The Theosophical Society in America

Joy Mills: An Evolutionary Journey

Printed in the Spring 2012 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Overweg, Cynthia. "Joy Mills: An Evolutionary Journey
" Quest  100. 2 (Spring 2012): pg. 50-55.

by Cynthia Overweg 

Joy Mills     Joy Mills is a dearly loved teacher and author and has served as national president of both the American and Australian Sections, as well as international vice-president, of the Theosophical Society. She was instrumental in the creation of Quest Books, the publishing imprint of the Theosophical Society in America, and has traveled the world giving lectures and seminars. In January 2011, she was awarded the Subba Row Medal, which recognizes outstanding contributions to Theosophical literature and understanding.

Over several weeks of interviews during the spring and summer of 2011, Joy openly shared the ups and downs of her life story, hoping it might resonate with others who seek meaning and purpose. The following is woven from many afternoons of conversations about her life and work at her home at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy in Ojai, California. 

As she traveled through the foothills of northern India, the breathtaking beauty of the western Himalayas was a sight to behold. The mountains were magically iridescent in the midday sun, and she could hardly contain her excitement. The year was 1972, and Joy Mills was on her way to Dharamsala to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama at his residence-in-exile. It was a great honor for the Theosophical Society, and she could scarcely believe her good fortune.

     The rendezvous was the result of Joy's idea to publish the Dalai Lama's book Opening of the Wisdom-Eye, which up to that point had appeared only in south Asia. Traveling with her on this memorable journey was her good friend and colleague, Helen Zahara, who was senior editor of Quest Books."We were able to get the rights to publish the Dalai Lama's book, and since we already had a trip planned to Adyar, Helen and I wondered if we could meet with his Holiness," Joy recalls. They made arrangements through the Office of Tibet in New York, flew into Delhi, took the train north, and then hired a taxi to take them to Dharamsala.

     When they arrived at the Dalai Lama's home, they barely had a moment to gather their thoughts when his Holiness greeted them with what Joy describes as 'that wonderful smile." She recalls that Helen made the statement that H.P. Blavatsky had introduced the inner side of Buddhism to the Western world. "What did she write?" asked the Dalai Lama.

"The Voice of the Silence," Helen answered. Directing his next question to Joy, he asked, "What is the essence of The Voice of the Silence?" At first, Joy couldn't think. She wondered how she could express the book in a brief way. 'Well," she said finally,"it discusses the Paramitas," the six 'perfections" of Mahayana Buddhism. The Dalai Lama seemed genuinely excited. "Ah, then it is accurate. It is true." Joy was thrilled to be able to introduce the Dalai Lama to HPB's great little book, and the meeting is one of her most cherished memories.

     Joy was fifty-two years old when she first met the Dalai Lama. She is now ninety-one. Nothing in her formative years could have predicted that one day she would arrive at the Dalai Lama's doorstep representing the Theosophical Society. While her life is rich with accomplishments and service, there also has been hardship and neglect. The road that ultimately led her to Theosophy and to a profound respect for Buddhism, particularly the Dzogchen teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, began when she was a child.

     When Joy was born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1920, the world was still recovering from the devastation of World War I, and America was just beginning its rise as an economic and military powerhouse. American women had finally won the right to vote only two months before Joy's birth.

      Joy's father was an engineer and her mother a schoolteacher. Her early life wasn't unusual until a family tragedy turned it upside down. When she was eight years old, Joy was confronted with a pivotal question: what happens after death? Her mother, Mary Conger, died of a massive heart attack at the age of forty-nine. Her father conveyed the sad news to Joy in one simple statement: "Mama has died." Very little was said between father and daughter on that shattering day in May 1929. As Joy knelt at her mother's bedside, it looked as though her mother was merely asleep, but there was a sad acceptance hanging in the air. 'I leaned over to kiss her cheek and she was cold. It was my first impression of the temporary nature of physical life."

