Yes! How do we describe joy?

The poet Yehuda Amichai tells us that
  …   Joy blurs everything.  I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting. “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful. I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains. Amichai 105

Joy fuzzes our world because joy says Yes!  Joy opens.  Joy does not pick out this or that to be pleased about.  We do that when we’re happy.  When we’re filled with joy, we explode from the inside, lighting up the world.  We feel Yes! so intensely because we open in the moment and become aware of the wonder of now.

Music can carry us out of ourselves like that.  I felt this kind of joy when we finally got to see Vermeer’s The Milkmaid.  I’ve already described the painful circumstances of our trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art five years ago this month and of Laura’s struggle to get Anne Me and me to understand that she wanted to see that picture.  When we finally went to the exhibit, after lunch with her sister, the setting did not seem promising.  We joined a slowly moving line of people, winding along bare walls.  Finally we came around a corner and could see the painting, mounted by itself, behind a barrier.  I felt like we were on an assembly line, shuffling along to the next work station where we would spend a second and then proclaim “I saw it.”  I was also distracted by Laura’s physical frailty and weakened immune system in a close crowd of people.

None of that mattered when we finally stood in front of The Milkmaid.  I’d seen reproductions.  I knew what to expect, but I was not prepared for the zing of joy when I stood directly before the painting.  As I wrote in my diary that evening,

It’s been a weepy week, but the sheer, exquisite radiance of this 250 year old picture brought tears to my eyes.  I could not take my eyes off the blue of her apron.  I thought, “don’t be grasping,” but I wasn’t.  I couldn’t.  I was in awe at the beauty created by another person.  I just let myself open to the power of that beauty.

The word “power” attempts to get at the opening experienced during joy.  The blue of the milkmaid’s apron may have sparked the explosion, but joy is not just a signal of something outside.  It tells us that our body feels so positively about what we are experiencing that we shout Yes!  Joy may tell us that the hormones and chemicals flowing through us feel good.  Another neuromatrix, looping body-mind.  But Yes! opens up to all.  Yes! does not close down on me, mine, my joy.  Yes! says joy to the world.  That’s why the experience of The Milkmaid just brushed aside the dhamma-police trying to tell me not to grasp at its beauty.  I was trying to control the moment, but joy just blew it open.

My feeble attempts now and then to describe this experience illustrate Amichai’s “blurriness of joy.” With her aphasia, Laura could say even less, but the beam on her face conveyed her joy better than any words.

This blog certainly has had a lot more to say about pain and suffering than joy.  As Amichai says, we “learned to speak among the pains.”  Pain closes.  Pain is precise. because, as we have seen, pain experiences Not!  Not! closes, cuts off.

While it may be true that dukkha (suffering, stress, dissatisfaction) is the First Noble Truth, dukkha is not all there is to living.  Not only is there sukha (happiness), with practice we can gain “gladness connected with the Dhamma.”  As the Vatthupama Sutta says

When he is gladdened, joy is born in him; being joyous in mind, his body becomes tranquil; his body being tranquil, he feels happiness; and the mind of him who is happy becomes concentrated.

The translator, Nyanaponika Thera, explains:

The Pali equivalents for this series of terms are: 1. pamojja (gladness), 2. piti (joy or rapture), 3. passaddhi (tranquillity), 4. sukha (happiness), 5. samadhi (concentration). … This frequently occurring passage illustrates the importance given in the Buddha’s Teaching to happiness as a necessary condition for the attainment of concentration and of spiritual progress in general.

Dukkha may be the First Noble Truth, but the Buddha also teaches:

There is, O monks, worldly joy, there is unworldly joy, and there is a still greater unworldly joy. There is worldly happiness, there is unworldly happiness, and there is a still greater unworldly happiness. There is worldly equanimity, there is unworldly equanimity, and there a still greater unworldly equanimity. There is worldly freedom, there is unworldly freedom, and there is a still greater unworldly freedom.  Niramisa Sutta

Although the Buddha cautions that hanging on to worldly joy only leads to dissatisfaction, he is clear that we do experience physical joy.  Not only that, if we practice the Eightfold Path to realize the Four Noble Truths, we can rise to “still greater unworldly joy.”


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