How Joy Guides Us In Facing Climate And Other Messes

Joy to the world! So rings the Christmastime carol and call of the season. Yet joy may seem a tall order as COP28 gets underway, capping what is likely to be the hottest year on record. As the climate continues to heat up at an accelerating pace, so do arguments about likely futures, whether technologies can save us, if the progress we’re making matters enough or if we’re walking up a landslide.

Some point to signs of progress and the importance of doing all we can. As Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, climate expert and co-editor of the bestseller, All We Can Save, told the New York Times: “When I look at the scientific projections, there is a range of possible futures. The temperature could go up by 1.7 degrees Celsius globally or by three degrees. Hundreds of millions of lives hang in that balance. So it’s a huge deal that we get it as right as possible.” Others look at the warming already in the pipeline of our present lifestyle or the fact that we consume so much more energy than the earth and sun can replenish and conclude that we need to get serious about adapting to collapsing conditions. As long-time climate activist and minister, Terry LePage, writes in Eye of the Storm, “I came to a gut-level realization of our unfolding predicament. That realization came with the awareness that ‘saving the world’ as we know it does not seem possible.”

While these points of view focus on different sides of the issue, they both emerge from a more expansive consciousness than the calculating, extractive, rational stage that has produced modern life and our climate predicament. This more embracing consciousness is able to face climate or any of our messes as a connected human being, one-with what is going on and giving fully of its gifts without the promise of a self-enriching outcome or a happy ending. Waving off the label of optimist, Johnson says. “Optimism assumes that the outcome will be good. That’s unscientific. I don’t harbor any sort of assumption that it will be OK in the end.” As LePage puts it, “As uncomfortable as it is, living with uncertainty is better than making dire predictions that send people digging their own graves.” Neither are banking on outcomes. Leading into a time of great uncertainty, we need something besides outcomes to guide us. That something emerges from the consciousness of connection. That something is joy.

This connected consciousness is thankfully on the rise as evident in the groundswell of groups, forums and summits aiming to bring greater connection, love and healing into how we face this time, including the Climate Consciousness Summit running concurrently with COP28. A central theme of this summit is that what keeps us from courageously facing the climate crisis is individual and collective trauma that locks us into fear-based reactions and their accompanying societal and political dysfunctions. On offer are practices for healing trauma, calling upon deepening our experience of connection with one another, with nature, with the boundless, infinite life force animating all of us. How can we tell when our trauma is healing? Joy springs forth.

Joy is a reliable indicator of when we’re on track because it’s quite particular about the conditions in which it will arise. It only arises in the present moment when we’re not in our own way (e.g., brooding about the past or anxious about the future). Sometimes we experience joy somewhat passively when conditions temporarily line up in our favor, for example, when we open a holiday gift that is exactly what we wanted. But more often we experience joy as an active participant resonating with the people or conditions around us. Consider how our joy gets amplified when we find our actions lighting up someone else. One could say joy is the subjective experience of what we’d objectively measure as energy adding up or coherence between us and the world, when we’re “in sync” with others or “catching a wave.”

As an example of how joy arises in this seamless match between self and situation, imagine sitting on a swing in a playground of your youth. Perhaps when you were very young, someone pushed your back to get you swinging. But think back to that moment when you discovered you could do it on your own. By timing the pumping of your legs with the rhythm of the swing, you could add just enough energy for an ongoing ride. If your experience matched mine, joy sprang out, not only from the movement, but in being a seamless agent in co-creating it. What fun!

The rhythm of a swing is a very simple vibration to entrain with. Music also provides rhythms that are easy to match and, sure enough, joy springs up there, too. Little wonder rhythm and dance have been a part of every human culture in history and, even today, are central to enjoyment, community, connection, ceremony and healing. Nikki Jackman Joy, for example offers a Global Joy Dance as a healing practice. LePage calls dance her favorite exercise: “It is my body making joy.”

More complex, changeable or subtle waveforms call for more sensitivity and practice in order to resonate with them. But there, too, joy springs up. We can see it in athletes who adept at catching the wind, surfing a wave or seamlessly navigating a downhill mogul course. We see it in leaders who are adept at reading a room and delivering exactly what people need to hear or catching a trending wave with a well-tuned business model. Among the ways that Zen and mindfulness practices work to increase joy is by increasing our sensitivity and reducing inner tension. The result is we’re able to pick up more subtle signals and dance with them. Put another way, we’re able to resonate with a wider range of conditions and add our gifts. That’s why such practices provide profound support to leaders.

How might joy guide us in facing the climate crisis and other brokenness in our world? LePage and Johnson offer approaches to different parts of the problem but are similar in their reliance on joy. In her TED Talk, Johnson lays out three intersecting circles in the Venn diagram she suggests for finding one’s place and purpose in the work. The three circles are: “What are you good at?” “What work needs doing?” and “What brings you joy?” Lacking the circle of joy, the other two circles could readily lead to burnout and disappointment because we might be good at a number of things and the work that needs doing is limited only by our sensitivity and imagination. But once joy is used as a guide, we’re in the realm of resonance with the present moment conditions of our life. Once we’ve found that match between our particular gifts and the needs around us where joy springs forth, we’re in our sweet spot. “Be at the heart of this Venn diagram for as many minutes of your life as you can,” Johnson advises.

LePage comes at the joy of resonance directly as sign of the connections that will support and replenish us. She advises cultivating joy and gratitude as a practice, letting it emerge through connection with nature, with the infinite, and with like-hearted others. “Let yourself be entrained by people who bring you calm or joy,” she suggests. Conversely, know that your calm and joy is contagious, too, that is, people can resonate with you. If you are resourced from a boundless sense of connection or one-withness and someone is connected to you, they, too, are connected to that bigness. Fear, which can only grow in separation, loses its footing.

Joy and healing go together because healing makes whole, and the experience of wholeness or connection brings joy. When we are grieving, lost, angry, or afraid, the job of joy is to guide our healing. When we’re able to lead from a place of connection, joy can guide us not only toward our work, but toward our most purposeful work. The Japanese concept for it is “Ikigai,” or a life that is worthwhile and fulfilling.

Like Johnson’s Venn diagrams, Ikigai is represented by the same three intersecting circles, adding a fourth circle around making enough money. What Ikigai underscores is that expressing our gifts in resonant response to what’s needed is necessary for a fulfilling life. This answers the cynicism that might look at conditions in the world today and ask, “Why do anything?” When conditions are challenging, if we can match the challenge with a creative response, more is called out of us, and more joy arises. As Johnson describes it, “If we can find meaningful ways to contribute to the problems we face, it just feels good.” It’s harder to sail on rough seas than it is in calm waters, but if we’re up to the challenge, it’s also more exhilarating. Research into flow, which is a state of one-withness or seamless coherence in our being and doing, similarly finds that challenge, along with support, is a necessary pre-condition. If we’re up to it, challenge is an invitation to greater joy.

So, yes, we are facing a mess. And joy can guide us across the spectrum of how we resonate with it, from healing our grief to pulling us toward our most fulfilling life. Yes, we can say joy to the world. But let’s not make it a tiny, stingy joy. Cultivating the joy of profound connectedness and expressing our purpose, let’s bring abundant, overflowing, boundless joy to the world!

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