I walked along a path out of the snow covered pines of the Berkshires.
Behind me a group of retreat participants chatted around a fire. We had just sat around the fire and shared in tea brewed from the birches and hemlocks around the forest. I just finished a 3 day mindfulness nature retreat.
And as I walked I felt something quite strange.
Like a sudden rain or the sun peaking out on an overcast day, a wave of joy welled up in me. It was wild, free, unexplained. It was unabashed in it’s spontaneity.
And even now as I write, I feel some glimpse of its beauty. It’s almost like the light of that joy is still visible to me, like starlight reaching out across time.
The spontaneity of joy is one of the great mysteries of the human experience.
Certainly, there are straight forward ways to positive emotion. I do some intense exercise and I feel good after. I get swept up in great conversation with a friend and it’s wonderful. I go for a drive on a summer day and lose myself in the music. All of these things produce something pleasant. But they somehow seem distinct from the occasional spontaneous wave of joy.
It’s like something that sneaks up you, the more you hunt for it the more it evades you.
I wonder if it’s like trying to grasp at the wind? You cannot go get the wind. All you can do is throw up a sail – you can prepare yourself, empty yourself. To receive the the wind when it comes. Maybe joy is like this?
The way is not to go after it – it is just to prepare the mind to receive it. It is just to make the table and set the stage. It is to throw up the sail. And stay open.
When the mind is open joy will find its way in.
Ultimately, I think that’s what mindfulness practice is. It is clearing out the mind, creating some spaciousness. It is steadying and reading the mind to receive joy.
So what is it I’ve emptied or cleared out?
I call it achiever anxiety. It is this subconscious, almost imperceptible inner tension that is always pushing me towards getting things done. It’s as if I start my day owing myself and the universe a certain degree of productivity in order to justify my existence. Even on my days off it can be a very subtle nagging, a slight sense that I need to get something done.
As I walked out of the woods flowing in the spontaneity of joy. The phrase I kept coming back to was “permission to be”.
When I think about this experience and some of the happier seasons of my life, the common theme is that – I gave myself permission to be.
I think this is what Alan Watts referred to in one of his talks about aimlessness. Aimlessness at first sounds depressing or nihilistic. But it’s really the aimlessness of a cloud. What is the journey of a cloud? What is it’s way of being?
That’s the aimlessness we’re talking about. The freedom, spontaneity, and beauty of the white cloud. Permission to be is to be like the white cloud…
When I think of high school life, it was a time of fun, freedom, and living just to live. My last semester of senior year, I knew the end of my youth was immanent. So I tried to live like it. I aimed for 30 hours per week of work. I gave myself permission to fully experience that season of life. I’d go out on a Wednesday or stay up all night chasing girls or goofing around with friends — things that for a neurotic achiever like me seemed ridiculous, but for everyone else were pretty reasonable college things! I think of my time sitting in the coastal hills as a Zen monk or walking the woods on retreat.
It was always when I gave myself permission to be that I set the stage for spontaneous joy.
This doesn’t mean doing absolutely nothing. It’s more like slowing the pace. I sometimes feel like in all my busy-ness I’m watching my life at 1.2x speed. Permission to be means slowing down to 1 (or maybe .8x).
Do you have time to take a long walk on a beautiful spring afternoon? Do you have time to call an old friend to talk about nothing and enjoy old stories? Do you have time to let the mind and heart settle into stillness to see a clear picture of your life?
You might not believe you do. I might not believe I do. But you do. I do. We do.
Permission to be is a rejection of the inner achiever anxiety conditioned into us by society. Zoologist Konrade Lorenz has a great summary for the role of society in all this:
The rushed existence into which industrialized, commercialized man has precipitated himself and all its attendant afflictions — ulcers, hypertension, neuroses, etc. — an inexpedient development, or evolutionary maladaptation, brought on by our ferocious intraspecies competition.
We’re living in a society gone made with busy-ness. Which is tosay, permission to be is not easy. It is a radical act of sanity. It is the loving yet firm rejection of the inner achiever and social conditioning.
It is saying NO to more, and YES to life.
For me, permission to be is slowing down. Not to a full stop (although I do know a couple good monasteries). But to what I call a digestible pace. A pace of living where I can process and make sense of things. It is to engage with my life fully.
Living for the sake of living, being aimless like the cloud, operating at a speed where you can fully witness your wild and precious life…
Leaving spaciousness to receive the spontaneity of joy.
That is permission to be.
It’s not easy to give, but I hope you will.
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Excellent reminder for me. Life has become so complicated. I forget to just Be. 💕