THE ESSENCE OF THE BOOK OF JOY

We have just read this book for our book group this month. I would seriously recommend that The Book of Joy should be read by everyone who lives in the Northern Hemisphere and is struggling with Januaryitis. It will give you a different perspective on life, whilst lifting the spirit to help you get through those dark, gloomy mornings on your way to work. You might even test out your new found gratitude by attempting a small smile and maybe even a brief conversation with a stranger on the commute. As you look around at your fellow humans and try to put yourself in their shoes for a while. Maybe even the road rage will disappear for a while as you drive around attempting to feel joyful. We all agreed that it had changed our approach to life – one said “when you focus too much on yourself, you become disconnected and alienated from others. In the end, you also become alienated from yourself…so true – reach out and don’t be so self absorbed!” Another (a yogi) quite rightly pointed out that “I think being joyfulness takes practice – it is not realistic to be joyful all the time, but this book is a good reminder that is is possible a lot of the time.”

Joy, according to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu is much bigger than happiness – it is not affected by external circumstances – it is a state of mind and heart that ultimately leads to a life of satisfaction and meaning. In essence, they both agree that the ultimate source of a meaningful life is found within ourselves, regardless of outside influences and that is the goal of human life – to live with joy and purpose. The book itself is a joy to read. I can’t imagine how privileged the writer, Douglas Abrams must have felt to have been invited to hang out with these two great global heroes for a week in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives. Even just the photos of them smiling and laughing together are enough to generate a warm glow…

After much consideration, the Dalai Lama believes that the purpose of life is to find happiness. From the very core of our being we simply desire joy and contentment. Outward attainment, they say, will not bring real inner joyfulness and no amount of money or success will make us happy. We must look inside ourselves and understand that because we create most of our sufferings, it should be logical that we also have the ability to create joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, perspectives and the reactions that we bring to situations and additionally, our relationships with other people.

But, it’s quite a long old read, full of stories of their past experiences and those of others they have met. They trade intimate stories and tease each other endlessly as well as share their spiritual practices (although they are keen to point out that this book is also for non-believers). So, should you not have time to read it, I have pulled out the essence of how to live a better life. It’s all fairly obvious, but in the midst of our busy lives, it is easy to forget the simple things.

But the picture that hangs in my kitchen gives basically the same message:-

Joy is a by-product.

There are essentially 8 pillars of joy.

Four are qualities of the mind:-

Perspective
humility
humour
acceptance

Four are qualities of the heart:-

Forgiveness
Gratitude
Compassion
Generosity

PERSPECTIVE

We have to remember that suffering is inevitable, but it is how we respond to suffering that makes all the difference. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response. Of course, both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have far too much experience of this and it is truly humbling to see how they have chosen to deal with their respective hardships.

Fear is inevitable, as is pain and eventually death.

Discovering more joy makes you more alive and can teach you to deal with heartbreak without getting broken and hardship without becoming hard. By trying to walk in someone else’s shoes we can overcome our own private worries and get a better perspective on life.

Keep learning. Every day.

Try to turn threats into challenges and avoid stress where possible because stress means you are not able to be present.

HUMILITY

If you can recognise other people’s suffering, then you can understand we are not alone and our pain lessons. With a disaster, try and think about it. If you can do nothing, what is there to worry about? Accepting circumstances as they are leads to more growth and development.

Intense suffering is a necessary ingredient for life – they give the example of a mother bearing a child and the pain she has to go through. Suffering helps develop compassion.

Too much self-centred thinking is the source of suffering. Self-centred attitudes brings a sense of insecurity, fear and distrust. Too much fear brings frustration which brings anger – a chain reaction which can then lead to anxiety, anger and violence.

They suggest that we should stop being too self regarding by changing the focus from “I, me and mine” to “we, us and ours.” We should not consider ourself any more special than the other 7 billion people on the planet or feel superior in any way.

Humiliity is essential to any possibility of joy. We need others, we shouldn’t take anything too personally or worry about what is happening. True arrogance comes from insecurity.

Be kind to yourself, if you don’t have genuine love and kindness to yourself, how can you extend it to others?

HUMOUR

Learn to laugh at yourself. Humour is central to the way that you are in the world. Don’t be too serious. The connection between wholehearted laughter and a warm heart is the key to happiness.

Laughter is often the direct line between two people with a shared humanity.

Life is hard and laughter is how we come to terms with all the ironies, cruelties and uncertainties we face.

Don’t take the low road of anger, take the high road of humour – with road rage for example, imagine what they are going through and try to see it from a different angle.

Try smiling for 20 seconds, even if you don’t feel like it – it can trigger positive emotions and it is contagious – “therefore we have power over our emotions.” A recent study by British sport psychologists suggests that simply by rearranging your expression into a grin makes physical exertion measurably more efficient as you literally try to smile away the pain. Studies have repeatedly shown that smiling or frowning can make people feel happier and more anxious respectively. It can make you feel more relaxed.

