All of life is a creative expression. There isn’t a way we could exist in this Universe if life didn’t have an immense amount of creative force behind it that relentlessly found ways of innovating and changing and diving into the uncertainty of life. Creativity isn’t a mechanical action, it’s a force of nature that can be reached through flow states or by allowing your muse to come to you or through an unexpected lightbulb moment.
Creativity and flow arise with joy and joy is not something that we can hunt down, cage or create a system or machine for generating. It can only arise in our life if we make space for it, in the same way that water can only flow if there is space for it to flow into.
Joy is different to happiness in that it is a state of being rather than an emotion. It is a way in which we open to receiving the world.
In Buddhism, there is the concept of sympathetic joy. Joy is the liquid that can fill the gap of separation. Separation can be a great source of pain for us but there are two ways to experience our separateness from the world and differences from the people around us. One way is to judge everything as better or worse, which will always motivate us to try and be in the better camp and make us feel bad when we are in the worse. The other way is just to experience everything as different, which will motivate us to find joy and opportunity in these differences.
Even when there are explicit ’winners and losers’, it is possible to find joy for all parties. There are lessons to be learned, jokes to be had, life experiences to be felt, benefits to the system as a whole to be appreciated. You are taking that gap and rather than feeling sorry for yourself that you aren’t the winner, feeling bad for the losers or focusing on how life isn’t exactly as you want it to be, you are using the space to allow for a creative response to arise.
A lot of spirituality concerns itself with transforming our darkness into light. This is immensely valuable and liberating but there is also liberation to be found in accepting our darkness and enjoying it in a way that isn’t harmful.
This is the superpower of joy. It can take resistance, or dukkha, and turn it into a part of experience that can be enjoyed.
Joy is something that is so severely lacking in our culture. It is deeply sad for a society with so much resource to be so diminished in one of the main things that brings true happiness to people. We live under a huge amount of pressure to get things right, which was hammered into us in our schooling system. We are also afraid of leaving room for improvement because capitalism puts value on us being the best or most productive, so we fill our schedules with commitments and our houses with belongings and we have no breathing space for joy to arise in.
Joy is a truly beautiful state to cultivate in your life because it gives you a sense of wellness and resilience that even when things are really fucked up, you feel like there are ways in which things can still be pretty great and you can find joy in responding to them.
Because joy needs space to arise from, the first skill we need in cultivating it is developing the capacity to be able to cut away that which is not serving us any more. The second is the ability to hold a bit of space in our lives. Thirdly, we want to be able to approach differences with an open mind – how can I look at this creatively so that it is seen as an opportunity rather than a problem? Joy arises when we notice an opportunity for ourselves or others to change how we experience the world, to create more joy.
Creativity and joy arise together and creativity comes from responding to challenge or pain. This means we need to embrace our darkness in order to be able to be creative.
A plant can only grow towards the light if its roots reach down into the soil. Sympathetic joy is increasing our capacity to reach down into our darkness, which will in turn increase our creativity.
The secret to life is so simple and it is this: if we all focused on cultivating joy, then we would live in a much more joyful and equal world. Joy is not something that we can hoard to ourselves in the same way that money can be hoarded. It is a shared experience and often the deepest joys come from directly helping people or contributing to society. So if we can all learn to cultivate it better, the planet would become a joy to take care of.
Remember to do a short heart practice before starting any of these practices to allow yourself to soften and arrive in the moment.
For most people the primary thing that is stopping them tapping into their joy is a lack of space and time. This is because we live in a culture that is utterly obsessed with stuff and productivity. For most of history, humans have had a whole lot of time for sitting around not doing much.
We have been carried away with capitalism and growth and we have normalised drowning in an utterly absurd amount of belongings and commitments that suck all of the life force out of us. We are so numb to the absurdity of it that is has not only become a badge of honour in our culture to be insanely busy all the time, it has become a source of shame to NOT be busy all the time.
I cannot stress this enough. We are going to be the period in history that people will look back on and say, ‘WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY DOING WITH ALL THAT STUFF?!’
Our environments are so important in shaping how we feel and it is possible to create one that supports us finding joy. The simple rule for this is asking, ‘does this spark joy?’ for literally everything in your life and cutting away anything that the answer is not a resounding yes for. Be ruthless as fuck.
I would definitely recommend reading Mari Kondo’s book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying’ in order to develop your skills in decluttering and to help you understand some of the common resistances that we have to doing it. Make some space-time for joy to arise in your life. Namaste.
Meditative Practice – Concentrating on Suffering
Creativity allows us to reframe how we experience challenge in our life and convert resistance, or dukkha, into joy.
Imaginal practice is incredibly good at doing this – allowing us to access parts of ourselves or the world that are normally too dark for us to be with – and allowing them to express themselves.
Any interpersonal practices that allow room for sharing difficult emotions and vulnerabilities are also good for this. If we have space to share our struggles, we can notice how they can actually be a point for connection, rather than a source of shame and pain.
Being honest with ourselves and embracing where we are with something can be a profound release for turning dukkha into sympathetic joy. Rather than wishing something was different we can just enjoy the experience of where we are.
For example, rather than wishing you are already awakened or in a different state of being to how you feel in your practice, allowing yourself to sit with the current experience and embrace it whole-heartedly rather than see it as a bad thing…
‘I am afraid of letting go of my control and into dissolution’
‘I am frustrated with how long this is taking’
‘I feel sad at the moment’
Shared Experiences – Opening to Creativity Together
Joy is a place with the potential for lots of beautiful connection. Because sympathetic joy allows for separation, we can make space for each other to be different and appreciate these differences. This can also be a way for us to learn about ourselves better as well.
We can make space for our subconscious material to arise in, that is safe and welcoming. This transforms it from something that will cause unconscious reactive behaviour, into something we can freely express and be aware of in our lives.
These two tools help us to open into the mystery of life together:
Embracing the Tragedy & Comedy of Life
Stories are a fundamental part of the structure of the Universe, without them the world wouldn’t make sense. If we can learn to experience the world as one of the characters in the story of the Universe, it gives us more space around experiencing the moment. It becomes easier to find joy in our flaws and to experience challenges as part of what makes the story interesting. This helps us move away from the concepts of right and wrong and more towards enjoying the ride and responding creatively.
It is easier to understand how we are contributing to a bigger picture when we can see that our story is just a small sub-plot within a greater whole. It is also easier to embody impermanence if we can see that our current moment is just a small part of a longer story.
Nostalgia arises because when we have a bit more space between us and an event it is easier to appreciate it for what it is – a moment in time that doesn’t need to be perfect to be enjoyed. If we can cultivate the capacity to find this spaciousness in the present, it will create more joy for us.
Here are some ways to help you explore how you can find some space within the story of your life:
- Sound-track your day like a movie. For example, if it’s a sad day, really embrace it with some sad music and embody the sadness in a way someone would in their low point in a movie.
- Remember that sadness, heart-ache, pain and hardship are all part of the experience of being alive. The more deeply we can open to these things, the more alive we feel. What if you reframed sadness from something that needed to be avoided and asked yourself how sad can I feel today?
- Artists are some of the best inspiration for finding joy in life – taking their personal tragedies and hardships and turning them into compelling stories. How can you express the story that is inside you? Can you draw or write or sing about it, even if it is just for you?
- If your life was a comedy – what would be the style of comedy? How can you ham up how you perceive your character, to make it easier to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself in.
- We hear a lot of hero’s stories. It’s important to make space for tragic stories, too, so that we can learn to accept that sometimes things come to an end in a really sad way. This can help us increase our ability to let things go and move on to the next story. What are the tragedies you’ve experienced in your life?
- Think about some ‘losers’ from films, books or stories that you appreciate. Remember these for when you feel like a massive loser.
- What sort of bad guy are you? No matter how nice we try and be, sometimes we will be the bad guy in another person’s story. See if you can embody it with a bit more spaciousness and acceptance.
- What characters do you find particularly frustrating, painful or difficult to be around? Try and let go of the idea of individuals and understand on an archetypal level the dynamics that you find difficult. Fold this in to your perception of the story – that these characters are here as part of your challenge in life, to learn from or overcome.
- If you were a character in a film or play, what would your character ‘flaws’ be? Can you shift your perception so these become character quirks – a part of what makes you you and a way in which you contribute to the wider story. Can you find a way to embody them in a whole-hearted way that doesn’t purposefully hurt others? For example, if you are an impatient person, rather than resisting it, feeling bad about it or imposing it on other people, can you create a script in your mind where you are airing your frustrations at how slowly things seem to move, in a funny way.
- Equally what would your character strengths be? Can you embody these in a more whole-hearted and sincere way?
- How does your past contribute to where you have got to in your story? What are the lessons you have learned and the themes of your story? What’s your current phase in the story of your life?
- This is one of my favourite quotes. I feel that it could also be applied to how we live our lives, embracing all the pain and heartache and happiness and delight that comes across our paths and expressing our response freely and openly:
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” Annie Dillard
Finding the Lessons in Life
Part of the nature of joy and creativity is that we need space to grow into, which means we can’t already be fully-formed or perfect. We want to able to learn to see this space as that, opportunity for growth rather than a personal criticism or failure.
