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The Sweetness of Life: Joy as a Practice

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A dear friend recently remarked to me that he doesn't experience joy. I listened to his sadness without saying much -- just listening from my heart. But his comment got me thinking about joy in general -- what allows us to feel it and what creates a joyful life. As my friend shared more, I realized that what he was struggling with was an ability to notice and appreciate the moments in his life that were in fact enJOYable. Unfortunately, the capacity to appreciate joy is compromised when we need it most -- when we are sad. It doesn't help much to look at what is good when we feel bad.

Joy is something that we must cultivate and strengthen when things are going okay. What creates joy is the capacity -- and choice -- to consciously take note of and pause in the face of the good things in life, the little moments of joy that are happening right under our nose.

Imagine that the whole surface of the earth were covered in water. Now drop a single inner tube into all of that water. Now imagine that a single dolphin is swimming under all those millions of miles of water, a dolphin who has one shot to rise up to the surface of the water. The chances of being born, of becoming a living being, I have been told are equivalent to the chances of that dolphin poking his head up inside that single inner tube on his first and only try.

The other day I was out with my daughter. The sun was shining and we were sitting on a bench together just enJOYing the early summer warmth and each other's company, talking about nothing in particular. There was nowhere we needed to be and nothing we needed to accomplish. We could simply BE together. I took a breath, gave my daughter the biggest squeeze, and told her how much I love her. I paused and took a purposeful breath, holding in my heart the overwhelming joy and gratitude and joy in that simple moment.

We are trained to believe that joy is a result of the big and dramatic things that happen to us in life. We think that events like winning the lottery, scoring a big job, getting married or having a baby are what create joy, and so we search continually for the larger than life experiences. Positive firework-size events are fantastic for sure, but in truth, when you talk to people down the line after such big events have come and gone, you discover that most have returned to the state that they were in before the event occurred. Big events, no matter how spectacular, don't generate a lasting happiness, don't generate joy. What allows us to experience joy is something altogether different. Joy is a result of the choice to actively stop (even if just for a moment) and hold in our awareness the small and lovely things that we get to live -- to pause and realize that we are indeed those dolphins who amazingly surfaced inside the inner tube.

Some people worry that pausing or pulling out to mark moments of joy will somehow tarnish or interrupt the joy, and take them away from the experience that they are living. But in truth, stopping to notice how happy we are in a moment, how blessed we are to get to experience the small sweetnesses of life, actually intensifies the experience of joy. The purposeful acknowledgment of joy is indeed joy itself. And, when we return to re-enter the experience that we are living, the experience feels that much more remarkable -- and unfathomable in its luckiness.

My heart breaks for my friend who is swallowed up in darkness just now. He cannot see, much less stop to mark the incredible way the sun is hitting the leaves or the way his child's eyes are smiling at him. For those of us who are okay, however, the time is now, here -- while we are okay -- to make the choice to notice and hold, even if just for an instant, how lucky we are that we get to experience something good, that we get to experience at all. To be able to live a moment of joy is a miracle that deserves our attention. It is the accumulation of these small and lovely noticings, these joyful pauses, that at the end of the day results in a truly joyful life.

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