Cultivating Joy: Watering Wholesome Seeds

If you prefer to listen

There are many flavors of joy: bliss, rapture, happiness, contentment, ease.  But defining joy is difficult. One of the most curious things about joy is that it often doesn’t seem caused. We don’t usually say, “Oh, yes, that makes me filled with joy.” Joy comes to us often in unexpected, unanticipated moments. We know what it is like to feel joy, to feel a delight of being, to feel a celebration of the moment; the joy of being touched by the simplest of things.

Sometimes we try to distinguish between joy, which is what I feel when I am on my way to see my grandchildren, and happiness, which is what I feel when I am giving them a hug. Joy is associated with energetic words like exuberance, zest, and enthusiasm, while happiness is designated by quieter terms like agreeable, ease and comfort.

My teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I will refer to as Thay, says, “Many people think excitement is happiness…. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”  If you think about it, excitement brings with it restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Joy that results from curiosity is smoother and open rather than contracted. … Joy arises from being attentive and curious. … Excitement, on the other hand, requires something to happen to us or requires us to procure something that we want.

So, I think determining the source of joy or happiness is more important than determining if the feeling is joy or happiness. In this talk I will use joy and happiness as synonyms. Does the joy come from external conditions?  Or are we happy for no reason? As we grow to understand our happiness mental states, we become aware that happiness need not be dependent on our materialistic possessions and pursuits. Joy, the heart’s celebration of life, comes from the aliveness when we let ourselves be open to what is. With mindfulness, happiness becomes more of a choice rather than being dependent on perfect external conditions. External happiness arises from causes and conditions and disappears with those causes and conditions. Happiness for no reason is celebrating the life that is here without being dependent on things being a certain way.

Happiness and joy are impermanent.  To have happiness or joy from external conditions, we cannot be attached to it. William Blake understood this beautifully, he wrote:

He who binds to himself a Joy, Doth the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the Joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher says, “What we usually try to do is capture any joy that comes our way before it can escape. We have our butterfly net and go after the joy like a hunter stalking his prey. We hide and wait, pounce on it, catch it, and take it home to put on our wall. When our friends come to visit, we say, ‘Hey, Stu, would you like to see my joy?’ There it is on the wall – dead. We try to cling to pleasure, but all we succeed in doing is making ourselves frustrated because, whatever it promises, pleasure simply cannot last.

But if I am willing to kiss the joy as it flies, I say, ‘Yes, this moment is beautiful. I won’t grab it. I’ll let it go.’” So wise effort is to savor the joyful moment without clinging to it.”

Sometimes we confuse pleasant feelings or cravings for happiness. But, we can have pleasant feeling without being happy. Revenge may give us a pleasant feeling, but it doesn’t make us happy.   Craving, dreaming about getting something you want, may feel like happiness, but it really isn’t.  Craving has an entangling after taste that happiness does not have.

Happiness occurs in wholesome mind moments, so we can increase the occurrence of happiness by watering our positive seeds and taking skillful actions. Negative mind sets tend to increase unpleasant feelings which in turn tend to trigger unwholesome thoughts and actions, thus reducing the likelihood for happiness.

A mind that is in a state of joy is predisposed to notice that which is beautiful, wholesome, pleasant, and satisfying, while at the same time tending to disregard that which is unpleasant. The perceptions that arise in a joyful mind will tend to emphasize the positive aspects of whatever is attended to. The glass will be perceived as half full, rather than as half empty.

Thay says, “We believe that happiness is possible only in the future.  That is why the practice ‘I have arrived’ is very important…The conditions for our happiness are already there.  We only need to allow ourselves to be in the present moment, and we will be able to touch them.”  We come into unconditional presence.

One practice I have been doing for the past 5 years to come into unconditional presence is Taking in the Good.  Each morning when I go out to get the newspaper, I spend 20 seconds taking in the good.  It could be a beautiful sky, a tree, a flower.  Sometimes on a gray day, it is the smell of the air, or the sound of birds.  Whatever I perceive that is good, I savor for 20 seconds.  This makes me aware of the present moment and gives me joy. It has also brought more mindfulness to my day, as I now notice the beauty of the clouds, the trees, the world.

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”  That is why Thay encourages us to practice mouth yoga.  Let’s try it now. I invite you to sit comfortably and close your eyes.  Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.  Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.  Breathing in, I smile.  Breathing out, I feel the joy.  Breathing in I feel the smile in my mouth.  Breathing out, I expand the smile to my eyes.  Breathing in, feel the joy that comes from your smile.  Breathing out, savor the joy. And when you are ready open your eyes.

