I was speaking with somebody recently who shared that he was finding it difficult to settle into the joy of life, to sit back and enjoy being alive. He thought that something was wrong with that. I explained to him that from a Buddhist perspective it’s not about settling into a joy that’s supposedly inherent in life. Rather, joy is something that comes from past action, from kamma. As my father used to say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That’s so true and a good reflection for the practice. If we want to experience joy, it takes effort. How could it be any other way? While it may seem somewhat paradoxical, the effort needed for joy to arise must be directed toward letting go.
Now I have fairly passive tendencies and so for me, letting go requires making an effort to counteract those tendencies. Letting go is not a passive experience, but an experience of going forth, as if I have to rise up and go forth into the present moment. It’s a wonderful relief when I do this—it’s joyful. On the other hand, for people who tend to be driven and goal-oriented, the process of letting go is very different. For them, letting go comes with the realization that they don’t need to put forth a self-motivated, Herculean, obsessive effort. It still takes effort, but for them the effort mostly goes toward relaxing and calming the driven quality of their energy.
Once a sense of joy arises, it takes more effort to keep it going. We get onto our walking paths, walk, put forth effort, and, when the mind wanders and moves away from its center of awareness, we bring it back. At some point, joy may arise. It’s wonderful when that happens, but how long does that joy last? The image that comes to mind is one of those carnival wheels that spins around for about thirty seconds, then slows down, and finally stops. That’s akin to the arising of joy and the way joy can be sustained. We put in effort—spinning the wheel—and from that effort joy arises. Then the wheel stops and we exert our effort again. Over time, with our continued effort, we can keep the wheel spinning longer, and joy sustains itself longer.
When it comes to making our walking and sitting practice sustainable, we do have to enjoy it. We can turn our attention to that joy. Right now the weather is beautiful, the sun is out and it’s filtering through the trees as we walk or sit in the forest. It’s quiet, peaceful, and easy to enjoy this opportunity to put forth effort toward something that’s absolutely blameless and wholesome. It’s a remarkable opportunity. If we can enjoy it, cultivate a sensitivity for the beauty, and develop the wonderful experience of being free and unburdened, then that’s going to be a great help to our practice, our monastic lives, and our spiritual journey.
This reflection by Ajahn Yatiko is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume Two, (ABM pdf) pp. 63-64.