Opening To Joy
Mar 03 2023
Hello dear reader, thanks for dropping by. This blog is a collection of musings on the theme of joy, a topic that’s very dear to my heart. I’ll be exploring the link between meditation / regulating the nervous system and joy, celebrating the many ways that joy permeates our days here at the Barn, taking you on a joyful journey to Sharpham House’s New Year Retreat and bringing you back to the Barn for a peek into the first ever co-created Deep Play Retreat. We’ll finish up rousing my inner clown (remember her?) to find out what joy means to her.
What is joy?
I recently attended an online seminar called “Infusing Joy In Trauma Healing” with Dr. Ava Pommerenk. She described joy as “an embodied… experience of pleasure… delight and wellbeing.” I like that description, it has a fuzzy, warm feeling to it. She explained that joy happens in the body, in the present moment, in relation to an experience that is being received or perceived.
Accessing many moments of joy a day is one of the ways that I cultivate my resilience. This is what got me through the pandemic and helped me provide spaces for hundreds of people to access their joy via The Online Clown Academy. I wrote a blog called Welcoming Joy in June 2020, where I explored the medicinal nature of joy. In this excerpt, I refer to a “facebook live” mini joy workshop that I’d recently offered:
In my facebook live, I made it clear that the message was not; “You should only be joyful, joy is the way!” What I hoped to get across was that opening to joy can help us grow our resilience, nourish our souls and instil us with hope, all of which are important, especially through this difficult period. I spoke about the expansive nature of joy and how experiencing joy can offer us a sense of spaciousness. This spaciousness can help us to be with the more difficult feelings of grief, confusion, anger, frustration or whatever you might be experiencing.
We’re not talking about “good vibes only” here. We’re talking about opening fully to moments of joy as a way of resourcing ourselves through the ups and downs of life.
Joy At The Barn
Towards the end of 2022, I was coming to the half-way point of my year as a volunteer coordinator here at The Barn Retreat Centre and my joy-levels were somewhat depleted…
If you’re new to this chapter of my life, let me introduce you to The Barn where I live and work. The Barn is a humble grey stone building, hidden away in the wild woods on the Sharpham Estate in Devon. It’s a friendly, lived-in, home-away-from-home with 14 simple, neutrally decorated single rooms, a kitchen-diner full of mismatched furniture, rows of sweetie jars full of dehydrated beans and an oven that gets wedged closed with a heavy cast-iron pot. Our library is packed, floor to ceiling with spiritual texts, poetry and psychology, it would take several lifetimes to wade through all of those words. Our meditation room is an uncomplicated, clear space with a small altar with wild flowers, candles and a modest statue of the Buddha. Everyone is welcome here at the Barn and the stains on the carpets let you know that it’s totally fine to be your imperfect self and spill a bit of tea from time to time.
People come from all over the world, week after week, to be guided by the Buddhist teachings, to travel deep inside themselves and explore open-hearted community with other humans and more-than-humans. Everyone becomes part of our community, pitching in to grow the veg and make the dinner, chop the wood and clean the house.
There is no absence of joy here at The Barn; the trees, bushes and flowers throw out unselfconsciously celebratory shapes and colours all year round, with reckless abandon. Nature holds nothing back! Pink sheep parade around the bottom field (they’re pink from rolling in the rich red Devon earth), whilst black-and-white-stripy-teddy-bear cows peek over the back fence, joyfully licking retreatants with a rough black tongue, if they’re lucky.
Our two characterful cats; Nimbus and Cirrus are a constant source of delight. Muscular black Nimbus struts around like he owns the place, demanding firm strokes and wheelbarrow rides from anyone who’s passing, whilst fragile tabby Cirrus’ whole world is confined to the mat outside the meditation room, where she waits for cuddles that she’s a bit too shy to ask for. Then there’s the bat-shit crazy hens who are absolutely fascinated by everything we fling into their chicken run, “Oooooooh! What’s this? Congealed porridge? Oooooooohhhhh! Fancy!”
The Barn seems to attract twinkly eyed staff, volunteers and retreatants who are no strangers to joy. The main reason we’re all here is to deepen our meditation practice. Ethan Pollock, one of our visiting dharma teachers, recently suggested that meditation can be a great place to train our ability to savour our experiences; by noticing and lingering with moments of quiet contentment and simple pleasure on the cushion, we can grow our capacity for experiencing joy elsewhere in our lives. Another of our dharma teachers, Katherine Weare, recently suggested that we can cultivate mindfulness through noticing “the loveliness of small things” throughout our days. Paraphrasing Jon Kabat-Zinn, she said: “If we only have moments to live, we might as well show up for some of them.”