      Her mother's death, Joy recalls, 'triggered a need to better understand what it means to be human. I've learned that if you stay with that question long enough, a much deeper question emerges—it's at the root of our very existence: —Who am I?'"

Not long after her mother's death, Joy got a taste of what that question points to. She was visiting the Ozark mountains in Missouri with her maternal aunt and uncle and three cousins. One day she hiked into the woods on her own, feeling a deep connection with nature and an exhilarating sense of freedom. 'I had an experience in those woods that altered my perception of life," said Joy.

The Ozarks are known for their white oaks and dogwood trees, along with loblolly pines, which can reach over a hundred feet in height. Joy had been walking for a while, absorbing the sights and sounds of the forest. Suddenly she found herself standing in front of a towering tree. "I became aware of the power and life in that tree. Then I became one with the tree. I could have slid right into it." In that instant, she knew that the life in the tree and the life within her were the same life. "At some level, it changed me. It's what HPB calls —direct beholding,' an insight which often comes unbidden, when seeing happens at a deeper level."    

     In October 1929, five months after the death of Joy's mother, a catastrophic stock market crash hit Wall Street. It ushered in the Great Depression and a decade of economic turmoil affecting millions of families. Hard times gave rise to the most difficult turning point of Joy's youth. Her father lost his engineering job and spent most of his time looking for work. Overwhelmed by his circumstances and the demands of being a single parent, he sent her away to live with people she didn't know. "I was boarded out to a family who lived in another school district and saw my father only on weekends. Everything that was familiar was taken away, so I bottled up my feelings and lived in my books. It was my only refuge."

     Two years later, when her father married a much younger woman, he tried reuniting with his daughter, but Joy's stepmother was verbally abusive and neglected her. "I wanted to tell my father, but I was afraid of what would happen, so I just took it." Her father soon realized the reunion he had imagined wasn't going to work out. 'I overheard him tell my paternal aunt and uncle that he might put me in a convent," Joy recalls. 'As an alternative, they offered to adopt me and I heard my father give his consent. I was being given away, and it really hurt."

     Once she was legally adopted, Joy took the surname of her adoptive father and the child who had been baptized as Mary Joy Conger became Joy Mills. At the age of twelve, her life began again with people who took much better care of her. 'I had a lonely and dislocated childhood and never felt like I belonged. I'm not unique in that experience, of course. But I'm grateful that it pushed me inward and forced me to ask a lot of questions about life. It fed my desire to understand why there is so much suffering in the world." 

     By the time Joy was a teenager, she was reading Aristotle and Plato while others her age were at football games or at the local teen hangout."I had a girlfriend at school who loved

discussing philosophy. It filled a void." As she grew older, a question about the concept of freedom emerged. For her as a child, freedom meant being able to ride her bicycle in the open air with the sun shining on her face. Freedom also meant ridding herself of isolation and loneliness.

   "'But I see the world differently now," she says. 'The more we realize the Oneness of all things, the more we realize that freedom is a kind of illusion. The only real genuine freedom is to be free from the desires of a separated self. HPB refers to it as the —obligatory pilgrimage of the soul.' This is our collective evolutionary journey."     

     When Joy graduated from high school in 1937, the country was still in the grips of the Depression and money was tight, but with the help of student loans she was able to go to Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. In 1940, when she was a twenty-year-old student, she was introduced to Theosophy by a college friend and joined the Theosophical Society. 'Theosophy made the world comprehensible to me. It fulfilled me in so many ways, and it opened a door to the unseen."

     In June 1941, Joy was graduated with a degree in education and spent the summer working at national headquarters in Wheaton. She tried securing a teaching position for the fall, but nothing materialized. Sydney Cook, who was president of the American Section at the time, asked her what she wanted to do if a job didn't come through. She told him she wanted to go to graduate school. 'He was very kind and generous to me and said he would help." Cook paid half of her postgraduate tuition at the University of Chicago. The other half was paid by a university scholarship.

