Christina and Jaya explain how joy uplifts us and protects the heart. In fact, with cultivation, joy can brighten our lives in any circumstances.


0:00 – The value of joy

In this unit, we'll explore the fourth bojjhanga, the fourth factor of awakening. In Pali this is piti. This is sometimes translated as:

  • rapture
  • enthusiasm
  • joyfulness
  • happiness. 

Piti really speaks to the capacity of our hearts to be uplifted and gladdened. It also holds within it the seeds of a gentle, appreciative joyfulness, a sense of celebration and contentment.

Many people bring an attitude of over-earnestness to this path sometimes, which is not always helpful, and it's not always the same as sincerity or dedication. Sometimes this sense of over-earnestness is almost bearing a quality of exaggerated responsibility: "it's all up to me, it all rests on my shoulders." When there's over-earnestness, it's often noticeable how joyfulness begins to fall away. Sometimes people feel that joyfulness is frivolous in the face of so much suffering, in the face of so much distress, that it's rather frivolous to even consider joyfulness. For some there's a thought that there's more nobility, more virtue in struggle and suffering than there is in joyfulness.

The Buddha put it, "This is the path of happiness that leads to the highest happiness, and the highest happiness is peace."  One of the traditions defines piti as finding joy in undertaking the wholesome. This is a very telling instruction or invitation: to find joy in undertaking the wholesome; wholesome acts of generosity, wholesome acts of kindness, compassion, care, appreciation. Finding joy in undertaking the wholesome. 

2:35 – Piti as rapture

When piti is translated as rapture, this is often associated with deep meditative states of collectedness, or absorption. It is true that when we cultivate a mind of stillness, a mind of deep collectedness, it is a unified mind and it has a taste of joyfulness and happiness. But piti, this quality of joyfulness, is also an abiding. It's the place where our hearts, our minds, make their home in all conditions.

I think one of the Buddha's most important teachings around joyfulness is that it is not dependent upon having ideal or perfect conditions in our lives, that joyfulness is a quality that's inwardly born, inwardly generated, and possible in all moments. In the Dhammapada, one of the much loved early texts of the Buddha's teaching, the Buddha says:

"Abide in happiness free from hostility amongst those who are hostile. Abide in joyfulness free from distress amongst those who are miserable. Abide in happiness free from agitation and busyness in the midst of those who are busy. Joyfully, we live, those who cling to nothing." —The Buddha.

4:10 – Sensual joyfulness

Now, the Buddha speaks about joyfulness in two different ways. He speaks about it as sensual joyfulness and nonsensual joyfulness. I think that the more accurate translations from the Pali mention fleshly and nonfleshly joyfulness, which are rather awkward terms. But to think about sensual joyfulness: the world would be a much poorer place without art, music, poetry, and literature. There's joyfulness we find in our connections with the natural world. There's joyfulness we find in our connections with those that we care about. Joyfulness in the sensual world is pointing to these qualities of wholeheartedness, of being present, of being able to listen, to be attuned, and to be gladdened and uplifted in those moments of attunement. This is not something to be dismissed or seen as somehow being unspiritual or unworthy. For many people, sensual joyfulness can be a powerful indicator of their heart's capacity to know joyfulness.

I have an impression that we live in a culture where there's often a very powerful joy deficit. One of the universal patterns of human consciousness is to have negative attentional bias. We tend to focus on what is wrong, what is broken, what is imperfect. This is certainly not to suggest that everything is perfect and well in the world. There is much that is unacceptable. But we see how often we walk into a room, or a situation, or see another person, or look at ourselves, and what is highlighted in our attention is that which we feel needs improvement or needs to be gotten rid of, or is somehow flawed or imperfect.

One of the effects or functions of mindfulness (sati) is to rebalance negative attentional bias. Now, we know that we cannot make ourselves joyful, and there's something very inauthentic about a contrived cheerfulness or contrived joyfulness, but we can learn to make room for joy. We can learn to make space for joy. We can begin to cultivate the capacities that we have for receptivity, appreciation, attunement, celebrating, and for undertaking the wholesome. Mindfulness is a great ally in this. We cultivate joyfulness in the midst of the changing, uncertain conditions of our lives, the joyfulness of a heart that can be gladdened.

