“Joy is the Way” (with poem and recipe)

My own relationship with joy began the year I gave up “complaining” for Lent.

I had been reading the work of the mindfulness teacher, Pema Chodron, who returns again and again to the principle that our habits of thinking and responding have far more to do with how we experience ourselves and our lives than do our external circumstances. Rather than taking her word for it, though, Pema Chodron suggests that we  identify even one, simple habit of thought or behavior, then observe the results when we experiment with giving it up for awhile.

I was aware that, when someone asked me, “How are you?” my habit was to always include in the answer something about how stressed/overworked/worried/irritated I was, or some other kind of statement expressing dissatisfaction. So I decided to experiment with giving up “complaining” (in my thoughts and in my words, both) for the 40 days of Lent, just to see what I would learn.

And what I found was that in not allowing myself a negative (or even “mixed-feelings”) answer to “How are you?” I had to pay attention to what else it was like to be me other than stressed/worried/overworked/irritated at any given moment, simply in order to have something else to say! This in turn began to make me more attentive to the positive qualities and experiences potentially present (I began to realize) in every moment of life: the beauty of the movement of clouds in the sky, the pleasure of a warm bowl of soup, the joy of loving and being loved, the humor in a situation, the blessing of having meaningful work to do.

Surprisingly quickly, I began to find that by simply breaking my habit of “pushing the refresh button” on the negative story-telling of my thoughts and words, I was beginning to recognize and experience the joy (and capacity for more joy) that was also part of me, but that I had no idea was also so present and possible. I also began to understand directly what I had understood in theory only before then: that “happiness” is not at all the same as “joy.”

The search for “happiness” is basically a self-centered one, which focuses on getting what we think we want from others and from the external environment, and by eliminating what we don’t want. It’s a quest that is bound to be repeatedly disappointing, since change (and therefore loss) is the nature of life. But since “joy” is about seeing and connecting deeply with the love, goodness and beauty that is always already here, in all the forms it already takes, no matter what else is present, joy does not depend on anything in our lives being different than they are: on having more money, or less pain, or a nicer boss, or anything. Joy is fully available at every moment of however-things-are, including being available in the very midst of pain and struggle, simply by opening our eyes and hearts to the infinite richness of a world that is always available to nourish us, and which never disappoints. As Pema Chodron says (I love this:), “Joy is happiness without the hangover.”

When a newcomer comes to AA, he or she is often greeted with a welcome which includes the humorous invitation to “Try us for ninety days, and if at the end of that you don’t like what you find here, we’ll be glad to refund your misery!”

I think of this greeting when I think of my own 40-day experiment with giving up a habit, and of how what I discovered relieved me of the “misery” I hadn’t realized was of my own making and re-making in the first place.

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer,” wrote Albert Camus, “And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

And what is that “invincible summer” that is stronger than pain, than struggle? I suggest its name is “joy.”

So as we enter a new year, instead of setting a “New Year’s Resolution” (be honest: how often has the “resolution” approach worked for you in the past anyway?), consider identifying a habit of your own that keeps you stuck in a familiar experience of yourself, then giving it up for awhile, as a “New Year’s Experiment.” Unlike a “resolution,” the only way an experiment can fail is by not doing the experiment!

What do you have to lose except maybe something you may be be happy (make that “joyous”) to live without?

Wishing you all a joyous 2016!

                                                 ***


                                   Joy

I was so hungry!

& my hunger longed for the bite-sized Joy

in my pocket, its luscious crush in my teeth,

almond soul from the brown glaze

sweetly releasing.

 

But my plans!

To hike the length of the trail,

then have my Joy, when I’ve earned it.

 

But my Joy wouldn’t let me loose

from the lot undevoured.

Whispered, my hunger,

Have it now, let it sustain you.

 

                                    Joy’s not the end,

                                    Joy’s the way!

 

                                                            (Donna Henderson,

                                                           Transparent Woman, Howlet Press, 2007)

 

                                                —

 

How to Make home-made “Almond Joy” and “Mounds” candy

 Ingredients:

 1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, lightly packed

3 level tablespoons unrefined virgin coconut oil (this is the coconut oil that actually smells like a coconut).

