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How to find joy

I believe in joy. After all, who doesn’t? And yet so often joy is something we think of as elusive.

Joy is the mirage we chase our whole lives — always searching for it around the next corner, the next raise, the next promotion.

Soon, we think. Soon I’ll have everything I could possibly want.

Soon I’ll have everything I need to be happy.

And then we get the job or the raise or the promotion — and inevitably it doesn’t turn out like we’d expected.

We’re disappointed.

We might be angry or frustrated. We might even feel betrayed.

There was a time in my life when I felt betrayed.

I felt like the way we talk about success and happiness in America had betrayed me, had led me down the wrong path — a path that had promised happiness but had ultimately left me mired in misery.

That time was post-MIT when I’d sunk everything into pursuing a dream only to look up and wonder whose dream it was that I was chasing.

I’d wrecked myself on sleepless nice and a ceaseless cascade of stress — and in the end it seemed that my suffering had bought me only what I didn’t want: a desk job I didn’t love, a paycheck I didn’t spend, and life in a city I dreamed of escaping.

And for a while, I felt betrayed. Angry. Hurt. Bitter. Exhausted.

That misery was the fork in my road, the moment in which I had to decide whether I thought that joy ultimately lay just a little farther down the path or whether I was going to have to venture off into parts unknown in order to find it.

I was pretty sure that joy didn’t lay farther ahead down the same well-worn path — but the problem was I was afraid to venture off the path.

I was afraid I might get lost.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been venturing off the path for a while now — in some ways for years.

And joy isn’t out there in the woods somewhere and joy isn’t on the path.

Joy is locked away in your own heart and the easiest way to find it is to stop looking and notice.

I can say this because I still haven’t moved far from the path.

I’m still working a desk job that increasingly I find I enjoy.

I’m still living in a city I wish I could move out of — but increasingly I find that the city is also beautiful in it’s own impenetrable way.

I realize now that I volunteered myself for suffering because I wanted the world to approve of me and of my choices — and I’ve learned that the only approval I really need is my own.

And you know what? The magic of it is that often these days I’m just ridiculously grateful and happy.

So often these days I just sit quietly and feel myself marinating in joy.

And what I’m learning now is that when you find joy within yourself first, it stops seeming so scary to venture off the path.

Now it’s your turn! Have you quit seeking happiness? What simple pleasures of everyday life bring you joy? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

Settling into the stillness

While I was a student at MIT I forgot how to be still.

I was so madly busy, so go-go-go that every time I came up for breath, I twitched restlessly, sure I must be missing or forgetting something.

I would go home for Christmas, and in the days that followed my arrival I was relentless. I fidgeted. I poked and prodded. I asked “What’s up?” over and over, helplessly, of anyone afflicted with my presence.

One year, in a fit of desperation I sat down to my mother’s piano (an instrument I do not play) and proceeded to teach myself Bach, one agonized note at a time. I played the same piece over and over and over for hours, for days until my fingers flew almost gracefully over the keys.

I played until every nerve in the house was frayed just like mine were and — in the moment when my sister finally yelled at me to stop — I thought that in their annoyance my family at last shared a trace of my pain.

This affliction was usually (thankfully) short-lived. Within a handful of days my anxiety dimmed from a pitched fervor to a disquieting buzz that settled in my bones and could be mistaken for “normal”. I could come to accept that for a few short weeks there might be nothing I needed to do — no imminent crisis that needed thwarting, no pending deadline I had somehow forgotten.

But I could not settle into stillness.

The first time I tried in earnest to meditate was the winter after I graduated with my Master’s degree.

I settled down on a cushion and dutifully crossed my legs. I set my timer for the recommended 20 minutes. I closed my eyes and focused my attention on my breathing. I pressed “start” on my cell phone timer.

I think I lasted all of 30 seconds before I was shifting again — my hand reaching instinctively to kill the timer as I rose to my feet and settled myself back at the computer.

Sitting in stillness with my thoughts was unbearable.

I tried again in the following days — setting my timer. I never made it the full 20 minutes, but sometimes I counted myself lucky to endure five as my thoughts raced in tight, anxious circles and I struggled to remember my breath.

I gave up eventually. I quit.

I decided meditation wasn’t for me; the way I’d decided it wasn’t at age 10 when I’d read about it in a book, sat down to try it out, and remained still for a (very patient) three minutes before deciding I must not be doing it right.

I guess I’d expected some kind of a mystical experience, but all I got was me — concentrated and intensified and uncomfortably near as I struggled to follow, not dictate, the rhythm of my breath.

But as we enter this particular winter — as we enter into the liminal space between winter’s first chill and the snowy onset of winter’s depths — I’ve noticed something in me has shifted.

No longer am I the girl who can’t sit still.

No longer am I the girl who found a 20 minute meditation stretched out like an infinite, bridgeless crevasse I was unable to cross.

No.

These days I find myself sitting in stillness more often than not, in vast stretches of empty hours spent on the bus to and from work or on airplanes as I criss-cross the country with the alacrity of a hockey puck.

I used to fill these spaces with noise, with words, with pages and pages of the books I voraciously consumed — stuffing my head to the brim with thoughts and ideas. But these days, more and more, I find I’d rather just sit down where I am and watch and breathe and contemplate the world as it slips silently by out my window.

On the eve of this particular winter I’m finding myself settling into a new and yet familiar stillness, settling into the moments of soft introspection as my attention draws inward even as the trees draw in their sap.

I find myself welcoming, not dreading, the impending cold that will keep me hunkered down. No longer does the threat of this seem anything other than delicious as I settle myself down for a kind of inward-turning hibernation.

I find myself feeling, for perhaps the first time since I arrived at MIT, like I’m incubating the seeds of something entirely new.

I find myself returning to the oft-quoted passage from T.S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

I’m sinking myself into the stillness now, I’m waiting into the winter.

Because I do not yet feel ready for thought as I settle, ever more deeply, into the person I find I’m busy becoming.

What about you — who might you be becoming? Let me know in the comments.