Letting joy in

This is our second Sunday on our monthly theme of joy. Last week, we began the conversation. I talked about joy as an outgrowth of our general happiness - out of our ability to feel we are living with purpose, with meaning, and with satisfaction. 

We also began to consider the notion that joy is - to a great extent - a way we live, rather than something that happens to us. We have a choice in our joy. 

[Buddhist parable: adapted by Denise Valentine]
Once, there was a young boy who set out on a journey in search of his happiness. He searched far and wide; he searched the cities, the towns, and the countryside. He searched from the top of the earth to the bottom of the earth. 

He asked everyone he met along the way. "Excuse me, Sir, can you tell me where to find my happiness?" "Well son, I don’t rightly know what happiness is, so how can I tell you where to find it?" A little further down the road… "Miss, oh Miss, can you tell me where to find my happiness?" "Oh child, I can’t find my own happiness, so how can I tell you where to find yours?" 

He was becoming a little discouraged, but he continued on his journey. Time passed. The little boy became a young man. 

One day, he came upon an old, old man, sitting under a bodhi tree. He thought, that old man looks wise. Surely he can tell me where to find my happiness. "Wise One, I am searching for my happiness. I’ve looked everywhere. I’ve searched far and wide; I’ve searched the cities, the towns, and the countryside. I’ve searched from the top of the earth, to the bottom of the earth. And I’ve asked everyone I met along the way. And still, I could not find it."

The Wise One said to the young man, "Go and find a one-eyed turtle floating on a sandalwood log, and return to me. Then you shall know the secret to happiness." Ohhh, the young man was so excited. All he had to do was find a one-eyed turtle floating on a sandalwood log, and his search would be over.

Way down at the bottom of deepest ocean floor, lives a one-eyed turtle. This turtle has neither limbs, nor flippers. His belly is as hot as eight hot fires, while the shell on his back is as cold as Snow Mountains. What this turtle yearns for day and night, the desire he utters morning and evening, is to cool his belly, and to warm the shell on his back. But only the wood of the sandalwood tree has the power to cool his belly. So the little turtle longs with all his might, to climb onto a sandalwood log and place his belly in the hollow in order to cool it, while at the same time, exposing the shell on his back to the sun in order to warm it.

But by the laws of nature, the little turtle rises to the surface of the ocean only once every thousand years. And even when he does so, the ocean is vast, the little turtle is small, and floating logs are few. If he should happen to find a floating log, it is seldom made of sandalwood. And even if he should happen to find a floating log, and it is made of sandalwood, it rarely has a hollow in it the size of his belly. If the hollow is too large, he will fall in, and cannot warm the shell on his back, and there will be no one to pull him out. If the hollow is too small, he cannot place his belly in the hollow. The waves will wash him away, and he will sink back down to the bottom of the ocean floor, to wait another thousand years.

Even if, against all odds, he should happen to find a floating log, and it is made of sandalwood, and it has a hollow in it the size of his belly, he has only one eye. His vision is distorted. If the log is floating eastward, he perceives it as floating westward. If the log is floating north, he sees it as floating south. The harder the little turtle tries to climb onto the log, the farther away from it he goes. Thus, he always moves away from the log, and can never approach it.

So, the young man returns to the wise old man, without the one-eyed turtle floating on a sandalwood log. "Old man, old man, you tricked me. I couldn’t find a one-eyed turtle floating on a sandalwood log."

"Then, young man, you have found the secret to happiness. We cannot see our own eyebrows, which are so close. Nor the heavens in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that happiness exists in our own hearts. Searching for your happiness, outside your own life, is as elusive as finding a one-eyed turtle floating on a sandalwood log." 

Are you searching for joy? Where are you looking for it? If you are not completely disconnected from our modern lifestyle and culture, you will know for absolute certain that joy is to be found in having lots of money, having very big jobs, wearing designer clothing, being famous, having the perfect lover, going to the ideal holiday spots, being very very thin, looking extremely young, and having some parts of our bodies plumped and others reduced! 

I've been there. I never quite got to the cosmetic surgery stage, but I bought into quite a lot of this way of thinking. I was quite sure that happiness would come with more money and with the next promotion - or maybe the one after that. I certainly knew that the people with the yachts, the private planes and the fabulous homes were ecstatically happy. They were undoubtedly joyful all the time... 

It took discovering Unitarianism to help me see that a life pursuing stuff and status was actually not going to bring me joy at all. 

And it's taken me even longer to begin to recognise that I am truly the obstacle to my own joy. 

Rumi - the 13th century Sufi mystic we all love to quote - speaks to us powerfully across the centuries about our own role in bringing delight into our lives: 

“Your task is not to seek for love" he said "but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” 

It is easy to build barriers against joy, and we build them up over many years. We build them solidly and we think have some very good reasons for those construction projects. 

One of mine is perfectionism. Something good comes out of something I've done and I would celebrate but, you know, it wasn't really that great. I mean, it could have been better. The Nobel prize - well yeah, but it would have been really impressive to get it when I was younger... 

Another trick for keeping out joy is the magic word "later." As children, we are ready NOW. Whether it's celebration or misery, our response is immediate. We want that ice cream now and we will delight in it right now or suffer if we cannot! We learn along the way though that we must have our dinner before we can have dessert. There's always some reason to put off joy. "Yes, I'll rejoice after I finish a few more pages or books or exams or lose more weight or run further..." 

And then - no matter how rational we may be - there's a bit of superstition that can tug at us. If we really rejoice, something terrible will happen. Once, my wife and I found a fabulous new restaurant right near where we lived in the US. My response: "Oh great - I know it's too good. It will soon be so packed we won't be able to get a table." True story. 

Somehow it seems safer to get less excited - to expect less - to be less pleased. Maybe we think that if we are less happy we won't have as far to fall when the inevitable bad times come. If we keep out the joy, we won't notice the sorrow nearly as much. 

One more barrier - the only things worth being joyful about are the huge ones. Got a pay rise? Someone else has more. Mine is not worth celebrating. Happy with your holiday? Someone else went somewhere better. 

If this describes you at all, take a step back. 

Life does not go on forever and it's guaranteed to be full of ups and downs as long as it lasts. 

How do you want to live the precious days of your life: minimizing the good things or maximizing them? 

Imagine living in a way where you allow joy to reach you easily. What if the scent of a tangerine could bring you as much joy as most people would get from winning the lottery? What if the sight of wild flowers nearly brought you to tears of pleasure? What if the sound of music gave you tremendous delight? 

This is not a dream - it is something within our reach. It is something we deserve because - truly - the joy that Tagore speaks of is everywhere around us. Having more joy in our lives requires just two things. The first is the easier of the two: being present in the moments of your life - being mindful and noticing everything around you. 

That's one is not easy, but the second is even harder: knock down the barriers you have built to keep joy at bay. 

Yes, it takes hard work to become a person for whom joy comes easily. It requires that we look deep within ourselves to understand the walls we have built. It requires that we attack them with love - teaching ourselves that we do actually deserve joy, that feeling joy does not cause bad things to happen, that we really don't need to wait to be joyful. 

So, go ahead. Have dessert first. You don't have to delay. You don't have to earn more, lose more, win more, or suffer more for joy. 

Let's begin today. Let joy in. 

May it be so.