turn feeds our joy, creating in a positive feedback loop.
Here, the practice of cultivating joy moves into the other aspects of our daily life. Imagine standing on a crowded train, packed in with strangers all pushing past to get where they need to go. Immediately we may notice a doom falling over us as we begin dreading the rat race or dwelling on the stresses of the work day. This mood starts to pervade, and we feel physically squashed. Fortunately, we have created a habit of turning toward the feelings in the body. Drop into the body with kindness and feel what’s arising. As we meet our experience, we learn to greet it with a smile rather than a scowl. We can then feel how we are connected with the other riders and that we are not alone in our suffering. The contraction turns outward. Rather than feeling isolated, there is the possibility to feel the community around us, and that feeling radiates outward as an infectious joy or through a number of subtle kindnesses—making space for other riders, letting go of an argument before it happens. Or the feeling can spread through more direct action, which now will be informed by a compassion that helps us discern whether that action is skillful or simply a knee-jerk reaction.
It may seem strange to turn inward when there are so many external problems, as though meditating in the mouth of a crocodile. But that is why joy is a radical act. In the face of increasing political and social polarization, connecting with and nurturing our inner joy is not just a matter of self-care but a matter of survival. We have to return to the root of the problem, which is the mistaken belief that joy can be hoarded, seized, or commodified when the fact is that real joy is contagious. If we see that truth inside ourselves, we see it reflected in the world and everyone who inhabits it. And when that happens, a common enemy is difficult to find.