Stay for the Joy

I’ve often said that most of us come to practice for the stress reduction, and stay for the joy.  Early on, I taught meditation to substance abusers in a recovery program that saw this as a way to reduce stress.  Those moments in meditation when our punishing thoughts quiet down bring a sense of relief that can motivate beginners enough to establish a practice.  In these early months, it’s all about relief from stress.

After a while, many begin to ask, “Why can’t I get better at meditating?” but that’s not so important.  Any session of meditation is going to be what it is – that’s its nature.  Our job is simply to be present with it.  What’s needed at this stage is to understand what we observe during meditation.

Buddhist practice is about letting go of states of mind that make us unhappy.  We train the mind with meditation to be able to recognize and stop feeding those mind states.  Basically, we’re learning to be kind to ourselves.  There is a fundamental link between kindness and happiness.  Wishing wellbeing is a positive state of mind powerful enough to supersede negative thoughts and attitudes that sap the joy out of life.  When asked to explain Buddhism, the Dalai Lama famously answered, “My religion is kindness.”

Those moments during meditation when the mind quiets down and stress falls away are pretty wonderful. 

Sessions with a lot of mental and emotional turmoil can actually be more valuable, though, because they highlight ways the mind torments us.  We “get better” at practice when we recognize this and take advantage of it, watching for those mind states and letting them go, often by re-directing our attention to kinder thoughts, or back to the sensations of breathing.

An attitude of kindness to ourselves, understanding that we’re well worth the effort involved with this practice, can lead to a life that gets steadily happier. This progress can be subtle.   So we need to be aware of times when we’re no longer following old habits, and celebrate the way our lives are becoming easier and more free from inner suffering, or dukkha. 

Experienced practitioners understand that freedom from suffering is highly desirable, but it may not seem very compelling to beginners.  It can be hard to imagine even an hour without the mind’s incessant torments.  Recently I had a stretch of more than a week without dukkha.  It took a day for me to recognize this extraordinary experience, and I accepted each succeeding day as a wondrous gift.  Even an hour of grief for a recent loss did not unbalance the underlying equanimity that prevailed during this period.  Freedom from dukkha doesn’t mean we experience nothing unpleasant, just that we don’t get stuck to it.   

This freedom is priceless.  I earnestly hope you keep practicing, and stay for the joy.


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