By David Spangler
Editor's Note: From the Archives features reflections by David Spangler that are out of print or not readily available to members of our community. This essay was first published by Yes! Magazine in May of 2004. You may read the original post here.
Part of my spiritual practice is to “stoke the fires of joy.” This seems to me especially important at a time when the antithesis of joy is unleashed upon us and upon the world once again.
There are many images I could use to describe what I feel here. One that comes to mind is of a lighthouse. When the storm breaks and all is fierce winds and lashing waves, it is a lighthouse that penetrates the darkness and keeps the ships from crashing into the rocks.
Now that war has come, we are on stormy seas. The rocks of despair and depression, anger and fear threaten to sink our inner energy and vision.
There are many dangers—new diseases, famine, pollution, starvation, and so on and on—that confront us with stormy inner seas and challenge our humanity.
Yet, around all this and permeating it, is the presence of what I think of as the sacred, and it has power, too. Its power is rooted in love and in the sheer joy of life, of engagement, of making connections, of being part of wholes larger than ourselves.
I think of joy as an inner quality that is like medicine within the world. It is healing and restorative, vitalizing and protective. In the days ahead, the spiritual forces will be called upon even more for healing and grace, regeneration and blessing. They in turn are empowered by the inner medicines we supply—the joy, the love, the vision, the forgiveness, and the gratefulness, the light that we can produce.
I believe we forget the power of joy at our peril, for when we lose it, we can sink beneath the waves and become, to switch metaphors, breeding grounds for the forces of despair and destruction, frustration and fear. We become part of the storm, not part of the lighthouse. I don't have an exercise or specific practice to recommend here. We each know what brings us joy. But there are two elements I would offer.
The first is simply to allow joy to be in us. I may feel in the midst of a world of sorrow and pain that it is somehow wrong or shameful or at least selfish to feel joy. But does my anger or fear or hatred or despair or depression remedy the world's pain? Perhaps there are situations in which they can be of help by motivating me to change or to create change, but most of the time, they drag my energies down.
We may think of joy as selfish, but anger, fear, hatred, and certainly depression and despair are infinitely more selfish and self-involving. Joy is a quality that by its nature reaches out to more than just ourselves. It enlarges us, expands us, gives us a reason to keep on living and striving. Joy gives wings to my heart. Depression and anger are stones that weigh it down.
Will I become insensitive to the needs of others or the suffering in the world if I am joyful? No. I can be selfishly happy but not selfishly joyful. Joy does not blind my eyes to others. But fear, depression, despair can make me insensitive. They can lead me to denial. I try to escape into pleasure, distraction, addiction to avoid the pain, to blunt the suffering, to take the edge from despair.
Joy does not lead me to escape. It leads me to embrace the world with all its suffering and all its wonder and creative powers.
So do I have a right to be joyful? In a world of war and despair, do I have a right not to be? Shall I deny the world the gift of a buoyant heart and mind that can attune to the powers of spirit, the powers of love, the powers of the sacred, and the power of humanity to change and to grow?
Joy is not denial. Joy is not placid or resigned acceptance. Joy is a passion for the well-being of all and a courage to shape the world on behalf of that well-being. So the first step is to give ourselves permission to be joyful.
The second is to pay attention when life brings joy to us. It is a cliché, but still true that little things like sunsets and children's smiles can bring joy. A flower can bring joy. Being with a friend can bring joy. For such a powerful force, joy can enter our lives in such small and trivial ways. Pay attention!
Keep alert! Joy can ambush us at any moment. It is a fierce warrior that wants our hearts as its captives, so it can liberate them to new possibilities and to a power to heal and transform. Surrender to its claims. Be open to its arrival. At a time of war, we should welcome the joy that is power, the joy that is peace, the joy that is medicine for the ills of the world.
There's still time to sign up for David Spangler's upcoming class, Fiery Hope:Forging the Creative Path. In this week-long forum (May 17-23) David will explore hope as a spiritual force that can be harnessed to transform one's experience of life and positively impact those around us. For more information and to register, click here.