Spiritual listening, the most important faculty for creating a new voice or sound, is a vital action for living a spiritual life. What are we listening for? To celebrate change and overcome hate. Change of this kind and magnitude, we should be happy to know, has been done before. Profoundly, triumph over hatred and dissonance comes represented in pieces of music — as a vehicle to express that triumph. In 1972, the prelude to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy officially became the European anthem, symbolizing hope and fellowship across borders and through conflicts. We face the same situation now: seeking to celebrate change and overcome hate.
Looking at where we are today, a spiritual dilemma in our rapidly evolving global atmosphere is that people naturally don’t want to be afraid, but nonetheless live in great distrust – the opposite of joy. Distrust is the enemy. Distrust of the future, of the news, of our feelings and even of our relationships. We are shown the dangers that threaten human connection. We can’t be reminded of this enough: a bombardment of technology has created all sorts of very convenient filters for our feelings. And, god forbid, if we need to unplug from our social media and emails, it’s like quarantine. We feel we have lost touch. When we use our voices in self-protective acts of outrage, protest and speaking up, we may feel momentarily joyful but our anger remains.
Instead, what if we produce a ‘joy effect’ wherever we go? We find more and more joy arriving on our shores simply by listening for it.
By opening to another world within oneself, we turn things over to illuminating the ‘heart quality’, the divine, the spirit. Divine sound, a voice of hope, has often been related to religion, but it is also sounded in everyday nature. In developing your own joy effect, what is important is the sound: listening for joyfulness, not distrust. The entire history of human life may even be the tension between these states.
A delightful Facebook post I encountered from Canada evokes a most valuable and central insight: joy is always in us. “To be happy, something has to be happening, but joy is something that’s in you, and when you think of it, whatever it is, fills you with life and brings a smile to you no matter the day you’re having.”
Joy is a state of consciousness. Consciousness is concern for some social or political cause. Under relatively normal circumstances, most everyone has some form of this. But we are living in strange times, with intense growing distrust, the reverse of joy. Our fear, anxiety and losses have been matched by the growing desire for joyfulness. We do not want our joyfulness delayed or hindered anymore.
The first quality of joy is serenity, the peace that comes from listening. Listening takes us in search of an emerging sound, the one we should be listening for that replaces, and even reverses, our feelings of distrust. To have a ‘joy effect’ means to skillfully transfigure the presence of hatred and distrust — whether in ourselves, people we know, the State — into a new and more loving culture beyond protest.
The second quality of joy is a vital action: transfiguration. This is the metamorphosis that happens when something changes form into a more beautiful state. In outward appearance, it’s the story of the ugly duckling, but also the accompanying spiritual transfiguration that occurs when we shine and make something new. In art, the theme of transfiguration is the joy of changing into something beautiful, often after war and death. It is also a promise of what is to come. As we each move forward, what is the way to joy?
Interestingly, joy is both experiential and materialistic, just as there are two kinds of people, experiential and materialistic. Do we make music, or just buy it; do we learn to create something of beauty, or do we just have it created for us?Joy is both, even if we need to get to the experiential first. Through our own experience in the here-and-now, we are forced to communicate. From higher-centered feelings come higher-centered actions. Those actions need to come from our feelings – so we can be here, completely and totally, living life in a higher octave.
When I was fifteen, a child in a Tijuana orphanage asked me “What is the ocean like?” It’s the happiest place I know, el lugar mas feliz del mundo, I replied in Spanish, and it’s our breath, nuestro aliento. I painted word-pictures for them about the colors of the salt water in different temperatures, the shapes of surfboards, swimsuits and wetsuits, and how not to die when a kayak flips over and your body is wedged inside. But I could not provide them the living sounds of waves crashing, the smell of salt in the wind, whale songs off the coast of Santa Barbara near Catalina Island, the moment of feet touching the sand and water rolling over the toes, nor the exciting dangers of sailing out to sea in the rain with the immense openness of sky and water stretching out of sight. I do not recall the first time I saw the ocean, but I forever remember what that the taste and sound of that experience.
Taken aback that children from seven to fifteen years of age, living just 30 minutes from the ocean, had never seen, or might never listen to it, I wondered what capacity I had to get them there. What simple action could I take? I did not want to be missionary-minded like those who desire to teach poor people, or even to regard them as poor to begin with. I wanted them to experience for themselves their own joy.
I thought that for any child in that orphanage to know what freedom is about, they needed that expansive experience of touching the ocean, of running free, even if … just once. It was my mission to share that experience with them. The energy it took to persuade the direct-aid program to Mexico, called Los Niños, to procure a bus and fill it with the children of the Tijuana orphanage was far easier than I thought. Everyone loves the beaches near Tijuana, flocking to Playas de Tijuana, less than 20 miles from the inner-city, Playas de Rosarito, a slice of paradise where Titanic was filmed, the tranquil San Miguel Beach in Ensenada where gray whales visit the waters offshore.
Uncaged children … running loose out on the beach, those orphans … were me, and I was them. These kids could now say, I have seen the ocean, Vi El Océano. And I could reply: Hasta, el Oceano. Oh, to the Ocean! How that set me free, too!
Basic joys are the pleasures we take in the arts, sports, in self-expression, sex, and loving; whereas higher joy is a reflection of the sacred, holy, and noble — our better nature. In thought-led language, we meet the moment from the stories and programming we encounter. But in feeling language, we meet the moment from how we feel.
This kind of ascending joy was evident in Guadalupe Mendez, a woman of the Tijuana foothills affectionately known as Lupe, for whom we brought medicines and supplies of food. Seldom did a gift to Lupe remain with her; walking through the colonia, she passed on to those most in need of what she had just received. I was engrossed by her hands plowing gently into a big bowl in which she made tortillas for the poor and the blind in her community. I had never before seen such a joyful smile despite hardships. She always found time to care for neighbors who needed help: a mentally ill boy with a badly infected leg, a man without legs, a paralyzed girl, a woman who suffered a stroke, and many more.
In the span of a warm afternoon, she showed me that tortillas and soup are not enough, but that singing songs is spiritual food. This is when I learned to listen with my heart, and not just hear with my ears, that there are no limits on love. Listening is a simple action that opens us up to feeling.
Where we go from here, how we will go, and how our reality will be formed consciously is in listening. Our magnificence comes through one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” Penned in 1954 by composer, pianist, and educator Dr. Billy Taylor, as documented by Library of Congress, the piece did not enjoy popularity until the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and throughout the decade of the 1960s. The title expresses one of the fundamental themes of the Movement: the wish to live free in America with dignity.
“… I wish I could break all the chains holding me, I wish I could say all the things that I could say … I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart, Remove all the bars that keep us apart, I wish you could know what it means to be me, Then you’d see and agree, That every man should be free … I wish I could do all the things that I can do, Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew … And then I’d sing ‘cause I’d know, I’d know how it feels to be free …”
A spiritual anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s, its wish continues to be transmitted and covered by musicians and bands – Lighthouse Family, Nina Simone, John Denver, John Legend and The Roots, The Blind Boys of Alabama featuring Béla Fleck.
Wherever we happen to be in our lives, we are each offered this time to listen for what nourishes us. The choice between fear or freedom comes from believing that nothing is impossible. Our aim is to understand why we should work at continuously expressing this, and as a result, to grow far beyond what we can ever possess.