ACCEPTANCE

Acceptance is the ability to accept our life in all it’s pain, imperfection and beauty. We cannot succeed by denying what exists. It allows us to engage with life on it’s own terms rather than rail against the fact that life is not as we would wish.

So many causes of suffering come from our reacting to the people, places, things and circumstances in our lives rather than accepting them. When we react, we stay locked in judgement and criticism, anxiety and despair, even denial and addiction. “Acceptance is the sword that cuts through all of this resistance allowing us to relax, to see clearly and to respond accordingly and appropriately.”

We need to learn to accept that death is part of our lives. We were born, so we shall die.

Everything is in a constant state of change and nothing exits independently. Everything is impermanent. In other words, nothing is permanent.

Shantiveda said: “If there is a way to overcome the situation, then instead of feeling too much sadness, too much fear or too much anger, make an effort to change the situation. If there is nothing you can to to overcome the situation, then there is no need for fear or sadness or anger.” Fear is part of human nature, but with courage, when real dangers come you can be fearless, or at least more realistic.

Use loss as motivation to generate a deeper sense of purpose. Live a more meaningful life knowing they would be happy to see you so determined and full of hope.

Grief is a reminder of the depths of our love. Without love, there is no grief.

FORGIVENESS

Forgiveness frees us from our past, but does not mean we should forget. Fear and anger are closely related. We should remember the negative things, but not allow ourselves to develop hatred – we should choose forgiveness rather than revenge; “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind”. Righteous anger is not usually about ourselves – it’s a tool of justice and one’s collective responsibility

Unforgiveness robs us of our ability to enjoy and appreciate our life because we are trapped in a past filled with anger and bitterness. Forgiveness means that “whatever life gives to you, you can respond with joy. Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.” (Brother Steindl-Rast).

A healthy mind is a calm mind. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing.

It’s OK to shout about your sadness and your pain. Don’t lock them up and pretend they’re not there as they then fester and become a wound.
Mild sadness is OK – you can have better judgements and memory and more empathy and generosity – sadness often unites us more closely together. Joy and sorrow are closely linked.

Adversities can turn into good opportunities. The suffering is what makes you appreciate the joy. It is an opportunity destiny has given to you, remain firm and maintain your composure.

GRATITUDE

Count your blessings every day as you wake up and think “I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it”. See the world as half full rather than half empty. “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, it is gratefulness that makes us happy” Every moment is a gift. An opportunity to enjoy it or if it’s a difficult gift, then it can be an opportunity to rise to the challenge.

People with a strong disposition towards gratitude have the capacity to be empathetic and take the perspective of others. Write lists of what you have to be grateful for – it helps with your life outlook – more positive emotions, more vitality and optimism.

COMPASSION

A compassionate concern for other people’s wellbeing is the source of happiness.

Genuine friendship is entirely based on trust. We are social animals and need friends and we need love to survive. Especially a mother’s love. There was a discussion about how parenting in the West is too focused on our own children and their needs, rather than helping them to care for others. “My children, my children” – that’s biased love – we need unbiased love towards humanity.

Stress and anxiety comes from trying to control what is fundamentally impermanent and unable to be controlled. Often when we want things to be different, e.g. when someone hurts you – try and see it from their point of view – try to understand their own destructive emotions and feel sorry and concern for them instead – often it is due to a misunderstanding or misinformation.

It’s a question of priorities – what is it that is really worth pursuing. What is it that we truly need aside from love and connection? Be more realistic so we can come to feel a sense of inner peace, rather than always chasing after our expectations and ambitions.

Think about others – see yourself as part of a greater whole.

The Dalai Lama asks what do you need to fear or worry about when you have 7 billion other people who are with you?

Have compassion for ourselves and acknowledge that then, when we feel afraid, hurt or threatened, we can have compassion for others. Don’t lose compassion.

Too much self centred thinking is the source of suffering – a compassionate concern for others wellbeing is the source of happiness – it takes time to learn, but as humans we are hardwired to do it. Learn to develop a serious concern for the wellbeing of others and you shall get it back – “reciprocal altruism”.

GENEROSITY

Generosity, the 8th and final pillar “is the best way of becoming more, more and more joyful” says Desmond Tutu. Physiologically it is associated with better health and a longer life expectancy so “money can buy happiness, as long as it’s spent on other people.”

It’s not just about money, but about how we give our time – we must have a sense of purpose. Volunteering reduces the risk of death by 24% (apparently).

Generosity of spirit means that we are practicing all the other pillars of joy as well. In generosity there is a wider perspective in which we see our connection in all others.

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