Action on Purpose

Perspectives Along the Path

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.

~ Joseph Campbell

There is a provocative Buddhist story about a man who encounters a hungry tiger on his path.  The man turns and runs, as fast as he can, covering great distances with the tiger pursuing him – until he comes to the top of a cliff.  He looks back at the nearing tiger and decides to jump, catching hold of a vine coming out from the rock as he goes over.  As the man hangs by this vine, just out of reach of the tiger pacing back and forth on top of the cliff, the man looks down to see another hungry tiger below him, waiting for him to drop.  Two mice, one white and one black, crawl out from a hole in the rock and begin to gnaw away at the vine as the man looks on in horror. Catching a glimpse of red to one side, the man sees a plump ripe strawberry growing on another vine just within reach.  Letting go with one hand, he plucks the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tastes! What joy!

Our lives are a bit like the adventure of this man, running from dangers that we cannot entirely escape. His capacity to experience joy, to choose to be completely in the moment and enjoy the good that comes his way, is a powerful example of the ever-present possibility of joy.  It is available only in the moment, it often appears in forms we do not expect, and we have to choose to turn our attention to joy in the midst of life’s challenges.

Joy and Pleasure

There are many ways to experience joy, and one way is through our five senses.  We can be transported into joyous transcendence by a performance of music, or by viewing a piece of sculpture, or by surrendering to the sensual pleasures of an excellent meal, a sexual encounter, or a swim in the ocean.  To experience the arts of any kind, as well as the endless beauty of nature, can inspire our experience of joy.  Yet in western culture, we are apt to become confused in the difference between the experience of joy, an internal experience, and an attachment to external stimuli that we come to believe as necessary for our pleasure.

  • I will feel happy when the weekend comes.
  • I need to relax with a drink before I can enjoy myself.
  • When I meet that special someone, I will know joy.

While there is some pleasure in anticipating joy, the problem lies in the illusion that the activity or condition is the source of our joy.  If we begin to think that without some particular set of conditions we cannot really be happy, we become vulnerable to missing the experience of joy right where we are.

Another trap to seeking pleasure as a path to joy is that we are likely to be disappointed.  Activities that please the senses are fleeting and don’t necessarily spark an inner experience of joy.  As passing pleasure fades without a change in our inner experience, we can be left feeling more empty than before we engaged in the seemingly pleasurable activity.  This leads to an increased craving.

So how can we promote the experience of joy?  Paradoxically, joy recedes the more we try to fill up its void in ourselves.  In the grasping for pleasure, we become too narrowed in focus, preoccupied with taking in.  Our inner response is of constricting, controlling, striving to achieve – not the inner conditions in which joy grows.  Joy requires an inner response of opening up, giving away, or extending ourselves to connect with something larger than our sense of self.  It involves an opening to other beings, ideas or causes beyond our individual need and benefit.  When we learn to nurture the inner response for joy, then a passing pleasure can easily enhance our experience of joy.

Sharing Joy

The experience of sharing our joy with another has an intensifying impact expressed in the common proverb: “Shared joy is a double joy.”  Those who experience joy within themselves tend to infect those around them with this “incredible lightness of being,” thus creating more of an environment of joy. Should the flame of one individual’s  joy begin to flicker or disappear, others are in close proximity whose flames are still burning bright.  The nurturing of relationship and community provides a kind of insurance against these qualities becoming entirely lost.  “Give and you shall receive.” Joy is the currency we receive when we give with an open, joyous heart.

Practicing Joy

Those who value others and are motivated to serve or give of themselves are also inherently able to feel joy in response to another’s happiness or good fortune. Buddhist teachings describe this capacity as “Mudita,” often translated as Appreciative, Empathic, or Sympathetic Joy.  It means to have a sense of gladness in response to the good fortune or joy of others.

This is one of four qualities of an open heart that Buddhist teachings provide practices to cultivate.

Sometimes this kind of shared joy comes easily. Watching a child discover some wonder in nature or accomplish a new task with pride often brings a smile to the observers face, even that of a stranger.  We smile and feel the joy arising in response to their joy. Yet it is our joy as well – there is not a separation between us – we are both in the joy together.

However, this shared or appreciative joy is considered one of the most difficult of the qualities of the heart to develop because of all the constricting mind states we have already developed that are impediments to it.  Habits of judging, comparing ourselves to others, envy, avarice and greed each prevent us from experiencing joy. When these arise in us in response to another’s good fortune, we are personalizing another’s experience – making it about us.  The practice of cultivating shared joy would encourage us to hold our focus on the other’s joy, repeating in our hearts an intention such as “May your happiness and good fortune continue.”  Over time, this wish for another can grow stronger as our begrudging attitudes diminish.  The outcome of this practice is that another’s good fortune will more consistently bring us an experience of joy, rather than a reaction of envy or negative judgment about another or ourselves.

Smile Meditation

A smile meditation is an immediate and powerful tool for practicing joy.  Like our breath, a smile is a spontaneous and automatic response to certain stimuli around us or in our own physical or thought processes.  But it is also something we can choose to influence – we can suppress a smile and we can choose to form a smile on our faces.  As a practice, it gives us a way to influence the mind-body connection in an intentional and skillful way.

I recommend practicing mindful smiling at any time, any place.  Practicing this around others can have an amazing impact on both your mood and your sense of connectedness.  As you form a smile on your face, the world will respond in obvious and subtle ways. What might be the effect on you?  Try the Action on Purpose Challenge below, and observe what happens!

However we practice opening to the ever-present wellspring of joy, the practice has the potential of increasing our joy exponentially by bringing us more experiences of joy, loosening our attachment to constricting habits of response which decrease joy, and igniting more joy in the world around us. Despite the hungry tigers that await us, we can open to an experience of joy in any moment.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

~ Thich Nhat Hahn


~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

  1. Take some time to get quiet, go within, close your eyes, relax your body.
  2. Observe from inside yourself the feeling of your face at rest –  relaxed, passive, quiet.
  3. Now slowly curve the corners of your lips upward into a slight smile.  Allow your smile to spread across your face. Notice how this changes the muscles in your face.  Notice if it changes your feeling or mood in subtle ways.
  4. Set an intention to practice smiling over a period of time – perhaps a week, or a month.
  5. Plant reminders to help you remember to practice smiling – a sticky note, a smiley face sticker, a joyful photo….
  6. Experiment with smiling in different circumstances each day.  Here are a few ideas:
  • Smile at another commuter on your way to work.
  • Choose to smile at the first person you encounter as you walk into work, or into a store, or along the street.
  • Smile at each member of your household as you arrive home, or as they do. (Pets and babies count!)

Set a date now to reflect on this practice after you have done it for some time.  What do you discover? Have fun and enjoy your practice!

For more instructions in types of Smile Meditations, see