The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
“This book is a one-of-a-kind teaching, a rare delight for those who want to live their lives more fully . . .”
Who doesn’t want to find joy? To help us, renowned spiritual teachers, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, have released a new book about how to find a sense of contentment and joy even in times of abundant sorrow. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World is their joint effort to spread teachings about joy, love, humility, and inner peace.
While it could do with a good, strong edit to excise some of the extraneous details that slow the reading of the book, The Book of Joy offers beautiful insight into the friendship the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu share and the incredible depth of experience they can impart about finding peace in the hardest circumstances life gives.
First things first. What is joy?
Joy is not happiness, that sappy, sweet feeling that comes from surprise parties or an unexpected compliment. Rather, it is the steadfast inner calm that allows a person to maintain their equilibrium through anything. “Joy subsumes happiness,” the authors tell us. Joy, in its greatest sense, is the investigation and experience of those things that make life “satisfying.”
These men know of what they speak. The Dalai Lama fled the Chinese who invaded Tibet and has lived in exile most of his life. Tutu is a champion for human rights whose work, in part, led to the fall of the apartheid state in South Africa and who was part of the truth and reconciliation efforts in that country. These men have suffered, personally and publicly. Yet they remain committed to living lives that are filled with joy. They challenge us to do the same.
How can we live joyfully? One way is by living with humility. A theme throughout the book is that neither the Dalai Lama nor Archbishop Tutu sees himself as a standout individual. They are men who lead simple lives largely devoted to prayer and meditation. Although each wields immense influence, they are men who recognize their humanity and the humanity of all others. When we live our lives with true humility, without trying to out-do the Joneses, we are one step closer to living joyfully.
Of course, death, illness, and the unfair experiences of life take up a great deal of space in the book. These are issues we will all suffer in one way or another, and these are problems that can be faced with integrity and grace. No one escapes suffering. It is the human experience.
But as these men tell us through their words and show us by example, we don’t have to relive these traumas repeatedly. We stub our toe, and it hurts, but we do not have to carry that suffering with us by thinking about how much it hurt to stub our toe last week. To carry our suffering is a choice, a choice that prevents the most sublime experiences of joy.
Forgiveness and gratitude are also discussed at length. For every difficulty, there is a counterpoint. Forgiveness can be found through compassion. Archbishop Tutu had an abusive, alcohol-dependent father. The Dalai Lama suggested that this man was a good man when he was sober, and not himself when he was drunk. This is not an excuse for the man’s ugly behavior, but it shows compassion for him and his family, as a way of taking the charge out of a terrible situation and bringing calm to that which cannot be changed.
The same is true for gratitude. Tutu has cancer, a disease that will sooner rather than later end his life. Yet he does not despair. What he expresses instead is incredible gratitude for the life he has been able to lead and the days he has now with his beloved family and closest friends. He chooses to look back on a life well lived. There are regrets, but he does not dwell on them. It seems a challenge to follow in his footsteps, but Tutu’s joy comes from the choices he makes about the thoughts he chooses to dwell on and those he pushes away. Joy is about perspective.
The book can, in places, be long-winded. It documents a multiday visit between the monk and archbishop at the Dalai Lama’s residence in India. Every detail of the way the Dalai Lama laughed or the mischievous look on Tutu’s face is described. The first few times these details are a treat; overall, it is too much.
Also, there is a substantial amount of scientific information added by the book’s writer, Douglas Abrams. It’s important information that corroborates the clergymen’s teachings, but it would have been better introduced in appendices or in a section dedicated to the science of joy, outside the descriptions of the interactions between the holy men.
The excellent appendix that is presented is the section at the end of the book titled, Joy Practices. For those who want to improve their ability to experience joy, to live with humility, and to face life’s challenges with more grace and wisdom, these exercises are relatively easy to do and embrace the ethic of choosing to let go of our clinging to suffering.
Both Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama are elderly men. The reader, and the world, knows that they will not likely ever meet again. This book is a one-of-a-kind teaching, a rare delight for those who want to live their lives more fully, with the ability to look adversity in the eye and find their first reaction is to breathe deeply and smile.