As we practice lingering with our moments and noticing the lovliness of small things, there are near continuous small explosions of joy all over The Barn. At any moment, someone may be having a mouthgasm from the taste of a rocket leaf grown in one of our polytunnels, whilst someone else might be standing open-mouthed in the woods, awe-struck by the sound of a hooting owl or the vibrant plumage of a pheasant. Any time of the day, you’ll be guaranteed to find clusters of wide-and-wet-eyed retreatants, gazing in wonder at the stars or the moon or the clouds or the sunrise. A few weeks ago, someone was totally gobsmacked by the inner workings of their own knee. There’s a whole lot of joy going on here at The Barn!
There’s also a lot of hard work!
As coordinators, from the moment we wake up, at 6 in the morning until we go to bed at 9pm, we are supporting retreatants to gain access to these joyful experiences. Although it is a joy to light the fires, feed the cats, muck out the chickens, cook the food, manage the retreatants with their house chores, guide the meditations, facilitate the discussions, support the visiting teachers, plant out the lettuces, hack back the brambles, answer the emails and attend team meetings, it can also be pretty tiring!
As New Year and my half-way point was approaching, I needed somewhere to collapse and recuperate, so I decided to cash in my freebie retreat chips and crawl on my hands and knees to the other side of the Estate to attend the New Year retreat at the super-splendid Sharpham House.
New Year Joy at Sharpham House
Sharpham House is a grand old, grade one listed, pink-tinged Georgian mansion, which stands proudly on the bend of the broad River Dart. It offers plush, high-end secular mindfulness retreats, where you get to sit on a cushion and watch your breath, surrounded by spiral staircases, ornate chandeliers, gilded ceilings and huge, imposing works of art, while a fancy chef cooks your dinner for you.
At Sharpham House, they really put the treat into retreat! Once upon a time, I may well have resisted the decadent bounty of Sharpham House, but in my joy-depleted state, for these 5 days, I said yes to everything I could get my hands on:
- A huge king-sized bed to loll around in, IN THE DAYTIME with an incredible view of the river from my window and a pile of great books to read? OK, if I must!
- Movement meditation on the lawn at dawn with the starlings murmurating all around us? Well, why not!
- Expertly guided meditations punctuating the days? Sure, bring it on!
- Big chats and belly laughs with random strangers? Ah, go on then!
- Sneaking off with naughty pixies to swim in the freezing cold river and light fires in the dead of the night? Yep, you betcha!
- Long soulful, solitary walks in the rain, whilst singing to the river? Mm-hmm!
- Silent discos in the woods? It would be rude not to!
- A little tinkle on the grand piano in the spacious vestibule? Mais oui!
- Flouncing up and down the spiral staircase in a ball gown and wolf hat on New Year's Day? Check.
- All the delicious fresh organic food I can load onto my plate and going back for seconds? I mean, obviously!
- Pudding EVERY GODDAM DAY? Oh yeah, baby!
What Blocks Joy and How To Access It
In a talk called “Lose Your Purpose and Find Your Joy,” Dmitri Yepishin argued that the thing that separates us from our natural joy is our goal-orientated society which “incessantly demand[s us] to define [our] goals and reach success.” He said, “By creating these structures, we often shield ourselves from the natural energy, the joy, the presence that we come in with.” Dmitri stated, “inner joy needs nothing,” suggesting that all we need to do is drop into our present experience and there it is. In her talk, Dr. Ava Pommerenk spoke about potential blocks to experiencing joy. Describing joy as something that happens in the body in the present tense, she explained that if we are not able to tune into our bodies in the present moment, then we can’t access joy. She suggested that, “We need to learn to regulate our nervous systems enough to be present and embodied.”
The structure and containment of the New Year retreat allowed me to let go of my everyday duties, roles and responsibilities and come into presence. Spending time immersed in wild nature and cocooned in beautiful rooms, moving my body and resting in stillness, being alone and connecting with playful folk, all helped me regulate my nervous system enough to be able to tap into my limitless reservoir of natural joy. I left feeling plumper, both in my body and in my heart, returning back to the Barn to welcome five dear friends…
Deep Play Retreat At The Barn
Being a life-long opportunist, I’d spotted a rare gap in the schedule between retreats and commandeered the Barn, inviting five of my favourite playmates to come to stay for three days.
Having spent six months in quiet contemplation and with my joy-levels freshly rejuvenated, I was eager to unleash my creative expressive side. I wanted to dance like a banshee, sing like a siren and play like a plonker. I wanted to fill the normally quiet and calm Barn with joyful noise, a cacophony of colour and creativity. Luckily I’d invited five creative, warm-hearted women who wanted to do that too! Together we co-created the first ever Deep Play Retreat at The Barn.
We agreed on a loose structure for our time and committed to following the process as it spontaneously emerged. We had designated times when things might happen, but we had no idea what those things might be. At the start of each session, one of us would lead a short grounding meditation, before we shared how we were feeling, what we were needing and what we might like to offer. Then we negotiated A Plan.
