What is Joy and How Can I Get Some: Truth Telling from the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Originally published June 2017

If there was ever a time in the collective American (shoot, global) culture we could all use a lesson on joy, now just may well be it.

Of course, if I’ve learned anything from reading the Book of Joy, this is all about perspective. So, if I think about it, there are far worse stretches for humanity in our past than the current dumpster fire we are experiencing.

So … yay, joy!

(Psst …. the Lama and Tutu are also big on humor, so roll with the snark.)

Honestly, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” is an excellent read in these times, when we’re all searching for some understanding of how we got here (a national case of raging self-centeredness) and how we can move forward (acceptance, humility and forgiveness, not binge drinking.) Written by Douglas Abrams, the book is at its core a transcript of a weeklong conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the subject of joy, with some organizational context to keep the narrative moving forward.

Split into three parts, the conversation breaks down the nature of joy, the obstacles to it, and its eight pillars. It’s a fascinating take, and remarkably non-secular, given the spiritual background of those conversing. In fact, in one of the latter chapters on generosity, the Dalai Lama says, “You don’t have to have scriptural or religious teaching. It’s just the truth: You can’t survive on your own.”

It’s that concept that is central to much of what the book talks about — that as people, our existence doesn’t take on any meaning without the existence of others (unless you really are the best person ever). And it’s our reluctance to embrace that concept that keeps us from finding joy (SAD!). It’s through the active practice of things like generosity, humility, gratitude and compassion that joy becomes more apparent.

Interestingly, I was helping my daughter recently with an essay comparing two literary characters’ struggles when I explained hope is not indicative of a happy ending. And in the book, the concept of hope is contrasted with optimism in much the same way. Whereas optimism is commonly associated with thinking positively, hope is more of a fervent commitment to a core belief, that regardless of present circumstances, one can weather a storm.

And in much the same way, happiness is not indicative of joy. Joy can be present in the darkest of situations, when one considers among other things already mentioned, concepts such as perspective, acceptance, forgiveness and even humor.

Most of what’s included in the book is not necessarily new, though it’s nice to know there’s no one person that’s cornered the market on the concept of gratitude. That said, with the number of people that lean on that tenet as central to being more content with your life, one has to imagine there really is something to it. (And there is.) But like anything you want to actively practice, learning it over and over again makes it more likely the lesson will stick eventually.

I could rattle off everything thing I annotated, but I’d be here all night typing. There are lessons everywhere. It’s probably best summed up toward the end of the narrative with this:

“When we practice a generosity of spirit, we are in many ways practicing all the other pillars of joy. In generosity, there is a wider perspective, in which we see our connection to all others. There is a humility that recognizes our place in the world and acknowledges that at another time we could be the one in need, whether that need is material, emotional, or spiritual. There is a sense of humor and ability to laugh at ourselves so that we do not take ourselves too seriously. There is an acceptance of life, in which we do not force life to be other than what it is. There is forgiveness of others and a release of what otherwise might have been. There is a gratitude for all that we have been given. Finally, we see others with a deep compassion and a desire to help those in need.”

Extra cool? An entire section of meditations at the end of the book to practice what you’ve read. Time to start breathing.

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