Cultivating Joy in Daily Life

The Buddha taught that joy and happiness already reside within us. To cultivate these qualities, we just need to develop wholesome states of mind that allow us to experience our true nature. Such change, however, requires effort. It’s no different than the effort required to develop a wholesome life style aimed at keeping our bodies in shape. If we focus on eating right, exercising and doing yoga, we find that we feel healthier, our muscles can get stronger and we become more limber. The ability of bodies to get healthier and stronger is endemic to all bodies. Similarly, the ability of the mind to experience inner peace and well-being is endemic to all minds. In fact according to neuroscience, the default state of the mind is a sense of ease. When the mind is calm and clear it returns to its default state. Thus, happiness is not something you need to pursue, you just have to learn how to access it.

But accessing “it” is not so easy for most of us because we’ve developed mental habits based on a misunderstanding that our happiness and joy are dependent on external conditions – conditions that are unceasingly changing on an unreliable bias. As neuroscientist Sam Harris says, “The problem of finding happiness in the world arrives with our first breath – and our needs and desires seem to multiply by the hour.” And so, from day one, we are developing habits that seek out pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasurable experiences in the hopes that our needs and desires will be met – that we ‘find’ happiness. What we find instead is that all of our pleasures – however refined or easily acquired- are fleeting. You can’t get enough of your favorite meal and you keep eating until the next moment you are so stuffed you feel sick, and yet by some miracle of science you still have room for desert, then seconds after the taste no longer lingers you feel regret, so you download a new app that’s guaranteed to help you lose weight, and so it goes.

The habits of ego are hard to change, but the good news is that like all habits change is possible with the right “exercise.” Bad habits can be replaced by good habits. The exercises themselves are fairly simple in concept, but not so easy to keep up. Our tendency is to get lazy and fall back into familiar and comfortable patterns. So effort is required by us to sustain our practice. In Buddhism, wise effort refers to the energy we need to abandon unwholesome states of minds (bad habits) and to cultivate wholesome states of mind (good habits). The good news is that all habits can be changed over time; it just takes practice and patience.

Simple Daily Exercises for Developing Greater Joy

Our meditation practice begins with sitting on a cushion or chair, and it is here where we first begin to cultivate joy and loving-kindness. Eventually, however, we must move our practice off the cushion and out into daily life. Learning to cultivate and experience joy in the work place, at home, in our relationships, etc. is an important part of our spiritual journey. Of course we’ll make mistakes — we’ll lose our tempers, harbor resentments, express dislikes, fail to be compassionate even when our friends are suffering — but making mistakes is just a part of the process of learning any skill.

The important point to remember is that if we are trying to cultivate joy in meditation, but always act in ways that undermines our joy in daily life, then we’re obviously going to get “stuck” in our development. Part of the trick is just remembering to practice when we’re in the world. For myself, I have found three simple practices that help me remember to stay conscious in daily life. They are calming the mind, attending to joy and evoking kindness. Below, I describe each of these practices and offer some simple exercises you can try for yourself.

Calming the mind

Calming the mind helps to bring us back to our default set point, which is a sense of ease or abiding in peace. While it is difficult to maintain this inner peace very long, given our mind’s tendency to wander, we can, with exercise, experience inner peace on a moment by moment basis. The more we practice the longer these moments become.

There are many methods for calming the mind, but three that I have found useful are “Anchoring”, “Imaging” and “Using a Mantra.” Anchoring refers to focusing your mental awareness on a single object and trying to keep it there. Generally, this is the breath, but it could also be a particular body sensation, like the feelings in your hands, or the warmth in your belly. If you use the breath, it is best to focus on where you notice it the strongest, in your nostrils, chest, abdomen, or even surrounding your whole body. The idea is that when your mind is active or agitated, triggered by the ongoing conditions of the world, you can bring it back to a state of calm by refocusing your attention on your anchor. You anchor becomes a refuge in the storm – a safe harbor when there is turbulence in the mind.

Imaging refers to using a mental image that you associate with a calm meditative state of mind. One possibility is the image of a butterfly landing on a flower. The idea is that as we calm our mind, we are able to slowly make the butterfly become still enough to stay on the flower for a short period of time.

A mantra is any sound, word or short phrase that you find attractive, easy to remember and conducive to relaxation. It can have meaning or no meaning. Some people do better with a meaningful word or phrase while others experience the meaning as a distraction and hence prefer a simple sound. One mantra I have found helpful to me is “No one to be, Nothing to do.” Or you might try the word “Calm” on the in breath and “Peace” on the out breath. Often connecting your breath with your mantra can help maintain a calm mind for longer periods of time.

