Hiding From Joy
I lived in East Palo Alto, CA in 2010 while I finished my Master’s degree. Having lived in a very rural community for years, I was pretty excited about all the Bay Area options for alternative religious observance. One church I looked forward to visiting was the Palo Alto Ananda Church of Self-Realization, an offshoot of the original Self-Realization Fellowship. The SRF was created to spread the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, an East Indian who migrated to the U.S. in the beginning of the 20th century to introduce kriya yoga, “the science of enlightenment”, to the west. As it happens 2020 is the centennial of Yogananda’s establishing the SRF in Los Angeles.
I knew Yogananda through his bestselling autobiography, Autobiography of a Yogi, still in print since the first 1946 edition. I suppose the best way I can describe the book in short is with a Google search question. Question reads, “Is Autobiography of a Yogi true?” and that’s actually a typical reader response, if I am any example. I read the book at age 14 or possibly 15, when I got excited about yoga. So 1969–70.
To cut to some sort of chase, this rant isn’t about Yogananda, it’s about joy. Joy being such a big subject, I flounder- or procrastinate. Or both. The reason I begin with my visit to the Palo Alto church is that I noticed the congregation (or the leaders perhaps) had a distinct idea about joy; that joy is better if it is gentle. Follow-along prayer lines were displayed on wall-mounted LED screens, in lieu of prayer books. In accord the congregation asked someone (or something) for the blessing of gentle joy.
I react to screens with a fairly constant awareness of the Big Brother effect. I wasn’t raised with the TV, we’ll just say. So while we prayed for the experience of gentle joy along with the screens, my metaphorical ears perked. Since when do we need to qualify joy? I asked nobody at all. Were Yogananda’s followers a bunch of joy fascists? How were we supposed to feel about UN gentle joy? Was excited joy like idle hands: another Devil’s workshop?
The message I got from this gentle joy thing was that, joy is all well and good, folks, but let’s not get too excited about it. Keep it down to a dull roar, as my Mom used to chastise her 6 children.
What is gentle joy, and why is it particularly desirable? At the time I was still in recovery from a life transforming experience of a far from gentle joy. I had run, perhaps desperately, into the fireworks kind of joy. Joy of the sort that’s innocently portrayed in photos of folks leaping high on the beach in front of a blazing sunset. Such photos belie the truth that large leaps of joy can be the sort my culture labels madness. Many religious saints were labeled thus in their day.
My own giant bound before the glorious sunset landed me 1. in the nuthouse, and next, 2. in severe anxiety for months during the aftermath. It was finger-in-a-light-socket level fear, a treacherous form of inner rapids that I’m somewhat skilled at navigating now.
Do we wish for gentle joy because, if we restrain and titrate joy, we avoid the 3D mundane crash? Gentle joy might be a safe little skip on the sidewalk as opposed to a seaside leap, but the gentle joy let down is barely noticeable. It’s like the absence of caffeine in the morning, as opposed to a life transforming struggle to regain stable footing. I could never have chosen the crash, but I also know that it was brave of me to leap. And no, I won’t be sainted, but then neither will you be crowned for your leaps, I expect. Not by anyone else, anyway.
Cold-blooded religious dogma, however useful, isn’t the only conditioning factor keeping us wary of joy, or even happiness. Joy and happiness are in essence the same thing, though the word ‘joy’ has a way larger palette than the placid English word ‘happiness’. Joy runs an amazing gamut, from holding your child for the first time, to the most cosmic mind blowing ecstasies of mystical journeying; done both. Happy is probably in line with gentle joy; it’s easier to talk about, easier to consider, to reach for and embrace. Though it could be some simple act, a stopping to smell roses, it’s often experienced as relief from something awful. In a society that has trouble stopping, it’s often the temporary disappearance of fear, depression, dread, the absence of that haunting feeling you’re not doing what you are supposed to. Happiness is always sane, and the use of the word implies sanity on the part of the user. Joy could be the crazy talking, unless you are a medieval saint or something.
Indeed, the word ‘joy’ has the taint of the religious upon it, and therefore must be handled with care in my demographic. Educated liberal white Americans don’t think or talk about joy, as a rule, with the exception of the word ‘enjoy’, which usually refers to enjoying the mundane; a good pastry and coffee with a friend. We might utter the word in church, as in the one recently mentioned, or while singing Christmas carols. Though joy is handled like very thin glass, most of us will allow ourselves to speak of happiness. In proper company.
We all have joy conditioning, of course. In the personal history department I can identify a decision I made to not be happy; a time when I learned how to keep joy on the down low. My parents had just separated, and I, as one of the oldest half of six siblings, was parceled out to my father. He was obviously uber distressed, and as a child, I didn’t know how to help. So I vowed that he would not see me acting happy when he was obviously unhappy. It is a common enough human strategy; emotional mirroring.
I’m sure such mirroring behavior is all very codependent in my white American liberal culture’s parlance, but codependent is what people are. It quite naturally feels amoral to happily go about the business of enjoying ourselves in the face of a close distressed human, never mind dancing with joy. We want to let the unhappy one know, quite simply, that we see them, and saying so is just not enough, no ma’am. Especially when you are 7 years old and your parents are divorcing. Adjusting our mood to another’s is empathy in its most primitive, and therefore perhaps its most beautiful, form.
