Thoughts from Annie
Cultivating Joy in the Midst of Darkness
by Julia Jarvis
I’ll never forget the time when I felt pure joy.
It was 1965. I was 7 years old. and had spent most of my allowance on buying my second record, “The Sound of Music.” Guess what my first record was?
It was a sunny warm day and yet I was inside, which was very unusual for me. I remember putting the record on our record player and suddenly feeling like I was right back in the movie theater watching Maria Von Trapp running on the mountain meadows singing “The Hills are Alive.” But instead of watching Julie Andrews dancing and singing, it was ME! I was Maria Von Trapp.
After several days of listening to the record over and over again and singing (every word) and dancing all around our living room, Joy had filled my soul with each dance, with each song. I felt alive and so happy. I even cut my long hair short to try and look like Julie Andrews.
Until….my two brothers absolutely got sick of it. And they ended my joy. I’m not quite sure how they did it. Something about sitting on me until I cried “uncle” and making me promise I would not play the album anymore. I honestly don’t remember. Something in me got deflated, frozen and even traumatized because something about my expressing my joy was annoying and insufferable.
Suffering and Joy are inter-are
We can touch joy even in the midst of suffering, and I wish I could have learned this in my early years of practice. Maybe I did and I couldn’t hear it yet.
Many teachers of suffering have taught us and shown us the way to touch joy in the darkness. The Buddha wrote a poem about it:
Live in joy. in love. Even among those who hate.
Live in joy, in health. Even among the afflicted.
Live in joy, in peace. Even among the troubled.
Look within. Be still. Free from fear and attachment,Know the sweet joy of the way.
The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has seen a lot of suffering and has had many decades of practice and teaching. He wrote this poem after the bombing of Ben Tre, a city of 300,000 people in Vietnam. An American military man told Thich Nhat Hanh that he had to destroy the town to save it.
I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm—
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me
Victor Frankl, who survived the concentration camps during WW2, wrote in his book, “Man Search for Meaning” about a day he was in the trenches and was “struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying.” He imagined that he was speaking with his wife from whom he had been separated.
While Frankl was conversing with his wife in this way, he had a spiritual experience of beauty. He said:
“I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ – and the light shineth in the darkness.”
This is Happiness
Niall Williams wrote in his novel, This is Happiness:
“A couple moved to a rural farming community and were welcomed in particular by older people. One of their first welcomers was Michael Dooley, a silver-haired farmer, who into his 80’s pedaled still his bicycle into the village.
“Michael seemed to be working on the land all day every day, into the fall of darkness and beyond and never complained. I asked him if he took a holiday.
‘A holiday?’ He looked at me like the innocent I was. ‘I mean, what do you do to be happy?’
“The questions was a novelty to him and he considered it from all sides before answering.
“’When I want a holiday, he said at last, ‘I go over the road as far as the meadow. I go in there, take off my jacket, and lay down on it. I watch the world turning for a bit, with me still in it.’”
So how can we cultivate and grow our garden of joy in the midst of these dark times?
Breath in the Body
There are 16 exercises the buddha discovered on mindful breathing called the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing. This practice begins finding the breath in the body.
When the Buddha’s disciples asked him, “What is the way to develop and practice continuously the method of Full Awareness of Breathing so that the practice will be rewarding and offer great benefit?”
He answered, “It is like this, bhikkhus: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, sits stably in the lotus position, holding his or her body quite straight, and practices like this: Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
“Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.
“Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.
“Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
“Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
“Once we are more connected to our body, to the present moment, mindfulness can help us recognize the many conditions of joy are happiness are right here.”
Cultivating joy with the breath
The buddha said it is possible to be happy in the present moment no matter what is going on.
Nivrana is not a place you go. Nirvana is not the future. Nirvana is the nature of reality as it is. We are in nirvana.
‘Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.’
‘Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy.’ He or she practices like this.
So, keep practicing these skills of taking that sacred pause every day and remembering right now: what is bringing me joy?
Do this 3-5 times a day
Because our brains are Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive, we need to really practice taking in the good. It’s like building a campfire:
build the fire (take in the good)
Enlarge it—add wood to it
Absorb it—sit in front of it and feel the warmth and see the beauty
Link it—as you are soaking in this goodness, recall an unpleasant memory and see if you can link it to the goodness you are experiencing. Right now.
When did you stop dancing?
Angeles Arrien, the anthropologist and spiritual teacher, says:
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?”
Several years ago, I led a women’s retreat on Joy. And I decided to play some of my favorite songs from “The Sound of Music” and had everyone dance and sing as loud as they wanted to. I didn’t know how I would be and what came alive was my 7-year-old actress, playing Maria Von Trapp and I, once again felt that pure joy and felt supported and held by 30 other women singing and dancing.