Igniting Your Inner Light: A Lesson in Joy

Igniting Your Inner Light: A Lesson in Joy

® Do you tend to feel overwhelmed by all of the negativity you feel “bombarded” by on a daily basis, from your everyday transactions to the evening news?

® Is it difficult to remember what is going well in your life and focus on gratitude?

® Do you struggle to find joy amidst the suffering you feel within or around you?


Penguin Random House summarizes The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World in two sentences that imply the power of the thousands of sentences secreted within those pages: “Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than fifty years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships — or, as they would say, because of them — they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.” The stories that emerged through their mutual journey — a quest, so to speak, to exude joy in the face of life’s inevitable trials and suffering — reveal how it is indeed possible to live a life “brimming with joy” despite the scariest impediments ranging from fear and anger to grief and death.

One of the stories within the book refers to Desmond Tutu’s adventures in South Africa, where he ministered to families damaged by apartheid. He deliberately chose to convey gratitude and lead by example as a role model that “lived in the light”, knowing that he would not be able to inspire the people around him to be joyful if he himself could not authentically and freely rejoice in living. Desmond Tutu was born during apartheidin South Africa in 1931, and encountered fierce prejudice; even as a child, however, he resolved to make the best of the situation, later sharing in an Academy of Achievement interview: “We knew, yes, we were deprived. It wasn’t the same thing for white kids, but it was as full a life as you could make it. I mean, we made toys for ourselves with wires, making cars, and you really were exploding with joy!”

As a teenager, Tutu contracted tuberculosis; barely surviving, he later attended — and excelled — in a grossly underfunded and segregated school. Accepted to medical school but unable to afford it, he instead accepted a scholarship to study education. He eventually quit as a teacher, refusing to further participate in an educational system “explicitly designed to promote inequality.” Immersing himself in theology, he emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the anti-apartheid movement; it is said that apartheid’s end was in no small part due to his brave advocacy. Celebrated as a human rights and world peace activist, one of Desmond Tutu’s most inspiring teachings is his own unshakeable optimism and his continuous cultivation of gratitude and joy during even the darkest days.

“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place.” –Desmond Tutu


“NOW” is the place where love lives. By concentrating on the now — in the present moment — you make the conscious decision to focus all of your resources on positive emotions of joy, appreciation, and healing. Bill Moyers interviewed world-renown professor of mythology Joseph Campbell on national public television, asking him to summarize core wisdom and lessons from world mythology. Professor Campbell answered that “the purpose of life is to find joy amidst suffering”…

³ Notice.Self-discovery begins by noticing the harmful or toxic emotions and reactions that tend toentangle us in a web of pain and suffering.

³ Opportunities.Once we determine our situation, we can make a conscious choice to express joy despite the suffering, transcending pain and fear by rousing our innate personal power. Desmund Tutu has often said that it was his inner joy that enabled him to inspire others; he could not lead them and make them see him without first igniting his own inner light. When we lead by example, we give other people the opportunity to do the same.

³ Within.Joy is a continuous activity, a work in progress. It is, above all, an “inside job”. Go “within” regularly to practice equanimity, gratitude, and joy. Remember that happiness does not lead to gratitude; it is gratitude that leads to happiness.

“What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity. These are but trifles, to be sure; but scattered along life’s pathway, the good they do is inconceivable.” –Joseph Addison


My daughter-in-law Jenny shares with me daily stories of finding joy amidst suffering; she works as a nurse among terminal cancer patients. During the time of her pregnancy, she remembers walking along the corridor and hearing a familiar, melodious voice calling her name. It was an elderly woman shuffling down the hall behind her, one of her many patients who was suffering from terminal cancer. The old woman told Jenny that she had missed her because she had been bedridden for a few days. “I did not have a chance to check on you and your pregnancy… so glad to see you… so glad to see you are doing well,” she said as she beamed at Jenny. Even in her personal ordeal of illness, this woman with terminal cancer chose to focus on the blessings of her connection with Jenny and the miracle of pregnancy.

This sort of perspective is exactly what Desmund Tutu accomplished during and beyond apartheid. Practicing mindfulness and choosing gratitude come with the realization that joy does not imply never-ending happiness or optimal circumstances. Joy, in fact, is more of an action than it is a state of being: it refers to the ability to rejoice. Joy is the capability to transcend suffering and retain a state of inner light that extends outward to illuminate others as well.

“Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.


Nobel Prize winner and neuroscientist Eric Kandel explains that the ability to rejoice is not something that we are either born with or lack; it is something that can and should be cultivated constantly. We can train our brains to resist harmful “gut reactions” and instead strengthen our ability to focus on positive aspects and feelings that serve us and those around us. Desmond Tutu is like so many other inspirational world leaders who emerged from their personal hells and pulled themselves together in hard times, then and therefore managing to pull together the people around them and rejoicing in a sense of community and purpose.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed by negative emotions or experiences, practice a specific mindfulness technique that enables you to visualize positivity and will help bring calmness and healing into the room. Imagine inhaling all of the suffering and toxicity around you and then breathing out sparks of goodness and healing — for yourself and for others. You are recycling the bad and exuding the good, filtering emotions just as the leaves of trees filter air.

Do this alone or as you sit with others who are suffering. This mindfulness technique will foster the cultivation of inner peace andwill ground you in the moment by making you pay attention to the present, purposefully and without judgment. This practice will help you stay calm and centered so that you can be comforted and be a comfort,enabling you to bring light to the lives of others as well.

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” –Groucho Marx