About fifteen years ago when I was just a bit lost, a friend took me to dinner and gave me two out-of-print editions of theologian Paul Tillich’s sermons. At the time I was considering going to seminary. The sermon “The Meaning of Joy,” found in The New Being (1955, Scribner) is an essay I’ve returned to time and again. (Although I was not called to study at the seminary, serendipity led me to work there as their fundraiser for four wonderful years.)
Tillich argues that Christianity has lost its way in understanding and reflecting true joy — and I would argue that many of the world’s religions have done just the same, mostly because our basest instincts want to define joy as merely seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. Tillich’s discussion of the joy of work is what is interesting to me on this Labor Day, particularly because it reminds us how central work is to true joy:
The joy about our work is spoiled when we perform it not because of what we produce but because of the pleasures it can provide us, or the pain against which it can protect us. The pleasure about the fact that I am successful spoils the joy about the success itself. Our joy about knowing truth and experiencing beauty is spoiled if we enjoy not the truth and the beauty but the fact that it is I who enjoys them…To seek pleasure for the sake of pleasure is to avoid reality, the reality of other beings and the reality of ourselves. But only the fulfillment of what we really are can give us joy. Joy is nothing else that the awareness of our being fulfilled in our true being, in our personal center. And this fulfillment is possible only if we unite ourselves with what others really are. It is reality that gives joy and reality alone. …”Rejoice!” That means: “Penetrate from what seems to be real to that which is really real.” Mere pleasure, in yourselves and in all other beings, remains in the realm of illusion about reality. Joy is born out of union with reality itself. (pp. 145 -147)
Tillich’s essay brings us the same wisdom about joy as does Patajali’s Yoga Sutras. True joy is discovered in understanding that it is illusion that keeps us separate from each other and from our true selves. For Patanjali, the eight-fold path is a practice (work) to bring our attention to the fact that we have within us the ability to break through the bonds of ignorance that keep us from enlightenment — pure joy — our true selves. Patajali says that the veil of illusion makes us “confus[e] the temporary for the eternal, the impure for the pure, misery for happiness, and the false self for the true Self. (Yoga Sutras 2.5). (See www.swamij.com for more. Great site shared with Tranquil Space teachers-in-training by Kevin Waldorf-Cruz.)
I’ve had jobs that have kept me in the comfortable veil of illusion. My personal “misery for happiness” illusion was thinking that I would get the golden ticket when I was a Mom of a toddler and a second grader, commuting 2 hours a day. When I was laid off from this job, I found a part-time (but really full-time) job helping a church build a mission into a free-standing non-profit organization serving vulnerable children with after school arts programming. At the time, taking the Project Create job seemed self-indulgent. Even though I was securing funding, developing the board, writing the 501(c)3 paperwork, hiring artists, keeping track of supply inventory and schlepping children all over town in a church van, I felt that I was hiding from the “real” world, licking my wounds. But it was this job that was the realest of the real. It allowed me to serve people who needed help. It gave me the gift of hard physical labor. I was able to develop or discover talents that would take to serve others. Finally, this part-time job gave me time freedom that led to three other part-time jobs — one of which was with the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where I started to study and found more bliss in my own self-expression.
A yoga practice allows us to test, reframe and refine our knowledge each time we step on the mat and then asks that we take wisdom off the mat and into the world. The mat marks the path to our true selves that will not only give us, but also will allow us to reflect joy.
Thank you to all the wonderful friends at Iona Senior Services as I celebrate five years of service this month. Love the work — love you all!