Sometimes, we are not in a place where we can feel the joy.  And that is OK, we can still condition our happiness muscle. When happiness is already manifesting, we have to continue to nourish it. Thay says we can condition our bodies and minds to happiness with the five practices of letting go, inviting positive seeds, mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Before I can do any of those, I need to first slow down.

Slowing Down

Most of our lives we are leaning forward on our way somewhere else. We spend our time planning for the future so we don’t even notice the moments of joy that are happening in the present moment.  As I read this story, reflect on what your reaction would be.  Do you need to slow down?

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100. This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment. If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?


Thay says the first method of creating joy and happiness is to cast off, to leave behind. There is a joy that comes from letting go, think of cleaning out your closet. We are bound to many things. That we believe are necessary for our survival, our security, and our happiness. But many of these things—or more precisely, our beliefs about their utter necessity—are really obstacles for our joy and happiness.

Sometimes you think that having a certain career, diploma, salary, house, or partner is crucial for your happiness. You think you can’t go on without it. Even when you get what you wanted, you are not happy.  You cling to it, afraid of losing it, making yourself miserable.

Thay says, “If you come to look deeply into your fearful attachment, you will realize that it is in fact the very obstacle to your joy and happiness. You have the capacity to let it go. Letting go takes a lot of courage sometimes. But once you let go, happiness comes very quickly. You won’t have to go around searching for it.”

One habit I recently let go of was my Diet Pepsi habit.  I tried for years to use will power to give it up, but the craving was too strong.  Finally, I tried mindfulness, I paid close attention to how my body felt when the craving came up.  I looked at the need the craving would fill.  It was belonging.  When I was young, I wanted to be a big kid, because they got to stay up and have POP.  I paid attention to how it tasted.  The first few sips were really good.  But after that it was just OK.  I also paid attention to the fact that having a Diet Pepsi would mean that I would be anxiously waiting for a meeting to end so I could go to the bathroom.  And that meant that I did not chat with my co-workers after the meeting.  So, it actually backfired on filling the need of belonging.  Instead of making me happy, Diet Pepsi was actually an obstacle to my feeling of belonging and causing me anxiety.

Another habit I am letting go of is brushing anything unpleasant under the carpet. I thought that brushing unpleasant under the carpet would make me happy.  But it takes a lot of energy to keep things hidden.  And if I can’t feel the 10,000 sorrows, I can’t feel the 10,000 joys.  I used to think it made no sense to try to stay with discomfort when meditating.  Mindfulness is about reducing suffering, not adding to it.  But I have realized if I want to feel joy, I have to feel pain as well.  So, I have begun working on building up my window of tolerance for discomfort.

Tara Brach says the two thoughts we need to let go of are: Something is missing and something is wrong

When we think something is missing, we have If Only Mind.  If only the wind was not so strong I would be happier walking on the beach. If only the sun were shining I would be happy. If only I could have some chocolate. If only, if only, if only. With If Only Mind, we are leaning forward. We are not in the one place we can find true happiness, the present moment.

The other thought to let go of is: Something’s wrong.  It may be something is wrong with the world, so we blame others.  Or it may be something’s wrong with me.  We feel like we are not enough, so we can’t love life.  Did you ever feel guilty when something good happens to you?  Instead of enjoying the pleasure, we think I do not deserve this.

Growing up, my mother always said, “First you do the work and then you play.”  As a child that worked.  Unfortunately, as an adult the work is never done.  When I hold onto that thought, I don’t allow myself to enjoy just playing.  I get a pleasure from accomplishing tasks, it may add to my self-esteem.  But the pleasure I get is very short-lived, there is always another task to accomplish.  My fearful attachment is that if I don’t get things done, I won’t be good enough. Sometimes I miss out on what would truly make me happy because I am too busy doing.


The next method is to invite positive seeds. To attempt to cultivate joy without a foundation of right view is to risk watering the wrong seeds. Our views might not be clearly formulated in our mind. But whether formulated or not, these views have a far-reaching influence. They structure our perceptions, our values, the way we see ourselves and the world. Our views determine what seeds we water.

Thay says, “We are often caught up in our perceptions.  This is not wise.  We have to be objective and touch all aspects of reality.  We mustn’t allow one aspect to prevent us from seeing the whole picture.”

A common perception is to think that a craving will bring us happiness.  But that is a delusion.  I finally saw the Diet Pepsi delusion. Looking at the whole picture, I saw Diet Pepsi brought more discomfort than pleasure. While I will occasionally have a Diet Pepsi, I have abandoned the craving for it.  We don’t have to abandon the object of craving, we just need to abandon the craving itself.

Right view helps to make sure that our intentions align with our real values so we can lead the life we want. Wise intention is selectively watering seeds. It takes an intention to turn toward happiness – we can choose to be happy. Henri J.M. Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”  We need to strengthen our intention every day so that our intention is stronger than our habit energy.


