Lessons from ‘The Book of Joy’

A few days ago, at least 80 Syrian civilians, including many children, were killed in a chemical attack seemingly carried out by their own government. I debated turning off the news reports, but I could not turn my back on the suffering of my fellow man.  So, like many of you, I inhaled the atrocity until my eyes, my mind, and my heart burned with a suffocating sadness that becomes painfully familiar when you choose to remain aware.

That night, I picked up a book to read before attempting to sleep. The Book of Joy had found its way to my nightstand just the day before. It documents conversations during a weeklong visit of two old friends, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as they explored the question, “How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?”

Their question mirrors one I struggle with personally and is ultimately the question of this blog, “How do we live a lovely life (often in the midst of not-so-lovely circumstances)?” 

The answer, they agree, is not to deny pain and suffering, escape it, or numb it (as we so often do) with material things from the outside in. I’m hesitant to summarize the vast wisdom of these spiritual masters, but the short answer seems to be ~

  1. to refine the inner values of our hearts and minds
  2. to recognize our oneness with all of humanity
  3. to embrace practices that magnify kindness and compassion

The Book of Joy shares many spiritual practices of the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop, including the practice of Tonglen. The aim of this prayerful meditation is to take the suffering from others and offer them our love, courage, strength, and joy. Whether or not it literally relieves the pain of those hurting, it can transform our relationship with those suffering, and allow us to respond more compassionately.

The Practice of Tonglen, adapted from The Book of Joy ~

  1. Settle your mind with several long breaths through your nose.
  2. Think of someone who is suffering. This may be a friend, a relative, or a whole group of people, such as the Syrian people.
  3. Reflect on the fact that, like you, they wish to overcome suffering and be joyful. Feel deep within your heart the desire for them to free of suffering.
  4. Take their suffering. As you inhale, imagine the pain being drawn from their body and dissolving when it encounters the warmth and bright light of your compassionate heart.
  5. Give out your joy. As you exhale, imagine that you are sending the person rays of light filled with your love and compassion, your courage and your confidence, your strength and your joy.
  6. Repeat this practice of taking the suffering and transforming it by giving your joy. If you are taking the suffering of someone who is being harmed by others, visualize replacing the cruelty and hatred that is causing the harm with your love and kindness.
  7. Stay quiet as your love and joy radiate out from your heart.

What strikes me most about this practice is that it requires two things from us. One, we must possess joy. Two, we must give it away. And that, my friends, is a lesson in loveliness, compliments of two very different men who have spent a lifetime in witness of exile and oppression, yet continue to smile with infectious joy.


“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu

“My religion is kindness.” ~ Dalai Lama

Think On These Things ~ Alicia


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