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!
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
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!
Transparent Woman, Howlet Press, 2007)
How to Make home-made “Almond Joy” and “Mounds” candy
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!