Joy Story

Jon had his life changed by hearing the teaching "Joy is within you." At the time, he was a journalist whose favorite form of humor was cynical irony, and he had an ingrained distrust of words like joy and bliss. If you asked him "Have you ever been happy?" he would have thought of a few great high school basketball games, and a rave he went to tripping on Ecstasy in 1993, and then he would probably have shrugged and said something edgy like, "Only idiots are happy."

One day, in the yoga class he took because his doctor had told him it would be good for stress, the teacher described a posture by saying that it brought forth the innate bliss in the heart. "Innate bliss?" Jon thought. "Not in my heart." Then the teacher started to read from the writings of an Indian guru: "What we are looking for in everything is joy, ecstasy. But ecstasy is within you. Look for it in your own heart."

Since he was there in the posture, with nothing much else to do anyway, Jon decided to bring his reporter's investigative skills to bear on the teacher's proposition. He turned his attention around, with the idea that he'd look inside and see if what the teacher said had any possible basis in reality. He literally aimed his attention into the place where he thought the heart was, and even tried to visualize the pumping muscle in his chest.

To Jon's surprise, when he focused inside like that, something shifted. He felt a little current, a trickle of good feeling. The feeling expanded into radiating warmth. Suddenly, he was ecstatic. And what was even more interesting, he knew exactly what ecstasy was, even though he'd never experienced it before. It turns out that joy is something that even the most hardened pessimist can recognize when he sees it.

Jon's happiness lasted all day. It didn't actually stop when he went to sleep. "Yoga bliss," someone said to him when he described it.

"No, it was something inside me," said Jon. "It was mine."

The Primal Truth of Joy
There are certain core teachings that can forever shift the way you see the world. 'Joy is within you' is one of them. Even if you hear it from a purely psycho-physical point of view, if you really hear it, it's going to help you recognize one of the most empowering truths there is: that it is actually possible to feel happy regardless of how the world is treating you, regardless of how horrible your childhood was, regardless of the fact that all your friends are doing better than you. You can even, this teaching implies, be happy when you fail at something or when you're sick. That understanding can have immediate and far-reaching implications. It can help you become less reactive, for one thing. It can get you to start developing a meditation practice, or at the very least to think about changing your diet, or working on your attitude.

But as with all the great truths, your understanding of what it means to say that joy is inside you is crucial. If you don't understand it deeply, you're likely to mistake superficial good feeling for joy. Or you might also start to attach your joy to the circumstances that trigger it, the weekends when you get to hang out with a particular teacher or to romantic moments with your boyfriend, or even to jogging or basketball. Then you become an addict of a particular practice or person or situation. At another level, you might make the mistake that I made for years, and become a sort of bliss-fascist, expecting yourself to be in a 'good' state all the time, and subtly beating yourself up when you aren't.

Four Kinds of Happiness
So, what are we really talking about when we talk about the inner joy, and how are we supposed to approach it? In Sanskrit, there are four different words for happiness—sukha, santosha, mudita, and ananda. Each of these points to a different level of happiness. Together, they can actually constitute a path that leads us to the kind of happiness that really can't be shaken.

The word for ordinary happiness—the kind of happiness that comes from pleasant experiences—is sukha. Sukha means ease, enjoyment, comfort—literally, "good experience." It is often translated into English as "pleasure." Sukha is the happiness we feel when we're firmly inside our comfort zone. I live on the California coast and there are days when I wake up in the morning and look out the window and feel, well, spontaneously happy. That particular form of happiness is less likely to be present when I'm, say, circling the San Jose airport trying to find a way into the long-term parking zone so I can make my plane. The point here, as every inner tradition will tell you, is that sukha, joy-as-pleasure, is basically unreliable. Any state that depends on things going our way can disappear in an eye blink the minute conditions change.

There's a famous story by Katherine Mansfield that perfectly describes this quality in ordinary happiness. A young wife is giving a party. As she surveys the scene she has created, she congratulates herself because everything feels perfect—her house, the wine, the mix of guests, her nice husband pouring drinks for everyone. "This is bliss," she says to herself. "This is happiness." Then she notices her husband whispering in the ear of one of the woman guests, and realizes that he is making an assignation with the woman. Suddenly, her happiness is transformed into an agony of loss.

4/25/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Sally Kempton
    About Sally Kempton
    An internationally known teacher of meditation and spiritual wisdom, Kempton is the author of Meditation for the Love of It and writes a monthly column for Yoga Journal. Follow her on Facebook and visit her website at