The Buddha said, “When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” When he referred to a pure mind, I don’t think he was talking about one that was free of lustful thoughts (at least I hope not). I think he was talking more about a mind that was un-muddled and un-muddied by what he called “conditioning”; one that was relatively free of learned, robot-like, ego-based reactions, patterns, and mechanisms.
One my teachers, Richard J. Santo, used to say, “If you want to be happy, stop doing whatever it is that’s making you unhappy.” He was saying the same thing as the Buddha: unless we choose something else (consciously or unconsciously) to occupy center stage in our awareness, we would experience joy. Joy is like a bottomless well that sits just below the surface of our minds that is often obscured from our sight by all the resentment and guilt and worry and thinking we don’t deserve and thinking we must beat ourselves up sufficiently before we could ever experience joy.
Sometimes joy bubbles up in the hardest and darkest times. That’s how I know it’s always there. The most dramatic example for me was when my dad was making his transition in 2005. We had spent a horrific 2 weeks in the hospital and at this point he had stopped talking. My brother, the nurse and I helped him into the bathroom and sat him down, and when we closed the bathroom door behind us the nurse asked, “Are you comfortable?” Now, my dad always had a stock answer to this particular question but hearing it in that moment was the furthest thing from our minds. But sure enough, a weak voice came through the door: “I make a living.” I still can’t quite describe the joy we all experienced in that moment and it clearly felt as though it had been there all along, just waiting for an opportunity to slip through all the other things we had been thinking and feeling.
So, with a general intention to experience more joy, I’ve been paying attention to how I tend to muddy the waters of my consciousness. And I discovered a big one recently while meditating: all the meaning I assign to everything, even my own thoughts. I was sitting out at the lake, soaking in the sound of the lapping waves, watching my own thoughts and my reactions to them. Everything was hunky dory until a car went by blasting some music, the bass sounding like a series of sonic booms. Instead of simply noticing the new sound and acknowledging it as part of my experience in that moment, I immediately went to, “Why does he have to play his lousy music so loud?” Four or five additional judgments later, I realized I had lost sight of my joy. In reflecting on this phenomenon, I realized I’m always doing this! I give meaning to everything, and often that meaning isn’t necessarily true. Often it’s the same meaning I assigned when I was two years old. Often that meaning is not aligned with my core values. Often that meaning limits me and makes it harder for me to unfold what is good and beautiful and true about me.
What does it really mean when someone disagrees with me, or disapproves of me, or judges me? What does it mean when someone’s behavior annoys or baffles me? What does it mean when things don’t go according to my plans? When I look deeply and honestly at these questions, the only answer is, “I don’t really know.” And when I don’t really know, I can remember that the meaning I assign to anything is essentially a guess or an opinion anyway, so why not give it meaning that expands me and allows me to express my highest? Why not give it a meaning that will give my life more meaning?
Among the beings I know well, the one with the purest mind is my dog, Brenna. Indeed, she never seems to be very far removed from her joy, even in situations when I know she would prefer things to be different than they are. And I really believe it’s because she doesn’t attach a ton of meaning to things. If I stop throwing her stick, for example, she doesn’t wonder why, she doesn’t assume she did something wrong, she doesn’t appear to hold anything against me or herself, she simply sits down and starts chewing the stick or starts throwing it around for herself. In other words, the only meaning she assigns to an “obstacle” is that it means she must make a different choice, one that still allows her to access her deep well of joy. I am truly inspired by this incredible wisdom, and I’m fairly certain one need not have a brain the size of a golf ball in order to display similar wisdom. And there are so many opportunities to practice!
This week I was “supposed” to go backpacking. We’d arranged our schedule to take the time off, and my daughter did likewise as she came up from Santa Cruz to join us. It was to be a time of fun, relaxation, communing, connection and oneness. Then the day before we were to leave, I jumped off a ten-inch high rock and landed wrong, severely tweaking my hip to the point where I couldn’t put any weight on it. Home I limped, feeling angry, scared, guilty (Hillary had been talking about going backpacking for years) and generally old, stupid and very sorry for myself. Where did my joy go?
Hillary helped me reclaim it by reminding me I was giving it all the meaning it had for me. And wow, what meaning that was! A brief synopsis: I would never be able to hike again, I sucked for ruining my family’s week, I brought it on myself because originally I’d had some resistance to the idea, etc., etc. With Hillary’s help, I emulated Brenna. My daughter decided to come up anyway, I surrendered to what was, I asked for prayers, I opened up and thoroughly enjoyed being taken care of, and we’ve had a time of fun, relaxation, communing, connection and oneness. And, my hip is recovering much, much faster than I imagined, and I think there’s every reason to look forward to a hiking future.
I think I’ll notice when I’m muddling my joy with meaning a little more quickly and easily now. And I know that will continue to reveal my bottomless well of joy in more of my moments. My mind may never be as pure as Brenna’s, but there’s always hope!
And if that’s all we remember, that’s more than enough for now.