Joy Redux

I want to revisit a topic about which I have written previously, and that is the topic of joy.

I have been listening recently to some of Ayya Khema’s Dharma talks. If you are not familiar with her, Ayya Khema is one of the most remarkable practitioners of the 20thcentury. She died in 1997. But thanks to the miracles of technology, over 400 of her Dharma talks are available at Dharmaseed.org.

In this talk, Ayya Khema spends quite a bit of time talking about joy in meditation. This is one of the most important parts of the Buddha’s path. It is one of the factors of awakening. However, in all my years of going to retreats, I hardly ever remember hearing it discussed. But I have heard people talking about how hard it is to meditate – regularly – many times.

This has never made any sense to me. Of course, meditation does not always go smoothly. Some days are harder than others. But think of something that you really enjoy doing. Does that always go perfectly? Of course not. But you do it because the enjoyment you get from it outweighs the time when things do not go as well.

The problem is, I believe, the way in which meditation is mis-taught.

The first step in any meditation practice is to establish a sense of well-being. We learn to enjoy the simple act of breathing. And of course this is not easy because our whole lives we have been taught that what we want is to excite the senses. We want good food, sex, music, luxury, etc. And when the Buddha points out to us that this is inevitably going to be a failed strategy for happiness, we think that he is teaching a doctrine of denial.

But wait, there’s more (!). Much more. While we whittle away at our habitual craving for sense pleasure, we simultaneously cultivate joyful states of mind. We replace the unreliable and addictive sense pleasures with the more reliable pleasure that comes from meditation. We can learn to “gladden the mind,” as the Buddha tells us in the Ānāpānasati Sutta [MN 118]. And since we can learn to do this on demand, it does not require us to produce certain conditions so that we can be happy. And as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu points out, it is a happiness that causes no harm. We are not taking anything from anyone.

And what eventually happens – naturally, in my view – is that the joy, happiness, contentment, and peace that comes from being able to simply stay with the breath becomes eminently more desirable. Now of course this is not the end of the path. We must then use these wonderful states of mind to gain insight and to develop what Ṭhānissaro likes to translate as “discernment.” It is often translated as “wisdom,” but I think that “discernment” more properly captures the active, in-the-moment quality of the Pāli word “pañña.” And this is the fundamental, three-step process of meditation: well-being, jhāna, and discernment.

Ayya Khema further points out that this discernment can happen through any of the Three Characteristics of dukka (stress/suffering), annica (impermanence), and anatta (non-self), although seeing one of these inevitably leads to the other two. It is just that for different people, one of them may provide a more optimal doorway.

But back to the topic of joy. In the first jhāna, joy is the pre-eminent quality. It may manifest in a number of ways, and it may be stronger or weaker. The first jhāna is usually strongest in people who need its healing power the most. In the second jhāna, the joy gets toned down a little into something closer to happiness and contentment. And in the third jhāna, the calm contentment and happiness is joined by equanimity. In the third jhāna you can – as Sharon Salzberg describes it – “sit in the midst of your own experience.” You can conjure up even painful memories, and they simply float by.

All of this is accompanied by stillness and silence. The mind grows quitter. There is a deep sense of peace.

None of this is very easy. There is nothing in our experience that tells us to cultivate a mind at peace. In worldly affairs, no one will encourage us to be in this way. Even most meditation teachers do not tell us that this is what we are working at, that this is a very important part of the path, that we want to learn to get the mind to settle down and then experience the beauty of a mind at ease.

Ayya Krema also points out in this talk that while everyone knows what it means to be angry, hardly anyone knows what it is like to experience joy, especially joy that is self-generated and does not rely on external sense pleasure. That is an astonishingly simple and true statement.

There are so many benefits to the joy, happiness, and contentment that come with the meditative absorptions. A mind at peace has no ill will. It does not want anything. You can experience true metta, the mind that cannot hate. You can experience true muditā. If you are truly happy, why would you not be happy when others are happy? You are already happy, so there is no reason for jealousy.

The stillness also provides a place of healing. We can look at our own suffering – even our most painful memories – with compassion, patience, kindness, and perspective. And as we get more skilled at looking at our pain, when we can see it and not be overwhelmed by it and learn from it, we also naturally develop compassion for all beings. This is the experience of dukkha that we all share. There is no reason to judge others. We see in them our own foolishness, and in their foolishness, we see ours.

And at the center of it all is the cultivation of joy. This is the hub of the wheel of meditation.

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