Got Joy?

This time of year I often find myself slipping into the winter doldrums, the blahs, the blues. Living in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t help. Cold, dark, damp days drag on endlessly, and it’s only mid-January. How will I survive until spring, which doesn’t begin around here until July? I have one of those artificial sunlight lamps, but the battery died. I just want to eat carbs and hibernate.

What better time, then, to sign up for an online course called Awakening Joy, which starts on February 4, 2013. ( Though at this point, I’d settle for simply Curbing Misery.

My wise friend Karen sent me an e-mail about the course: “The material is stimulating and life changing and you will be astounded at the changes that can occur when you focus on igniting the joy that is within. In these challenging days it can be hard to access that inner light, but with these tools I can assure you your journey will be much easier…and more joyful.”

These days it’s hard enough accessing the outer light, let alone the inner one. Yeah, sure, I’ll give this a try. I’ve done my research. I’ve learned a thing or two about happiness and joy. The Buddhists tell us that joy is already inside of us, an innate capacity. Over time is gets covered over with habitual ways of thinking and feeling, but we can uncover it. Our suffering or happiness depends more on how we relate to outer circumstances of our lives than on the circumstances themselves. Happiness is a choice, and we can make it a habit.Joyful Sadhu from Short Cut to Nirvana film

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes in The Wise Heart that joy is an expression of the liberated and awakened heart, of one who lives in the present moment. He tells about a TV reporter who asked the Dalai Lama to talk about the happiest moment in his life. After considering for a moment, the Dalai Lama smiled and replied, “I think now.” Author Margaret Bonnano puts it another way: “It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis.”

In his book Awakening Joy, James Baraz describes joy as a feeling of well-being. I like this view, because it seems realistic, down to earth. I used to think of the word joy as a Goody-Two-shoes Pollyanna skipping down the sidewalk tossing flowers and humming a snappy tune. Ick. But well-being? Oh, I can definitely relate to that.

Baraz, the creator of the Awakening Joy course and a Buddhist meditation teacher, further writes that joy can look very different among people: for some it actually can be a “bubbly enthusiasm,” while for others it can be a “quiet sense of contentment.”  Each one of us has our own unique way of experiencing and expressing joy based on our individual temperament. “Your happiness may not look like someone else’s,” he says, “but you can find the expression that is uniquely yours.”

There is, however, a danger of getting too carried away with “trying” to be happy, where one focuses solely on him- or herself. Researchers have found that happiness tends to find people who are focused on others. They say helping or giving are proven sources of happiness. Albert Schweitzer described this when he said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

One of the most powerful forms of Buddhist practice is the way of the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word for a being who is dedicated to awakening and to acting for the benefit of all living beings. Kornfield writes that “the fulfillment of our happiness comes only from serving the welfare of others as well as ourselves. Our highest happiness is connected with the well-being of others.”

S Times_death_joy

Bodhisattvas appear in many different forms: a social worker, a nurse, a caring grandmother, a toll taker on New York’s Triborough Bridge. Or it might just be the person using the locker next to yours at the YMCA. I know it’s possible, because I’m pretty sure that the gray-haired, seventy-something lap swimmer I’ve been chatting with pleasantly over the last three years is one.

Ruth, a soft-spoken, reserved grandmother, has revealed bits of her life only after my gentle prodding as we chat in the locker room. Her eyes fill with tears when she tells me that her husband—the love of her life—died several years ago, and she lost her sister to cancer last fall. One of her children, a special-needs adult, still lives at home and requires full-time care. When she’s not tending to her daughter or working out at the Y, Ruth volunteers at the senior center and helps out at an elementary school.

“You are such a giving person,” I said to her one morning as I toweled off my hair. “I think it’s so great that you do all this volunteering.”

With a sparkle in her gray eyes, she replied, “Ah, but I do it for selfish reasons. You see, I get so much more back than I give.”

As I pondered what she’d said, she added as she zipped up her winter jacket and headed for the exit, “I’ve come to learn that one of the best ways to find happiness is to serve others.”

I think she’s on to something.

Welcome to the Imperfect Buddhist

“I’m practically perfect from head to toe,
If I had a fault it would never dare to show,
I’m so practically perfect in every way.” —Mary Poppins

“If I were a saint—which maybe I want to be, maybe I don’t—I would be like Augustine. He knew there was good in him, and he knew there was some not so good. And he wasn’t gonna give up his earthly pleasures before he was good and ready. Make me good, God, but not yet.” —Nurse Jackie

“Each of us is just this paradoxical mixture of confusion and wisdom; of the ability to be very cruel and the ability to be very kind. We are just such a mixture of things.” —Pema Chödrön

What do Mary Poppins, a drug-addicted TV nurse, and an American Buddhist nun have in common?

You might say, “Absolutely nothing,” but I see a deep interconnection. These three divergent quotes each reflect a piece of a timeless, immutable truth: that to be human is to be imperfect. As Ernest Kurtz writes in The Spirituality of Imperfection: Humans  embody a paradox, for we are “less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.”

In other words, we’re just like the Taoist yin/yang symbol, the circle enclosing black and white. We contain both shadow and light, which combine to make the whole. We might consider that we will never eternally “get it together, get it right.” That to aspire to be “perfect” and cut away all that we deem as “bad” is to deny our very nature. By doing so we can spend a lifetime pushing the wrong rock up the wrong hill; a self-improvement Sisyphus fighting an uphill battle that we can never win.

I know this is true, because I’ve been pushing that rock for decades, and boy, are my arms tired. And I’m finally figuring out that I’ve been using a flawed strategy guaranteed to perpetuate my pain.

I’ve been trying to be perfect—with mixed results. So as of today, June 7—which also happens to be my birthday—I’m done with it. And I’ve created a new name to mark this major transition. I’m calling it my rebirth-day!

In “The Imperfect Buddhist,” I invite you to join me in exploring what it means to fully embrace our human being-ness. With all its contradictions and messiness and paradoxes and loose ends and cellulite and flabby arms. Don’t expect that we’ll actually end up at a specific destination, because on this trip, the journey IS the goal!

I believe there isn’t anything in our experience that can’t help us awaken to our true nature—our basic goodness—which is really what I’m talking about here. So “The Imperfect Buddhist” will draw upon a wide variety of sources in this exploration. Much of my understanding of who we are and what our place is in this world is informed by Buddhist teachings and practices. But I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. Just as I wouldn’t call myself a Sufi, or a Hindu, or a Jew, or a Christian—although these wisdom traditions and many others have provided invaluable guidance and inspiration along the way. As have poetry and literature and music and movies and twelve-step programs and circles of people just like you and me simply trying to figure it all out one more time.

I confess that I do have one goal in creating “The Imperfect Buddhist.” It’s embodied in my personal mission statement: “My mission is to write and speak with wisdom, heart, and humor to inspire, encourage, and uplift.”

So grab a snack and fasten your seat belt: It’s gonna be a bumpy—and fun—ride!