Life Expands or Contracts in Proportion to Our Joy
Enjoy yourself — it’s later than you think. Does that sound like a frivolous statement or the title of a whimsical song? Not to Socrates (469~399 BC), for that was one of his teachings. Although life may have been shorter then, his words are equally valid today. He wasn’t suggesting that we should party all day or avoid pain and seek pleasure. Rather, he was teaching us to fill our lives with joy and to share happiness with others.
Imagine for a moment that you are in the Bahamas. It’s a glorious day. As you walk down the beach, you feel the hot sand crunch under the soles of your bare feet. You step up to the ocean. It laps your feet, gently swirling around your ankles. The sounds of laughing children and splashing waves surround you. The smell of the salt spray allures you deeper into the white foam. You leap in and taste the ocean that you have now become a part of. You are experiencing joy.
The value of a vacation is that it becomes easier to let go of our past regrets and future concerns and concentrate on the present. When we do so, we are leaping into the ocean of life, which isn’t made of saltwater, but of joy. We don’t have to travel to find happiness, for it is wherever we are, if we only allow ourselves to experience the present moment. The American Golfer, Ben Hogan, put it this way, “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.”
Because joy, bliss, exuberance, ecstasy, rapture, and euphoria are intense feelings, we sometimes mistakenly believe that extreme circumstances are necessary to experience them. Not so. We don’t have to win the lottery to know ecstasy. It is the endless parade of small pleasures that creates joy. In Benjamin Franklin’s words, “Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”
It’s snowing again today. The snowflakes may be small, but they can quickly pile up and cover the landscape. So it is with life’s little pleasures. They may be small, but they are not without significance. They pile up, swirl around us, and encase us in joy. But for us to experience the truth of Ben Franklin’s words, we have to be AWARE of all of life’s small pleasures. After all, we can’t smell the roses when we’re asleep. The purpose of life is to experience it. And to experience it is to experience joy. When we have joy, we have all. Remember, each moment of life is a gift. If we fail to experience this moment, we will never relive it, not even in our memory. Do we really want to let a day go by without laughing, singing, whistling, humming, or smiling?
Is it warm or cold where you are? How do you know? We cannot know one without experiencing the other. Unless we experience pain, sorrow, and suffering, we cannot know joy. When we are realize that misery is the flip side of happiness, we can continue to experience joy in our darkest moments. For our suffering forecasts the happiness we will soon experience. Besides, to enjoy the better things in life, don’t we first have to experience the things they are better than? And don’t we enjoy winter for the contrast it provides and for its promise of spring? Here’s how others have expressed the relationship between joy and sorrow: Joys are our wings; sorrows our spurs… (Jean Paul Richter); Joy is bread and sorrow is medicine (Henry W. Beecher).
If we appreciate the little that we have, we will enjoy much. It doesn’t make sense to chase after more and more. For those who endlessly seek to accumulate things will soon discover they have more possessions than they do joy. Instead of buying more of what we don’t need, it would be far better to enjoy what we already have. Joy, then, is also doing without some of what we think we want. Overindulging in possessions and pleasure reduces our happiness and numbs our joy. To be satiated is to be bloated. To do without some of what we want is to be in control, have self-discipline, and appreciate what we have.
Another mistake we make is to try to cling to, or hold on to, what brings us joy. Yet nothing remains the same; life is in flux. Here today, gone tomorrow. My computer may crash, loved ones may die, possessions may be stolen, and my health may fade. That knowledge allows us to relish joy while we have it.
But if we vainly try to cling to it, we will be let down. Not only will the joyous event end, but our disappointment will extinguish any hope of recognizing the next little pleasure. So, never try to hold on to the joys that come your way, but always remain open to receive their replacements. As long as you let go of any wish to hold on to life’s little pleasures, you will overflow with an endless stream of joy. And if we remain ever aware of the fleeting nature of life, we will receive two benefits. First, we will seize the moment, relish this instant, and enjoy the present. Second, when calamity strikes, we won’t be surprised; we’ll be able to shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s life.”
Isn’t it strange how the same set of circumstances is viewed so differently by various individuals? Some complain, “You can’t depend on anything in life. Life is full of uncertainty.” Yes, it is. But why is that bad? Actually, uncertainty is a major source of joy. Don’t the complainers like surprises? Don’t they embrace challenges? Don’t they enjoy solving puzzles? Sometimes opportunities for joy are staring us in the face; yet we remain blind to them.
