By Leanna Gilliam
Joy is one of those words we see and hear over and over in December. We are supposed to be joyous right now. In 2020 though, the Bells of Joy just aren’t ringing very loudly.
Even in the best of times our capacity to experience joy depends on how adept we are at turning toward it. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative. This survival mechanism that monitors our world for danger is useful only to a point in modern times. But our brains are excellent at taking any threat, whether real or perceived, and focusing on it with laser-like precision. Psychologist Rick Hanson has said “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
I’ve got a lot of experience with this “threat matrix.” It has been known to send alarm bells to my nervous system when there hasn’t been any real danger. (But it sure as heck felt real!) In those moments where fear was in the driver’s seat, I had very little, if any, capacity for joy.
What I’ve learned though, is that the brain is changeable. This is called neuroplasticity. So even though my own negativity bias may have well-worn grooves within my brain, I’ve got many new pathways as a result of meditation and practices that cultivate Joy.
Right now with the world as it is and the season we are in, it feels helpful to do what I can to crank up the Joy Radar a few notches. Even though positive experiences might be like Teflon for the brain, with mindful effort we can create favorable conditions in which Joy can flourish and stick in our minds a lot more often. With repetition a shift does happen. This has been my experience!
Here are Three Actions to Grow Joy.
- Gratitude– Thanksgiving is in our rearview mirror, but practicing gratitude need not be seasonal. This proven way to foster joy is simple and meaningful. Science backs up the joyful feelings that come from being grateful. Studies show people who practice gratitude have lower blood pressure, fewer depressing thoughts, better sleep and other physiological benefits. There are many ways to practice gratitude. Here are some ideas to try:
- Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has helped you (mail or not),
- Begin and/or end each day contemplating one or two things you are grateful for.
- Make a gratitude jar. Write down anything you’re grateful for when the inspiration arises, put it in your gratitude jar and when you need a joyful pick-me-up or as a blessing before a meal, read your gratitude! (this is nice to do with family- keep the jar on the kitchen counter with pen and paper nearby)
- Keep a gratitude journal. I love this one.
- Try this contemplation: Close your eyes, take some full breaths, bring a slight smile to your lips and then call to mind a person, thing or circumstance you are grateful for. If more than one thing shows up include them! As gratitude for this fills your mind and heart see if you can notice how your body feels- is there warmth? Softness? Calm? Happiness? Let gratitude fill you up, body, heart and mind. When the practice feels complete, gently open your eyes taking several seconds to feel your experience. Allow it to be just as it is.
- Savoring– The practice of savoring invites us to slow down and intentionally take pleasure in the world around us- feeling the softness of a cool breeze, smelling a wood-burning fire, tasting our morning coffee, seeing a red cardinal… According to the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, “savoring is mindfulness of pleasant experience.” It is the act of perceiving things as if for the first time or through the eyes of a child. There is a joyful innocence when we truly linger with the simple pleasures of our world. When we “stop to smell the roses,” we are tuning into Joy. Both of the following exercises bring mindfulness into ordinary acts. Give them a try!
- Put your hands together, palms touching and gently rub them back and forth, notice the feeling of skin touching skin, really turn toward the sensation of your hands rubbing together, look at your hands and fingers, acknowledging how much they do for you each and every day and embrace the sweetness of giving yourself this small moment of attention.
- Take a sense and savoring walk- walk slower than usual, pausing whenever you like to notice a particularly beautiful leaf or flower or bird. Whatever draws you in, allow yourself to linger there and enjoy sensing what delights you. Then moving on to another experience of savoring along the walk when it feels right. Giving yourself over to the experience. Take your time. See what happens!
- Stillness– Joy needs space to grow. Mediation teacher and author Christina Feldman says, “A still mind and heart is the source of joy.” Cultivating stillness through the practice of meditation disentangles us from the world of doing and in turn calms the heart. A calm heart has a larger capacity to notice and fully experience joy when it appears. Meditation can create spaciousness within the heart and the mind making room for joy to arise inwardly as a quality of being that is not dependent on particular experiences or events. Mindfulness Awareness Meditation (also known as Shamatha Meditation) is the practice I recommend for cultivating stillness.
Community Meditation is a great way to become familiar with the stillness that meditation offers. Calm hearts and calm minds surround us in the beautiful community that’s so alive and supportive on Mind Oasis. What better way to grow Joy than to do it with others?
Each of these practices: Gratitude, Savoring and Stillness are available to us at all times and there are no prerequisites. Best of all, the Joy that arises from these efforts is limitless! As the poet Mary Oliver says, “Joy is not a crumb.”
Leanna teaches Community Meditation on Thursdays at 8 p.m. CST. Join her this month to explore these actions that grow Joy!