Joy is the Antidote

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, May 27, 2022 / 26 Iyyar 5782

Summary: After several weeks of bad news, this week’s Oasis Song focuses on the importance of joy.

Reading Time: Three and a half minutes

This past week I came across a compelling quote penned by a Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast. “Joy is the kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

After the pain of our nation’s latest massacre at Robb Elementary School, there’s a way that everyone needs some joy. At the same time, some may wonder whether that is appropriate when parents are still burying nineteen children and when our elected officials seem unable or unwilling to protect our kids. Some of the best and brightest people I know seem weighed down with malaise while others are consumed by anger.

It is my opinion that while anger can initially provide us the energy to act, once we have begun to work for needed change, chronic anger loses its helpfulness and begins to eat away at the soul. Cultivating anger, while natural to many of us, is a terrible poison.

On the other hand, we always need joy. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov dedicated much of his life teaching this message. As someone who apparently suffered from depression and worked hard to overcome it without the benefit of contemporary medicine or psychological tools, his words carry authority. In his magnum opus, Likutei Moharan, he wrote:

“The guiding principle is that a person has to be very determined to continually cultivate happiness. For human nature is to draw itself to gloom and depression on account of life’s vicissitudes and misfortunes. And every human being is filled with suffering. Therefore, a person has to exercise great effort to be happy, and to attract joy in any way possible—even with silliness. And though introspection about our failures, too, is very good, nevertheless, that is only for a brief period. It is right to set aside for oneself some time in the day for feeling remorse…But the rest of the day one needs to focus on joy. Introspection is more likely to cause depression… One should therefore always be happy, and only at the designated time have a broken heart.”

What Rav Nahman is reminding us is that we do have some control over our thoughts and emotions. It sometimes can seem, however, that our thoughts and emotions have a life of their own, galloping whichever way they want. My mentor, Alan Lew, who introduced mindfulness and meditation to the Jewish world, once noted how much anger flowed through him. At the time, this didn’t make much sense to me. Here was this master meditator who never came across as angry to me.

Since resuming my own meditation practice a half year ago, though, I have better insight into his comment. Meditation and mindfulness make us aware that at any moment, all sorts of thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings are flowing through us, including anger. They just occur, like a constant wind blowing through the soul. What mindfulness allows us to do is to choose to focus on something else, such as our breath. As we get better at this, it’s as though we are turning down the volume on painful thoughts and emotions while turning up the volume on feelings of peace, well-being, and joy.

Last week, I wrote that we are living in an age of hate. One reason for this hatred is that the entire world of suffering reaches our doors through our devices. We are constantly being bombarded, so this increases the volume of these negative emotions. That’s not sustainable; therefore, many people seek relief from this noise by becoming numb. Yet compassion fatigue is not the answer, particularly when there are so many problems in the world we can help to solve. Joy is both a human birthright and an experience that recharges our batteries so that we can experience more compassion and operate out of love.

This coming week, why don’t you schedule 15 minutes a day for joy?

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Do you think we cultivate our emotions? Do we, in other words, focus on some emotions more than others and thus (unconsciously) strengthen them?
  2. Is it easier to think dark thoughts or happy thoughts? What do you think and why?
  3. We all believe in happiness. Do you also believe in joy? What is the difference?

Links for Sensible Gun Control: IP-17 and IP-18.

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