Once a lesson has a bit more space around it, this will give you the freedom to respond in a more creative and joyful way.
Here are some tools for helping us to do that:
- It is important to not judge ourselves or others in retrospect. We do our best with the tools and information we have at the time, until we know better, then we do better.
- Reduce resistance to accepting that some situations are just really shitty and we have limited capacity to change that. Lack of control can be a scary thing to admit, but it is ultimately a lot more freeing to accept that we are in an awful situation than to deny it. If you are in a bad situation, create a scale of 1 – 10 of how awful it is. Note where you are on the scale and take some deep breaths to accept and arrive where you are. Think about if there’s any small steps you can take or things you can work towards, which could improve where you are on the scale.
- Lessons can come across as more personal and critical when they are coming from another human (rather than an experience). Focus on ideas rather than characters. What is the idea that this person is trying to communicate? How does that interact with my ideas?
- When expressing your ideas to other people, write them down or draw a picture of them if you can. Creating something physical moves the conversation away from attack/ defence of each other as people and more towards creativity: ‘I am creating a concept that I would like to share with you’.
- If someone is being critical, try and understand the intention and emotion that is underneath what they are saying. If it is an emotionally loaded topic for them, appreciate that they may not be communicating it in the best way. Again, space is key to joy so if you can, allow them space to vent and ask them questions to help them express themselves more clearly and closer to their truth, rather than reacting to what they are saying. This takes a huge amount of self discipline and be kind to yourself that it’s not always possible.
- If you are giving someone feedback, it will only be productive if you are doing it because you believe that they can do better (as opposed to trying to prove someone wrong). Be really clear about your intentions.
- As a person who is giving someone feedback, focus on the message you are delivering rather than the response you are getting. Don’t expect other people to respond to feedback the way you want them to or the way that you think is right. Give people space to respond in their own way. Learn to receive the unexpected twists and turns that another person’s creativity can add, even when they don’t go the way you wanted, and you will be able to find joy in it.
Allowing for Mystery
The spaciousness that we need to create in order to find joy in our lives, comes from opening up to the mystery of life; the part of life that we can’t control or understand in an analytical way.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t explore it and connect with it in a different way. Here are some tools that help you immerse yourself in the mystery:
- Leave time in your schedule for free exploration. Once you are well-rested, leave additional free time on top of this where you have no plans. Wake up in the morning and just follow your intuition about where you go that day, what you do, who you speak to.
- Pay attention to things that ‘feel important’ for no logical reason. What does it want you to do? Follow an action or just notice it?
- Understand that things don’t always play out the way we hoped that they would, but that this can be for the best. Mistakes and misunderstandings are sometimes happening for a reason.
- Mystery is best expressed through the creative arts. Really listen to the stories, films, music and images that you are drawn to or that come across your path. What drew you to that piece of art or brought you to it? What is the message that this story or artwork is communicating to you?
- Practice the art of deep listening. Not just listening to what someone is saying on the surface, but what their emotions and body language are communicating to you. We often send each other sub-conscious messages that are part of the deeper mystery of life.
- There is a huge amount of rich symbolism in life. We have a deeply embedded archetypal understanding of things that plays a huge part in forming our experiences. We have forgotten the art of seeing this in modern culture, but whether we realise it or not we naturally use the inherent symbolic meaning in things to help us make sense of our experiences. We’ve pushed it down into our sub-conscious, but learning a bit more about symbolism can help you engage with it and bring it to the surface more. Notice things that stick out in your visual field, feel important in your experience or come up in your dreams and look up their symbolic meaning. The Dictionary of Symbols is a really good book, or dreammoods.com is a good online dictionary of symbolism.
- Remember that none of this is analytical. It is not going to give you definite answers to life or a stronger sense of what is the ‘right’ thing to do. It will help you develop a soft focus that can create more meaningfulness and a sense of joy and flow with how you move through life.
Joy as a Service to the World
When reflecting on any of these practices, try and avoid the concept of whether they make you feel better or worse and focus on whether you have noticed if you behave or feel differently. If so, in what ways do you feel different? When cultivating joy and creativity we want to move away from the idea of self-improvement and more towards the idea of appreciating wherever we find ourselves.
Joy is our connection to the shared soul of the Universe, which expresses itself through our shared story. It is one of the places in which we are all deeply inter-connected. We play an important role in other people’s story and sometimes the way that happens is out of our control. Seeing that our story is not just about us and what we get from it, but that it serves a greater whole, will hopefully allow us to find more joy wherever we find ourselves.