   2 tablespoons honey

   1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

   10-11 roasted and unsalted almonds (if using)

   ⅛ teaspoon kosher or sea salt

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (chips or chopped or broken in to small pieces if you’re using a bar)

In a food processor, process the shredded coconut, coconut oil, honey, vanilla extract, and salt until it forms a thick paste, about 2-3 minutes.

Test the coconut mixture to see if it holds together by squeezing a small amount in your palm. It should hold together nicely. If it doesn’t, then continue to process the mixture for 1 to 2 more minutes.

Line a small baking sheet (one that can fit in your freezer) with wax paper or baking parchment.

Using a tablespoon, (the tablespoon helps to keep the bars uniform in size) scoop out and gently press down the coconut mixture into the measuring spoon. You want a fairly level scoop here.

Drop the spoonsful of mixture onto the lined baking sheet and then press and mold the balls into a rectangle shape (you know the one!). You can press and mold them on the baking sheet or in the palm of your hand, whatever is easier for you.

Press an almond on top of the coconut rectangles to make an “Almond Joy” or leave as is to make a “Mounds” bar.

Place the coconut rectangles in the freezer for 15 to 30 minutes, or until solid.

Once the coconut bars are frozen, it’s time to melt the chocolate. Meanwhile, keep the coconut bars in the freezer until you have melted your chocolate—they need to be dipped frozen.

Place the chocolate pieces or chocolate chips into a heatproof bowl (steel or heatproof glass). Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water, (make sure that the bowl doesn’t touch the water) and melt the chocolate, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until melted and smooth. Immediately remove the melted chocolate from the heat and give it a stir with a spatula.

When the chocolate is melted, take out the frozen bars.

Using a toothpick stuck in the bar, or a fork underneath (I recommend the fork) dip the bar quickly into and out of the melted chocolate making sure that the whole bar gets covered with chocolate.

Lift the bar out and tap off any excess chocolate. Return the chocolate covered bar to the parchment paper and gently remove the toothpick from the bar, if using. Repeat the process with the other remaining bars.

Once all of the bars have been dipped into the chocolate, place them in the freezer for a few minutes to set.

Store the bars in the refrigerator in an airtight container. These bars should keep for several days, if they last that long!

 

 

 

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Books That Have Changed Our Lives

“The book I read when I was 12, maybe,” writes Kathy Kelsay, “was The Diary of Anne Frank. I know that is widely read, but important to understand someone caught in the middle of war. It was important, too, for me to read then because of sharing a time of life with her. After the book ended I felt close enough to her to grieve her loss.”

Kathy’s contribution was the first I received in response to my November call-for-titles of “books that have changed our lives,” and I love the way her selection and comments reminds us that stories themselves, whether biographical or fictional, are such a powerful way to expand our understanding and deepen our empathy. How else can we know what it is to be someone other than ourselves than by the stories of others’ lives?

It has been so fun for me, as the entries have come in, to learn what books have been meaningful to some of us: books that have helped to shape us ethically and morally; books that have helped us to understand the lives of people very different from ourselves; books that have given us comfort in times of loss; books that have helped us out of some confusion or through some transition; books that have helped us find our way out of dis-ease and into better physical health and balance.

This column, then, is a kind of sampler (in no particular order) of the contributions and comments that I received from my South Wasco County friends and neighbors.

For Roseann McElheran, fiction and non-fiction stories themselves “are therapy: it is the way they are written that makes me think about something I have not considered, or think about things in a new way.” Three of the books that have had an impact on her in one of these ways (in the way they are written, and/or the subject of the stories) include The Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams, by Nasdijj (“he writes like he speaks… or thinks. Very powerful.”), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (“Written from an autistic person’s point of view. I read it at a time when I was working with autistic children, and it helped me immensely.”), In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick (“The research on starvation was an eye opener.”) and Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton , by Edward Rice (“a fascinating person, it is hard to imagine how much he packed into one life. I didn’t get through a single chapter without having to look up a word.”)

From Elsa Milne: “The book that I really appreciated reading was The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. So many of us live in the future and have so much anxiety in our lives because of what can happen or what might happen and we forget to live in the now. We forget to appreciate what’s right in front of us, and all that is good in our lives. This book allowed me to learn and recognize when I am doing that. It’s helped me learn how to refocus and come back to the ‘now’ and deal with what’s in front of me instead of trying to control what has not happened yet.

