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Joy That Sets Us Free

To start off our series on Opening to Joy, it seems appropriate to define joy. I don’t want us to get hung up on semantics, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. When I refer to joy, I don’t mean “happiness.” Heaven forbid that you come away from this thinking that the goal of the spiritual path is to be “happy” all the time. That’s impossible, there are too many other feelings that are important to feel, and many situations in life where “happy” isn’t appropriate.

For me joy is different from happiness. Happiness is fleeting, joy is a state of the soul that is not nearly as fickle or vulnerable. I also believe we can know joy without being happy. As Dr. Rachel Remen states, "Joy is more closely related to aliveness than to happniess."

What does that mean – joy is more closely related to aliveness? You may recall that Galatians tells us that joy is one of the fruit of the spirit. It seems to me that joy (and all the other fruit of the spirit) is manifest in our lives when we get our egos and baggage out of the way and develop a deeper connection to our authentic self and the divine presence within and around us.

Joy lives in the depth of our being, but stuff gets in the way of joy, like clouds getting in the way of the sun. Guilt, shame, anger, regret, worries, fear, self-recrimination, self-doubt, as well as should-haves and could-haves often effectively cover the joy in our souls.

Happiness is dependent upon things going well. Joy doesn’t need for things to be going well, but as Remen writes, “Joy seems to be a function of the willingness to accept the whole, and to show up to meet with whatever is there.” Joy celebrates the sheer fact of being alive. Once we’ve touched it, we recognize its power to set us free from so much that wants to maintain its hold on our emotions and so-called needs.

But the choice is ours.

When Rachel Remen bought a house on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais in Norther California, she planted 15 rose bushes in her back yard. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it to see the whole yard blooming in late spring. For a month the garden was glorious and then the roses started disappearing, and something much larger than aphids was eating them. Curious, she got up at dawn one morning hoping to catch the culprit in the act. As she looked out the window, she was transfixed by the beautiful stag in her backyard, looking like something out of a story book. As she watched, he strolled across her yard, perused the roses for a bit and then delicately ate off one of her Queen Elizabeths.

Every year since she has had to make a choice between higher fences and having a gorgeous stag ten feet from her door. She chose the stag. After about two years of watching him, she could sit outside while he dined. Sometimes she’d tell people about this and they’d say, “You mean that you are letting this deer eat your roses?” Sometimes she invites people over to watch.

Rachel could have gotten angry, chased him away, built larger fences, got a big dog, all to save her roses. But, she said, while she thought she was planting roses to have a rose garden, it seems she was planting roses to have a half hour of silence with a magical animal every morning and every evening.

Here’s the deal. As Toi Derricotte said, “Joy is an act of resistance.”

This deep, inner joy at life says I don’t need to scream at a deer and tear my hair out because my roses are being eaten. I will take the new gift that is presented and resist getting caught up in negativity by holding fast to joy. There is freedom in this. 

I think of the joy exhibited at PRIDE parades as an ace of resistance. Joy says I will not allow others to have power over me by letting their treatment of me, or their attitude toward me, bring me down, make me cower, make me feel less than or unworthy. Joy holds us centered in our own sacred worth and the sacred life around us. We will not let others take it from us.

With joy we are freed from the need to win and the need to be perfect and we can simply enjoying playing well and the opportunity to play.

With joy we are freed from getting hung up on our preferences – I could be disappointed that Kopp's Custard doesn’t have a flavor of the day that I like, or I can simply be grateful, and relish their chocolate and vanilla!

With joy we are freed from expectations, and won’t get hung up on how we want things to go in any given situation. Seriously, how much time do we spend being frustrated or annoyed because the plane was late, or road construction meant we had to find a different way, or our picnic gets rained out, or the in-laws still don’t like us a whole lot? It’s easy to let our egos go off on all this, but why get sucked into all that negativity? Letting it go and digging deep for that source of joy means we live much more whole-heartedly.

One day when Andrew was about 17, he brought home a Raven that his friend had given him. The friend had raised the bird from the time he’d found it injured after falling out of its nest. It had been raised in a cage and didn’t know how to fly. Andrew walked in the house with the Raven on his shoulder and set up a perch in his room. Each day he took it outside and taught it to flap its wings. One day it flew to the arbor and perched there for a day. The next day it flew to a tree. The morning after that, it was in another tree high from the ground, where they were unable to reach it and take it in for the night. Andrew just smiled thinking that some day it might have its freedom back. The next day it was gone.

A week later, Andrew’s mom noticed an injured bird on the road when she was out jogging. Sure enough, it was the Raven. She brought it home and Andrew spent the day with this very injured bird. When his mom tried to offer some comfort, he simply said, “Mom, it’s okay if it dies; at least it had a week of freedom back in its life.”

I find two pieces of wisdom in this story. First, is this boy’s ability to hang on to the joy of the bird’s freedom, even while grieving its loss. And second, I feel like sometimes we’re like the Raven, our cages are constructed of all the things that keep us from flying, from feeling the freedom that opening to joy can bring. Getting some perspective on all the things that keep us from opening to that inner joy, sets us free. And, yes, life may be tough, full of danger and struggles, but oh what it feels like to fly free for however long we have.

Love & Light!