Originally printed in the January - February 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ellwood, Robert. "Joy: The Deepest Secret of the Universe." Quest 90.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY 2002):24-25.
by Robert Ellwood
TO THOSE WHO SEE ARIGHT, this vast and mysterious universe is as overflowing with joy as the old-fashioned heaven was overbursting with angels. Its stars throb with joy, its radiations hum with it, its dark or glowing nebulae embed it. The dances of the atoms and galaxies are dances of joy. Here below, joy lies hidden deep down at the heart of all things—boulders, trees, dolphins, zebras, and ourselves. Occasionally joy can be tapped in such a way that we can recognize its presence everywhere. It streams out of its secret places within us to flood the conscious mind with rapture keener than the sharpest grief and wider than any learning. I have experienced moments and hours when such joy has come to me, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes induced by meditation, for meditation seldom fails—sooner or later—to release the floodgates of joy and focus its dancing light.
In those moments, each one of us is what life tends toward and what being is all about. These times of joy are not emotional quirks or manic moods; they are life supremely being itself, being what it wants to be, in touch with the being that is its true nature.
When this deep joy comes, it is just there, independent of outer events. It is entirely different from being happy about something, like getting a present or completing a successful business deal. It is a pure joy of being that can well up in the most ordinary settings, amid the drudgery of unglamorous work, or while drifting off to sleep, and it can come in meditation, even in a hospital bed or a prison cell.
The authenticity of these moments tells us that the universe, deep down, is joy, for at such times we feel closest to the universe and most a part of its material and spiritual nature. Joy is life realizing what its parent, the universe—God, if you wish—is, always was, and ever shall be.
I have known such joy, and there is certainly nothing about me, no special birth or virtue, that leads me to think I am any different from the rest of humanity. I am firmly convinced that this same joy is latent in all women and men; indeed, in all that is. It is in you!
As the true nature of life, joy can be touched and known by anyone, in whatever circumstances. In some people and places it may be near the surface, in others deeply buried. But if joy is the true stuff of the universe, there can be no place, however terrible, where its last glimmer has irretrievably flickered out.
Joy is the most basic reality of the universe and of ourselves as parts of it: to seek this joy above all else is not a selfish quest. Living for sensual pleasure and ordinary happiness may indeed be selfish if pursued without thought for others, but the joy of the universe operates by very different laws. The more of this joy you have, the more others have, too, for it is inevitably shared. The more joy you give, the more sensitive you are to the blockage of joy in others, and the more you are drawn through love to help them find joy. Ordinary happiness wants to get; joy wants to give.
The primacy of joy is clearly expressed in the world's great spiritual traditions, which promise joy in this life and the life to come for those who live in accordance with the will of God; that is, with the real nature of things. Religions generally portray the saint or enlightened being as a person of supremely deep joy, suggested by the aureole or halo.
For example, the Upanishads, the most philosophical of the Vedic scriptures of ancient India, tell us that Brahman (God) is joy: "For from joy all beings are born, by joy they are sustained, being born, and into joy they enter after death." The same passage tells us that Brahman is also food, energy, mind, and intellect, but the deepest truth is that Brahman is joy. Brahman, though one, is all things, as a single flame takes many different shapes. But it is not Brahman's conditioned existence as the multiplicity of things that is the fullness of joy. Rather, Brahman as infinite reality pours endless depths into each conditioned experience, which makes it possible for all to be flooded with deep joy. As the Upanishads say elsewhere, "Only in the Infinite is there joy." And as a commentator on the Vedas said, "The universe, with everything in it, is only an outward flow and a crystallized form of the unceasingly upwelling joy of Brahman."
Deep deathless joy is the innermost reality of the universe and of ourselves as sons and daughters of that universe, its gods in the making. Joy is our heritage, and we can claim it today.
Some may hold that a gift as exalted as deep joy cannot be forced or claimed; it can come only on its own when the time is right. But this idea represents, I think, a far more passive attitude toward life than we need have. Joy is ours by right and we are empowered to take charge of our lives. Eternity's gifts belong to any and all points in time. The teachings of all religions regarding prayer and meditation indicate that we are to lay hold of divine gifts, not to insult heaven by scorning them.
In time, you may know deep joy on the wonderful level of Illumination. Afterward, if your wisdom deepens with your joy and you learn to let nothing get you down, the passage of the Dark Night of the Soul will take care of itself, and Union will free you to know the deepest secret of the universe, joy.
Robert Ellwood, Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California, is the author of Many Peoples, Many Faiths: An Introduction to the Religious Life of Humankind; Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America; The Cross and the Grail: Esoteric Christianity for the Twenty-First Century; and Theosophy. This article is abstracted from his new Quest Book, Finding Deep Joy, revised edition, 2001.