Back in 2000, I took a 10-day silent meditation course to learn a type of meditation called Vipassana. This technique teaches the art of “seeing things as they really are.” The goal of this process is to lead you to have direct experience of the true connection between mind and body because it is through this direct experience that you ultimately liberate the mind from its mental impurities.
I looked at the daily schedule (which I swear had breaks for shuffleboard), signed up and went to the course. As you probably guessed by now, I was not paying too much attention. I had truly just glazed over the daily schedule and completely ignored the Code of Discipline. I was on a mission and these things were insignificant. Right.
Turns out, these courses are held in what they call Noble Silence: no reading, no writing, no talking, no physical contact, no phones, no computers, no TV, no email. Nothing. Just you, yourself and you for 10 days.
This was the schedule: we got up at 4:00 am and meditated in one-hour to one-and-a-half hour sessions from 4:30 until 9:00 in the evening. With breaks for meals and instructions. So I dove in and spent 10 days in silence, watching people’s shoes and paying more attention to my nose than I had even done before.
It was absolutely excruciating.
So of course, I had to do it again.
In the last 22 years, I’ve done almost one retreat per year. At one point, I even stayed at a center and did one course after the other for several months. As I spent more time there, I developed a routine where after lunch, I would sit on my bed for 15 minutes and then go take a walk around the walking loop.
It was on one of these walks in 2018, that this thought came into my mind: “Lisa, you don’t have to do things if you don’t want to. You are allowed to actively choose to do things in life that you like.”
This sounds so basic it’s almost embarrassing to write, but it was a revelation for me. A real a-ha moment. It stopped me in my tracks. I stood still and just mulled it over: I had so often just gone along with what was handed to me, done things out of obligation, taken on other people’s goals and tried to meet their expectations. What I wanted didn’t even enter the picture.
Although I had clearly learned this as a child, here I stood now, decades later, witnessing what I was still doing to myself. And it had taken me 18 years of meditation and stillness to figure it out.
At first, all I could think was: What a slow learner. 18 years to get to a philosophy that most people have by default. But, as I recovered from my own chagrin, questions popped up: Was I really allowed to actively, consciously choose to do things I enjoyed? At all times? Could I actually, if I allowed myself to think this boldly, always choose joy? I’ve come to understand that the answer for me and for all of us is “Yes.”
Joy does not come from an external situation. Joy is an inner state. And we all have access to it at all times. Our inner state is the only thing we truly have control of. So, we can choose to remain in this state, no matter what happens around us. But it takes practice. A lot of practice.
The problem is we forget that we can bring ourselves here and that we’re allowed to stay here. We’ve been taught to give others joy, to do things for others, to sacrifice ourselves for others, but then we watch them not accept the joy we’re trying to share. And we blame them for not understanding.
If we really want to bring peace and joy to the world, if we want to be the change, we have to manage our own inner state. To share peace, you must be at peace. To share joy, you must be in joy. We cannot share peace and joy from a state of resentment and judgment.
You who are reading this — you already know this. You have already had this experience. Think back to a time in your life when you felt true joy. Not just excitement or giddiness or fun, but a true sense of joy and calm. Maybe it was at the birth of a child, or while listening to beautiful music or just in the simple beauty of a summer’s day. Everyone has had the experience of joy at least once in their lives.
And, if you reconnect with that time for just a moment, you will recognize this: At the time that you felt true joy, there is no one and nothing in this world you wanted to harm. Not for any reason.
These two things cannot co-exist. You cannot be in true joy and want to hurt anyone. No matter their politics or their beliefs or their actions. You may try to rectify and heal the situation, but it is done without blame or accusations. True joy transcends all of this.
It’s when we take ourselves out of joy that we want to control others. Make yourself and your joy your first and main priority, and you will change the space that you are in just by who you are. You will change those around you because you don’t ask them to be who they are not.
So this is my wish for you in this holiday season:
May you all reconnect with that spirit of true inner joy. May you be the force that remains calm in the center of a storm. May you be the giver of compassion and acceptance. And may you do this for yourself first. For that is how you reach the world.
*Originally printed December 15, 2022, in the Redding Sentinel, Redding, CT.