Cultivating Joy in a World of Suffering

Cultivating Joy in a World of Suffering

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 20, 2018 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

In 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu flew to Dharamsala, India, to celebrate His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. It was an opportunity for the two friends and Nobel Laureates to enjoy each other’s company and, also, to have a multi-day conversation. The chosen topic was how they, in their long and socially active lives, were each able to cultivate joy even when faced with personal difficulties and social injustices. The third person present was Douglas Abrams, a secular Jew and writer, who asked questions, recorded events and informal moments, and put it all together into The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, I would like to focus our program on three suggestions the Archbishop and Dalai Lama offered on how to cultivate joy in a world of suffering.

The first suggestion concerns the nature of joy. The Dalai Lama was asked to clarify the difference between fleeting happiness and true joy. The “I” in the section below is Douglas Abrams, the narrator:

“When we speak of experiencing happiness, we need to know that there are actually two different kinds. The first is the enjoyment of pleasure through our senses. Here, sex, the example I cited, is one such experience. But we can also experience happiness at the deeper level through our mind, such as through love, compassion, and generosity. What characterizes happiness at this deeper level is the sense of fulfillment that you experience. While the joy of the senses is brief, the joy at this deeper level is much longer lasting. It is true joy.  . . .

“So when joy arises at the level of your mind and not just your senses, you can maintain a deep sense of satisfaction for a much longer period of time—even for twenty-four hours.

“So I always say to people, you have to pay more attention to the mental level of joy and happiness. Not just physical pleasure, but satisfaction at the level of mind. This is true joyfulness. When you are joyful and happy at the mental level, physical pain doesn’t matter very much. But if there is no joy or happiness at the mental level, too much worrying, too much fear, then even physical comforts and pleasure will not soothe your mental discomfort.”

“Many of our readers,” I said, “will understand what physical pleasure is, or the physical dimension of joy and happiness. They know how a good meal or a good song makes them feel. But what is this mental happiness or mental pleasure that you’re talking about that lasts for twenty-four hours?”

“A genuine sense of love and affection,” the Dalai Lama said.

“Do you wake up with this joy?” I asked. “Even before coffee?”

“If you develop a strong sense of concern for the well-being of all sentient beings and in particular all human beings, this will make you happy in the morning, even before coffee.

“This is the value of compassion, of having compassionate feelings for others. Even, you see, ten minutes or thirty minutes of meditating on compassion, on kindness for others, and you will see its effects all day. That’s the way to maintain a calm and joyous mind.

The second theme is the Dalai Lama explaining how we can train our minds so that positive emotions arise more easily.

“Mental immunity is just learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones. First, we must understand the mind—there are so many different states of mind—the diverse thoughts and emotions we experience on a daily basis. Some of these thoughts and emotions are harmful, even toxic, while others are healthy and healing. The former disturb our mind and cause much mental pain. The latter bring us true joyfulness.

“When we understand this reality, it is much easier to deal with the mind and to take preventive measures. This is how we develop mental immunity. And just as a healthy immune system and healthy constitution protects your body against potentially hazardous viruses and bacteria, mental immunity creates a healthy disposition of the mind so that it will be less susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings.

“Think about it this way. If your health is strong, when viruses come they will not make you sick. If your overall health is weak, even small viruses will be very dangerous for you. Similarly, if your mental health is sound, then when disturbances come, you will have some distress but quickly recover. If your mental health is not good, then small disturbances, small problems will cause you much pain and suffering. You will have much fear and worry, much sadness and despair, and much anger and aggravation.

“People would like to be able to take a pill that makes their fear and anxiety go away and makes them immediately feel peaceful. This is impossible. One must develop the mind over time and cultivate mental immunity. Often people ask me for the quickest and best solution to a problem. Again, this is impossible. You can have quickest or you can have best solution, but not both. The best solution to our suffering is mental immunity, but it takes time to develop.

The third suggestion comes from Archbishop Tutu. He was asked about how one can develop joy as an approach to life rather than seeing it just as a response to favorable conditions.

“I mean simply to say that ultimately our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others. … It’s how we are made. I mean we’re wired to be compassionate.”

“We are wired to be caring for the other and generous to one another. We shrivel when we are not able to interact. I mean that is part of the reason why solitary confinement is such a horrendous punishment. We depend on the other in order for us to be fully who we are. I didn’t know that I was going to come so soon to the concept that we have at home, the concept of Ubuntu. It says: A person is a person through other persons.

“Ubuntu says when I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you. Because, after all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world. And the Bible that we Jews and Christians share tells a beautiful story. God says, ‘It is not good for Adam to be alone.’ Well, you could have said, ‘No, I’m sorry, he’s not alone. I mean, there are trees, there are animals, and there are the birds. How can you say he’s alone?’

“And you realize that in a very real sense we’re meant for a very profound complementarity. It is the nature of things. You don’t have to be a believer in anything. I mean I could not speak as I am speaking without having learned it from other human beings. I could not walk as a human being. I could not think as a human being, except through learning it from other human beings. I learned to be a human being from other human beings. We belong in this delicate network. It is actually quite profound.

“Unfortunately, in our world we tend to be blind to our connection until times of great disaster. We find we start caring about people in Timbuktu, whom we’ve never met and we’re probably never going to meet this side of death. And yet we pour out our hearts. We give resources to help them because we realize that we are bound up together. We are bound up and can be human only together.”

You are invited to join us. We will begin our Dharma sharing exploring in what way we were touched or moved by one or more of the three suggestions.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 20, 2018