“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”
This poem by William Blake is a beautiful reminder to notice how we relate to experience, how we perceive it, whether we react or respond, and if we can hold it in an open embrace, so lightly that we can indeed kiss the joy as it flies.
Many of us habitually chase joy, grasp at it, clutch it so tightly we can’t enjoy it, and then we mourn it, having never really known it. So we set our sights on the next shiny joy on the horizon.
This unsatisfying cycle shows up in relationships, career, and life experiences of all kinds. I am most familiar with this phenomenon when it comes to food, in particular a sweet treat. I tend to sabotage the experience and am left feeling like I missed it. The best treat I ever had was a simple gingerbread cookie fresh out of the oven on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I was doing some cleaning in the kitchen at the time the cookies came out of the oven, so was offered one. I was fully present with the experience of my yogi job, so the experience of eating the cookie was met with that same awareness. Because I had been meditating for seven or more hours for days, I could taste, smell, touch, and savor every aspect of that experience of eating a cookie. I’m sure I’ve eaten many delicious foods, including deserts, since then, but none could match the memory of that cookie. But it wasn’t the cookie that was unusually good; it was my ability to be simply present to experience all aspects of eating it.
Are we what we crave?
Another way we can destroy joy is to claim that what we crave is who we are. For example, I might define myself as having a sweet tooth. Does this label give me a pass? Or does it further distance me from the joy? I did go two years without eating any sugar and felt no sense of deprivation or difficulty. Sweetness held no sway with me after a five-minute exercise of ‘Feeding My Demons’, as taught by Lama Tsultrim Allione who shared it with us as a guest teacher in the weekly class I managed at Spirit Rock decades ago. Two years without craving sweets released me from an identity that had caused me no joy, only cycles of reactivity and remorse. I don’t remember why after two years I reintroduced sugar into my diet. Perhaps I didn’t want to be a party-pooper? Or perhaps I felt I could safely indulge without falling back into old patterns. But those patterns did come back and continue to this day, with time out when I recognize what’s happening and remind myself to be more aware. Otherwise, some part of my mind is imagining the joy, being caught up in desire, etc. Still, I no longer define myself by it, and that is progress. Because when we do that, another set of painful patterns arise: we chain the joy down and defend it against anyone we think might take it away. We build fortresses around our precious joy, and in the process of defending it, of binding it to us, we destroy “the winged life.”
Blake was not the first to identify this tendency. Over 2500 years before, the Buddha identified it as one of the three causes of suffering. He called it tanhā, thirst. Like most people in the western world these days, I hydrate at the least hint of thirst, but I remember the experience of thirst from a time when we were hiking and underestimated how much water to bring, how far we would be going, and how hot the day was. I remember how painfully desperate I was for water. Maybe you have a similar memory you can draw from.
Now let’s imagine that sense of extreme thirst as a way of life, a desperate craving for possessions, experiences, status, power, compliments, and anything else you can think of that we humans tend to chase after, grasp at, and cling to. But unlike simple physical thirst quenched with water, tanhā is never satisfied. Whatever joy we capture and cling to never meets our expectations. We assume it’s a failure of what we are chasing, but really it is the way we are in relation to it that keeps setting us up to fail. So we keep craving, grasping, and clinging to the next one and the next, all the time suffering an impossible thirst. It’s like there are water bottles ever available but we don’t know how to open them. We blame the bottles and toss them away, looking around for one that will quench our thirst. But the bottles can’t deliver on the promise of water until we learn how to open them.
Good news! We can learn how to access what we thirst after. With the regular practice of paying attention, life opens like a gift. Even the difficult painful times can be held in an open and loving embrace, lifting off like a butterfly after we have let it rest in our palms. We can begin to notice how much suffering we experience when we grasp and cling, killing off the possibility of joy.
With practice we can expand our awareness to notice not just what is happening but how we are perceiving it, what filters we are looking through. We can see the fear at the core of our blindness and unskillfulness. We can live in a way that allows us to be fully present with whatever arises, neither grasping nor clinging, but able to ‘kiss the joy as it flies.’
What does this bring up for you? Where in your life are you grasping and clinging? How might you kiss the joy as it flies?