7:25 – Nonsensual joyfulness

The Buddha also speaks very much about a nonsensual joyfulness, and here he is pointing to the capacity we have to cultivate the sources or the roots of joyfulness within our own being. There are different aspects to this. One of them is meditative development: to cultivate that collectedness, gatheredness, and stillness inwardly that is a home of joy. Another aspect is cultivating our capacities for generosity and for care, and beginning to notice how they have a taste of joyfulness and happiness. 

In terms of being an awakening factor, joyfulness is actually not an optional extra. It's not a reward or a side dish. Joyfulness is a close companion of compassion. It also has a powerful effect on the veiling factor of craving. If you truly see that you have the capacity for inwardly generated joyfulness, it changes your relationship to the world of things, the world of people, the world of experiences. We don't find ourselves pursuing this externalized happiness. We have the confidence that there is nothing we're going to gain through achievement, striving, or possession that is going to have that same flavor of inwardly generated joyfulness. 

This doesn't mean that we stop appreciating all that is lovely in the world. But we take ourselves out of this position of dependency. We are no longer hostage to the world of conditions, where we believe that our happiness and unhappiness is determined by whether we managed to be in touch with the pleasant sensation and get rid of the unpleasant sensation. There's enormous freedom in stepping out of this craving impulse and having confidence in our capacity to know that joy which is not dependent on the idealized conditions we dream of.

10:05 – Offering joy

I find it helpful to think of this awakening factor as enjoyment, to recognize that in the cultivation of all these awakening factors, they're not just mind states that fortuitously arise, as Christina says. We have the chance to cultivate and attune the mind to these particular qualities.

We have a very strong tendency to view joy as something that either happens to us by chance in lucky moments or as something that we have to deserve, that we get as the fruit, the reward, of good behavior or skillful cultivation. We can reframe that to think of joy as something we can offer as a gift to the world, offer as a gift through our lives, rather than being something that we take or we must wait to receive. So we begin to notice even subtle manifestations of this quality in our experience. 

11:20 – Joy in the absence of difficulty

One place where we may overlook the arising of joy is simply in the subsiding or the absence of difficult mind states. When we notice that a sense of ill will has started to subside, a sense of relief also comes along with that.  The Buddha had beautiful similes for the waning of these afflictive qualities of mind, the veiling factors, the hindrances. He said it's like healing from an illness, arriving at the end of a difficult journey, finding yourself released from prison or having paid off a debt. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, we notice when we have a toothache but we forget to enjoy the moments when we're free from toothache. 

So as mindfulness starts to appreciate these movements of change and the subtle shades of our experience, many, many moments become available for our enjoyment that we may otherwise overlook. 

12:45 – Sympathetic joy

We can also practice the associated quality of mudita: learning to take joy in the good fortune and the joy of other people. This is a way that we can apply mindfulness externally as well as internally: being available to be touched by the joy or good fortune of other beings around us. I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that 7 billion human beings on the planet means 7 billion other opportunities for joy, that we can allow the heart to vibrate with the joy present in other people. 

13:25 – Gratitude

Another accessible route into the experience of joy is gratitude. We can take moments in our day to reflect on the blessings of our life and the ways in which we appreciate our good fortune. We can also reflect on our practice. We tend to have, as Christina mentioned, this negativity bias. We notice all the ways in which, for example, "I've fallen short in my practice today."

We've made suggestions over the past few units of things you might attend to during the day. I also really suggest that, at the end of the day, you take a moment to appreciate the ways in which you have shown up for practice, or responded to your good intentions during the day. Again, this is a route into joyfulness that the Buddha strongly encouraged: reflecting on one's own good conduct, generosity, gratitude, and so forth.

14:35 – Appreciation

The cultivation of joyfulness teaches us a great deal about coexistence. Yes, there is affliction, there is that which is broken, there is that which is heartbreaking in life; and it lives side by side with that which is well, that which can be celebrated, that which can be appreciated. 

For years I taught in a university in the same room every week, and the carpet on the floor was nothing special but it had a coffee stain. And the coffee stain lived there for years. People would come into the room, and sometimes the first thing they would talk about was the coffee stain on the carpet. 99% of the carpet was doing just fine. But we have 1% that has a coffee stain, and perhaps it could use cleaning. But do we see the 99% that is really doing just fine?