In the mornings, we let our bodies move how they wanted to move to music in the meditation room and filled our journals with poetry and prose at the kitchen tables with steaming mugs of tea. After breakfast, we trekked through the red mud to the natural burial ground, where we sang our soul songs to the dead. Down at the river we spontaneously harmonised a song about flow. Beccy led an exercise where we explored the woodland through our senses, finding gifts for each other to write about and Jess offered a jam jar full of creative outdoor explorations for us to dip into whenever we liked. In the afternoons, some people read, others napped, one sat on a bench in the rain in her waterproofs, a few reflected back on 2022 and I wrote the first draft of this blog. In the evenings we all came back together to eat delicious banquets and play raucous parlour games in front of the log fire in the library.
“Hello kitchen utensil!” (my new favourite game, courtesy of Robyn)
What you need: One blanket and a few people.
How to play: One person stands up behind a blanket and composes their body into the shape of a kitchen utensil. When they are ready, they say, “knock knock,” and the others say, “Come in, Kitchen Utensil!” The kitchen utensil then drops the blanket and everyone has to guess what they are. You can make sounds and move if you like.
Our Cacao Ceremony
On the last day, a den made of blankets appeared in the corner of the meditation room, as did a pile of ridiculous dressing up clothes, a collection of musical instruments, a heap of art materials, a pot of hot cacao and a very strange grapefruit and polenta cake. We each put our names into a jar and agreed to jump in to lead a 5 minute creative activity when our name gets drawn. In between each activity, we planned to have 15 minutes to take inspiration from the stimulus and follow our own flow. Amerie opened the cacao ceremony and we toasted each other with hot mugs of cacao, saying, “Now we are here!” and for several hours, six beautiful women in various states of fancy dress danced, played, sang, wrote, drew, crawled in and out of the den and howled at the full moon.
At the end of the cacao ceremony, I felt so full of joy that I wept. I remembered that creative, playful, noisy, spontaneous, relational, irreverent joy is both my practice and my gift to others. Those three days felt like coming home to something so familiar, nourishing, heart expanding and precious. To savour our time together, Martha taught us a sweet little song from Plum Village:
There is true joy right here
There is true joy right here
And we are so glad that we found it
There is true joy right here
My Clown Has Awoken
The Barn has given me so many opportunities to put down the persona of Holly Stoppit and explore a quieter, more internal, less performative quality of joy. Whatever’s happening at The Barn, we all sit down to meditate together three times a day. Through this regular practice of grounding, softening and turning my attention inwards with kindness and curiosity, I feel like I’ve been re-educating my nervous system and creating new neural pathways, which allow me to meet my experience in a more open, less guarded way. Performing the same chores over and over again for months on end has allowed me to practice mindfulness in action. I’ve been able to notice habitual pattens in my body, heart and mind and explore different ways of doing things, finding ways to effort less and open more to joy.
The New Year retreat at Sharpham House felt like a much-needed reset, offering me space to breathe, expand and rest, and from that place of relaxation, I remembered how important playfulness, creativity, spontaneity and connection are to me. Well, what do you know? These are the qualities that belong to my inner clown! It seems, after six months of deep rest, my clown has woken up!
In Animal Joy, psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir undergoes clown training for the first time, describing it as “…going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialisation to reveal the clown who has been there all along…” My clown is the relentlessly joyful part of me that never learned about the concept of “no”. When I tap into her energy, life is one big party and everyone’s invited. Alsadir continues: “By removing the social filter, [clowning] pushes us to explore what might have been possible had we continued to believe that what is most beautiful is the moment when we are most ourselves…” This echoes Yepishin’s sense of the natural joy that lies dormant beneath our goal-orientated societal structures. Pommerenk might describe clowning as a series of embodied experiences of “pleasure… delight and wellbeing.” It feels that way to me.
The Deep Play Retreat gave my clown all the space and support she needed to fully let rip. It was delightful to be reunited with her fierce capacity for joy and to see what she made of the retreat centre where I live and work. She had a lovely time doing rolley polleys and being a very noisy monster in the meditation room, shouting, singing and playing with her friends in the woods and howling at the moon in her wolf hat and ballgown. The naughtiness of doing all this in a place which is usually dedicated to calm and quiet, made it all the more delicious.
“But what happened to your clown when The Barn went back to normal?” I hear you ask. Well, dear reader, that’s another story for another time…
Thanks for reading this blog.
I wish you bottomless vats of joy and the presence to fully experience it.
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Infusing Joy In Trauma Healing, online talk by Dr. Ava Pommerenk as part of The Trauma Super Conference from Conscious Life
Ethan Pollock - live dharma talk at The Barn
Katherine Weare - live dharma talk at The Barn
Lose Your Purpose and Find Your Joy, online talk by Dmitri Yepishin as part of Mindfulness and Compassion Week, from Wisdom for Life
Animal Joy by Nuar Alsadir
The True Joy Song from Plum Village