Such natural mirroring behavior is fine for adults, if it’s more or less conscious; in other words, not a way of life. Looking around my country these days, I see many folks so overcome with empathy for countless things living, or even long dead, that they are never going to have a happy day in their lives. Unless they get some drugs. Which most of us do.
To complicate the matter of happiness, in my liberal white American demographic it’s laudable to be enraged, or “mad”: angry in the emotional sense. Such devilish inner torment is preferred behavior because it apparently proves one is “paying attention”, a 2 word phrase worth contemplating for those with a few minutes to spare. Seemingly it’s actually praiseworthy to avoid the devil’s idle workshop by emoting; by being alternately angry and depressed. It takes too much energy to be angry 24/7.
In part, anger and outrage show others that we beat our chests (in the lamentation way, hopefully not the gorilla way) over the fact that others are suffering. Our impotent social outrage is emotional mirroring that expresses our guilt for not having fixed everything yet.
What is not fine in my larger demographic is joy, no matter how many Insight Timer meditations we listen to or Thich Nhat Hanh books we read. And I started reading them decades ago. Why is joy so inappropriate? In a world gone so apparently amuck, we express our love by strangling joy- ours and others’. As I did in empathy for my father. We are not mad with joy, we are mad at it.
Joy is viewed with a suspicious eye, because we have been taught that happiness keeps us from striving, from eternally fixing everything. A happy person is an ineffective person, a limp dick. And for those who have been exposed to a world of hurt it’s horribly difficult to admit that, like my seven year old self, there’s only so much most of us can do. Happiness, however ephemeral, has become, in a world of suffering, a concerted choice.
My conditioning told me that happiness is the state of the uncaring, the irresponsible, the uneducated, the idiot. If you knew much at all, you would be bummed. Wipe that smirk off your face, young lady.
It would be wonderful, of course, if unhappiness fixed things. Or anything. Besides validating other unhappy people. Discomfort of any kind is definitely a potential motivation- my severe anxiety certainly was. But I propose it’s false to stereotype happy people as metaphorical slobs sipping metaphorical cocktails on the metaphorical summer beach. For loss and betrayal come to all who live long enough, and when they do, it’s Wheel of Fortune time. We can opt for permanent disability in the joy department, or we can see that Vanna’s showing us 3 doors. At least. Our life’s periodic swings from pain to ecstasy are what make saints of us all, anyway.
Unhappiness of the periodic sort is quite natural to the empathetic human, of course. For when at least somewhat healthy folks are aware of distressed humans, or animals, or rivers… it’s natural to grieve. There’s even a hint of joy in such grief; joy at knowing there is so much to love here, and gratitude because we do appear to love well enough to grieve. But healthy grief is an event; a phase, or a season, not a way of life. It’s true that some of us avoid the grief process by raging, whether outrage or enrage/inrage.
Perhaps we view our happiness with a cold eye because it is natural for loving humans to fear emulating those who are, indeed, damaged beyond empathy- and/or uneducated to it. On our planet, especially at this time, we are inundated with endless examples of tyrants and slaves and liars and cold hearted abusers, past and present. Some of us were spawned by such damaged and sadly disconnected creatures, the monkeys in Harry Harlow’s research study. But if we wait to en-joy our existence until the day when everything is fixed, we will wait forever.
My crazy joy didn’t last; it was unsustainable in my society, for one thing. It was essentially another story of infatuated love gone awry; astounding and unique to me, but nothing extraordinary on the human scale. People are doing the leaping joy of infatuation and other styles of euphoria all the time, especially the adolescent ones. They remember the natural joy of childhood and haven’t yet found themselves writhing on the beach. Humans as a species persist in loving, en-joying, more or less wildly, despite the possibility of falling from ungentle graces. Fearlessness is the very nature of the beast, for leaping joy is an experience of the eternal.
When we are in big joy, who cares about the fall? Recklessness is the nature of ecstasy, probably why it’s so threatening to the status quo. However, when past and future, both personal and collective, hurt too much, even full blown guilt-ridden adults might leap- if we are brave enough, and/or pushed beyond our limits. After the fall, rebuilding joy starts at the root of our beingness.
In the recklessness department, the original leader of the Ananda church, Kriyananda, lost a sexual molestation suit in the late 90s. He allegedly encouraged young female devotees to perform sexual acts upon his person, in despite of his celibate vows and well known matters of leadership ethics. Did Kriyananda’s salacious activity fall under the heading of “gentle joy”? And is there any hint of irony in the current church logo, “Joy is within you?” Who knows, for joy is an internal experience, however externally motivated. After Kriyananda’s fall, the Ananda church is now, not surprisingly, led by a married man.
Today my piriform cleaner updated; after cleaning files it used to tell me, “Your computer is feeling fresh and clean!” Now it says, “Run this every week to keep it healthy and full of joy!” Probably gentle joy, though I don’t know anything about AI joy. Once I would have scoffed such an obvious marketing ploy. How stupid do they think I am? My computer is joyful? But I’m too old to care about such stuff anymore. Outside of moralistic morasses like Kriyananda’s, I want to keep my heart open to the words, sounds, and colors of joy!
I do appreciate you feeling ‘round…;)