We see this play in our lives, in every moment of experience, where, yes, we need to care for and attend to that which is broken and needing of care. But that does not exclude the actuality that there is also wellness. If you look in your body just now, there may be places of discomfort, places of pain. There are also probably many places in your body that are actually doing just fine, that are at ease.

During the lockdown here, my five-year-old grandson lived with us for three months, and our movements were quite restricted. Every day we would take a walk to the nearby field. One day he said to me as we were going, "Amma,"—he calls me Amma—"We do the same thing every day." And I began to apologize to him, giving him the whole story about how our choices were limited. But he said, "I'm not complaining." He said, "I have everything I need." I found that quite startling, really quite joyful, to be able to say, "I have everything I need." 

There's a wonderful Chinese saying that if you keep a green bough alive in your heart, the singing bird will come. And we really see this marriage of mindfulness and joyfulness: how mindfulness is teaching us to see anew, to be touched, to know a sense of wonder, a sense of awe, a sense of appreciation. This is the green bough in our hearts that we can cultivate moment to moment. And when that green bough is alive in our hearts, the singing bird does come. Joyfulness does come. It does become woven into the climate of our hearts and minds as an accessible quality moment to moment. And there is wakefulness in joyfulness. This is something to really appreciate: the times when we feel really truly alive and wakeful have that flavor of joyfulness.

18:00 – Contentment

Another valuable way that we can cultivate joy in the heart is to develop contentment. Christina mentioned renunciation as a skillful quality that we cultivate in the mind, and having lived the simple life of a monastic for some years, it's surprising to me with how little one can be content, and how much enjoyment can be found in the cultivation of simplicity. For example, there are trainings to gratefully receive the food that one is offered, to reflect on gratitude for the shelter that one has and the clothing. And there are very simple requirements for all this. One's life is really pared down to something of a minimum.

Sometimes people would ask me, about that time of my life, "Weren't you ever bored?" Actually, I don't really remember experiencing boredom. I've experienced much more boredom subsequently and previously when there's an expectation of being entertained. I think Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, said that boredom is simply lack of attention. When we bring more attentiveness to our experience, it becomes more enjoyable, and these qualities of curiosity and energy open into a sense of enthusiasm.

Christina mentioned enthusiasm as being a facet of viriya (energy), as the elision point between viriya and joyfulness. We can also notice how enjoyment arouses energy in the mind. It acts as an antidote to dullness and drowsiness. It also acts as an antidote to craving and ill will because, the more that our mind is content and happy, the less bandwidth there is for unwholesome mind states to arise. It creates a feedback loop of wholesomeness in the mind.

20:25 – Cultivating joy in the midst of the veiling factors

When we reflect on the veiling factors, we see how there is a joy deficit within them. They even have the function of leaching joyfulness from our lives.

Veiling factor (hindrance) Effect on joyfulness
Craving When we're lost in craving, our attention is so externally placed that we are often disassociated from any sense of inner joyfulness, contentment, or appreciation. We simply want intensity. We want drama. We want excitement.
Ill will When we look at the landscape of ill will, clearly ill will and joyfulness are not being cultivated in the same moment. They're not present in the same moment. And ill will, in its focus upon getting rid of, avoiding, annihilating, has a drivenness that bars the gate of joyfulness.
Restlessness and worry In restlessness and worry and its leaning forward into the future, its busyness, its agitation, joyfulness is forgotten.
Dullness and drowsiness In the landscape of of dullness or numbness, which is so much a landscape of low mood, of depression, joyfulness seems like a distant dream, an impossibility.
Doubt In the landscape of doubt, which focuses so much upon what is wrong and what is impossible, again, joyfulness is a distant memory.

We have mentioned that the veiling factors are not just something we have, they are something we practice. The more we practice these veiling factors, the more we disconnect from our capacity for joyfulness. So it's really important to remember that the five veiling factors are truly the landscape in which we cultivate the awakening factors. In the midst of these veiling factors, where do we make room for joyfulness? What do we call upon to allow that green bough to be established in our heart? Seeing anew, being touched anew, being able to gaze with wonder, being able to be surprised? 

We should never think of joyfulness as some distant attainment but as a present-moment cultivation that gladdens our hearts, uplifts our hearts, and inspires us to cultivate that wakefulness in all moments of our lives.

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