A mistake some make is to seek joy. That’s a mistake because it’s based on the assumption that we are separated from it, that it is ‘out there’ somewhere. Joy is not out there or in things; it is in us and in the present moment. When we enJOY the present moment, we own it and everything we have. But those who live among countless riches without joy own nothing. They are paupers. The story of the Zen master Ryôkan (1758~1831) is an example. After returning to his hut one evening, he surprised a thief who was disappointed because there was nothing to steal. “You may have traveled a long way,” Ryôkan said to the thief, “I don’t want you to leave empty-handed, so take my clothes as a gift.” The embarrassed thief took the clothes and fled into the night. Sitting naked and gazing at the full moon through an open window, Ryôkan muttered to himself, “Poor fellow, I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
The subtitle to the newspaper headline read, “Tired Slovenian feels only ABSOLUTE HAPPINESS.” It referred to the 38-year-old ski instructor, Davo Karnicar of Jezersko, Slovenia, who, on October 7, 2000, became the world’s first person to ski down Mt. Everest. Can you imagine the joy he experienced? He not only conquered Mt. Everest, but he conquered fear and overcame brutal obstacles. We are not all skiers. Yet, like Davo, we are all adventurers. Whether we embark on an adventure or not is our choice.
The great news is there is no need to travel to distant Nepal for our adventure. We can experience it wherever we are. How? Begin by making a list of ten things you are afraid of, but would like to do. Next, begin your adventure by doing the first item on your “Afraid-to-Do” list. After completing it, cross it off the list and add another item to the end of the list. As you do so, you will replace fear with joy, failure with victory, and self-limitation with liberation. You will lead an adventurous life! Isn’t that what we were meant to do?
I interrupted the writing of this article to drop into the local coffee shop. After arriving at the front of the line, Cathy said, “Do you want the usual?” She repeated it in a louder voice, “DO YOU WANT THE USUAL?”
I was thinking of the story of the skier, Davo Karnicar, while waiting in line at the coffee shop and it must have still been on my mind. Apologizing, I said, “Sorry about that. Yes, I’ll take the usual.”
She immediately quipped, “Why didn’t you hear me? Were you still asleep?”
“No,” I answered, “not asleep, just entranced by your flawless beauty.”
Cathy was delighted by what I said. As I left, I thought about how every encounter we have is an opportunity to experience and share joy. Don’t you agree?
There are those who are joyful, those who are asleep, and those who would steal your joy if they could. Let your light shine on those who are asleep; perhaps it will awaken them. And don’t become angry with those who try to steal your joy, for if you do, you will allow them to succeed. Instead, be compassionate. They are thieves and envious because they hunger for something which they lack. If you can forgive them for trying to hurt you, you will dissolve any negativity they hurl your way. They may remain resentful, but you will be free to live with joy.
Finally, let’s summarize some of the main points that were made and shape them into a simple guide for cultivating joy.
1. If you’re unhappy, it’s only because you’re focusing on what you do not have. So, change your focus, and think about all you already have. As you do so, you will push back the black clouds of dissatisfaction.
2. Now that you’re focusing on the favorable possessions, skills, and circumstances that you have, take the time to appreciate them. When you are thankful for your blessings, you have a cause to rejoice. In other words, thankful spirits live with joy.
3. Always be guided by what you think is right. That is, follow your conscience. For when you make doing the right thing your guiding principle, you will respect yourself and discover that both you and others will find you a joy to be around.
4. Lighten the burden of others. Be generous with encouragement, praise, and recognition. Help others in any way you can, for the more we are of service to others, the deeper our joy will grow.
5. Live with purpose. After all, the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. And what better purpose can you have then to make the lives of others more joyful. Since life always returns what we give away, making others joyful is the quickest and easiest way to become more joyful.
6. Embrace life. That is, love everything. The most joyful of all are those in love. So, if you love who you are, what you do, where you are, who you are with, and everything you experience, you will always be joyful! Remember, love is a choice. We can choose to hate our circumstances or love them. One path is destructive and the other empowering. Why would anyone want to follow the path to destruction? And if you don’t quite love your circumstances yet, that’s because you haven’t been looking for the good. The good is always there, but sometimes it’s a bit shy and hides from those who don’t look for it.
May your joys be as deep as the ocean and your sorrows as light as its foam.