Return to Joy – A Book to Challenge the Despair of Our Times

There are powerful books…and then there are books that grasp me by the spiritual lapels and shake me to the bones. Return to Joy by Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker, published this year by iUniverse, is one of the latter.

Like almost all of the people I know, I’ve been struggling with grief that’s deepened to despair, watching the relentless befouling of our global biosphere and the implacable destruction of the social safety net here and around the world….the death of the oceans and the looming great sixth extinction…the progress and outcome of the presidential election, and all that has followed….

So when I was invited to review this book, Return to Joy, the title seemed almost ludicrous.

Then I began to read, and was reminded of the unquenchable joy demonstrated by some of world’s greatest spiritual leaders – people who have suffered profoundly, people who are deeply in touch with the sufferings of the world: the Dalai Lama. Pope Francis. Jane Goodall. Malala Yousafzai. Far from despairing, these people are irrepressible…not with perky-perky-never-have-a-negative-thought-Law-of-Attraction-New-Age-ersatz happy, but something deeper and more real: joy.

Joy, say Harvey and Baker, is “the ultimate reality…from joy all beings have come, by joy they live, and to joy they return.” They quote Jungian analyst Robert Johnson:

We can say, as the dictionary does, that it is ‘an exultation of the spirit, the beatitude of paradise.’ We can say that, unlike the ephemeral state of happiness, it is a lasting value that nourishes and sustains the spirit as well as the body. Joy does not induce a craving for more, because it is enough.

Diging deeply into the difference between the ersatz forms of happiness in this “flatline” culture, the authors expose the myths and shadows that form its underpinnings, in which we neither touch the heights nor plumb the depths of which we are capable, but instead dose ourselves with pseudo-excitement and the addictive pursuit of a shallow form of happiness that resembles joy as much as formica resembles mahogany.

In the second half of the book, they invite us to move beyond the limits of our cultural and personal shadows, exploring the difference between happiness and joy in our own experience. They offer portals to joyous experiences, along with tools, exercises, and journaling questions to help us break out of this framework of delusion and in its place connect with authentic joy and authentic grief in lives of authentic service.

Despite its slimness, Return to Joy is a tremendous book, a must-read to maintain sanity, equanimity, and yes, joy in these times.

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