Not long ago, I was listening to an interview with Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk who’s been described as the happiest man in the world. What a title, right? Wouldn’t you expect someone lofty and a little spacey, someone so far in the clouds they’ve forgotten what earth looks like?
But oh, he was just the opposite. He had this delightful groundedness about him. He was joyful, but he also understood what it was like to be joyless. He got it. He didn’t sleepily tell you to “just let go and free your mind” (I tell you, if we all knew how to “just free our mind,” we would have done it already!).
Instead, he said that the pieces that make up happiness – compassion, joy, kindness – are like muscles. Literally. Neuroscientists have studied Ricard and other monks and have seen actual structural changes in their brains over years of practicing meditation and compassionate living.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider how cool that is.
But Ricard’s stick-with-you message was this: Just like you can’t expect to run a marathon without regular training, you can’t expect to find joy everywhere without regular training.
I got to thinking about this, chewing slowly on that metaphor (because God knows I can’t resist a good metaphor). I don’t know much about running myself, but I’ve watched my running fiend of a brother train for races. Training is serious business. And it’s not just about pounding out the miles. It’s about being smart. Increasing your mileage slowly and carefully, cross-training, icing and massaging sore muscles, watching carefully and responding quickly to signs of injury. Smart trainers push themselves, but they are so very gentle and kind with their bodies at the same time.
So what if we took that same training principle and applied it to the work of healing, the work of learning to seek out the joy? What if we were gentle and kind with our spirits? Instead of strict cleansing detoxes and lightning-quick major life changes, what if we set small goals and gave ourselves what we needed to accomplish them?
Because life hands us some pretty grueling runs in our joy-seeking training. I’m on one at the moment. One of those times when life feels like a forest fire, and when you put out one burst of flame, another rages stronger. Caring for my broken family, managing financial stress, wading through the fog of professional next-steps, staying afloat in my current, overwhelming job – I am exhausted. It is hard to find the joy here.
On days like this, I am tempted to shame myself for being bad at joy. A real joy-seeker would be able to find only joy in the struggle. I am a failure at healing.
But today, I am remembering that I am in training. Today, I gave myself what I needed to get through the hills and sprints.
I needed clarity in the morning: waking up before the rest of the house to write past my fear.
I needed an invigorating walk with careful attention to beautiful foliage to jostle out the anxiety (Anxiety breeds in inaction. Repeat. Anxiety breeds in inaction).
I needed – oh, how I needed – to get out of the house. I’m working remotely for a non-profit right now, which is wonderful until it isn’t. Some days I need the living room, some days I need the library. Today, I had a very specific need for the coffee shop – the full-senses experience of warmth and flavor and chatter and deep aromas.
I needed the small things. I was writing, writing, writing today – and not the good kind of writing. The overwhelming, anxiety-inducing writing I’d been putting off for days because it made my head hurt to even begin. So I pulled out all my best tricks, silly and otherwise (mostly silly), for “dancing in the rain,” or making the best of an unpleasant task:
I clipped my nails neatly and put on my favorite bright-colored rings that make my heart soar (because if you’re going to look at your hands for a while, they should look nice). I dressed to look the part of the sort of person I thought could pull this off (this is one of my favorite tricks. Today I was going for I’m writing corporate policies for a social services non-profit, so I’m totally put-together but also a little hipster…I’m fighting the power, but in a cardigan sort of way). I put on the new Mumford & Sons album softly in the background. I stood up to stretch frequently. I set small goals and rewards along the way.
Tonight, I needed leftover soul-warming soup. I needed to clean one small space in the house. Later, I will need a moment of reading in bed.
This is my ice, my massage, my cross-training, my injury prevention. We are in training for a life of joy, and we are giving ourselves what we need.
Joy-full music and wisdom:
On the topic of Mumford & Sons, this song is worth the cost of the whole album. This is a transcendent experience: