I stood in my kitchen, cutting apple for my breakfast, in my sweat pants and fluffy socks, and thought “Man, I am SO much happier today than I was a few weeks ago”.
In the last month, I’ve stopped working full time, and stopped working at a place that set me off, every day I was there, down a path of don’t-talk-to-me-coz-I’m-itching-to-punch-someone’s-nose.
It wasn’t a good job-employee match.
But on this day, with enough sleep, and nothing more than a few emails to send on my to-do list, I became aware of how happy I was.
It felt good.
But here’s the thing about happiness…if I depend on circumstances for it, I’m in trouble. Circumstances change, and they can get bad. And then I’m screwed.
Enter, the concept of joy.
For me, joy is deeper, calmer and more love-based than happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of happy. But joy is a type of happiness that is outside of circumstance. It’s deeper. Higher. Fuller.
And I want me some of that type of happiness
A lot of it, actually.
And just to be clear, joy isn’t giddy. It isn’t manic. It doesn’t wind you up and then let you whir out till you’re spent. It isn’t something that you can manipulate or falsify – you don’t get joy from a funny movie or late night political talk show satire. That’s entertainment. It’s fun, but it isn’t joy.
Joy is like the soil from which you can grow an approach to thinking and being in the world, one that is content and calm and hopeful and, yes, happy at some deep level. Even in the midst of negative circumstances.
But Joy isn’t “natural”, it’s a choice
Here’s the rub: our brains are wired for threat detection. And when we detect a threat, we don’t let it go until there is no more threat.
This is great when living a primitive life, where hungry predator animals pass by and we need to stay aware to stay alive. Predator goes away – brain calms down.
It’s a flawless system.
Until the threat is created by our thinking. Then we have a problem.
There are many ways our thinking can create “threats” that our limbic system (our fight or flight stress response) will react to.
“She is such a bitch, she backstabbed me”
“The economy is tanking, I’m going to lose my job and end up on the street and desperate”
“I’m such a loser, I never get things right”
When we’re thinking these kinds of thoughts, the brain is triggered into the stress, or fear, response over and over – this is where things like adrenal fatigue and anxiety disorders are born. Chronic stress.
Adding to the problem here is that the more we think a particular thought, the easier it is for us to think it again. The brain myelinates those thinking pathways so it’s easier and quicker for us to think those thoughts next time.
This is how we learn to do things “without thinking”, like driving a car or speaking. The longer we’ve been doing something, the less we have to stop and think about every action before we make it, or every word before we say it.
It’s how we get so much stuff done.
Again, flawless system – until we’re turning negative thinking into a pathway so quick and easy we don’t even notice we have a choice.
One trigger and BAM! we’re all the way down the thought path to anger or sadness or fear.
That’s the catch.
We’ve got to manage the mental system or it tricks us into chronic negativity, stress and fear.
And no joy.
That’s why joy must be a choice.
To stop the pattern of auto-negativity in the brain, and instead build auto-joy thinking patterns, is a choice.
Actually, I lie.
It’s several choices.
# to be exact.
Firstly, we must choose to want joy. Sounds weird, but this can be the hardest part. Because, by association, we have to choose to not want the negative stuff.
YOU: Of course I don’t want the negative stuff – that’s the easy part!
TRUTH: No one wants the negative outcomes of chronic fear, stress, anxiety or tension. But boy, everyone loves a little bit of the initial negative thoughts…
Those “she’s a bitch” or “the economy is tanking” or “how can I be so stupid” thoughts. We LOVE them, in a dark-corner, fester-y kinda way.
The reason those kind of thoughts take hold is that we do love them, our brains love to detect a threat. And emotionally, we feel something familiar and “safe” (fake safe) about obsessively thinking those thoughts.
Sad, but true. It’s our nature.
The good news is, when we realise this, we can change it. We can choose joy instead.
But we first must choose to give up the “pleasure” of the negative thoughts.
Or at least be willing to try.
Once we’ve made that choice consciously, it’s time to choose to practice the connection to joy.
This is where we build new neural pathways that will slowly be myelinated by our brain, the more we choose them, and eventually become more quick and natural than the negative ones.
That takes time.
It takes repetition.
And it takes patience, because you’re gonna flick back to the negative a LOT.
That’s just the way you’re brain is wired right now. Accept it. Move on.
There will be lots of attempted connection to joy, followed by suddenly realising you’ve spent several minutes thinking (again) about how Julie said that nasty thing to you last week, or how you stuffed up on that report you handed in on Tuesday. Yep. You’re back in negative thinking.
Breathe deeply, thank your brain for being efficient and alert to threats. Then remind your brain and you that you’re totally safe, and return to joy
Choose to go back to joy.
And then choose again.
My process for connecting with joy
Here’s my process for connecting to joy. I stumbled on this practice some time ago and it still amazes me how powerful it can be when you choose to give it your time and attention and effort.
1. Sit still, close your eyes and breathe deeply.
This is how all meditative practices start, and it's that way for a reason. It helps slow your thinking, relax your body and focus your attention. Spend a minute or two just doing this.
2. Visualise the molecules of everything around you, including the floor, the chair, the walls, the air and your own body.
Scientists who study the activity of micro matter know that, at any moment, the cells making up my body may jump out of me and become part of any other thing around me - the chair, the wall, the plant etc. We are, very plainly, all made up of the same thing, the same matter. So visualise the similarity of all the cells in you and all other things.
3. See each of those cells as fuelled by, or vibrating with the energy of joy.
See it in each cell and see that combined energy of joy around you, forming the shape of the floor, the chair, the plant etc. Start to see the joy energy more than the thing itself.
4. Feel that joy energy in your own cells, forming your energy field.
You are vibrating with the same joy energy that everything else is. Joy is part of the fuel that creates all matter and sustains all matter. And that includes you.
5. Sit in that feeling state, feeling the joy all through you and around you.
This is the beautiful feeling state that is available to us at all times.