To listen to this post in audio on my podcast: https://soundcloud.com/inmindfulmotion/being-peace
The practice of cultivating joy – and its companion practice of smiling – are largely misunderstood. So often, people remark about the perils of discrediting their feelings of anger or sorrow for the false pursuit of pretending to be happy when they aren’t. But practicing joy and practice to smile have nothing at all to do with covering up or disregarding painful experiences. We get so caught in dualistic ways of thinking that we are unable to appreciate the nature of how both things can happen and often are happening simultaneously. So it’s not that we’re picking up one and putting down the other, it’s that we’re holding both at the same time.
Another pitfall here, too, involves our habit energies and the momentum we’ve built up over a lifetime of not knowing how to experience suffering in a skillful way. We have a tendency to either sit and stew and marinate in our hardships when they arise or we cover them up and distract or numb ourselves in regards to them. Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) talks about how we prefer the suffering we’re used to and most familiar with. And along those lines, on a large level, we take comfort in our feelings of woe and struggle, regardless of what our approach is.
We have been practicing to suffer for a long time and not only that but we’ve been practicing in ways that keep us stuck and spinning in the same old stories. We all know how to suffer. What we don’t know how to do is be happy. We need to practice watering our seeds of joy and lessening the amount of water that we give to our seeds of suffering.
Our seeds of suffering are so strong and dominant in our mental/emotional landscape that they overshadow seeds which are more beneficial for us to grow. And these seeds are so used to getting our attention that they put up a fight when threatened with the possibility of losing their edge. So when we hear teachings on cultivating joy or the importance of smiling, our seeds of suffering throw a fit right away – they kick on their honey toned words and attempt to woo us back into relationship with them. And we tend to be persuaded by them. We buy into their argument of how joy and smiling are mere platitudes and how our struggles and anger and sorrow are somehow more “real” than that of generating peace and happiness. And this cycle will continue until we break it by learning how to practice joy and practice smiling and strengthening those seeds within ourselves.
When our seeds of joy and ease grow stronger and more resilient, we will find that they enable us to take better care of our feelings of suffering when they arise. With the practice of joy comes the benefit of learning how to suffer in a way that allows for healing, growth, and transformation to take place. When we don’t know how to suffer well, very little changes. And when we know how to suffer well, everything changes and freedom is possible.
So it’s no that we’re trying to stop our feelings of suffering and hardship, it’s that in cultivating joy – practicing joy – we’re learning how to take good care of it so that it’s not running the show and taking over our lives. There is no way to joy and happiness, joy and happiness are the way.
“During our walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that are not drowned in forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
“…Smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace.
“Many of us worry about the world situation. We don’t know when the bombs will explode. We feel that we are on the edge of time. As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.
“I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.
“Our world is something like a small boat. Compared with the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the sea. You know that we have more than 50,000 nuclear weapons. Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.”
– From Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh