As the darkest day of the year and the warmth, and sometimes the challenge, of the holidays approach I've been thinking about joy. About love and human connection.
When we think about mindfulness practice we usually focus on stress reduction. We think about how learning to pause and take a breath can help us reduce reactivity and over-reaction. We think about how paying attention to our inner processes of mind and being less caught by the external pressures helps us not add fuel to the fire. We think about how mindfulness helps us take responsibility for our own mind.
We appreciate how as we grow in mindfulness we become more stable, more flexible, and ultimately more creative and engaged with our life. Mindfulness helps us to show up in a certain way that has so many benefits.
This is all true and important. And small victories in reduction of reactivity, anxiety, and stress are worth celebrating. Small victories in our ability to not shoot those "second darts" at ourselves and be more present and engaged are worth appreciating. Those victories are anything but small.
And we can also appreciate how mindfulness helps us in communication and relationship. Our growing ability to work with attention and be more present allows us to be fully there with our friends and loved ones.
I so enjoyed a talk given by the great Zen teacher Thich Naht Hahn on this to the engineers at Google in 2011. Rather than talking about meditation as a technology for optimizing their performance or anything like that he talked about relationships. If you want to have a healthy relationship, he said, "you must be there." The great teachers help us return to the simple truths, don't they? And it's particularly poignant to study Thich Naht Hahn's teachings as he is currently in a serious health transition in France.
As we learn how to be less distracted by the urgent thoughts running through our mind and pay attention to our relationships, how to really be there, miscommunication and misunderstandings decrease. A sense of connection increases. Our relationships improve.
That mindfulness training helps with communication and relationships is also true and important. It might be mindfulness is a really fundamental to any relationship functioning well. Or functioning at all.
But all of this stress reduction and communication improvement sounds a little mechanical, doesn't it? Like we're fine tuning our mind like we'd tune a car or like we'd remove the viruses from our computer so that it will run better. A good thing but a little limited! I don't know about you but I don't want to be a well tuned machine. I want to be a person.
As the holidays unfold and our plans with family and friends are made I'm thinking about another aspect of mindfulness. And here we are also in the realm of compassion. I'm thinking about how mindfulness practice supports the awakening of joy.
Our practice of mindful awareness, of presence, supports our availability to feel joy.
The practice supports the possibility of a deep and satisfying happiness. Not just the momentary happiness of things going our way or having a good day but the happiness and joy of being alive on the planet. Of being connected to others people and even other kinds of beings - plants, birds, animals. The joy of connection to the sky and the earth. The joy of having a body. The joy of being able to take a breath. A beautiful relaxed clearing breath. The joy of being able to smile.
[Science break: research suggests that the relationship between happiness and smiling is a two way relationship. Being happy makes you smile, sure, but choosing to smile also makes you happy. Smile a little, it's good for ya!].
And if you add a little loving-kindness or compassion practice into the mix this warm, joyful engagement with our lives can be all the warmer. This can be as simple as bringing up one of the loving kindness phrases regularly - during your formal practice time and during the day. "May I and all beings be happy. May I and all beings be safe. May I and all beings live with ease and joy."
Of course like all things human, the experience of happiness comes and goes and there's no simple formula or practice that always leads to any one outcome. The mind and heart are dynamic and ever changing as we engage with this life, this world, so full of joy and so full of suffering. I continue to appreciate how well Brene Brown and others point out (this early talk by her is a favorite) that if we want to allow the emergence of joy we have to allow ourselves to feel the entire range of human emotions. Gradually our orientation towards life shifts. Our baseline becomes more joyful and accepting of the whole range.
And that makes me think about how Lisa Hardmeyer Gray and I co-led a wonderful workshop last summer in California, which is on again for this summer, based on the this wonderful poem by Rumi.