Small Steps to Joy

By Marilyn O’Day

Many inspirational texts tell us that true joy, not that temporary emotion brought about by self-indulgence, is found by becoming at one with our divine selves. This allows the loving, spiritual part of us to shine through and direct our lives and actions. It also helps us to live in harmony with the laws of nature. But how can we as imperfect human beings discover this true joy?

The first step is to decide we want to be happy. This may sound odd, but many of us actually like to be miserable! Choosing to be unhappy allows us to feel sorry for ourselves and focus on our own well-being rather than on others. Even depression can be used as a way to disable or numb ourselves, making us incapable of action. So to decide to be happy means giving up the self-indulgence of being miserable! As ironic as it seems, it is a step towards unselfishness since it is a decision to shift our focus from our own problems outwards toward the world.

Once we decide we want to be happy, the next step is to realize that our path to happiness — and unhappiness — lies entirely in our own hands and no one else’s. We have made ourselves who we are, and our trials are brought on by our own actions and choices, not the punishments of a vain and avenging God. This means that it is in our power to improve our lives and make ourselves what we want to be. It helps to remember that karma is infinitely kind, and that the trials we undergo are designed to teach us exactly what we need to learn to become better human beings. The saying “pain is inevitable, but misery is optional” inspires us to face the results of our actions with courage and optimism.

Another aid to increasing joy in our lives is to bring inspiring things into our hearts and minds, and remove those that make us unhappy. Let the first thought of the day be one of love, gratitude, inspiration, and beauty. We often wake to fears for what the day will bring — let’s replace those fearful thoughts with positive ones. We can also curb the insidious habits of fault-finding, criticism, complaining, and pessimism. These unproductive thoughts creep into our minds dozens of times each day, dimming the joy that we could be feeling. Often we don’t even realize that they have pervaded our minds. So to overcome them, start by becoming aware of a negative thought when it first pops into your head. Then, don’t wrestle with it or rationalize it or analyze it. Just stop thinking it, replacing it with a positive thought. It might help to remember that though we all have faults and flaws, we are at our core divine beings and thus deserving of love, respect, and the benefit of the doubt.

Forgiveness is, as G. de Purucker says, “one of the steps to divine love. True forgiveness is the refusing to bear resentment, nourish a grudge, cultivate hatred; and forgiveness means also to cleanse your heart of these degrading impulses.” It might be easier to forgive if, when wronged, we pause a moment, take one step back from our own anger and hurt, and ask: How does the other person feel? What is going on in their lives and past experiences that could have made them act that way? This brief pause in our initial reaction may stem a rush of hate and let a spark of love and compassion enter our hearts in its place.

True joy based on achieving spiritual perfection on this earth may seem very difficult to attain. But perhaps the key is to start with a few steps that, though small, are headed in the right direction. And that is what matters.

(From Sunrise magazine, Fall 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)

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You are not alone. We are all connected. You could no more separate yourself from humanity than a wave could separate itself from the ocean and still be a wave. — Gerald Jampolsky