Practising Joy (through the festive season of long nights)

Shortly before we entered into ‘the festive season’ I put out a couple of questions to the members of the Centre for Social Innovation: “What is Joy? And how do you ‘Practise Joy’?”. What followed was a generous flood of insight and wisdom, both on-list and off-list. I continued to reflect on ‘Joy’[1] through the holiday and it only seems right that I share/reflect back that collective wisdom.

The period from the beginning of December to the New Year is packed (fraught) with multiple festivals from many cultural traditions. There are huge expectations around spending and gift giving (and getting)[2]. We spend extra time with family who are, in some cases, super supportive, while in others painful and confusing (familial relationships are typically the most intransigent of our relationships). We may be pulled in multiple directions at the same time as we try to live up to the desires of others and our expectations of ourselves. We may eat too much, drink too much, party too much, and get too little sleep. It’s no wonder that the great expectations of a ‘joyful holiday’ can lead to a level of disappointment and exhaustion that precipitates a spike in depression and suicide after the holidays[3].

Over the last couple of years it’s been dawning on me that this strange period (which includes, significantly, the longest night slap dab in the middle of it) is more like a birth or death. At a certain point it is pending and inevitable, there are enormous expectations, sometimes a great deal of planning is put in place, it’s highly emotional, and when it all actually goes down it’s frequently completely unpredictable and we are called on to navigate unexpected logistical and emotional tempests. They can be gloriously joyful, healing, tears-streaming-down-your-face amazing, and they can be agonizing, shocking and tears-streaming-down-your-face catastrophic. So, possibly the most useful expectation to have heading into the month leading up to the New Year is that it will be turbulent.

It’s been most interesting to be consistently reflecting on the nature of joy and its practise throughout a time of year that combines the longest nights with the greatest festivity.

'The Sower' - Vincent Van Gogh

‘The Sower’ – Vincent Van Gogh

Joy: Spiritual Intensity, Gratitude, Kindness & Service, all in the Daily Grind

In responding to my questions some folks pointed to joy’s spiritual attributes. For Shoshana joy is both intense and spiritual, and she relates it to “serenity and peace of mind.” Peter went straight to the source of the Christian tradition, quoting Jesus’ exhortation that we ‘don’t worry’ (Bob Marley & Bobby McFerrin too??) about the things of this world, which are ephemeral, but focus on ‘the Kingdom’, which will bring you real joy.

Alexis described the moment she was in, discovering joy in the daily grind: a tasty treat in a cafe, listening to your favourite song, smiling at strangers.[4] Others cited gratitude[5], Jeffrey writing that “practicing gratitude is a sure path to joy”. Still others suggested acts of goodwill (to others and oneself) and kindness. Allison, in keeping with the tradition of Karma Yoga, pointed to ‘service’, citing Ghandi’s favourite poet Rabindranath Tagore,

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy,
I awoke & saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Joy is a deeper and more intense feeling than common ‘happiness’. It’s spiritual, and can be practised through being grateful for what you have, who you know, who you are, who you’ve become. It can also be found and practised through acts of goodwill, kindness and service.

Joy & Choice

A very important consideration, which came off-list, iss that of joy and choice.

Melissa pointed out that a discussion of all the ways we can choose and practise joy “can be quite harmful to people suffering real pain such as depression, grief, and PTSD”, and added “a loving acknowledgment of people who may feel estranged from joy during the challenging holiday season, or anytime.” Props to that. “Experiencing joy” can become yet another expectation piled on all the others during the holiday season.

Is experiencing joy something that just happens to you? Or is it something you can just chose? Or is it something you need to engage in practises – systematically repeating a behaviour or pattern of behaviours to intentionally develop habits or traits – to bring it into your life?

For folks suffering depression the notion of ‘choosing joy’ feels foreign. Paradoxically, when we’re in the throes of great crises, or depression, the tendency is to engage in self-destructive behaviours. Bingeing and isolating further break down self-esteem and willpower, exacerbating initial problems, and propelling feedback loops which can become seemingly unstoppable and impenetrable. ‘Choosing joy’ is all the more foreign to folks suffering severe depression or bound up in very serious addictions. These are not conditions in which the sufferer can be correctly described as ‘having choice’.

If you aren’t just ‘experiencing joy’, and ‘choosing joy’ seems basically foreign, is it still possible to ‘practise joy’? Maybe not, but it is possible to engage in practises towards joy. To recover from addiction (we’re all addicts to something) we ‘practise abstinence’; we aren’t choosing to ‘practise joy’, we’re just choosing to quit doing something we know from experience is destructive. This one thing, to chose not to do something, gradually delivers us from a tyranny of self-destructive cycles into more expansive choices and greater freedom.

Joy may not be easy

We don’t live in a joyful society, and the profit motive of contemporary capitalism, which raises its head most mightily leading up to Christmas, actively agitates against health by promoting and normalizing the consumption of goods and services that stimulate addictive behaviours, eroding our basic well-being. Some of us come from generations of damage and brokenness, the momentum of which permeates and influences the present, and floods our own personal histories. As Melissa wrote, “for many of us joy requires deep vulnerability and courage. It is not just a cognitive shift, but often a complex emotional/spiritual journey to allow more joy in.” Tina proposes that “feeling good is a mixture of mindful awareness, proactive steps, positive affirmations and a nurturing environment. No mean feat because it is a lifestyle commitment“, and Rob wrote, “I think Joy is not a choice but a practice. You can learn it. Like living on the land. Get a little bit closer, do a little every day to sustain yourself and your loved ones outside of consumerism and you get better at it.”

Wrangling Choice Towards Joy

Joy’s a word I rarely use. It seems somehow unrealistic; maybe possible in childhood, but not now amidst the hurly-burly whirl and whorl of the adult world. That said I have experienced great joys: falling in love, solitude in wilderness, the births of my kids. But these are exceptional experiences, as if outside of normal experience, and not a part of the gravity grit ground of everyday.

What I have so greatly appreciated about the conversation that arose from my questions is that while we didn’t shy away from how hard it (the holidays, life) can be, folks obviously believe in joy. It’s as close as a cup of coffee, and it’s a long and winding road, and there are practises that we can engage in that help us find, and help us along, the path. For me ‘practising joy’ is a wrangling – a wrestling and a corralling – of the level of choice available to me in any moment. A wrangling towards abstaining from activities that wind me into vicious circles, and towards participating in activities that bring me en-joy-ment and greater liberty. All the while understanding that, to quote Paul Bley’s first rule of improvisation, “Practise makes perfect. Imperfect is better.”



[1] CS Lewis described Joy as a ‘longing’, with closer ties to the German sehnsucht or the Portuguese saudade than to ‘pleasure’. “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
While pleasures may be more easily obtained than joy I disagree that we are so helpless to attain it.

[2] For those of us of the typical western persuasion, and those of us feeling pressured to abide by its norms, Christmas is now loaded down, shot through, and rife-riddled with a profit bonanza cashing in on the gift-giving tradition associated with Christmas. A gargantuan careening profit machine – now sparking up immediately after ‘Black Friday’ and lasting to well after Boxing Day – splattering its well-honed messaging throughout almost all aspects of a typical day.

[3]The Meaning of the Season’, Marsha Lederman. Globe & Mail, Dec 2015.

[4] This reminded me of William Blake’s famous lines on finding the divine in the everyday:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

[5]I would maintain that thanks is the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” – GK Chesterton

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