Remember being a kid and playing a super-fun game until one of your parents came out and ruined it? “Don’t do that, it’s too dangerous,” or “If you turn a little to the left, you could hit the target more easily”, or “Why don’t you try…”, or “Stop making so much noise!”
Well, that’s what the mind does to the expression of joy.
It’s Day 3 of my personal discovery mission to help me identify the practical steps necessary to move from the pursuit of happiness to the expression of joy.
Yesterday I shared someone else’s wisdom. Today’s idea is my own and came to me this morning as I woke.
“Would I be expressing joy by getting up or staying warm and cosy in my bed?”, my brain asked.
“Surely the desire to stay warm and cosy is the pursuit of happiness?”, came the reply.
“Oh God!”, another thought piped in, “Joy is an experience. It’s delicate and all this thinking just crushes it. You’re turning something light into something heavy. That’s why you’re struggling. Just doing things or being still is all that’s required.”
Joyful = simple connection
I realised this morning that joyfulness exists in the simple connection with tasks, people and myself.
It’s exists when the barriers to connection are removed and I am present, focused, attentive and flexible.
What does that mean?
When I’m present, focused and attentive my body and mind are in the same place – rather than my mind jumping to another time and place (like thinking about work while spending time with my kids or imagining how someone might judge this blog rather than simply writing it). I give my full attention to what I’m doing or the person I am with. I allow my mind to quiet and I focus on what’s happening right here, right now.
When I’m flexible, I let go of the need for things to be a particular way. My failure to do this creates huge barriers to simple joyful experiences. Just last night I created such a barrier.
On Monday nights my daughter has back to back commitments. I drive her to the first one and wait in the car until she’s finished before driving her to the second one and returning home for an hour until it’s time to fetch her. When I got home, my husband had cooked dinner for my son as planned, but instead of frying some chicken and serving it with rice and veg, he made the chicken into nuggets, still with rice and veg.
I was instantly pissed off. Our son would eat chicken nuggets every night of the week if he could and getting him to eat something else is often a battle so expanding his repertoire is a torturous daily struggle.
So now, rather than focusing on the fact that my husband had gone above and beyond in his efforts to prepare a dinner our son would enjoy, I sulked and stewed in my irritation. The two of them sat at the table, talking and laughing amicably and our son devoured the nuggets while I stood preparing the veg for the next round of dinner, when the rest of the family would eat (we normally eat together but Monday timings just don’t work out).
Having more flexibility would mean letting go of the need for things to be exactly the way I want them to be. This is probably one of the greatest barriers I experience when it comes to joy.
I use this phrase often when describing myself. It’s a common phrase and I hear lots of other people use it too, including many of the clients I work with.
But “control freak” is another way of saying, “I’m only OK if things go exactly the way I want them to go.”
The barriers created by this lack of flexibility are dotted throughout our lives and relationships. They bring stress, worry, fear, irritation, anger and guilt – along with quite a few other emotions – all of which make it impossible for us even to experience joy, let alone express it.
The Practical Implications
I’ve found that trying to “think positively” or “not think about it” don’t work for me. That method is like trying to hold a ball under water. You have to apply constant pressure which is exhausting and it eventually stops working anyway.
The practices that work for me are:
- Genuine gratitude – I reminded myself that I have a husband who will stand in the kitchen making home-made chicken nuggets in an effort to provide our son with a healthier version of his favourite meal. That’s pretty blooming lovely!
- Meditation – Joy is SOOOOO much easier to experience when the mind is quiet but quieting the mind takes practice. Trying to quiet the mind when you’re irritated or angry is damn near impossible if the skill isn’t already honed. Before I learned to practice daily meditation, I stood NO chance of doing this. Now I have a 50/50 shot. It’s not perfect but it’s progress and that’s all we can ask of ourselves.
- Take my attention to my body – These days I take time to notice physical sensations that accompany my emotions. I’ve learned that anxiety exists in my throat and chest while anger lies in my shoulders and helplessness nests in my stomach. Next time you feel an emotion that’s hard to manage, take a moment to feel where you’re holding tension in your body. Couple this with practice 4 below.
- Slow exhales – First, I imagine “breathing into that area of my body” – so my attention might go to my throat as I breathe in (usually to a count of 5 – 6). Then I exhale as slowly as I can (usually a count of 7 – 10). Slowing your exhale is one of the easiest ways to bring your body to a state of calm – and once the body is calm, the mind can calm too.
I’ve spent most of my adult life honing my thinking skills but what I now realise is that to find the deepest joy and connection with life, it’s time to move beyond thinking – to experiencing and letting go of the need for things to be “just so”.
How is your mind interfering with your experience of joy?