Spontaneous Joy

By Trish Deitch, December, 2013

Usually, our Sunday morning meditation class at Yoga Shanti is just sitting: we come in silently, sit for twenty minutes, walk slowly once around the circumference of Shanti’s beautiful morning-lit room—our attention on the way our feet feel on the floor—and then sit again in silence. Maybe I’ll read something inspiring from Pema Chodron or Trungpa Rinpoche, but nothing long.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling that students are getting too comfortable—too cozy—during our Sunday morning sits. The whole routine is getting habitual, and our sharp and vivid awareness of the present moment is waning. So the other day I threw a wrench in the works and changed the way we practice: instead of the Tibetan style of meditation called shamatha (continually bringing our awareness back to the breath), I asked the students to try something more Japanese: letting our mind go where it will, but not moving our body at all—no adjusting our legs, no changing our hand position, no swallowing, very little blinking.

Afterwards, I asked for feedback. One student remarked on how unusually still the room seemed. Another talked about having a breakthrough: he noticed, for the first time, how, allowing his body to be still, his mind could be even more so, and he could be more present. This second student was so excited, that he went on a bit. Finally, a third student, a relative newcomer to meditation, expressed anger: he was frustrated that some of his beloved 45-minute sitting time was taken up by a discussion. He said, “I just want to keep it simple. If you’re going to talk, tell me ahead of time, and I’ll stay home.”

Nelson Mandela died yesterday, and it feels like a blow. It’s been helpful for us to know that there’s someone on the planet who has overcome his self-centeredness, and dedicated his life, very publically, to peace and the liberation of all. His example has been vivid and stunning: we know how much he forfeited for us; we’re all aware of how his sacrifices and hardships did not erode his aspiration. He made a difference, and he gave us hope.

There is still the Dalai Lama, but soon there won’t be. Soon the job of inspiring others to dedicate their lives to the liberation of all beings will fall only to us—that is, to you and me. It is my hope that when we sit—and when we do our asana practice—that we do it, not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of others. It is my hope that the awareness and peace that come from these practices lead to what the Buddhists call “spontaneous joy”: to finding our own happiness in the happiness and success of others.

It is tempting to wrap our yummy practices around ourselves like a cocoon, and let our minds drift to sleep. But getting cozy in our asana and sitting practices is not going to help anyone, including ourselves. Sure, we want to get in shape and look good and feel good—we all want to relax; we need that—but the main point of the practices, for the centuries since they were developed, is to wake us up. The point is to help us liberate ourselves from our own self-centeredness, so that we can help others be happy and free.

May all beings be liberated in the new year, and everyone’s happiness be your own.

Trish Deitch

Trish Deitch, who has made a living as a writer and editor from the very beginning, teaches meditation at Yoga Shanti Sag Harbor. She is a graduate of the Yoga Shanti Teacher Training Program, as well as the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy training.

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