what is joy and how the heck do you practice it?

depression is a state i’m all too familiar with. despair, dejection, melancholy.. all of these are familiar mates who have sat with me more days than i’d like to admit.

they visit often, seemingly out of the blue and with no notice. and they sit on my chest, heavy, weighing me down and suffocating my sense of hope and wonder.

as i come to terms with the cyclical nature of my depression (after 25+ years of experiencing it), i’m realizing more and more that hope and joy are a practice as much as an organic state one lands in.

i’m sure there are people out there for who joy comes naturally and levity visits with regularity, but so far, i am not one of them.

and much of my adult life has revolved around self-medicating with various substances in order to connect with these states. which unfortunately and inevitably tends to result in a come-down that brings me deeper into that space i was originally avoiding.

so, as i move further and further away from substances, i’m grappling with the gap left in their absence. the gap between depression and joy, despair and hope, heaviness and levity.

which brings me to the question: what is joy and how do i connect with it?

to answer this question, i’m sure i could take many approaches. a more Buddhist-centric answer would describe joy as a state vs an externally-induce experience. which i don’t disagree with. but for me, it makes the most sense to view joy as a practice.

and honestly y’all, i struggle to name what that practice entails. so bear with me as i parse this out in real time.

today, i felt myself slipping into an all-too-familiar state of despair and sadness. and so, despite my current illness and the 40 degree weather outside, i slipped on some pants, shoes, and a sweater, and i took myself for a walk.

at first, all i felt was the desire to cry. but then i reminded myself to open up to the world around me, to the barren trees and rustling birds and humans fluttering about me. and i began to feel it: that lift, that vibrational pull, that ability to access something in myself that felt hopeful and even pleasant.

and briefly, i was able to sing. which brings me to the next item on the list: singing. i stopped singing as a kid when my sister informed me that my voice sucked, and since then, i’ve been hesitant to open up to my own voice. but over the past year, as i’ve navigated being quite isolated, i’ve found my voice time and time again, often just to keep me company.

and the more i allow myself to sing, the more i believe in the vibrational power of it.

music in general seems like an integral part of my joy practice, because it can connect me with a different mood quicker than almost anything else. and as i try to open up more and more, i try to find dance. but i’m going to be honest, when i’m deep in despair, dancing can feel like an almost impossible task. maybe because connecting with my body on that level feels so inaccessible.

i’d like to list a good conversation as joy-inducing, but i recognize there are caveats around this. i struggle with small talk, and i tend to be more sensitive when i’m in a funk, so conversations can sometimes be counter-productive to a joy practice. BUT when the iron strikes just right, and i find myself in a deep, luscious conversation that allows me to process the nature of being human, my spirit can be lifted unlike anything else.

visiting my family over the past couple of weeks, i found joy in the smile and laughter of my 10 month old niece.

and depending on the day and my perspective, i can find a deep sense of fulfillment in cooking a nutritious meal. (but on the wrong day, cooking can be a recipe for resentment).

beyond that, i’m not really sure. maybe connecting with nature, but oftentimes that experience more so brings me peace than joy.

at the end of my walk today, i considered the trend of people rollerblading during the pandemic and thought maybe that could be another joy practice for me.

i used to practice yoga with much more frequency, along with biking, and i’d like to be optimistic about the potential of these activities, but i also don’t want to force it.

it’s strange grappling with questions like this at my age (30). it feels like i should know the answer to what brings me joy, and yet, the older i get, the more i wonder to what extent i actually know myself and what pleases me.

it’s an odd experience to feel like a stranger to oneself. but like they say, it all begins with acknowledgement.

and so, i remain hopeful that i will be able to come into deeper understanding around what pleases and excites me, what lights my soul on fire.

and until i find clarity, my wish for myself is that i continue to engage with my curiosity.

prayer: may i find pleasure in getting to know myself. may i remember that this is a process. may i let go of criticism and judgement long enough to allow what is true and nurturing to emerge. may i trust that when i open up to joy, it will find me. may i let my soul be the guide.