This post appeared first in The Finger Lakes Times (NY): http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-squeezed-into-the-thinness-between-seasons/article_bc91f525-3ddf-507e-9094-1b4f6cc84f05.html
There is a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest of our lives that leads from gratitude to joy. Gratitude and joy are the Siamese twins of wellness, spiritual or otherwise. Separate them, and there is an internal death waiting to happen.
We often confuse happiness and joy, or sadly assume they are two words for the same thing. Not so. We can make ourselves happy. To get happy we reach for people and things, or engage in activities, that tend to make us feel good. Sometimes we even engage in activities we steadfastly believe will make us feel good, but that actually haunt and burden us instead. But that is a subject for another column.
Joy, on the other hand, cannot be created or manufactured, or in any way purchased by our own efforts. Joy is visited upon us, spreading within to fill any and every crack like golden light at dawn. When we are able to keep gratitude as a core element within our heart, joy has fertile ground to host it. Conversely, joy cannot spring from the soil of resentment.
But as I said, there is some inexplicable relationship between gratitude and joy, almost a physics that bonds them. Why or how they are that way is a mystery, but we do know that when we lose touch with gratitude we lose capacity for joy.
We are often seduced or deluded into imagining that the thing we want most is what will deliver joy. But the thing we want most is likely the acquisition, achievement, or procurement that fattens the ego. When we have eaten our fill, when we are fat and satiated and can’t hardly move from the happiness of eating so many good things; or when our 401K is better than we ever imagined; or the house is everything we had hoped for and we can’t wait to show it off; or we’re driving the car we always lusted for; or the kids are doing great in school or off on their own and living well; when nothing could possibly be better than it is right now; we may not be any closer or more receptive to joy than we were before acquiring all those things we wanted most.
Here then, is a diagnostic tool to help us decipher the source and the promise of our desires. Does that thing we want most bring us to the connection between gratitude and joy?
Does our desire for that thing we want most evoke gratitude and joy, or does it excite happiness, self-satisfaction, satiation, pride, and pleasure? I would be the last person in the world to argue against happiness, satiation, or pleasure. But the pursuit of those things will not lead us to joy. In fact, if we are not clear about the difference between happiness and joy, it is likely we will eventually end up with a heavy sensation of emptiness in the pit of the stomach.
So tomorrow on Thanksgiving, instead of being mindful of what we have, which is the typical cultural grace we are asked to offer, I would invite you into a different meditation. Where, within our own life, and where within our own heart, do we experience joy? Not happiness, not self-satisfaction or pride, not pleasure – but joy. If we can find that place, then we will also get a clearer vision of a life greater than ourselves.
Follow the breadcrumbs of gratitude that mark the way to joy, and when we arrive there, share it.