Apparently Confucius actually did say: "Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated."
I’m discovering this is true about my daily practice of joy, too. Joy is really simple. We just insist on making it complicated.
Here's the thing about practice: It ain’t practice if you don’t actually do it. In my busy life, of course I have a boatload of excuses to put off joy: I’ll get to it when I’ve caught up with my work, done the laundry, made the next plane reservation. Well, wasn't the whole point that my daily practice would become an antidote to all my busyness? Even though the phone is ringing, the emails are pouring in, and people want my time, I have to remember to stop. Because if I don’t, that freight train of one more important thing to catch up on after another will drag me along behind it, rattling and thrashing down the tracks of life, until I wake up once again one day down the line wondering — as I have done far too many times before — what the point of all this doing and doing and doing could possibly be.
So here's what I’ve discovered so far about having a daily practice of joy. If I don’t keep in simple, it won't happen. And simple, in my case, when I’m often on the road more than I’m home, means something I can practice wherever I go. For me that go-to practice is walking.
There’s never a day goes by when I can’t convince myself to walk. When I can’t talk myself into the joy part, I can always persuade myself to get my 10,000 steps in. I tell myself I need to move after sitting too long in front of the computer, or that I need to work off that big meal. In other words, even when I think the idea of taking time out for joy is ridiculous -- because how can I know I will even be able to access is when I have so many more “important" things to think about, like the delivery status of a package or whether the glitch on Quickbooks has been repaired -- I know that my day will go better if I get up, get out, and move! But the beauty part is that, within five minutes of walking out the door, my subterfuge succeeds. Presto Change-o: Instant Joy!!
What that has taught me is that, for those of us overly responsible, head-oriented, should-driven people, developing a daily practice of joy may involve tricking ourselves at first. While I can often talk myself out of the importance of experiencing joy on a particular day, the “virtue” of 10,000 steps usually feels close enough to a should that I will do it. The fact that no equipment, no special locations or court fees are required is they key. It is free, easy, and always doable. For us joy procrastinators, the simpler the better — or we’ll put off til tomorrow what can wait til the day after tomorrow just as well.
So, for today’s blog, I thought I would create a little photo essay about why walking has become my go-to daily practice of joy. The photos, which were all taken on my iPhone over the course of this past year, are more than just reminders of joy. They are part of my practice. As I get out and begin to look around me, I always see things that pique my interest, stir my heart, make me smile. Documenting those moments connects me more deeply to the feelings I am having. It makes me stop focusing on my number of steps or whether I’m burning off that lunch, and I am present in the moment. When I see something beautiful or fun, sweet or funny, if I stop to photograph it, I connect with it more deeply. And if I have learned anything about joy these past few months, it’s all about connection.
I am not including these photos because they are important artistic documents. No, they are talismans of my joy! So later on, when I am stuck at my computer wrestling with Quickbooks invoices or order statuses, I see them and smile.
WALKING FOR JOY
Lately, while working in Dallas, I often walk during my lunch breaks. Sometimes I head to the local market, but more often I walk around the neighborhood where I am working. That's how I fell in love with magnolia trees. At first, what I noticed were these large tight white buds nestled in deep waxy green leaves, just a few of them opening. I found myself wondering whether magnolias smell. The answer is yes!! Oh my gosh, do they ever! They are so fragrant and delicious. They are also gorgeous. Soon, not a walk went by when I wasn’t seduced into smelling a magnolia blossom or enjoying its sensual beauty. That’s pretty much an instant recipe for joy — reveling in the luscious scent of a beautiful flower. I became obsessed with photographing them on their journey from bud to blossom to decay. They perfumed my day, and I always headed back to work more joyful than when I left.
The world looks different on foot than it does out the window of a car. You smell the air and feel the wind. You focus on small things like snails crossing a sidewalk or a drop of water on a leaf. You notice bugs and birds, snakes and spiders. You can’t help but remember that we are not alone on this planet. Once you step out of those mechanical boxes in which we love to move through the world and off the tarmac, there's a whole world of wonder. Stopping to see, appreciate, and be in that world always fills me with joy.
Often, when I’m traveling, I don’t have time to find a beautiful place to walk. This is particularly true when I attend horror conventions, where I have very long hours that I know I will be spending under fluorescent lights in antiseptic hotel convention spaces. With a very full schedule and little time to search out a place in nature, I just head out the door and walk. I have NEVER not seen something that didn't make me think, smile, laugh. I have NEVER not come back to the hotel more joyful than when I left. It's pretty much foolproof. And there aren't even any alarming side effects.
I got more than my minimum daily requirement of joy one hot and humid morning last September in Waco, Texas, watching this kitten amuse itself on a dilapidated front porch. Pure joy!
Encountering Frieda on a walk through beautiful downtown Burbank. How can you not smile?
In Louisville, Kentucky, I walked the parking lots of the nearby empty exposition center, where I found this, um, port-a-church. It just made me laugh!
Sometimes the things I see create stories in my head. I found this hose and these boots on a sidewalk last fall in Brooklyn. I spent the next few blocks having so much fun making up their story in my head.
Walking allows us to see how other people live, to look over the walls that try to make us feel safe, but really end up just making us feel separate from one another. I found the fabulous assortment of hilarity and beautiful junk on a Santa Fe street on which I have often driven but rarely walked. This ridiculous assortment of junk and joy made my day!
Even the walks we do every day always contain new things to see. I took this photograph this week in the park near my house where I regularly. It reminded me how incredibly fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful and wild place.
Sometimes though, there are days when even walking doesn't seem to lift the pall of darkness and despair that seems to encompass my being. But the thing about having developed a practice is that I know I can have faith in it, and so I just put one foot in front of the other and trust. This happened a few weeks ago in Santa Monica, when I decided to take an hour to "get my steps in" on the beach. It was a beautiful spring day, but even the sun and sea couldn't seem to lift the weight I felt in my heart and mind. And then I saw this. . .I just smiled because it captured everything I love about the city in which I was born -- the People's Republic of Santa Monica. . .I was flooded with gratitude followed by, yes, joy!!
A little while later, I found myself on the pier overlooking the ocean when I noticed this same monk talking with two young women. I went over and told them I had taken what I thought was a wonderful photograph. We chatted for a bit -- this Burmese monk, and two women from Singapore and Canada--and then I texted this photo to them, before leaving in a far far better frame of mind than I had arrived. . .enriched by the joy of that connection.
I even walk when the weather is too hot, too cold, or when there are nothing but concrete sidewalks and warehouses to see. Because inevitably -- even if I just find it by looking up -- I find joy just moving through the world.
I read this quote today, and this is how walking makes me feel: “Earth is full of heaven when I bother to notice." How true!
For me, walking has become a profoundly spiritual practice -- one which connects me to myself, my heart, to others, to the planet, and to the immense power for good that holds us all.
Henry David Thoreau knew a thing or two about doing whatever it takes to live a meaningful and connected life. . . which is really what this daily practice of joy is all about. He wrote: “I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. ”
I've come to believe that, in order to keep showing up in our own lives, we have to follow Thoreau's directive and simplify life down to what is necessary and real. For me, walking does that in all the ways I have described. It's up to each of us to continue to discover for ourselves the simple practices that we can show up to in our lives, the practices that reconnect us to our yes, to our love, to our lives, to our planet, and to our joy. I believe our collective survival depends on it.