Welcome to the last session of the Engaged Mindfulness Meditation group talk series. For a quick recap, the first two sessions focused on cultivating courage – building the foundation of a mindfulness practice. The next four weeks focused on cultivating compassion – strengthening our capacity to turn toward suffering, our own and others. We relied on mindfulness to provide us stability and safety as we increased our willingness to not turn away but be face to face with the pain and suffering that exists within and without. These last two weeks focused on cultivating connection – growing awareness of our interconnectedness through practicing gratitude, generosity and joy.
This meditation weaves together several of the practices. It begins with settling and anchoring. Then brings one through a mindful check-in with the body, mind and heart. Then it brings together gratitude and lovingkindness practice.
The focus of this session is about joy – sharing our joy with others as well as practicing sympathetic joy. Sympathetic joy is the act of feeling happiness for someone’s success or good fortune. We can delight in someone else’s joy. We can do this even if we are not feeling our own joy. Tuere Sala, guiding teacher of the Seattle Meditation Society, calls this borrowing joy.
When I was a teacher in Massachusetts I worked alongside a veteran teacher, Jo-Ellen. Her mantra was “Choose Joy!” She embodied this mantra so much so that every gift she ever gave anyone had this mantra printed or sewn on it. She was able to bring her capacity for joy into her relationships with students, which created a positive and inspiring classroom community. Students were able to not only feel happy about their achievements but were able to take delight in their peers’ successes. She also brought this into her mentorship of new teachers. I always admired her for this and wondered why I could not embody it like her.
At that time, I was not practicing mindfulness meditation (although I wish I had). Once I began practicing mindfulness and studying about brain plasticity, I not only realized how wise Jo-Ellen was, but why it was challenging for me to choose joy. I also learned ways to cultivate my capacity for joy.
Why it is hard sometimes to choose joy? Our evolutionary brain has a negativity bias. For centuries we have trained the brain to scan for danger, physical threats, etc. This is not as helpful now that we are not running away from saber-toothed tigers, even though our bodies may react as if we were. This is why we experience anxiety and stress. Our bodies are reacting to a perceived threat even if there is no physical danger. Our brains tend to go toward the negative more easily. Dr. Rick Hanson describes negative experiences as Velcro to the brain whereas positive experiences are like Teflon.
There is good news! We can counteract evolution’s negativity bias by training our minds to turn toward moments of well-being and joy. In essence, we can gladden the mind by rewiring the neural circuitry in our brains, hence brain plasticity. One way to do this is through mindfulness practice.
Dr. Shauna Shapiro, professor and international expert on mindfulness and self-compassion, shares, “The magic of mindfulness is that it not only aids us in difficult times, but it also magnifies life’s inherent joy.”
We can prime the mind for joy by applying the 3 pillars of mindfulness we learned in session 1: intention, attention and attitude. The following description can be used as a quick daily practice or a longer practice. This is based on Dr. Rick Hanson’s work on growing the good. I like to call it the savoring practice. It only needs to take 30 seconds.
- Intention: Have the intention to focus on an ordinary moment that brings you joy or happiness. It can be small like your first sip of coffee or your dog greeting you at the door. The other evening I did this practice while watching my partner cook our dinner. Looking at all the ingredients laid out filled me with excitement. So either focus on this moment if it brings smile to your face or recall a recent moment.
- Attention: Now focus or dwell on this experience for 20 – 30 seconds. This is where we install or integrate the positive experience into our nervous system and neural circuitry.
- Attitude: As we are attending to this experience, we do so with kindness and curiosity, allowing all our senses to embrace this experience. Hence, we are savoring this positive experience.
Overtime, our brains begin to tilt toward the positive. One can think of a gas gauge. When we are closer to empty, this is the negative tilt. As we fill up the tank by savoring moments of positive experience, our gauge moves toward full. Another common way to explain this is with the proverbial phrase is the glass half full or half empty.
Sounds easy, just Choose Joy, right? Well, that negativity bias can be quite alluring. It is important that we identify thoughts patterns that perpetuate this bias. We can do this through mindfulness practice as we practiced in the the second and fourth sessions.
There are three thought patterns that are helpful to uncover because what we practice grows stronger.
“If only mind” – This type of thinking uncovers a belief that something is missing in our lives, preventing our happiness. It may also uncover a sense that we never have enough. If only I had gone to that event, I would have gotten the job. If only I lost 10 lbs, I would finally be happy. My late grandmother was notorious for this type of thinking. Her version was “when x, then life is settled.” She would say things like, “When you get that job, then everything will be great.” This thinking not only keeps out of the moment, but it keeps us from the joy of the moment, from experiencing happiness in the here and now.
“The comparing mind” – This thought pattern is common and can be subtle too. It reveals an envy or jealousy of another because they have what we want. Why does she get to have success so easily, but I have to struggle? Social media perpetuates this harmful thought pattern, that we are never enough.
“Foreboding joy” – Brene Brown talks about this in her research on vulnerability and shame. This thought pattern is about dress rehearsing tragedy. For example, we are soon to go on vacation and instead of delighting in the excitement, one becomes afraid of missing the flight or someone getting sick. All attention is on what could go wrong rather than what is going right at the moment. This type of thinking sucks the joy out of the moment.
To bring this full circle to the first session, Brene Brown explains, “The foundation of courage is vulnerability – the ability to navigate uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure. It takes courage to open ourselves up to joy.”
The benefits of cultivating a capacity for joy are worth the time it takes to practice. We all can embody joy like my former colleague, Jo-Ellen. When we open to the truth that happiness and joy are not limited commodities, we begin to trust our inner abundance. This is also the foundation of generosity. We further grow our connection to the world outside of ourselves. Hence, we move from the me (separate self) to the we (our interconnectedness). Overtime, we begin to notice more moments of happiness, good fortune, and joy for ourselves and others. We delight in all of our cups overflowing.
Guided Meditation – Sharing Joy
Rumi asks, “When you go to a garden, do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.”
This meditation aims to cultivate one’s capacity to feel joy by first taking delight in another’s good fortune and then by sharing our joy. The meditation ends with long quote from Jack Kornfield’s book No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love and Joy Where You Are.
“Freedom and joy…are the innate wonder of spirit, the blessings of gratitude, the prayers of appreciation, the aliveness of being. They are the free heart rejoicing in the morning sunlight, the sturdy grasses and breath carried by the wind over the mountains. The world is a temple, a sanctuary, bathed even at night by the miraculous light of the ocean of stars that never stop shining upon us. Every meeting of eyes, every leafing oak, every taste of raspberry and warm-baked loaf is a blessing. These are sacred notes in the symphony of life, the invitation to discover freedom, the joyful magnificence of a free and loving heart. They are yours and everyone’s to share.”