Meditation: Joy, by Catherine Rathbun (Lama Jetsun Yeshe)

Joy is an inner experience. It arises in our interaction with other people: when we greet our newborn child; when we see our beloved after a long absence, and hopefully when we embark upon marriage. By its nature, it is spontaneous and therefore may be unexpected. The sight of a beautiful sunset, the first fall of snow, the sparkles on the lake in the summer sun, the burst of spring blossom on a flowering tree or the sun striking the brilliant autumn forest all can, in a moment, produce joy. The moment can seem timeless, as if we have stepped out of our skin for a second, dropped our ‘working’ mind and become innocent again. Pure joy is most easily observed when we watch young children explore the world. But it can be ours, as adults, if we allow ourselves to greet each day, as if it were brand new.

This attitude is part of what is called “Beginner’s Mind” and can be cultivated by even a jaded adult, if they would only try. One of the things I have observed in students who meditate for a number of years, is that they become more capable of joy; they look younger and fresher as each year goes by. Their previously ‘sophisticated’, rather depressed outlook on life seems to almost invisibly drop away. This melting of the individual is directly proportional to the effort they put into their meditation practices and the level of insight that they develop into patterns of body, speech and mind that cause suffering and dissatisfaction to arise in their lives. As people take responsibility for their own emergence from ignorance, bliss, joy and peace arise, natural by-products of even partial success.

According to the view of Mahayana Buddhists, this is the natural state of humans. The idea that we are all ‘Hobbesian’ in our outlook and only want what is best for ourselves no matter the cost to others, exists in distinct contrast to this view. If the ancient Buddhists were right (and my personal experience tells me they were), then we have every reason to begin and continue the journey to understand and uproot the causes of our own suffering, so that we can live with fundamental joy, celebrating the precious human birth that we have been granted by a merciful universe. Such an attitude of mind pushes back against the selfishness and the angry destructive energy that seems so manifest on our planet today.

By actively cultivating joy in life, we look outwards beyond our personal small self and interact with others and with nature in ways that promote health and good stewardship. We lose the ability to wish harm for others, to inflict damage on the environment and we begin to look for ways to benefit others and the world at large. Meditation and deep reflection plays an integral part in this transformation.

In meditation studies there is a specific stage referred to as the ‘stage of joy’. When concentration deepens and the edges of the world soften in their influence, the states called ‘jhanas’ arise, which are states of focussed, deep concentration. At the stage of joy, a frisson of energy rises within the body, the hairs on the skin rise; the body becomes gently electric. While pleasurable to experience, such a state is temporary, not to be clung to and a student is encouraged to note the accompanying deepening of the concentration as more significant. As mental concentration deepens, this joy fades away and is replaced by equanimity. When that state becomes deeply imbedded in our consciousness, we can handle the ups and downs of life, including dire diagnoses and accidents in a more mature way. We can learn to quickly re-establish a state of acceptance and more easily develop both a reasoned and a creative response to a changing situation.

There is a state in meditation studies called ‘Piti’ or ‘too much joy’. A rather excitable state of joy it can result in what seems almost a mild form of hysteria. Much like a teenager at a rock concert, we may be occasionally overtaken by such a state. Returning to the breath or dancing in the street will calm things down. Ecstatic states are recognized but not sought after in the Buddhist world, and some Buddhist practitioners have been rightfully accused of ‘hedonic indifference’ or a view of joy that is disdainful. A better view, I think, is to change our perspective of such a state. Experiencing Piti, we can acknowledge that it is temporary and allow it to ebb away naturally. Like birthday cake candles, it will stay lit for only a short time.

Wild enthusiasm for a cause sometimes is a characteristic of the conversion drive by one practitioner in favour of one type of spiritual development. A good spiritual guide will encourage a student to be silent at this stage (called the Zelator in Rosicrucian studies). The student will be urged to continue practicing, not charge out into the world to convert others.

So, dear reader, don’t be seduced by this state of joy or even by the excitement of ‘peak experiences’. Understand that it is better to continue your practice, deepening towards a state of equanimity. From that more settled place, we can see more deeply, hear more deeply and hopefully have a greater opportunity to help others to unfold their own journey through joy to equanimity and peace.

Copyright 2013 by Catherine Rathbun

Catherine Rathbun

Catherine Rathbun has studied meditation with His Holiness XVI Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and with pre-eminent individuals like Ven. Kalu Rinpoche, Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche and John Coleman. She received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. Catherine taught meditation studies at York University for seven years (1989 to 1997). With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69), she frequently incorporates creative movement exercises into meditation studies as a way to bypass the tight hold that the Western intellect has on one’s development.

She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living. Her books are available from her directly or from Friends of the Heart or Snow Lion Meditation Shop, both in Toronto.

She is the founding teacher at Friends of the Heart, a meditation centre in Toronto.