He who binds to himself a joyWilliam Blake
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
As I walked across the car park beside the quay, I saw a little boy full of joie de vivre, walking beside his mother hand in hand. All at once, with one accord, they both jumped over a bump in the path. I found myself smiling, and when I caught up with them, I commented on how infectious a child’s joy can be, and she smiled, ‘Isn’t it!’ she said.
The child’s reactions were spontaneous and it had not had to inhibit them for any length of time, and joy is always waiting to burst out — as is crying if something goes wrong. But as the child grows older and conditioning sets in, the crying stops — and so — too often — does the joy.
So the conditioning, originally helpful to the developing ego, becomes a straightjacket, that not only limits emotional extremes, but also the experience of life and the way we see it. Not for nothing do we often translate the term Vipassana Meditation (insight meditation) as ‘Seeing’.
When I lived in Sussex years ago, I had a favourite walk past the house of some old family friends and through the woods beyond. One day I took a pocket notebook with me and jotted down some of the interesting things I saw on the way; all the colours and shapes of the leaves and a mysterious divining twig that fascinated me. The next time I went on the same walk, I noticed all sorts of other fascinating things and began to realise how much of the time we spend locked in our heads, following internal conversations. It is only when these temporarily cease, that we begin to see the world we actually live in; and part of that seeing is joy, once the veil of habit and conformity is lifted like the gauze curtain in a pantomime, revealing something mysteriously hidden.
As we develop, we build a character — a façade — which reflects our experiences and expectations. But after a traumatic period in my life, when all sorts of possibilities and expectations collapsed, beyond my control, I dreamed that there was a large, shattered statue lying in the grass — and saw it was me. But then, I saw a small figure crawling out from underneath it, and realised that was also me. I began to understand then, that the created person was not the defining characteristic of myself, and not a permanent entity.
Years later, investigating the idea of whom I was during a meditation session, I temporarily lost my sense of self (it came back) but I remember I was surprised I was not bothered by it. There is no final picture of ourselves, but a continual adaptation to circumstances. We have to realise that life is a continuum, not just bits that we can accept or reject. We may have developed a persona (from Greek — a mask) but that’s all it really is. On a visit by Soko Morinaga Roshi, I asked him if I should see myself as fluid rather than a fixed entity, and he replied ‘Don’t see yourself as anything’. Advice from the master.
Joy is not something we can grasp and hold on to, it comes and goes like spring rain, softening everything. But when the ego is involved, with its habitual grasping or rejecting, everything stops. I remember a very cold winter, when I was six, walking across my grandfather’s farmyard, and seeing great coffin shaped blocks of ice, that had been tipped out of the cattle troughs that morning. What had once been soft, flowing water was now solid and frozen, just as we can become when the ego steps in. Pema Chodron says ‘The second noble truth is the fundamental operating mechanism of what we call ego, that resisting life causes suffering — resisting the fact that we flow and change like the weather, that we have the same energy as all living things, “resisting” that is what’s called ego’.
I once went on a metta (loving kindness) retreat with a Sri Lankan monk called Anrudha. He understood westerners very well and how involved we become with the negative side of things. He asked us to write a list of all our favourite things — like the song — but those things that brought out our natural warmth, and the simpler the better, and then meditate on them. We did this for several days, and he asked us how it was going. I remember telling him, ‘A slight feeling of gold’. And he said ‘Good, it’s going well’. He helped us to re-discover our natural joy in things that had been overlaid with worries and uncertainties. ‘These feelings are the ones that are natural to you — they don’t come from anywhere else,’ he said ‘They are part of your real nature’.
As we progress, we can open up more and more to these, and they can — and do — become more and more part of our ordinary lives. I once asked Douglas Harding — the author of many fascinating books, and who had experienced a profound state — what he remembered most, and he said simply: ‘Absolute joy’.
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Categories: Buddhism, Everyday Buddhism, John Aske