Joy As Art and Discipline
by Ed Bacon
I’ve never thought that Joy was a responsibility – a discipline, in fact – that is until this December.
You see, joy has always come easily to me. I love being happy, upbeat, and optimistic; my mother majored in optimism and infected me with in utero. Looking on the sunny side of life gives me pep. Finding hope no matter the conditions of life has the power to change the energy in the room, in a relationship, and in a work or family system. Responding with positivity to bleak circumstances helps one to function more creatively. My great mentor, Rabbi Edwin Friedman, that the opposite of fear, which he understood as living into our uniqueness in leadership and maturity actually improves brain functioning. I must admit, however, that all of this – both by virtue of my personality and the way my parents and mentors shaped me (nature and nurture) has been pretty easy for me.
Perhaps it’s because of last week’s triple hit of the 2nd anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 1st graders and some of their teachers, the release of the CIA Torture Report revealing gruesome and depraved treatment of fellow human beings by U.S. agents, and the recent unavoidable proof that structural racism has a chokehold on the American justice system for citizens of color. I struggled with feeling joy in the face of all that. Yet I felt I had to preach on Joy this past Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent. But I was just not feeling the Joy.
And then, I read two writings of the Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron — her little volume, Always Maintain a Joyful Mind, and her most popular book, When Things Fall Apart. Her description of deep uncontrived joy, independent of external circumstances helped me see that Joy is a choice. In fact Joy is a spiritual discipline rooted in the following simple practice.
Rather than defend yourself from the feelings that disturb and hurt us and others, feel them as you breathe in. Then breathe out relief, wholeness, light, and tenderness for all those who suffer from what is bothering and causing us pain.
As we practice this discipline we will discover more and more what Pema Chodron calls “bodhicitta” or “awakened heart.” A soft spot, a core of kindness, a jewel within that is undamaged becomes our life guide. I think the Christian tradition knows this as the “mind of Christ,” “the light that enlightens everyone,” God’s Spirit within, the Kingdom of God Within Us. Isaiah called it “the still small voice.” My psychiatrist called it “your inner genius.” Pope Francis calls it “the joy of the Gospel.” The Dalai Lama calls it “the art of happiness.” Join me in practicing the discipline of Joy. I expect that some great surprise will be our delight.
For more, you can listen to my December 14 sermon here: