Sally Kempton

Doorways to the Infinite

Joy Story

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Jon had his life changed by hearing the teaching “Joy is within you.” At the time, he was a journalist whose favorite form of humor was cynical irony, and he had an ingrained distrust of words like joy and bliss. If you asked him “Have you ever been happy?” he would have thought of a few great high school basketball games, and a rave he went to tripping on Ecstasy in 1993, and then he would probably have shrugged and said something edgy like, “Only idiots are happy.” One day, in the yoga class he took because his doctor had told him it would be good for stress, the teacher described a posture by saying that it brought forth the innate bliss in the heart. “Innate bliss?” Jon thought. “Not in my heart.” Then the teacher started to read from the writings of an Indian guru: “What we are looking for in everything is joy, ecstasy. But ecstasy is within you. Look for it in your own heart.

Since he was there in the posture, with nothing much else to do anyway, Jon decided to bring his reporter’s investigative skills to bear on the teacher’s proposition. He turned his attention around, with the idea that he’d look inside and see if what the teacher said had any possible basis in reality. He literally aimed his attention into the place where he thought the heart was, and even tried to visualize the pumping muscle in his chest.

To Jon’s surprise, when he focused inside like that, something shifted. He felt a little current, a trickle of good feeling. The feeling expanded into radiating warmth. Suddenly, he was ecstatic. And what was even more interesting, he knew exactly what ecstasy was, even though he’d never experienced it before. It turns out that joy is something that even the most hardened pessimist can recognize when he sees it.

Jon’s happiness lasted all day. It didn’t actually stop when he went to sleep. “Yoga bliss,” someone said to him when he described it.

“No, it was something inside me,” said Jon. “It was mine.”


There are certain core teachings that can forever shift the way you see the world. ‘Joy is within you’ is one of them. Even if you hear it from a purely psycho-physical point of view, if you really hear it, it’s going to help you recognize one of the most empowering truths there is: that it is actually possible to feel happy regardless of how the world is treating you, regardless of how horrible your childhood was, regardless of the fact that all your friends are doing better than you. You can even, this teaching implies, be happy when you fail at something or when you’re sick. That understanding can have immediate and far-reaching implications. It can help you become less reactive, for one thing. It can get you to start developing a practice, or at the very least to think about changing your diet, or working on your attitude.

But as with all the great truths, your understanding of what it means to say that joy is inside you is crucial. If you don’t understand it deeply, you’re likely to mistake superficial good feeling for joy. Or you might also start to attach your joy to the circumstances that trigger it, like the evening of chanting with Krishna Das, or the weekends when you get to hang out with a particular teacher or to romantic moments with your boyfriend, or even to jogging or basketball. Then you become an addict of a particular practice or person or situation. At another level, you might make the mistake that I made for years, and become a sort of bliss-fascist, expecting yourself to be in a ‘good’ state all the time, and subtly beating yourself up when you aren’t.


So, what are we really talking about when we talk about the inner joy, and how are we supposed to approach it? In Sanskrit, there are basically four different words for happiness-sukha, santosha, mudita, and ananda. Each of these points to a different level of happiness. Together, they can actually constitute a path that leads us to the kind of happiness that really can’t be shaken.

The word for ordinary happiness – the kind of happiness that comes from pleasant experiences – is sukha. Sukha means ease, enjoyment, comfort-literally, ‘good experience.” It is often translated into English as ‘pleasure.’ Sukha is the happiness we feel when we’re firmly inside our comfort zone. I live on the California coast and there are days when I wake up in the morning and look out the window and feel, well, spontaneously happy. That particular form of happiness is less likely to be present when I’m, say, circling the San Jose airport trying to find a way into the long-term parking zone so I can make my plane. The point here, as every inner tradition will tell you, is that sukha, joy-as-pleasure, is basically unreliable. Any state that depends on things going our way can disappear in an eye blink the minute conditions change. There’s a famous story by Katherine Mansfield which perfectly describes this quality in ordinary happiness. A young wife is giving a party. As she surveys the scene she has created, she congratulates herself because everything feels perfect  -her house, the wine, the mix of guests, her nice husband pouring drinks for everyone. “This is bliss,” she says to herself. “This is happiness.” Then she notices her husband whispering in the ear of one of the woman guests, and realizes that he is making an assignation with the woman. Suddenly, her happiness is transformed into an agony of loss.

The story is, of course, a profound yogic parable, an illustration of why the yogic texts make such a point of warning us about the fleeting quality of ordinary happiness. Ordinary happiness – sukha – is inseparably linked with its opposite – dukha, or suffering. In fact, the Sanskrit compound word sukha-dukha is classically used as a synonym for everything that is problematic about life inside the cage of ego. The pain-pleasure dichotomy is one of the basic dvandas, the pairs of opposites that plague our lives as long as we’re living out of duality-consciousness, the feeling of being separate from others and the world. Like hot and cold, birth and death, and praise and blame, sukha and dukha inevitably follow each other, simply because when our well-being depends on external conditions, it will always come and go. This is the problem the Buddha noticed, the problem that led him to formulate the first noble truth.


The simple yogic antidote to this problem – the endless unrewarding chase after the mirage of permanent pleasure – is to go to the next level, and begin to cultivate santosha, which the yogic texts translate as contentment. In the Yoga Sutra, santosha is considered an essential practice, because it is the fastest way there is to still the agitation that comes from frustration, discomfort, and unsatisfied desire. Santosha carries a connotation of fullness and satisfaction. Implicit in santosha is the idea of being OK with what you have, accepting what you are, without feeling that you need anything extra to make you happy. Hard core yoga texts like Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra, actually associate santosha with the spirit of renunciation. In his view, we can only feel real contentment when we are willing to give up striving for what is out of reach, expecting more of life than it can give us, and letting go of the mental patterns that destroy our satisfaction – like comparing our skills, character, possessions, and inner attainments to others.

I recently heard from a friend of mine who was laid off work 6 months ago and has yet to find a job. Practicing santosha is a big part of his strategy for salvaging his inner state. One way he does this is to keep reminding himself to accept things as they are. “I make the calls,” he told me. “I send the emails. I make the contacts. Then I turn my attention inside, and I remind myself that the universe will always give me what I need. Once I’ve done that, then my mind can be calm about it. There’s a big trust element here. Sometimes I sit and breathe in ‘Trust’ and breathe out ‘Trust.’


Practicing santosha calms the mind, and when we calm the mind, there’s a good chance that the next level of happiness – mudita – will begin to sneak through. Mudita is often translated as joyfulness. In English, the closest translation of mudita would be spiritual happiness. Mudita in its purest form is the joy that Jon experienced-the joy that comes out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, like a message from our deeper self, and that actually has the power to change our state in an instance. Implicit in joy is a whole host of feelings like gratitude, exaltation, natural equanimity, a capacity to see beauty even in things we don’t ordinarily find beautiful, like sidewalk litter and fast-food hamburgers. Mudita can be cultivated, and much of spiritual practice is aimed at generating mudita, joyfulness. In one yoga studio I know, the attendance at the weekly chanting sessions is higher than at any other program. Why? Because chanting generates mudita. So do certain yoga postures, and certain meditation practices, like mantra repetition, and focusing on enlightened beings. The devotional traditions, like bhakti yoga and Sufism specialize in the art of cultivating mudita, which can become a powerful bridge into even subtler and more refined states of awareness.


When mudita, joyfulness, deepens until it becomes our entire field of experience, we find ourselves in touch with the most profound level of joy, ananda. Ananda is usually translated as bliss, but in my opinion, the English word bliss is much too light weight to convey what ananda really is. Ananda is ecstasy, rapture, a joy that wells up on its own, from the very depths of the universe, and connects you instantly to the Vastness of pure being. Ananda, in other words, is divine power in the form of happiness. When you touch it, you know it, and you also know that you’ve touched the deepest level of reality.

