The Power of Joy
I’m mildly obsessed with joy. I like to say that suffering is what brought me through the door to meditation, but joy is what has kept me around.
Joy as a Spectrum
It’s natural that as we begin to practice, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, some difficulty may arise. As we slow down from our normal busyness, we often make contact with difficult emotions, annoying thoughts, or nagging discomfort in the body. These are hard to be with! Mindfulness is helpful in meeting those moments, but bringing in supportive qualities like joy can transform it from being an endurance test to a healthy balance.
Let me be clear: joy is not the absence of pain, or the total bliss of a peak experience. For some people, finding a different word can help, like appreciation, mild pleasantness, or ease. If we can dismantle the binary between joy and pain, we can find a whole range of experience in between. One of my teachers, Larry Yang, has a spectrum that I love:
Despair → Depression → Grief → Sadness → Regret → Worry → Confusion → Irritation → Dullness → Indifference → Neutrality → Stillness → Calm → Relaxation → Contentment → Comfort → Wonder → Excitement → Rapture → Collective Joy
At any moment, we can recognize and allow for wherever we are on the spectrum, and not underestimate what’s possible; even if it feels like we are only a millimeter in from despair—we are moving in the right direction. We can turn in the direction of more joy and ease in the present moment.
Inviting in Joy in Meditation
So how do we do it? I’ve found it most sustaining, in my practice and in my life, to notice the small ways that joy is already present. There’s no need to manufacture anything—I can simply wake up to the little moments of joy that are already around me or inside my body. For example, when I am eating oatmeal and I accidentally come across a big clump of peanut butter, that is so joyful for me!
How does joy fit in our meditation practice? When something difficult arises, we can make space for that by not trying to change it, but letting it be. We can add in some awareness of places in the body or around us that are joyful, or even just neutral. We’re not denying any hardship, but expanding our perspective and finding resources to skillfully attend to it.
When the Opposite Arises
It’s normal that once we get connected to joy (or anything pleasant), we might want more of it. That makes sense! However, if we start to grasp onto joy, then actually it becomes counterproductive and can backfire on us.
The idea is that we can intend or incline our hearts and minds toward joy, but hold it with an open palm. So that when we get that annoying email, and joy gets knocked out of our hands, we can tend to ourselves with care and then wait for joy to return.
Coming back to this idea of a spectrum, we can notice where we are, without judgment. So maybe there’s grief arising, and we can use our kindness to support ourselves in the moment and acknowledge that we’re further away from the more pleasant sides of joy. Wherever we find ourselves on that spectrum is normal, worthy, and valid! Things will change and we’ll find ourselves sliding in the other direction at some point, too.
One thing that helped in my journey to being a joy advocate is loving-kindness. When I first started meditating, I strived to perfect my practice, often using self-judgment as the fuel. And when I discovered self-compassion and loving-kindness, I was discouraged at first because I felt so far from it. Truthfully, it took multiple teachers telling me to practice it before I gave in!
Over time, I learned how to shift my motivation from the inner critic to self-encouragement. And that’s another spectrum! We can notice where we are, from being cruel to ourselves all the way to loving-kindness, and allow ourselves the grace of growing on our own timeline.
Dawn Mauricio has been practicing Insight Meditation since 2005. She completed Spirit Rock's Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training, Dedicated Practitioners' Program, and 4-year Retreat Teacher Training. She teaches with a playful, dynamic, and heartfelt approach people of color and folks of all backgrounds. Dawn is a co-founder of the True North Insight BIPOC practice group, serves on the guiding teachers council of True North Insight, and the leadership council for Sacred Mountain Sangha. She is also the author of “Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners."