Practicing Joy, Part 1 (of 3)

Take What You Need - Love - Hope - Faith - Patience - Courage - Understanding - Peace -  Passion - Healing - Strength - Beauty - Freedom

I find it interesting that in this picture I found online there is no mention of joy or happiness in the pull-off tabs.  Our western, modernized society is greatly lacking in joy & happiness – it may even be our biggest collective challenge.

After I had an emotionally difficult summer a couple years back I came to understand that, like everything else in the world, joy takes practice.  Before that point I think what I figured (subconsciously) was that joy was something that either happened to me from outside forces or was something that sort of magically appeared when the conditions were “right”.  Either way I didn’t play an active role in whether joy manifested or not.  I emerged from that dark summer with deep realizations: 1. Joy takes practice  2. My happiness really is up to me.

Over the last couple of years I have talked a lot about cultivating joy because it has been so fruitful for me and such an important component in my everyday mindfulness practice.  And as I’ve talked about it I’ve seen a confusion, of sorts, come over people which has lead me to trying to further break this process down in order to explain it better.  Just how do we go about watering seeds of joy?  It’s a good question!


While I was thinking deeply about this question the other day part of the answer sprang to mind.  One of the biggest components of cultivating joy in our lives is two-fold: 1. We need to stop caring so much about what other people think  2. We need to set aside our egos and realize that we are not so important that everyone is staring at us anyway!  We hold ourselves back in a variety of ways due to the simple tendency we have to be overly concerned about what others will think of us – and we’re mostly worried about the viewpoints that come from people we don’t even know!  What is the deal with that?  The truth is, much of the time we SWARE people were looking at us funny or giving us dirty looks they were either consumed in their own state of affairs and couldn’t care less about us or had quickly forgotten about us in the next moment.  With the coupling of our perceptions not usually being very accurate and also having a strong tendency to think everything is about us we can really conjure up some vivid pictures that are painted entirely with disappearing ink.

Sometimes, oftentimes perhaps, the best answer is three little words: Let it go.  We cling so darn hard to things, people, ideas, notions, feelings, perceptions, and should’s and should not’s.  If we were able to let go of what we think others think about us we would be so much more free to enjoy life!

Joy is possible in the very here and now.  We have all the conditions we need to be happy, except for perhaps the willingness to let it all go.

Relating to Life


The practice of mindfulness is not about changing life’s ups and downs.  It’s about transforming our relationship to those ups and downs in a way that brings about peace, joy, and solidity.  This practice is not about diverting the flow of the river of life to avoid obstacles and hardships – it is about learning how to navigate the waters in order to embrace and smoothen out the challenges that arise.

Life consists of suffering.  To ignore this, to pretend otherwise, is to bask in the artificial solace of illusion and ignorance.  And we must also equally keep in mind that life consists of joy, beauty, love, and goodwill.  To ignore this, to pretend otherwise, is also to bask in the artificial solace of illusion and ignorance.  Just as the day and night cannot exist without the other suffering and joy are woven together, inseparable.

In order to cultivate balance and stay grounded we need to have a deep understanding of how life is made up of both kinds of elements: suffering elements and joyful elements.  If we only turn towards suffering (which is most often the case with many of us), dwelling in negativity and commonly finding fault in ourselves, others, and our surroundings we may find that we are consumed with stress, anger, fear, worry, or sadness, and become overwhelmed easily.  If we only turn towards joy we may find ourselves denying or bottling up our real emotions and masquerading around as though we were acting a part in a movie.

We need equal amounts of both suffering and joy in order to cultivate a harmonious balance in our lives.  And it’s important to understand that our balance will look differently from someone else’s balance.  What causes us to suffer and what brings us joy will not necessarily be the same things for someone else.  We are, each of us, the same and yet not the same.


How do we know when we aren’t in balance?  Tuning into our bodies will give us a direct line of communication to how we’re fairing on the inside.  Our minds and bodies are very much connected.  When our minds are ill at ease so too will our bodies speak up with discontent.  So we first start with the simple practice of body awareness.  Throughout the day we tune into our bodies and take notice.  What is my posture like?  How many times have I smiled today?  Am I rushing around?  Is there tension in my body?  How well am I sleeping?  How well am I eating?  These types of questions, if asked, will tell us a lot about our state of being.  Our bodies have much to say and we need to train ourselves in the art of listening to them.  If we are emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually out of balance chances are our eating and sleeping habits are being effected negatively and most definitely our bodies are holding tension somewhere.  Throughout the day practice pausing for a moment or two and then investigate how your body is feeling.  Our body is a great communicator and can let us know whether we are feeling grounded, at ease, and joyful or full of stress, worry, and upset.  If our mind is not joyful our body will not be joyful.

In the fall of 2002 I founded the Be Here Now Sangha (spiritual community) and over the last 10 years that I have facilitated the group I have heard many common threads in our sharing circles each week.  And one of them has to do with the notion of suffering and happiness.  Only, the element of happiness is sorely diminished and greatly lacking.  People, it seems, in general are afraid more of what will happen if they become fake and un-authentic in their dealings with their emotions and experiences by pretending to be happy when they aren’t as opposed to being afraid of what will happen if they continue down the dark road called: Misery Loves Company.  I once heard a great dharma teacher say, “We all know full well how to suffer, we have that one down.  What we don’t know how to do is cultivate joy.”  And it’s true!

Many of us are more content to suffer then we are to turn towards joy.  We have practiced for many many years this habit energy of suffering, the seed is very strong in us.  And we have not been practicing to be joyful enough of the time, so this seed is quite small or may be even non-existent within us.  We then become out of balance.  What gets watered is what grows.  What we practice gets stronger.  Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) is fond of saying, “We are always practicing something,”  and it’s true!

For most of us we have a great and important need to strengthen the seed of joy within us.  And that internal voice that tells us there is danger in pretending to be happy when indeed we aren’t happy is, in a way, a deceptive one.  While we must be careful not to fall into an act of disingenuous interactions with life we must be more careful not to follow voices that lead us down unproductive, unhealthy, and unwholesome paths that prolong or exaggerate our suffering.  We have a great tendency to prolong our suffering.  To weave wild stories of misperception which turns a little frog that scurried across our way into an enormous fire breathing deadly dragon with venomous talons and three heads.  Things are as we make them to be and we are usually wrong in our perceptions.



If Only we Could All Enjoy Ourselves More. Oh Right, We Can!


I put together a spring yard sale and today spent from 7:00am-4:00pm at our local mindfulness center selling everything from clothes to books and from vacuum cleaners (of which we had 4!) to toys.  With so many different classes that happen at the center and two weekly sanghas we get a lot of stuff donated when we put together these collective mindfulness center yard sales.  It’s a great way for folks to donate to the center and for us to earn some extra income (since our center runs almost entirely on donations).  And I’m all for anything that helps keep stuff in the reuse, recycle loop.

The weather was slated for rain so I set up a few pop up style canopies to put everything under.  I rustled up a few volunteers to help with set up in the morning, sales throughout the day, and the tear down/pack up at the end of the sale around 3:30 this afternoon.  Our mindfulness center is situated on an active corner of a nicely frequented road just outside of the university area so all we need to do is start setting stuff up outside and voila, we have ourselves an instant marketplace!

Now, the reason I am bringing up this yard sale on my mindfulness practice blog here is to talk about the effort, demonstration, and sheer awesomeness of cultivating joy and happiness in our daily life.  Throughout the day I was aware of the intentional diligent effort that I was putting into the practice of feeling good.  And I was also aware of what seemed to be a shared collective practice of perpetuating the art of not feeling good.  One of the greatest fruits I have found in cultivating joy is that when surrounded by what could be viewed as negativity, worry, stress, upset or insecurity, I have the ability to stay grounded in my own experience and not get carried away by others emotions.

As mentioned, today was rainy.  The mountains sat cool and soggy under beautiful gray bellied clouds and the rain sprinkled on and off gently, dropping at times from the greening leaves onto my glasses, in between outbursts of the spring sun.  I enjoyed the rain, the clouds, the sound of splashing puddles as cars drove by.  I enjoyed sorting, rummaging through, and displaying all of our wares.  I enjoyed talking with people who stopped by on foot, bike, and car.  But from some of the comments and questions I received, and at times as I gathered from tones of voice and body language, it did not seem that there were many others who were enjoying the day.  It is important to note here that while perceptions can feel very solid and real and true they are in many and most cases incorrect, a fabrication of our own making.  So I am aware that while certain individuals may have seemed unhappy my brief interaction with them is but a small drop of awareness in the ocean of their life.  What do I know?  Nothing!

And at the same time we can all pick up on levels of unease, whatever its cause.  It does not take a neuro-pyschologist to see when someone is not feeling well in some capacity.  The prolonged absence of a smile, the slumped over shoulders of a standing posture, a short quickened dull tone of voice, or a sullen facial expression are in many cases indicators of un-wellness.  And of course there is our verbal exchanges that speak volumes as to our internal weather.  Today I heard many comments that were streaked with negativity, about the rain and more.  I took notice of how much time people spent worrying and being filled with anxiety about things that were not in their control.  How much precious time is wasted, thrown away, and unproductively consumed by self-inflicted suffering.  The worries and anxiety I’m referring to are not large scale situations but rather smaller everyday, easy to overlook, and under value type occurrences.

We worry, a lot.  We are stressed out and filled with anxiety, a lot.  We think and speak in a negative fashion, a lot.  Turning towards joy is possible.  We need to practice joy everyday so that we get more skilled.  So that we are able to handle difficulties with more ease when they arrive.  So that we are able to connect fully with life right here in this moment.  And so that we are able to water the seeds of joy in others.  Mindfulness is a practice to be infused into all of the small pockets of our day.

With this practice we have the opportunity, the ability, and the pleasure of embracing the day with eyes of gratitude, love, and joy.  Let us open our eyes to the possibility of feeling good today!

Forest Bathing


A Japanese study showed that a walk in the forest – stimulating senses of smell, hearing, and touch while under a leafy, green canopy – increases positive feelings, boosts the immune system, and lowers blood pressure.  They call it shinrin-yoku – “forest bathing.”   – taken from Mindful magazine, June edition

I really like this idea of forest bathing.  Yesterday my 13-year old step-son and I went on a little adventure in a place of Montana we hadn’t been to before and did some forest bathing.  I wrote this by the shore of Trout Creek:

To dip a toe in a wooded glen is far too short a journey,

to glance upon the canopy for only a moment will just not do I’m afraid

With soft steps we must enter from ankles to knees,

from hips to shoulders

until finally with one last breath

our exhale submerges us into the warm fragrant waters of the forest

We must settle among the fresh green shoots of spring

that have come calling with the return of the sun

We must allow our hearts to envelop our sense impressions

penetrating through layers of toil

We must listen deeply so that we are able to truly arrive

in this most sacred moment

Let us share the noble breath of all that is rooted in the earth

Let us smile like the wildflowers cracking open in the breeze

This life is to be held in reverence!






Retreat Poems


I wrote these short poem type writings while on our local spring retreat last weekend:

I see my light shining

like rays of spring sun bouncing off the mountain lake

into the gentle eyes of children and once children –

With stomach rising and falling

just as the sun and moon rise and fall each day

just as the breeze rises and falls by the water’s edge

and up over the distance rocky peaks

I settle into this precious moment

as if it were the only moment there is

because it is


Rough cut exposed wooden beams hang over my bed

showcasing a spider web or two or three

A bare bulb screwed into its fixture

illuminates my room in unfiltered, unflattering light

A bulky water heater nestles into the corner

(gurgling around 2:30am each morning)

To become attached to form is foolish

to become attached to form is to suffer

to let go is freedom

Ultimate Reality


Here are the notes I took from the final dharma talk that Michael Ciborski gave on Sunday May 5th at our local retreat:

If you’re living closely and forming an intimate relationship with another person take time for yourselves each week.  Not to go out and party but to sit down and talk about your relationship.  Every week, don’t miss it!  If you miss it your relationship goes down.  Take a couple of hours to be together, to find your appreciation for one another.  We schedule so many other things in our life, we need to schedule this too, it’s super important.  The experience of happiness that will happen in your life largely depends on the quality of the relationships you have with your family and best friends.  Our spiritual practice moves us from our normal small world of discriminative kinds of thinking towards an experience of interbeing and interrelationships.

Rudolph Steiner said, “There is no being, you cannot be something, you can only become.”  (Personal side note: this is a deep zen teaching that will take time to understand fully I think).  The moment we be something we have removed ourselves from the experience of being.  We are now a thing.  We’ve stopped the learning, growing, and flow.  Thinking of becoming puts us in motion, it is dynamic, and impermanent.

“I really like meditating with impermanence to the point to where it takes me in a circle,” said Michael laughing, “so what looks to be the future suddenly becomes the past and what looks like the past suddenly becomes the future.  It’s really cool.”  The difficult feeling I have will change.  It has to change, nothing stays the same.  Everything is impermanent.  We want to figure it all out and we cannot.

There are two extreme views: permanence and nothingness.  Almost every view we have can be dropped into one of these categories.  Usually our ideas and views are closer to the middle but nonetheless they go to one side or the other.  One view has to do with being set and staying the same and the view that this is how it is.  The other view has to do with there being no substance, nothing there.  However hard we grasp determines how much we’re going to suffer.  The views in and of themselves are not the problem and in fact can be very helpful at times but if I keep holding on too tightly I will eventually suffer.

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Spring Retreat: The Middle Way

Flathead Lake view from the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Lakeside, MT

Flathead Lake view from the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Lakeside, MT

I just got back early yesterday evening from our local Open Way Sanghas spring retreat.  This was our second spring retreat that we held at the Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp (FLBC) in Lakeside, MT.  It is a lovely facility and quite a step up from what we’re used to :)  Our retreat started on Thursday May 2nd in the evening and ended on Sunday May 5th around 1:00pm.  We brought in visiting dharma teacher Michael Ciborski from the Morning Sun Mindfulness Community in New Hampshire to lead the retreat.  His wife Fern, also a dharma teacher in the same zen based tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, and their youngest child Fiana also came along.  The retreat was entitled: The Middle Way, A Path of Joy & Ease in the Present Moment.

This was my third retreat as retreat co-director.  We have two retreats a year with our Open Way Montana sanghas.  The local Missoula sanghas (Open Way & Be Here Now) direct the spring retreat and the Helena sangha (Flowing Mountains) directs the fall retreat.  It would be a lot of work to be in charge of two residential retreats a year.  Each retreat gathers about 60 people and lodging and food is provided so there are a lot of little details, logistics and individual questions to field.  And it’s work I really enjoy doing as well.  I’m grateful that I have the time to offer to the sangha in this capacity and I love caring for the community.

For the first time in many years this retreat welcomed families and kids.  We’ve been talking about doing a family retreat for the past 2-3 years and the time finally came where we had the facility, the extra help, and the desire from families to bring it together.  We opened up the retreat to all ages but asked that kids under 6 years of age have a parent accompany them to the kids program events.  We had volunteers facilitate a separate kids program during the adult based events such as the dharma talk, discussion groups, and the evening program.  We had six kids that were over the age of 6 years old, two toddlers, and one baby for a total of 9 kids in attendance.  Our oldest kid was 10 years old and the average age was 7.  So while this retreat was much less silent than past retreats the silence was filled in with joy and wonderful smiles!

One of our young friends overlooking the lake

One of our young friends overlooking the lake

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Nourishing the Sacred in Each Other


Tomorrow night is the start of our local bi-annual Open Way Sanghas mindfulness retreat in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.  Dharma teacher Michael Ciborski is our visiting teacher who will be leading the retreat.  He has been leading retreats here in Montana once a year for the last few years.  And this year for the first time he ventured here with his wife Fern and their youngest child Fiana who is two-years old.

To offer a wonderful practice opportunity to the greater Missoula community I helped put together a public talk tonight entitled: Nourishing the Scared in Each Other where Michael spoke on the topics of mindfulness, deep breathing, and coming back home to the present moment.  It was a beautiful spring evening here in the mountains, the sky was a crisp blue and the sun shone down into the valley with radiance and delicate warmth.  Here in the rocky mountains of western Montana, where the chill of winter’s embrace dog ear’s more calendar months than it skips, it can often be difficult to wrangle people indoors when the sun starts to color in the landscape.  But tonight we managed to fill a room in the Continuing Education Building on the campus of the University of Montana with 50 people – and considering we were up against the International Wildlife Film Festival I think we had a great sized crowd.

Public Talk at the University of Montana

Public Talk at the University of Montana

Michael opened up the talk guiding us in some breathing exercises and then went on to speak about how our breath can put us in touch with what’s actually happening in the here and now (as opposed to getting carried away by our stories or worries…).  He said that it’s important to develop a strong muscle of returning home, by which he is referring to the present moment.  Our true home is in the present moment, it is the only moment where we are truly alive!  We cannot reside in the past, for it has already happened, and we cannot reside in the future, for it has not yet come to be.  Right here and right now, this is it!

He spoke about a three-point system (so to speak):

Stop – Connect – Engage

To stop means to stop running, stop worrying, stop the anxiety, sorrow, fear and other strong habit energies that inhibit our ability to come home to ourselves in the present moment and serve no skillful means on the path of transformation.  To connect means to become one with.  And to engage is to embrace and love deeply.

MIchael Ciborski

MIchael Ciborski

I wrote down a quote from Michael as he was talking that I really appreciated:

“We have tremendous power in the little moments of our life.”

This insight needs to be more than an intellectual comprehension.  This teaching is a deep, rich, and beautiful practice that we need to put into action as a collective community in order to foster our connection to ourselves, our environment, and one another.  Indeed it is only in the small moments of life that transformation is possible.  With mindfulness, every act we do is an opportunity to come back home.