Daily Exercise

Experiment with each of these methods during your day. See which one works best for inducing and maintaining a clam state of mind. You might start by committing to your “calming the mind” practice for one minute every day for the next week. Try it at work, at home, or wherever feels right. Gradually increase the time if it feels right for you. See if when you practice you notice a shift in you state of mind. When your mind is calm do you notice a greater sense of inner peace? What does this inner peace feel like in the moment? Does it change from moment to moment of stay the same?

Attending to Joy

Experiencing the inner peace that comes from a calm mind is the first step towards cultivating loving-kindness. The second step is to begin attending to the moments of joy in our lives. Every time you have a joyful experience, simply give it your full attention. It only takes one moment, this moment, to bring full attention to the joy that you are feeling at any one time – walking with a loved one, seeing a sunset, holding a baby, taking a bite of a delicious meal.

Joy is everywhere if we set our intention to look for it. It’s like setting an intention to look for blue cars. When we do, we quickly notice they are everywhere. The fact that we are not in pain, are healthy, are safe, are able to get water and food when we need it, live in a beautiful area, have the resources that allow us to practice mediation, are miracles that we often take for granted. Like blue cars, momentary joy is all around us, even in the midst of struggle, and the more we set our intention to look for it, the more were realize that many moments in our day are filled with joy. Attending to joy trains our minds to more readily access the joy that is already here.

Noticing the good in our life strengthens our inner sense of peace, which helps calm the mind. For most of us, our habitual tendency is to focus on the negative aspects of our life. What scientists call our brain’s built-in “negativity bias.” Instead of focusing on the fifty things that went right for us at the end of the day, we ruminant on the one that went wrong. By focusing on the good, however, we can overcome this habit. This makes it easier for us over time to return to our minds default state of ease and friendliness towards ourselves.

Daily Exercise

Try paying calm mindful attention to three activities a day (one minute each) that bring you a sense of ease and well-being. Perhaps when you first step into the shower, just notice without analyzing how your body feels. Take in the sensations. Or when you first start eating a meal, notice how the food feels in your mouth, notice its temperature, colors, and texture, focus on its aroma and taste. Or when you find yourself walking. Just notice how it feels to walk, what are the sensations like in your body in the present moment as you move through space. The possibilities are endless.

Evoking Kindness

The practice of loving-kindness is central to all schools of Buddhism and is key to finding and staying on the path. There is often a lot of confusion about what is meant by the concept of loving-kindness, or by terms like joy and happiness in the Buddhist sense of the words. What we are talking about is not some esoteric feeling that will carry us away on waves of bliss, only to crash down to the ground again when conditions change and we feel discouraged. Loving-kindness can best be understood as a friendly response to ourselves and the people around us. It is a feeling of good-will or a kind heart that we can always access in the present moment, if we are awake enough to look. This is the fertile ground from which happiness and joy can arise in our lives.

As our ability to access inner peace and inner joy grows, our natural tendency is to feel more compassion for ourselves and others. Actively evoking kindness to others helps us make this characteristic a habit. Wishing for others to be well, to be free from suffering, to have good health and success opens up our hearts and connects us with our own sense of well-being.

As we practice evoking kindness it may sometimes seem that we have more aversion than when we started. We may even become irritable. If we can stay mindful of the feelings that occur, we may notice a powerful purifying process taking place over time. Joseph Goldstein likens this purification to drops of water falling on a piece of red hot metal. As the drops of water hit the metal over and over again there is the sound of steam rising…”whoosh.” Gradually as the metal cools off the sound rising from the drops diminishes and the reactions of the metal to water drops cease. We all carry a vast storehouse of judgments, hurts, resentments and old reactions. As we begin evoking kindness to ourselves, our storehouse of negative emotions may percolate to the surface…”whoosh.” As our mind calms and are able to take in more of the good things in life, our reactions to evoking kindness, even to those we may not intrinsically like, loss strength and we find ourselves living with greater ease and joy.

Daily Exercise

At least once a day randomly choose two human beings and wish them happiness. Just sit quietly and visualize the first person in your mind and then evoke phrases like, “May you be happy, may you have peace, may you find joy and success in your life.” Do this for 10 – 15 seconds and then visualize the second person and repeat the exercise. Experiment with the phrases you use so that they have meaning to you. If you feel more ambitious you might try evoking kindness towards two people every hour at work. Simple take a break from your daily routine for 30 seconds, sit quietly calming your mind and randomly evoke kindness to two people. Do it as a free will giving – with no expectations for any benefits for yourself. See if over time you notice the sound of the steam abating and a greater sense of joy arising in your heart.