I'm a little more than a quarter of the way through this year of discovering joy, and I am incredibly grateful that I stumbled onto all the pieces that led me to try this.
Since I am not often writing real blog posts the way I did in my Never Done year—which was to write thoughtful little essays every day, connecting my Never Done activity to the mide (middah) I was working on that week, and connecting the whole thing to my mussar learning—but instead mostly reporting on the things I do daily that are solely for me, and in the pursuit of joy, I feel that every now and then I should write a post that reminds and contextualizes and probes and explains and explores.
To remind us all: I spent the day of yom kippur reading a self help book in which I realized that I am pretty lousy at setting bottom lines and that I'd better start learning how to do that. Without them, I walk around feel vaguely or acutely victimized by people who trample over them, even if I haven't set them or can't even identify them. And also, maybe connected and maybe not connected to this, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time doing things for other people, getting my self-worth and satisfaction from doing things for other people, and rarely taking time to do things solely for myself. I don't want to become a person who doesn't value and do things for other people; I just don't want it to be my main source of self-worth and satisfaction, and I want it to be in balance.
So I started this practice: to do something every day that's just for myself, that will bring me joy. I started right out with beautiful walks and singing along to Bruce Springsteen, and re-reading old favorite books, and sticking my hands in the dirt of my garden. And I quickly realized a few things.
1) I can't just make myself feel joy. I can do things I enjoy, and I can find them enjoyable, but that's not actually the same as feeling joy.
2) The process of seeking joy is valuable even if the thing I chose to do that I thought would bring me joy actually turned out to be a dud. Like, going to the movies and seeing something dull, slow, poorly written, or bad for some other reason. I can still sit there thinking about how much I love going to movies. Somewhere along this first quarter I wrote that seeking appears to actually be the goal, and not achieving. Because seeking means trying and trying and testing and trying and putting myself back out there for myself, without worrying too much about if I am too ___________ (jaded, faded, busy, guarded, angry, scared) to actually feel the joy I am seeking.
3) I noticed pretty quickly that gratitude has something to do with it. So I spent a couple weeks in an active gratitude practice on my daily walk to the subway. I just sort of free-associated slash jazz riffed on things that popped up from my visual field or my mental field. "I'm thankful that my legs work so well. I'm thankful for clean water to drink. I'm thankful for my friends. I'm thankful that smart doctors know how to put a cow valve into someone's heart and make it work. I'm grateful that even though I live in the city, I get to walk past these trees on the way to work ..." What I was figuring out was that if I could pay acute attention to things I feel grateful for, then joy would be lurking somewhere around that corner.
After I moved, I didn't have a 20 minute walk to the subway anymore, but I've continued my gratitude monologue at other times of the day. (Starting with this: I am so grateful to live in this apartment. Every single day I am grateful to live here, with its windows and its two bathrooms and its space and my friends nearby.) I'd be lying if I told you I'm suddenly a ball or joyful energy, but I can tell you that I'm more content more of the time. And although I miss feeling the strong washes of joy I felt when I was younger, I am starting to wonder if contentment is actually true joy. (Strong contender of something I might believe.)
Another thing I might believe is that when I felt joy more easily, it alternated with feelings of despair and terrible loneliness and other very difficult emotions. I've worked pretty hard to work through the roots of those other feelings, with all sorts of healthy modalities: therapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, journaling, theater, etc. I've also done my share of numbing out from a very early age: food, repetitive listening to Godspell, exercise, drugs, dangerous solo travel, intense physical work, intense political activism, etc.
But the thing is, I've long been aware that you can't numb out loneliness and leave the exhilaration at leaning into the wind at Point Reyes untouched. So for many years now I've not had caffeine (except oh my god, I love tea so much, so then sometimes I do have some, because it is actually quite joyful to drink tea.) And I have not done scary dangerous things. And I mostly don't drink. (Haven't had more than one drink in more than 30 years. I mean, I have had more than one drink in 30 years. But when I drink, which has been something like once every week to once every 6 months, I don't have more than one.) I haven't taken a recreational drug in probably 30 years. Food is tougher -- my tendencies are toward undereating and overeating, and all I can say is that for the most part, this has been in quite healthy balance for 15-20 years, but it's the toughest one for me to keep steady. You know -- the thing about food is you can't go cold turkey, like you can with hashish or Godspell.
So this is all the stuff I've been thinking about and learning about and synthesizing from my first quarter year of my selfish joy-seeking practice.
And then I came home sick from work, and I was listening to the radio, and heard a woman talking about all of this. I mean, TALKING ABOUT ALL OF THIS. I didn't know who she was for most of the time she was talking, so I wrote down little clues, to help me go find her in case they forgot to tell us her name at the end of the segment. Here's what I wrote down: "vulnerability/rest/creativity. Terrifying to feel joy." I mean, who is this woman? And of course they did not forget to introduce her, and her name is Brené Brown, and she's super well-known and popular from her incredibly smart and successful books and TED talks and other public appearances. I mean, super well-known like I should have already heard of her. And in fact, once I started watching her TED talks online, I got this little inkling that maybe someone in my mussar group had sent this around already, when we were working together on vulnerability, so I searched my emails, and I found that yes, everyone in my group had watched it except me. Because I had been too busy with some very important thing or other back in March. But you know what I thought? And do you know what I did not think? I did not think, "I can't believe I missed out on 10 months of knowing who Brené Brown is! I can't believe I thought I was to busy to learn what is probably one of the most valuable lessons of my life!" Instead I thought, "Isn't it interesting how I found her work when I was ready to?"
Anyhow, I was home sick, so I had plenty of time to sit around and watch things on the internet, so I watched a couple of of Brené's talks and had a meta-experience of taking time for myself, seeking joy, while watching videos of someone talking about seeking joy.