I have often been asked how one can “practice” Joy. It is either something you feel, or you don’t.
While I agree that emotions are transitory experiences that result from our thoughts and our circumstances, it is possible to train ourselves to experience more of the positive emotions, including Joy.
Training the emotions:
Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Yoga tend to view emotions as transitory states, attachment to which destroys our peace of mind. A mindful approach to emotions would involve observing emotions as they arise, without judgement and then returning the attention to the present moment. Emotions arise from the mind and are a distraction from being in the moment.
The ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali addresses negative emotions and thoughts with the technique of Pratipaksha Bhavana. Pratitpaksha (“opposite/rival”) Bhavana (“thoughts/imaginations) is the technique of replacing negative thoughts with a focus on positive ones. Our thoughts result from deep habits, or what the yogis call “samskaras” and these habits of thought can be changed through this practice of training the mind. By training the mind to focus on positive thought, neurosis can be transcended.
Psychologists would also agree that emotions and thoughts are inter related. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy encourages individuals to track emotions back to the originating thoughts. When emotions are negative, we often find that it is negative catastrophizing, judgemental and pessimistic thinking that has contributed to the emotional state in which we find ourselves. Questioning the validity of our thoughts, looking for evidence, and reframing our thoughts helps to turn our negative, self effacing thoughts into more positive and compassionate thoughts. A change in mood is often the result.
Neither practice is intended to suppress negative emotions. Life happens and sometimes we grieve, sometimes we are angry, sometimes we hurt. In neither practice are we intended to deny or judge the experience. Sometimes a situation warrants sadness or other negative emotions. These practices, however, help us to have our emotions without becoming our emotions.
On Cultivating Joy
For many people, joy is an emotion that is foreign to us. For whatever reason, in Western society, cynicism and negativity are easier to achieve than joy and bliss. Look at a joyful person and your first thought may be a judgement: “nutter!” With thoughts like this, it is difficult to allow ourselves to experience joy.
So how do we cultivate joy? We begin by being mindful of moments in the day when we experience joy. As I said, in the beginning, there may be none. That’s okay. Start with happiness or contentment. As we begin to notice and direct our thoughts to the positive, the positive will grow. We may begin with noticing the relief of the first sip of tea when we arrive home after a long day of work. Or, perhaps we delight in the smile of a baby on the tube.
So, rather than practicing joy, we practice training our mind to notice joy. It does not matter how transitory these moments are – all emotions are transitory – but as we focus on the positive, it grows. And, just as the yogic aphorism suggests: As you think, so shall you be. As you notice these moments, you will become joyful.
Give it a try. Let us know how you get on.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”