Cultivating Joy

Cultivating joy has a reputation in Buddhism for being an easy practice, one that anybody can do, and that really takes just a few moments. Just sit back and think about some of the great things that people have done, and are doing now, or the beauty that is in this world…


To take delight in the wonderful things people do is so easy, it’s amazing. It comes naturally to the heart. Anytime we think to ourselves, ‘wow – that’s great!’ – that’s celebrating. We can celebrate the ‘small’, everyday things we see, such as a mother picking up her child because the child is tired – child reaches up his arms, and without hesitating, the mother picks up her child. Or a child gets a good grade, or even just tries on a test, or makes a lovely painting in school…  these may seem ‘small’, or common, but in their own way they are extraordinary, and something we can delight in.

“There is great joy and happiness in using one’s life to bring joy and happiness to others.” – Ani Tenzin Palmo

We can and should acknowledge and rejoice in our own good actions, and intentions. For some reason in the West many people have a hard time with this, myself included sometimes. But we should be able to appreciate our own positive actions, just as if someone else were doing them. This is not for pride’s sake, but for our own well founded self-esteem. All that’s good in us should be celebrated.

Then we can celebrate and praise the great works that people have done, and the victories they have achieved. I think of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Paul Farmer, and others, including my father.

I have a folder I keep and add to, called ‘The Power of Joy’ that I started after having the thought that, anytime we celebrate something, we claim it as part of our spiritual heritage.

People throughout time have known this, and that’s what communal celebrations are for. They’re not just to remember, but they are so we can continue to be enriched and guided by those gifts we’re received. And part of the wisdom of these regular celebrations is that it keeps us from forgetting.

So in the folder on joy I keep a list of my heroes, friends and benefactors, and of the gifts we’ve received, to remind myself, for example, of the gift of Rumi, the legacy of the civil rights moment, the Buddha’s teaching, the works of my compassionate friends, and our ancestors who have left us knowledge of healing methods. These are just a few examples.  Make your own list.

Then, if we set our mind on something wonderful for a while, we can have the experience of ‘breaking through the veil’ of our mundane view.

For example, if I think of the lives of my teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, or Martin Luther King, and I think about what they’ve been through, and how much inspiration and strength, and joy and freedom they brought to others, something in me changes.

This mind of appreciation and delight is different from the mind I may have had only a few moments before.

The feeling fades, and so I need to practice regularly, so that my knowing these good and great things can be like a fresh stream in my life – nourishing and sustaining.

Have you ever noticed how the happiest people seem to be those who are really appreciative of others, wherever they go? I’m thinking here of Matthieu Ricard and Thich Nhat Hanh, but you can probably think of your own examples. Their gratitude and their joy in others is very present everywhere they go.

I remember being in Paris in 1990, and noticing something I had not seen very much of, if at all in the United States. In the subway stations, families were traveling together, and one of the things I noticed in these European families was a sense of dignity, of knowing who they are, and having a sense of immutable worth in that.

People may have it here, but it’s something I seldom see. I thought about why this could be, and I thought perhaps that it had to do with European cultures being older and more established, whereas this is a relatively new culture, and so our identity is less established.

We do have a history here that has many things to take pride in. And, in these times, we are all more of a member of one world than ever before, such that we can celebrate the successes and achievements of people in other countries as though they were of our own family.

Sometimes I think of people, and of young people especially, not knowing our history as being impoverished – it’s so sad. They don’t know themselves to be rich, and so they suffer and treat others as they do. They feel disconnected, and no relationship to or responsibility to the past, or to others.

But the good news here, the saving grace, as it were, is that whenever we’re without jealousy or pride, pettiness or ego centeredness, any time we step out of those, then, almost right away the world opens up to us, and shows us the beauty and richness that is here.

When we know our history, and what’s going on around us, we also feel responsibility, which brings us right up to the kind of mature joy so needed in the world today. This is not something frivolous, like some enjoyments can be. It has another quality to it. And far from being a burden, it is a delight, a privilege to continue the work of our teachers; to live in this world with wisdom and compassion and generosity.

I think they say rejoicing is such an easy method because it puts us in touch with wonderful qualities, and helps those same qualities to wake up in us, without our having to do that work ourselves.

Rumi said:

We get to pick up the jewels,

while the real work is being done outside,

by someone digging in the ground…

The Bible expresses the same idea, when speaking of the grace that is freely offered:

I called you to the harvest,

others have tended the field,

now receive the fruits of that labor…

These are my own phrasing of them, but I think the meaning is there.

Rejoicing is only half-kiddingly called ‘a method for lazy people’, or for people without a lot of time for that reason.

They say celebration also has the effect of planting seeds in us, to do a similar action ourselves. They warn against ‘negative rejoicing for this same reason – we shouldn’t celebrate any harm or injury, or any offense.

While it’s true that rejoicing is easy to do, and that there are many opportunities for it, and that delighting in something special only takes a few moments, we shouldn’t underestimate its great value.

Personally, I know I need a lot of this kind of practice, to keep from getting too one sided – too serious and ponderous…. it works, most of the time, I’m happy to report!

When we’re really aware of what we’ve received from our teachers and ancestors, from friends and noble people, and from this whole magnificent world, and touch that truth, that stream can become a mighty river in us.

Joy can then be a strength that we cultivate in our lives, such that it can have far reaching benefits, supporting us in all the good things we would do.