Rhonda Pearce wrote that “My favorite life changing book is one my daughter Ashley gave me, called Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. It’s a daily devotional book that reminds me daily of God’s blessings.”

After her husband died, Kathy Barnett found “great comfort for every day” in the book, Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman.

From a contributor who asked to remain Anonymous (in keeping with the spirit of A.A. membership): “The book I would offer is Alcoholics Anonymous, by AA World Services. This book saved my life and countless others’ lives from the progressive illness of alcoholism. It is a guide for living that would benefit everyone, not only alcoholics, as it provides key actions a person can take to live a life based on spiritual principles. Also, you may let your readers know that there are two local AA meetings, one on Tuesday evenings at 7:00PM, at Molly B’s in Tygh Valley, and the other at 7:00PM on Thursdays in Maupin at the Community Church.”

For Judy White, Where Ever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn “helped me realize that I needed to face the facts that I am the one to make a difference in my own life, regardless of what difficulties or obstacles came my way. I had choices. I could choose the positive outlook in any situation and find joy. It is all in how we look at the hard stuff, turn right or left and move forward.”

In the 1970s, Carol Jones took to heart a similar message in Dr. Maxwell Maltz’ widely-read book at the time, Psycho-Cybernetics. “He taught that making goals and following through increases our self-esteem,” rather than depending on others to do that for us.

 Sharon DeHart, P.A. contributed a number of titles, of which she writes that “these are my most favorite life changing books–all of these I read before I became a PA and have continued to use them since.” Sharon’s list includes Simple Abundance, A Daybood of Comfort and Joy, by Sarah Ban Breathnach (“Just a good common sense book of day to day stories, thoughts and devotions.” ), Screaming to be Heard, Hormonal Connections Women Suspect…and Doctors Ignore, by Elizabeth Lee Vliet, MD (“This book was the first book I read when starting through menopause that allowed me to realize ‘it is OK.’”), The Wisdom of Menopause, Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing During the Change, by Christiane Northrup, MD (“This was the second book I read to help me understand and get through menopause without feeling like I was losing my mind.”) and Prescription for Nutritional Healing, James F. Balch, MD & Phyllis A. Balch, CNC (“When a physician ordered diet attempted to ruin my life and made me crazy, using this book and its ability to learn how certain vitamins/foods, etc. worked, helped me put myself back together. I have recommended this book to patients.”)

Several readers contributed The Bible as a book of central significance in their lives. For Kathie Richey, “The difference that it has made to me personally is that I live in total peace and not in fear in this unstable world and that all my sins, past, present and future has been forgiven thru Jesus Christ, My Lord and Savior.” Merle Hlavka shared the reflection that “Having been introduced to many of our religions both as a child and young adult, I have come to recognize the Bible as an important guide to social mores, interaction and a solid moral map for both individuals and societies. While I do not cling to a single organized religion, I believe that the Good Book is indeed fundamental to our daily interaction not only with each other, but also international societies.” And Anna Nolen offered that “This book promises a timeless path to maintain balance through tragedies and triumphs. The best part for me is my God judges the intentions of my heart while man judges success and failures.”

 Medy Gantz wrote that two titles have had a particularly powerful impact on her recently. On The Gift of Imperfection by Brené Brown, Medy writes, “This is a book about self-compassion and accepting our imperfect self without judgment. We cannot be compassionate to others if we feel flawed and unworthy. The author encourages us to embrace who we are versus who we think we are supposed to be.” Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman has been another significant book to Medy. “It was the first book I read that explained our raw emotions so well and how important it is to learn how and why to control them. Emotional Intelligence can be as important as IQ. Self-discipline and empathy add up to another way to be smart. Great book!

And finally, Diana McElheran likes the way “I Can Do It,” by Louise L. Hay “uses positive affirmations to change what you attract into your life. It covers health, forgiveness, prosperity, creativity, relationships, job success, stress-free living and self-esteem. One area it has helped me was to change from ‘poverty thinking’ to ‘prosperity thinking.”

Thanks again so much to everyone who contributed titles to this list! In this season in which we all welcome and celebrate the return of the light and the promises of new life it brings, may this list be a gift to all.