Re-finding Your Joy

On a recent retreat I met Joe, an artist in his mid-20s. Joe reminded me of an Elizabethan artist – it might have been his goatee, or his air of punchy independence mixed with free-wheeling romance. We bumped into each other walking in the fields on the last day of the retreat, and got into a conversation. I asked Joe what had got him into Buddhism. He told me a bit of his story. You can read his own longer account of it here, it’s a beautiful read.

To paraphrase, he moved to London in his early 20s, and got a job in a small, intense start-up:

I didn't know what gods to worship anymore so I filled that emptiness with whatever came my way. Work and play. When I say "play" I mean messing about. I had always had a naughty streak but I was being irresponsible and completely unaware. Getting fucked up in public spaces. Not sleeping. Thinking a lot of myself but not actually caring for myself. The thing is I could always taste the bitter aftertaste of everything I did. I knew that even if I saw no bad consequences yet, following this path would eventually lead me to them.

One night, he went to a house party and took acid:

I gathered friends around me thinking I was a little God. I took them all into a circle and told them that this night would change our lives forever. Not long after this a woman entered into the room. She shone with the brightest light and it was if a thunderbolt of energy cracked through time and space. At the time I knew that she was an angel and was the new most important thing in my life. Uninhibited we dived into an intense relationship. It had beautiful moments but there was so much clinging too. Life became a roller coaster of ups and downs so intense that I perpetually felt sick. Sleeping and eating evaded me. I would cry over a smudge on a bus window.

I do not want to dwell on the intensity of this time but I will give you a glimpse into it. After a few weeks of being in the relationship, I was due to fly to the other side of the world for a holiday with two of my best friends. My girlfriend drove me to the airport, crashing the car on the way there. I left her crying on the hard shoulder as I called an Uber to get my flight. The next few days were a blur. I drank more than I thought possible. I spent the last hour of 2016 and the first hour of 2017 throwing up with my head wedged between a toilet bowl and seat, in a yacht in a storm as fireworks went off.

I got back, and everything was horrible. Work was insane – I was working 8am to 10pm every day. The relationship was in tatters. I wanted to quit my job. I'd physical destroyed myself, repeatedly ending up in hospital. I got to a point where I thought ‘fuck all this’. I thought ‘how do I stop it all’. Not just conceptually, but practically. I was at home by myself and I thought the best thing would be to find some form of rope and hang myself. Then my sister’s boyfriend walked in to the house, which pulled me out of my thought pattern and I had this moment of insight. Another voice stepped in from somewhere else.

The voice of a young Joe, perhaps 4 or 5, appeared within me. He was hurt and crying, big eyes glistening as tears spilled down his cheeks, arms wrapped around his torso and snot dribbling from his nose. Despite this his voice was clear and confident like only children seem to be. ‘What has happened Joe? Depression? Suicide? You would never have comprehended such thoughts. Why would people ever do this. Do you not remember. You used to have so much joy.’

At that moment I knew two things. Despite having these suicidal blinkers on, Little Joe had given me the faintest memory of a dream like sense of innocent joy. Free from the pain-soaked indulgences I had been swimming in of late. Firstly, I should make a valiant effort at trying to explore that more. Secondly, even if exploring that wasn't fruitful, I still had value. I could help people with the skills I had and the knowledge of feeling this way.

My new purpose was to always be there for others if I could. I saw this as part of my work. I believed the project I was working on should help others. It went further than this though. The experience made me see everyone in a new light. Everyone was surrounded by this aura of pain. This sounds morbid but it was the total opposite. My heart went out to everyone. For a while everyone felt like my newborn sibling.

There was a work friend who was younger than me and he had just gone through a divorce. I saw etched into his face the exact feelings I had been through. I went over to him and said: ‘I see how you are right now, and I think I can understand, at least somewhat. If you ever need to talk to someone, or just hang out. Please just call me up and I will be there’. He called two weeks later on a weekend and we met up. He was upset but we sunbathed, played frisby and went to the cinema. A month later he moved into my flat and we spend time together almost every day. He is one of my best friends now and we love each other.

My quest for finding Little Joe had also begun. I made a list of all the things in my past that made me happy and I experimented with them. I stopped using all public transport and only ever cycled. I did something every night after work. Without fail. Dance lessons. Life-drawing. Handstand lessons. Singing. Avoiding romantic relationships and paying real attention to friendships. Snippets of that child-like sense of wonder were flashing in. Even in my hedonistic times I achieved these same joys occasionally. But by following my two new purposes there was a sense of them growing.

Joe also started meditating regularly.

Meditation felt like such a stark contrast to what I had been experiencing. It brought a bliss that was so very different to everything before. The Metta Bhavana, a meditation on loving kindness, helped me develop the feelings of compassion for people that I was already feeling. The mindfulness of breathing helped me regulate the roller-coaster of ups and downs and allowed me to step back from the impulses and the instant reactions.

I went on a retreat in April. Over a year had passed since Little Joe had talked to me. I hadn't seen him since. I really embraced my little walks. I was able to truly appreciate nature when I really slowed down. The trees were blossoming, the pond was full of newts. I used to love newts when I was a kid. I realized I’d lost that child-like curiosity, because I’d been in sprint mode this whole time. One day I sat on the ground, back propped up by a sappy wooden lamp-post as it whirred away. Bugs nonchalantly wandered over my bright yellow trousers as clouds glided by overhead. Out of nowhere that innocent joy washed over me. Little Joe said ‘Look. I'm here. I've always been here. You just needed to slow down and take a look around.’

On the retreat we were told about the Buddha’s life, his intense search for enlightenment when he was a young man, how he almost killed himself through fasting. We heard how he remembered a feeling he’d had when he was six years old. He’d been sitting under a rose-apple tree, watching a man plough a field. The child had felt his consciousness settle and deepen, until he felt a deep sense of bliss. It’s the sort of spiritual experience that often happens, in fact, to children, and which we remember and try to return to as adults (Thomas Traherne and William Wordsworth are two other examples of mystics who followed the memory of childhood ecstasies in nature). For the Buddha, the recollection gave him faith that our basic nature is joyful and enlightened, that the search is not one of terrible striving and self-improvement, but in fact a return to our original state.

On that same retreat where I talked to Joe, I remember sitting during one meditation session and telling myself grimly: ‘I will face whatever arises’. I expected some dark emotions to emerge from my subconscious. Instead I had an image of a clearing in a wood, and a small deer emerging shyly into the clearing. It was a symbol, I think, of the simple joy we can discover in our minds, if we can make space for it.

That night, I dreamt I was in my apartment. On the first floor, I saw two wild ponies hiding in a room. They looked a little mangy, and were scared of me. I went upstairs, and there was a baby deer, leaping around the bedroom, trying to escape. It jumped into my lap, and I woke up. I’d been reading Pema Chodron on the retreat, and she often uses the metaphor of the ego-as-apartment. She tells us we need to open up the stuffy, claustrophobic apartment of our ego, open the doors and windows of our prejudices, and let other beings in - so it made sense that my subconscious would use that image.

The next day, I went for a walk through the Suffolk fields, shimmering golden in the June sun, with a huge blue sky stretching around us. As I walked, I knew I would bump into a deer, it was too predictable, and sure enough, a young deer jumped out of some underground, ran for a few metres, and turned to look at me. ‘There you are!’ I said.

Joe, meanwhile, has left his job at the start-up, which he says was a toxic and unhealthy atmosphere. He’s also stopped drinking, gone vegan, and has been on a few retreats. He plans to write a children’s book and perhaps comics based on Buddhist stories. He says:

I don't know where this will lead me. But I know the past year and a half I've been making a kind of progress that has been far more challenging and rewarding than anything I've known before.

Someone once showed me a thing called a happy-graph. You fill in your day with the different moments and how it makes you feel. When I filled it out it was clear I used to be strapped into a rollercoaster that would plunge up and down between the depths and the heights. Screaming and gasping for breath. I think I probably still have the depths and the heights but it isn’t feeling so much that way anymore. Maybe it's because I can see myself on the rollercoaster for now. But it feels like I'm on a nice stable ride through the tree canopy with friends and I'm able to get a good look around.

Joe's story makes me think of this song...For all those going through dark times, hold on, things always get brighter eventually.