The Book of Joy

This book, by Doug Abrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is a wonderful book that tries to answer an important human question — how to find joy in life. The occurrence much have been spectacular — these two world-renowned leaders gathered for a week at the Dalai Lama’s home to discuss joy, and how to find it. Each has a history that could be described as having tragic elements — the Dalai Lama’s eviction from Tibet, Archbishop Tutu’s years under apartheid — and yet each was able to describe both those times as well as the time since as joyful. Their perspective and kindness and humor were evident throughout the book, and was really enjoyable to read.

These two octogenarian world leaders gathered in 2015 on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, celebrated late due to some funerals. Their purpose was to discern how to find joy in life, and they leapt at the task. The stories, as narrated by Abrams, are spectacular; they joked with each other, talked about the Dalai Lama reaching the gates of heaven, and of Archbishop Tutu being reincarnated. They found humor and love and warmth through these stories and conversations, rather than the petty small-minded idea that they should somehow be in conflict with each other. They accepted that the other believes something else while maintaining their own beliefs strongly, and know that they have beliefs, which are separate from facts. The love they showed to each other, knowing that any faith-based approach to life must necessarily be globally inclusive, was astounding and must have been so inspiring to witness. At the end, they parted ways, knowing it was unlikely that they would ever see each other in person again.

They had dozens of tremendous anecdotes, but Abrams pulled the discussion into a good framework for how to think about joy. The opening chapters talk about what Joy is — it is a long-lasting peace of mind and general positive feeling, not a fleeting passing of happiness. It is not based on objects, but on a state of mind. It is based in relationships, as humans are necessarily interdependent, and does not exult one person above others. “Happy” may be able to fulfill those other areas, but to find true joy in life, it must be inside, with others, and long-term focused. Next came the obstacles of joy — fear, anxiety, worries about the world, sadness, grief, etc. They talked through how these emotions are natural and normal, and how with practice, we can shift our thinking from the immediate emotion to a longer-term acceptance. They talked frequently about accepting the reality of the present moment, as I don’t think either would be described as naïve or ignorant. And yet, they also both talked about the need to “zoom out” or use a God’s-eye view, taking a perspective larger than the self, where you can start to see a situation or event as part of a larger story. It’s a great practice that I am able to sometimes engage in for work activities, but struggle with personally, so I specifically appreciated this part. The last section was focused on the eight pillars of joy (first four of the mind, second four of the heart): perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Some of the practices associated with these were fantastic: writing in a gratitude journal, which I have now started, and gratitude to generations before us for working so hard to get us where we are, which is an interesting take on the idea of knowing our ancestors. The book was delightful for the stories of two great humans, and had some nice advice as well.

My big takeaway is that we can — should! — be joyful throughout our days, rather than working hard to achieve a someday joy. That does not mean we find no struggles in life, but that we recognize each of us wants “to be happy and to be free of suffering.” This phrase, repeated frequently at the end of the book, was really powerful for me. The idea that all people, through their actions, aspire to be happy and free of suffering, is a fascinating way to find empathy for those with whom we may normally disagree or call the ‘other.’ If a Christian and a Buddhist can form such a tight friendship centered on caring and love, I think I can find it in myself to forgive my family, friends, and others with whom I interact.