Seven Factors of Awakening – talk 5 – Joy

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Note that I made a mistake in this talk, Joy is the 4th Factor of Awakening, not the 5th as I kept saying here.

Another note: at the end of the talk I spoke spontaneously a while about the Shambhala Center teacher Paul Warwick who is dying from cancer.


The fifth factor of awakening is joy. The term being translated from Pali is “piti” which means joy with some engagement and intensity. It’s also translated as rapture. Rapture seems a bit too dramatic for us, so joy is good. And in Pali there’s a different word for contented happiness which is sukkha, the opposite of dukkha.

An important 5th century meditation manual talks about the relationship between the two in a more or less understandable way.

And wherever the two are associated, joy[pīti] is the contentedness at getting a desirable object, and happiness[sukha] is the actual experiencing of it when got. Where there is joy [pīti] there is happiness [sukha]; but where there is happiness [sukha] there is not necessarily joy[pīti]. Joy is included in the formations aggregate; happiness is included in the feeling aggregate. [so joy/piti is constructed while happiness/sukha is more essential].

If a man exhausted in a desert saw or heard about a pond on the edge of a wood, he would have joy; if he went into the wood’s shade and used the water, he would have happiness.

And neither of these two terms are the same as the 6th mental factor of awakening which is the related (passaddhi) which I’m using the translation of lightness & ease. So we have three different mental factors with distinct meanings here: piti or joy, sukha or happiness, and passaddhi or lightness & ease. I’m not going to try to tease these apart too much beyond mentioning one way of distinguishing between different types of happiness & joy. One quality we can be aware of. And that is the internal temperature of our happiness.

This factor of piti or joy is very warm. It’s associated with intense engagement. We’re grounded by our meditation practice so in it’s pure form there is no suffering there, so it’s not excitement or agitation exactly. But it has some of the positive qualities that we think of when we think of getting excited about something. Without the agitation and attachment and dis-ease that often goes with excitement.

And of course nothing is truly pure or separate or distinctly falling into categories in our actual experience. So a mental state that includes joy probably also includes some of the cooler and more relaxed lightness & easy, and the simpler and more ineffible sukha or happiness.

Using the idea of an internal temperature we could say that joy or piti is very warm, and passaddhi or lightness and ease is very cool, and sukha or happiness seems to be more subtle and without a discernable temperature either way. It’s a more spacious kind of happiness you could say.

We think a lot about happiness. It’s something we all want. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is our national credo, right? And HH the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that Buddhism is all about our basic human desire to reduce suffering and be happy.

Well maybe that helps or maybe it doesn’t but what’s interesting is that we tend to lump all the positive emotions into one mushy lump – happiness, joy, satisfaction, bliss, ease, and so on, but the genius Buddhist meditators back in the day developed very accurate and intricate ways of teasing these different states apart to investigate them. Regardless of how they came to understand it all, our task is to investigate our own lives. What is happiness really? For you? Now?

What is happiness, what is joy, and how do we cultivate it?

Thinking about happiness doesn’t seem to help us much. Thinking about happiness tends to shift us into a subject-object kind of mode. I want happiness. And if I get X, Y, or Z I will have more happiness. If A, B, or C happens to me I will have less happiness. And then once we are thinking about happiness as a kind of object than can be influenced by other objects, whether they are mental objects like “peace” or “respect” or physical objects like a really good cup of coffee, once we think that way our mind that evaluates these things gets very active.

And if you watch that mind that’s evaluating whether we are happy in action you might notice something.

What do you notice when you mind is trying to figure out if you’re happy?

Often times what you notice is the mind zooms in on unhappiness. It’s looks hard and fast and with incredible precision for evidence of just the opposite of happiness. And seek and ye shall find no? It usually kind find plenty of evidence that there is unhappiness there, that there is lack there, that something is missing. This seems to be a baked in quality of the evaluative mind.

The evaluative mind is pretty good at many things. It’s very good at helping you cross the street for instance. It can evaluate which direction the other side of the street is. It can tell the legs what to do and as the legs move it can keep checking your position in space and evaluate your not-across-the-streetness with incredible precision. And make constant adjustments while all the while keeping you alert for oncoming cars and so on. And it seemingly can even do all of this while you are talking on a cell phone if the evidence around town is to be believed. Doesn’t it make you nervous when you see people doing that. And yet even with conscious awareness diverted by a cell phone, and probably much of the time our inner distractedness simply having an inner dialog about something is just as distracting as talking on a cell phone anyway. So the mind is very good at some kinds of problem solving.