     When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, some of the university's facilities were turned over to the military. To earn spending money, Joy found herself helping in the war effort. She would get up early in the morning and go into the dining hall, where about a thousand sailors needed to be fed breakfast. 'I would sling hash all morning for the sailors stationed there," she says.

     Joy earned her master's degree in English the following year, and Cook invited her to join the staff at Olcott. 'He asked me to think it over first, but I didn't have to. I knew where I wanted to be." Her first job was to coordinate a correspondence course for new members. The following year, Cook asked her to do some lecture work. 'He wanted to try me out, as it were."

     The plan was to send her to a number of cities in Michigan, where there were local branches of the Society. 'But I had no suitable wardrobe and insufficient money, as staff salaries back then were minimal." So the Olcott staff went shopping in thrift stores on her behalf. 'It was wonderful how they helped me. They found clothing which made me look presentable." For the first time in her life, Joy felt a sense of belonging. She was in an environment at Olcott that nourished body and soul. "I realized I aspired to something greater than myself. I had a mission, and these were my people, my friends. I was home."

As Joy studied The Secret Doctrine and other Theosophical literature, the principle of Oneness stood out ”the Oneness she had experienced as a child in the Ozarks. "HPB always pointed to it. Everything is rooted in and is derived from a source that is One, not multiple. It's more than monistic, it's nondual."

When she became more familiar with the contributions of the Society's founders, her admiration of Henry Olcott and H.P. Blavatsky grew. "Olcott's work for the Buddhist cause is just incredible. He's responsible for the revival of Buddhism as a major cultural force in southeast Asia, and he did that while he was president of the Society. HPB is one of the most remarkable women who ever lived. She brought an ancient teaching to the West, and people from all over the world and in all walks of life have been drawn to it. She reminded us that compassion is —the law of laws.'"    

     During the war years, food, heating oil, and gasoline were rationed. The Olcott staff was given food coupons, and because Olcott is a vegetarian campus, they were allotted more cheese, butter, milk, and other items, since they didn't need the meat coupons. To conserve heating oil, the second-floor offices and the library were closed. 'We drew closer to each other," Joy remembers. 'We were like a family, and for me it was a tremendous feeling. It was the first stable family I'd had in my life."

     At the end of the war, Jim Perkins was elected president of the American Section. Membership had declined sharply, and many members had been lost in the war. 'Jim came up with a program known as Spotlight [SPOT—Speed Popularization of Theosophy] to reinvigorate the Society," says Joy. 'We started in 1946 with six cities in a circuit, and I would give a series of classes for six weeks." It was a very successful program. Joy would rent a hall, usually in a hotel, and run newspaper ads to promote the classes. Over a three-year period, she helped to establish more than one hundred new lodges.

     At age twenty-seven, Joy had already made a significant contribution to the Society's growth in the postwar years. She loved the work and loved Olcott, but felt it was time to earn a bit more money and start putting away some savings. In 1948, she accepted a teaching position in Seattle. 'It was difficult leaving Olcott, but I wasn't leaving Theosophy; I was going into the profession I had trained for." She taught U.S. history at West Seattle High School. 'I tried to make history come alive for my students. I wanted them to be critical thinkers and not buy into the media's way of presenting the world."

     During this time Joy remained very active in the Society, becoming president of the Northwest Federation. Seven years later, Perkins needed an editor for The American Theosophist (predecessor to today's Quest), so at his invitation she returned to Olcott. 'I fell in love with the beauty of the Northwest, but going back to Wheaton felt like the right thing to do." She took over the department of education at Olcott in 1955 and from that point forward dedicated her life exclusively to the Society.

     In 1960, Henry Smith was elected president and asked Joy to run as vice-president. She agreed, but five years later he resigned, and Joy became acting president. In 1966, she was overwhelmingly elected president and served in that position until 1974. Her tenure as president of the American Section was one of the most productive in the Society's history. With the help of the Kern Foundation, Joy launched Quest Books, a seminal achievement for the Society. As Quest grew, she led a fundraising effort for the construction of a publications building to house its expansion. The building now bears her name.