With mindfulness, we can choose the appropriate response and water the wholesome seeds.  Without mindfulness whatever happens to be in our mind at that moment will influence what we do.  If we have wholesome thoughts, we will have wholesome actions or speech.  If we have unwholesome thoughts, we will have unwholesome actions or speech.

When we practice mindful breathing or mindful walking, we bring our mind home to our body. If we let ourselves open to the present moment, we see we have so many conditions of happiness that are already available. Joy and happiness come right away. When I was on retreat shortly after my mother passed away, my grief wanted to take over.  While the grief was still there, with mindfulness I was able to enjoy walks on the lake and through the woods.  There was grief, but there was also joy.

Mindfulness is an energy you can generate all day long through your practice. You can eat your breakfast in mindfulness and enjoy all the smells and tastes. You can walk in mindfulness and see all the beauty of the world. With mindfulness you can touch the many conditions of happiness and joy that are already available. If you stop and come back to the present moment, you can create joy and happiness any time you want.

Thay says, “If we take one peaceful step, happy step and we know we are taking a peaceful, happy step, mindfulness is present.  Our seed of mindfulness has been buried under many layers of forgetfulness and pain for a long time.  We are rarely aware that we have eyes that see clearly, a heart and liver that function, and a non-toothache. We live in forgetfulness, looking for happiness somewhere else, ignoring and crushing the precious elements of happiness that are already in us and around us.

If we practice mindfulness, we get in touch with the refreshing and joyful aspects of life in us and around us, the things we are not able to touch when we live in forgetfulness.  Mindfulness makes things like our eyes, our heart, our non-toothache, the beautiful moon and the trees deeper and more beautiful. If we touch these wonderful things with mindfulness, they will reveal their true splendor.”


Concentration is born from mindfulness. Concentration has the power to break through, to burn away the afflictions that make you suffer and to allow joy and happiness to come in.

To stay in the present moment takes concentration. Worries and anxiety about the future are always there, ready to take us away. We can see them, acknowledge them, and use our concentration to return to the present moment.  Sometimes it takes a lot of concentration to shine the light on how we turn on ourselves and block the joy.

When we have concentration, we have a lot of energy. We don’t get carried away by visions of past suffering or fears about the future. We dwell stably in the present moment so we can get in touch with the wonders of life and generate joy and happiness. Then happiness arises lightly and easily.


With mindfulness, we recognize the tension in our body, and we want very much to release it, but sometimes we can’t. What we need is some insight. I wanted to release the tension of my Diet Pepsi craving.  But until I looked at it closely, I couldn’t. I learned that the craving was actually an obstacle for my happiness, that it brought me anxiety.

Sometimes, we know this thing is not worth the sleep we’re losing over it. But still we go on spending our time and energy obsessing about it. We’re like a fish who has been caught once before and knows there’s a hook inside the bait; if the fish makes use of that insight, he won’t bite, because he knows he’ll get caught by the hook.

Often, we just bite onto our craving or grudge, and let the hook take us. We get caught and attached to these situations that are not worthy of our concern. If mindfulness and concentration are there, then insight will be there and we can make use of it to swim away, free.

It requires first of all that we come home to ourselves, that we make peace with our suffering, treating it tenderly, and looking deeply at the roots of our pain. It requires that we let go of useless, unnecessary sufferings and take a closer look at our idea of happiness. The suffering was being a little kid, not getting the advantages of being a big kid.  And happiness comes from a feeling of belonging, not from drinking POP.

Finally, it requires that we nourish happiness daily.  We take the time to understand and feel compassion for ourselves and for those around us. As we do, our capacity for happiness increases. May you see the conditions of happiness that are already available.

A Poem by Lama Gendun Rinpoche

Happiness cannot be found

through great effort and willpower,

but is already here, right now,

in relaxation and letting go.

Don’t strain yourself, there is nothing to do.

Whatever arises in the mind

has no importance at all,

because it has no reality whatsoever.

Don’t become attached to it. Don’t pass judgement.

Let the game happen on its own,

emerging and falling back – without changing anything –

and all will vanish and begin anew, without end.

Only our searching for happiness prevents us from seeing it.

It is like a rainbow which you run after without ever catching it.

Although it does not exist, it has always been there

and accompanies you every instant.

Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences;

they are like rainbows.

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable you exhaust yourself in vain.

As soon as you relax this grasping,

there is space – open, inviting and comfortable.

So make use of it. Everything is already yours.

Search no more,

Don’t go into the inextricable jungle

looking for the elephant who is already quietly at home.

Nothing to do,

nothing to force,

nothing to want

and everything happens by itself.

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