According to the great non-dual philosophers of the Upanishads and the Shaiva and Shakta tantras, ananda is actually God. My teacher used to say that when you feel ecstasy surging through your veins, you should know that you are experiencing God. You can find this same idea in Sufi poetry, in the Kaballah, and running like a rich vein through the writings of Christian mystics. CS Lewis, the English mystic, called his spiritual autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy’ because all his experiences of God’s presence were experiences of absolute happiness. That’s why cultivating joy is such a direct path to inner experience: because it is not only a means, not only a feeling – it is the goal itself.


This insight, to me, is the real clue, the secret of how to follow the path of joy. Begin by taking what these great teachers say seriously. Try out their understanding that joy is actually present, inherent in you and in the world around you. Then look for the practices and attitudes that can help you open yourself up to it. Joy can arrive on your doorstep spontaneously, as it did to Jon. But it can also be approached step by step, through a combination of practice and self-inquiry. That’s basically what Jon has learned to do. His initial state of unbidden joy didn’t last-such states rarely do. A few days later he found himself back in his ‘normal’ state of mild depression and anxiety leavened with flashes of humor, and soon the experience of joy was more a memory than a reality.

But he couldn’t forget the experience, and he wasn’t willing to dismiss it as a fluke. So little by little, he started to carve out a path for himself. He read Sufi poetry. He started a meditation practice. But the real shift he made was to choose to believe that his experience of joy came from a deeper level of reality than the difficulties, the pain, and the general dysfunction that he saw in his own mind, on TV, and in the streets of his city. He developed a self-inquiry process that goes something like this: “Ok, I’m choosing to believe that I’ve got joy inside. But I don’t feel it right now. So what can I do about that? What part of my attitude do I need to change? What practice can I do that might help trigger that joy?”

Jon discovered, as most of us do in time, that it doesn’t always work to approach joy frontally, demandingly. Gurumayi Chidvilasanda once compared joy to a butterfly that will come and sit on your hand, but which you can never grasp or hold. Instead of trying to ‘get’ joy, we do better to find practices and attitudes that attract it. Most of the clues we get from our teachers about how to work with the mind are actually practices for attracting joy. Loving kindness practice, remembering to be grateful to yourself and others for every little boon and even for difficulties, consciously letting go of grudges-all these are practices for uncovering joy, because they all help to displace the sludge that builds up around the heart and keeps joy away. Even more important is the practice of noticing the stories you’re telling yourself, learning how to monitor when your thoughts are creating painful inner states, and how to use the creative power of your own mind to create inner states that conduce to joy. So, taking it step by step, the process of cultivating joy could look something like this. It begins with the simple understanding that joy is real, and then with the decision, the choice, to tune your mind and heart so that they are open enough to feel it. Depending on your mood and state, you might need to practice some form of santosha, which for me means noticing the thoughts and feelings, anxieties or desires that are currently agitating my body and mind, and then doing what I have to do to let go of whatever resistance to my current reality is causing the agitation. The next step is some form of mudita practice-chanting, or prayer, or going directly into the heart center and letting the energy there expand, meditating with a loving image or visualization, offering prayers for the well being of others, remembering a beloved teacher, or any of countless others.

Remembering a Moment of Joy

In the tantric texts, however, there’s one core practice, what I call a ‘cut to the chase practice’, that lies at the heart of all of the above. It can be perfected until it actually will shift your state in a very short time. It’s very simple and it can be done anywhere – in the car, washing the dishes, or even while you’re reading this article.

Close your eyes and remember a time when you felt really happy. Then take yourself into the moment. See if you can get a feeling – sense of yourself in the situation. Perhaps you do this visually-by remembering where you were, what you wore, who was present. Perhaps you do it by invoking the feeling-asking yourself “What did that happiness feel like?” and then waiting until the feeling-sense begins to make itself present in your body. Stick with it until you actually feel the happiness -even if it’s in a very mild form.

Then remove the memory of the scene or situation, and just feel the feeling. Find the place in your body where the feeling is centered. Then expand the feeling until it fills your body. If you’re very visual, it might help if you give the feeling a color -a warm color, like gold, or pink. Or you might work with the breath, breathing into the feeling and letting it expand on the exhalation. Sit with the feeling of happiness. See if you can hold it. See if, for this moment, you can let that feeling of happiness become your primary feeling. Remember: this is a glimpse, however small, of your true reality.