     Joy served as president during a time of great unrest, when the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement provoked violent clashes on the streets of American cities and awakened millions of people to a need for social justice and equality. "I wrote some rather strong editorials suggesting that we have a responsibility to speak up—to take a stand for brotherhood. It was controversial at the time because while some members agreed with brotherhood in theory, in practice they accepted segregation."

     At one point Joy was criticized for joining a local chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). "While we can't involve the Society in politics," she points out, 'we can speak up individually on matters of conscience, and that's what I did. The founders stood for human dignity and equality, and Annie Besant was a great champion of that. Brotherhood has been an object of the Society from its beginning, and it states very clearly that all peoples are brothers, or it means nothing at all."

     The word "brotherhood" stirs controversy for some members because it can be interpreted to exclude women and girls. 'We know it refers to everyone, but I wish we could have a gender-free language," says Joy. 'We live in a world with a dim awareness of how language labels people or leaves them out entirely. In some ways, we need a new language which overcomes that—and language does evolve."

     Near the end of her third term as president of the American Section, the Society's beloved international president, N. Sri Ram, passed away. When John Coats was elected to take up Sri Ram's position, he nominated Joy to become international vice-president. She left Wheaton in 1974 and went to live in Adyar, serving in that post for six years. 'When I was on the plane going to Adyar from Chicago, I had that old feeling of being without a home again. But I love India, and the adjustment to living there came easily." While she was in Adyar, she met the Dalai Lama for a second time when His Holiness was the featured speaker at the Society's international conference in 1975. "John and I had the privilege of having tea with His Holiness," she recalls.

     In 1980, Joy was invited by Anne Green, then resident head of the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, to become director of the Krotona School. "That really appealed to me because it meant getting back into what I love most—education and teaching." Joy reinvigorated educational programs at Krotona, establishing a legacy of excellence. Twelve years later, in 1992, the search committee of the Australian Section asked her to run for president of that Section. Joy was ready for another challenge and was elected by a wide margin.

     She returned to Krotona in 1996, where she now lives, to take up residence as teacher, lecturer, and author. Over the past seventy-two years, Joy has traveled to sixty countries, teaching through seminars and lecture tours and nourishing countless Theosophical students. She is a role model to many others who seek her counsel and advice. She has authored several outstanding books, including the recently published Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom: A Commentary on the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett. Her other books include The One True Adventure: Theosophy and the Quest for Meaning; One Hundred Years of Theosophy; and Entering on the Sacred Way.

     Joy never married, although sixty years ago she considered the possibility. "He was a good man, a Theosophist, but I needed my freedom. The work was all-absorbing to me, and I would have been a terrible housewife."

As she glances through her living room window at her favorite oak tree, Joy is reminded of the experience she had many years earlier in the woods of the Ozarks. 'You can look at a tree and see firewood, or you can see a living presence with a purpose and intelligence of its own."

     Joy then returns to the theme of Oneness and the evolutionary journey to a better understanding of what it means to be human. "The mind likes to separate —me' from —other." We need to be aware of that because it brings us back to the fundamental question: —Who am I?" And that question evolves as you evolve. As HPB said in so many different ways, once we have felt compassion for another living being, we have begun to awaken to the purpose and meaning of existence. That is the essence of Theosophy."    


Cynthia Overweg is a journalist, playwright, and documentary filmmaker. She has written for the Ventura County Star and the Los Angeles Times. Her plays have been produced in Los Angeles, New York, and Pennsylvania, including an award-winning play based on the life of H.P. Blavatsky. She was a war correspondent and photographer during the Balkan War, traveling with Save the Children and United Nations relief organizations to produce a documentary film on the effects of war on children. Her other documentaries include The Great Bronze Age of China, which aired on PBS.