But it is spectacularly bad as the problem solving on making more joy – more engaged connected joy. It does the opposite, it ties us up in internal knots and generates suffering. John Stuart Mill said it this way: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Alan Watts said that the mind trying to get happy is an example of the “law of reversed effort” – that “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.” And that “Insecurity is the result of trying to be secure.” And I’m sure we wouldn’t mind if we glossed that as “Unhappiness is the result of trying to be happy.”

So it’s good to notice the patterns that lead to increased unhappiness. The Buddha was constantly reminding people just to pay attention to cause and effect. When you do this, what happens? What is the result. And most importantly for this study of the Seven Factors of Awakening, thinking a thought is doing something. Some thought or impulse or idea or emotion arises and it has an effect, and that effect can be massively amplified depending on how we hold it.

How we hold that thought, the energy we put into it, and how we attend to it. Or if we don’t attend to it at all.

That is an option with these thinking chains that lead us to unhappiness, to dis-engagement. We can simply not pay attention to them. This runs a little counter to our habit of fixing and solving and resolution and closure.

The idea of closure and resolution is fine. And it was maybe a really important antidote to a cultural tendency towards ignoring and burying and denying difficult things. But if we take closure too far we suffer. Some things, some thoughts particularly, are really better just left alone. Move attention to the breath, move attention to the body, move attention to your activity, and move it away from the thinking.

All of this becomes a lot more possible if we don’t buy the idea that our thinking is us. And that takes time on the cushion. A lot of it usually. If we think our thinking is us, that we are our thoughts then it’s difficult to set our thoughts down or leave them alone because they are me. And I can’t ignore me! That’s the nature of I and me and mine, to I and me and mine, this me is the most important thing in the universe. It’s the only thing in the universe!

So one way of approaching this question of cultivating and allowing the mental factor of joy is to work skillfully and patiently with our thinking. To identify our thoughts as thoughts, our emotions as emotions, and make choices about where we hold attention and where you invest energy.

Another way of approaching joy is engagement. Fully engaging with our activity. Joy seems to be born of connection and relationship. And connection and relationship operates at so so many different levels. We think of relationship between people first and again this is largely because of the power of our selving process I think. Since I think I am my self, when I think about relationship I think about the relationship of my all important self to other probably important selfs. So that’s good, gets us a little bit out of our self but we’re still hanging out in the realm of selves. Me me me, you you you. A real world as far as it goes but not the whole picture.

But how about our relationship with our senses? How about the feeling of the breeze on our cheeks? How about seeing something, really seeing something deeply and fully – this can be a great joy. How about the relationship between our so-called self and the parts of our body. If you pause and allow for some space in your relationship with the body, feeling the sensations, being curious about the body, it can totally shift that relationship. And then using your hands to like actually life an object is an intense joy. So wonderful. A miracle!

So that’s two ways of cultivating joy. First being more aware of our thinking and emotining and not identifying with is so much, second looking at relationship and connection at all levels. The first way of cultivating joy is letting go of desire.

This is also backwards to our conventional view. We think satisfying desire is what will give us joy and happiness. But check it out. This is an incredibly wonderful practice when it ticks over for you, maybe quite excruciating other times but we can’t learn without some challenge here – these are deep patterns. But the next time you are utterly caught in a desire – the desire to have something maybe, or the desire to be right, or the desire that someone else will do something or say something (usually you want them to do something that benefits you, no?), see if you can recognize that desire as desire. To step beyond the justifications and reasons and all the ways you deserve this or that or have been hurt by so and so who should know redeem herself by acting in such a way, step out of all that and don’t buy into the desire.

A couple of possible paths there: one is just breath and do nothing. Just be. Just let the desire wash over you, and through you, watch it ebb and flow. You can really count on the reality of change here – it will not last forever, at least not in that form. The other path is to do the opposite of what you want. This can work great in relationship to other people, and I had a powerful experience of this while on vacation in Maui actually. You are so totally convinced that the other person should do something, they should apologize, they should make the first move, they should be the one who picks up the pile, whatever it is. After you’ve picked up on the fact that a desire has you in it’s grips do the opposite. You be the one who makes the first move, apologizes, picks up the pile, takes the children to soccer, whatever it is. And really feel what happens.

And of course human psychology and the mind is complex. Maybe trying one of these experiments will in the short term at least seem to make you feel worse. But really pay attention, experiment, see what happens.

In any case all of these factors are deeply about showing up. And as we get into the last 3 factors of joy, tranquility & ease, and concentration, we start to get into the wonderful fruits of the effort of skillfully showing up. Life is more fun! There is less suffering, more engagement, more curiosity, more delight. And maybe we feel our suffering more, that can be true, but trying to bury our suffering in our usual habitual ways isn’t getting us anywhere is it?

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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