What, Me Happy?: Inclining the Mind Toward Joy
There is a beautiful description of mental inclination in some ancient texts. They compare it to mountain slopes. When the ground is sloped in a certain way, water flows effortlessly according to the direction of inclination. Similarly, when the mind is inclined in a certain way, thoughts and emotions happen effortlessly according to the nature of its inclination. If the mind is inclined toward joy, for example, then joyful thoughts and feelings tend to occur effortlessly.
This simple but critically important insight leads to an equally important practical implication, that the skillful way to train the mind is not to exert forceful control over the mind itself, but to change its inclination so that thoughts and emotions occur effortlessly in the direction one intends.
What, I Was Happy? I Didn’t Notice
For the mind to get familiar with joy, first it has to notice it. So we train it to perceive thin slices of joy. In life, many moments of joy abound, but they are easy to miss because they are usually fleeting and not super intense. In other words, they come in thin slices both in time and in space. Once the mind is trained to see them, it can, and naturally will, incline toward them.
The training is simple. It is simply to notice joy. Whenever there is any joy arising in our field of experience, even if it is merely a subtle hint of joy, simply notice that there is joy, that is all. That is the entire practice.
Noticing joy is like noticing blue cars (or cars of any color of your choosing) on the road. When you’re in traffic, blue cars pass you by all the time and, usually, you don’t notice them at all. But if you play a game of noticing blue cars, you’ll find that they are everywhere. There is joy to be found in many moments of our lives, though it may be subtle and fleeting. For example, with that pleasant feeling of warm water on the skin as we get into the shower, joy arises immediately, but we seldom notice it and it fades away in seconds. The practice is simply to notice when joy is there. The more you notice these thin slices of joy, the more they appear to be everywhere, because they have always been there. You just never noticed them before.
Attending to Joy
Once you begin to notice joy, the next step is to attend to joy. What is the difference? The difference is in the level of care. Imagine there is a sick child in your house. To notice the sick child is to simply know that there is a child and he is sick, that is all. That may or may not lead to further actions, but the act of noticing stops right there, at merely acquiring knowledge. Attending is different. To attend to a sick child means you take direct responsibility for his care and nurture. You feed him, you help him relieve his pain, you nurse him back to health, and so on. To attend takes you out of mere data acquisition into nurturing responsibility.
In the same way, noticing joy is very useful, but even more useful is attending to the joy. To often notice joy begins to familiarize the mind with joy. To attend to joy is to go one step further, which is to consolidate joy in the mind. The way to do that is with intensity of attention. All you need to do is to pay intense attention to joy, that is all.
Joy on Demand
Let’s try a short experiment. I’d like you to take three breaths. In the first breath, bring full attention to the process of breathing. In the second breath, calm the body. In the third breath, bring up joy. Give it a try now.
Were you able to bring up joy for the third breath? Some percentage of you reading this will be able to do it, because the first two breaths still the mind and calm the body, respectively, causing the joy of ease to arise. Those of you who have acquired the skill of seeing that joy will be able to hold it and amplify it. For those of you who are unable to do that, no need to fret—there is a very simple tool that’ll allow you to cause joy to arise. That simple tool is: smiling.
Our facial expressions reflect our emotional state. It turns out, however, that the causation flows both ways. Facial expressions reflect emotional states, and they can also affect emotional states.
Given this insight, we can effectively invite joy just by smiling a genuine smile. Smile as if you are really happy. When you do this, you may create changes in the autonomic nervous system relating to happiness, and from these changes, you may experience joy. This works for me almost every time. It doesn’t even need to be a full smile—a half smile works as well.
“Someday, I Will Die,” and Other Happy Thoughts
One of the biggest hindrances, possibly the biggest hindrance, to perceiving the very many moments of joy in daily life is a phenomenon called habituation, which for our purpose simply means we take things for granted. Imagine getting the promotion you always wanted. Initially, you’ll experience euphoria, but after a few days or weeks or months, your emotional reaction to your promotion can be summarized in one very descriptive word I
from teenagers: meh. Same thing with getting your dream car, or dream house, or dream job, or dream anything else. After some time, meh.
There are three ways to overcome habituation.
The first way is by deploying attention, for example, by attending to joy.
The second way to overcome habituation is with gratefulness. Gratefulness brings into proper perspective how precious each joyful experience actually is.
The third and, possibly, the most powerful way to overcome habituation is with a strong awareness of mortality.
Steve Jobs, in his moving Stanford commencement speech in 2005, which he delivered after learning that his own death was imminent, said:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Just Note Gone
There is a simple practice that can greatly enhance your ability to notice the absence of pain, though it isn’t only concerned with pain. “Just Note Gone” is a powerful way of practicing with any phenomenon, whereby we train the mind to notice that something previously experienced is no more. For example, at the end of a breath, notice that the breath is over. Gone. As a sound fades away, notice when it is over. Gone. At the end of a thought, notice that the thought is over. Gone. At the end of an experience of emotion—joy, anger, sadness, or anything else—notice it is over. Gone.
This practice is, without a doubt, one of the most important meditation practices of all time. Meditation master Shinzen Young said that if he were allowed to teach only one focus technique and no other, it would be this one. Here are the instructions for the informal practice of Just Note Gone, from Shinzen’s article “The Power of Gone.”
Do Not Expect Every Moment, Meditation, or Day to Be Joyful
The first reason is normal day-to-day variance in life conditions. Some days, you might be tired because you didn’t get enough sleep, or your back might be hurting, or you suddenly remember a fight you had with your spouse three days ago that you’re still fuming over, or you ate too much at dinner, or you’re stressed from work.
So it is easier to bring up joy on some days and harder on others. In any case, even if the difficulty persists for days, please do not think that your training is failing. It is simply a reflection of imperfect mind in the day-to-day variance in an imperfect world.
The second reason is sometimes terrible things happen. Emotional pain naturally occurs then, even for experienced meditators who can access joy on demand in less extreme circumstances. The pain can last for months. Under such circumstances, it is important to continue formal and informal meditation practice, not despite it being hard, but precisely because it is hard.
On the other hand, you may be surprised. When you practice inclining the mind toward joy, joy tends to happen, even when you least expect it. When the slope of the mind—to use that beautiful metaphor again—tilts toward joy, it becomes that much more likely to happen.
Daily Practice to Incline the Mind Toward Joy
First and foremost, notice joy. Cultivate the skill to perceive thin slices of joy, both in formal meditation and also in daily life. You do that by attending to joy. The more you attend to thin slices of joy, the more easily you can access them.
If you are a seasoned meditator, the Just Note Gone practice is especially important for you. It can greatly accelerate your meditative growth. If you are not a seasoned meditator, you should probably focus on the easier practices, such as noticing joy in the breath, but still, I recommend practicing Just Note Gone from time to time.
Eventually, your mind will be so strongly inclined that joy becomes quite effortless, both in meditation and in life.