Maintain Joy and Humor

Practice of the Week
Maintain Joy (and Don't Lose Your Sense of Humor)

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Maintain joy (and don't lose your sense of humor). Can you live by this slogan? Can you DECIDE to be joyful? Can you make yourself joyful when you’re in a bad mood? How could you keep your sense of humor when things are going badly? How realistic is this in the sort of world we live in, being the people we are?

If you’ve been practicing these “Slogans to Live By” – and the other “Practices of the Week” – then, by this time, you have some experience under your belt. Perhaps by now you have learned to trust yourself more, to be able to be honest about your shortcomings without condemning yourself for them. Maybe by now you've gotten the hang of how to practice with difficulty – and you really get it that running away inside only compounds the trouble. You can face difficult emotions without so much denial and avoidance. Maybe at this point you’ve been working for a while on the practices, "Be Determined" and "Stick With It" -- and have developed more faith in yourself with the "Own Your Nobility" practice. Perhaps you have taken to heart the practice to "Reproach Your Demons" and to "Aspire to the Impossible" -- and so on.

If so, it is likely that you are in a better mood more of the time than you have ever been, and a feeling of joy and gratitude isn't so foreign as it used to be. In fact, joy is never very far away. So you can begin to imagine that it is possible to keep and extend a joyful feeling, even when things are tough. You now know that conditions need not necessarily give rise to habitual reactions.

To some extent, as we continue to train, we have more and more choice about how we respond to what happens to us. Bad conditions need not destroy our state of mind. Even in the darkest of moments, there's some light. We can maintain our sense of humor, our sense of ease. And this really helps, especially when things are grim.

Through your meditation and slogan practice:
  • you have developed a habit of awareness in your life;
  • the empty or boundless nature of things is always close at hand and is something that you think about, that you're aware of;
  • impermanence is no longer something you hate, it's your good friend.
When you have reaped these fruits, then, yes, it is possible to maintain joy and humor most of the time.

Also, remember that this is a slogan for assessment. Working with it is not a matter of pressuring ourselves to feel joy all the time. When we aren't joyful, when we're depressed or bitter, we need to know that we feel that way, not cover it up with a veneer of fake spiritual joy because someone says we should. The point is that we assess our situation with this slogan, Maintain Joy and Humor. We notice when we have joy and humor and when we don't. When we don't, we know how to work with our mind to adjust. Maintain Joy and Humor is a tool designed to help us, not a stick to beat ourselves up with -- or an invitation to pretend we are feeling what we are not.

Here I can take myself as an example. I am not a model practitioner, but I have been doing the practice steadily since my youth, and it has given me a fairly lighthearted attitude and a sense of humor about things, even though my natural state of mind is dour. I'm still dour after all these years, but I am lighthearted about it! I don't work too hard at my practice, and yet as the years have gone on, I find that I am a happier guy despite advancing age and the loss of many good friends to death. I'm not so sure everyone who knows me would say this, but this is my honest assessment of my own inner state, as far as I know it and can recall.

Now suppose that suddenly, while I am innocently minding my own business, somebody jumps on me and starts beating me up. (Fortunately, this has never happened to me.) How would I react? I don't really know, but judging from reactions I've had in the past when unexpected dangerous things have happened, I guess I'd be energetically impressed with the immediacy of what was going on and interested to see what was going to happen next. I suppose that spontaneously I'd try to defend myself somehow. But I do not think I would be surprised or in a panic. And if circumstances came to pass that caused me to lose everything—my health, my home, my spouse, my reasonably balanced state of mind (this last one has happened, of course, and more than once), and find myself suddenly in a total panic -- well, this would be very startling. This would get my attention, and I would be curious about how I was going to handle my out-of-control mind, what would happen, and there would be some joy in that I think, some spaciousness mixed in with the strong bad feeling. Maybe I'd be thinking, "Wow, I never thought this could happen! All these years of expensive Zen training and look at me, I'm in a total panic. Practice has been getting too easy maybe. Now I am really going to test out all of this Zen stuff and see if it really works.” Probably that's how I'd maintain my joyful mind and my sense of humor. And insofar as I was brought low and lost my lightness and ease, I'm sure I'd notice that and realize I was in trouble and try to get some help if I could. I have a lot of friends and am confident that somehow someone would help me.

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Joy doesn’t have that good a reputation in our culture. Joy may be associated with being spaced out, stupid, or blithely ignorant of the state of the world. What about the truth of suffering, the problem of greed and craving? What about warfare, oppression, prejudice, and on and on?

Not everything is OK. Yet we are still advised to be joyful.

We take things — and ourselves — so seriously! This slogan challenges that approach. It is a direct challenge to our usual earnest and heavy-handed approach to the path, to the world, and to ourselves. It is a challenge to the assumption that the way to fight heavy-handed problems is with heavy-handed solutions. And it is a challenge to our desire to make everything a big deal and of utmost importance and seriousness.

Maintain Joy and Humor. Don't follow your spiritual practice with gritted teeth, but with delight. Appreciate your good fortune in having found a path of peace and compassion. Have a little humor.

This does not just apply to when things are going well, and it does not mean that we should be disengaged. Instead, we could touch in to a sense of lightness and joy repeatedly, in whatever we do, no matter what is going on.


No matter what you are feeling or what is going on, smile at least once a day.

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  1. A comment on the "suppose I was to be attacked" paragraph: As one who has experienced Complex PTSD panic my whole life, I would like to know what planet the speaker (Norman? Judith?) is from. Panic is antithetical to control. And, it is misery. It just doesn't work the way the writer imagines. I hope he/she never finds this out.

  2. Upon being attacked, the writer thinks he/she would be calm exercise choice over how she/he would feel. I'm pretty sure this is not a brown or black person. Brown and black persons are raised to know that they can get killed for any reason or none.
    Liz Caplan