How to Live a Truly Joyful Life


Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual Director
Himalayan Institute

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I was born in a tiny village tucked away in the rural interior of North India, a region drowning in illiteracy, poverty, and social injustice. The life of the villagers was hard. Using primitive tools, they plowed their land, raised their cattle, wove their clothes, built their huts, and followed their family trades. Calamities were a normal part of life. Famine, flood, drought, and epidemics of cholera, malaria, and smallpox visited them frequently.

Yet they were people of high spirit, resilient and optimistic. Infused with faith in Providence and immersed in a vibrant web of relationships with their families, their village, and the natural world, they accepted their losses as part of life. As part of their morning ablutions, they walked a kilometer or two in the predawn twilight, filling their lungs with fresh air and their ears with birdsong. They bathed, brushed their teeth, cleaned their cowsheds, and swept their yards with the same attitude of devotion with which they cleaned their altars, offered water to the rising sun, and poured oblations into the fire.

All of these actions were an acknowledgment of their connection with the Divine, the source of nurturance. Because they knew that everything had a higher purpose and meaning, they viewed both misfortune and windfalls as part of the rhythm of life. When visited by disaster, they bounced back, investing themselves with renewed vigor in the celebration of life. Observing this as a young man, I came to believe that joy is an innate virtue of the spirit. To live a joyful life is the greatest accomplishment, and failure to live joyfully is the greatest loss.

When I first came to the United States in the early 1980s, sensory overload from the dazzling lights made me freeze in shock as I walked into Kennedy Airport. Other stunning experiences quickly followed: fourlane highways, the Lincoln Tunnel, the New York skyline, and people three times the size of my Indian body. Everything was big, new, and plentiful. I was overwhelmed by the glamour and grandeur of this mighty nation. I marveled at all I saw and thanked God for bringing me to this land of limitless possibility.

I had not yet recovered from the shock of this dazzling new world when my master, Swami Rama, appointed me spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute. As I assumed this unfamiliar role, I made a discovery that shocked me even more: many people in this land of plenty were unhappy. They came to me seeking advice on spiritual matters, and often their concerns had a central theme: “I am not happy with myself,” they would say. “I’m confused.” “I’m worried.” At first I wondered what these complaints had to do with spirituality, but as I reflected more deeply, I realized they were searching for an underlying sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

They saw themselves, not as part of a boundless continuum, but as individuals competing for a measure of security in a troubled world. Most of them were competent and confident in their professional lives. They had all the trappings of comfort—houses, cars, plenty of food and clothing—but they were full of fear and self-doubt and haunted by an underlying feeling of emptiness. With no meaningful sense of connection with the web of life, they had been looking to the material world for happiness and security.

East Moves West

While I was adapting to my new role, the world I had left behind in the East was busily adopting the Western model of living: work hard, accumulate possessions while your faith in a higher reality and your sense of connection with the web of life fades away. For centuries, people in the East had focused on their spiritual pursuits, ignoring the reality of the physical world, and thus they suffered from material poverty. The West had gone full force in the other direction, conquering the physical world, in the process accumulating material riches while losing their nurturing sense of connection with the spiritual realm. Now, in the latter half of the 20th century, people from both hemispheres were realizing they had shut themselves off from half of reality. The result? One was running after what the other was running from. Twenty-five years have passed since I left my homeland. Calamities—famine, cholera, malaria, and plague—visit less frequently. The basic standard of living has risen. Markets are flooded with amenities as well as necessities, and most people have better access to education. And yet discontent stalks the land. Both rich and poor have become hungrier—the rich for material wealth and glamour, and the poor for food, fresh water, and adequate shelter. What has happened to the people of my motherland? Who took away their faith in themselves and in divine Providence? How did they lose their contentment and optimism?

The answer is clear: they no longer have a sustaining relationship with the vibrant web of life. They are increasingly cut off from their extended families, from their communities, and from the natural world. The sense of sanctity that once pervaded almost every aspect of daily existence has vanished. Life and everything connected with it is perceived as an object to be possessed and consumed. Living a simple life is equated with backwardness. If you are not fighting for your share of rush and noise in the crowd and commotion of India’s cities, you are considered a person of the past century. A pervasive sense of discontent hovers over people who once believed everything in life has purpose and meaning, who viewed both misfortune and windfalls as part of life’s natural rhythm. Worst of all, they have lost their sense of joy.

Reflecting on this loss, I hear the voice of my spiritual master, Swami Rama: “To be born as a human is the greatest gift, and to die without experiencing the fullness of life is the greatest loss.” People in both the East and the West are hungry for the fullness of life, yet it eludes them. Again Swamiji’s words ring in my mind: “Only after knowing ourselves at every level can we aspire to reclaim life in its fullness. And it is only after we have experienced life in its fullness that lasting joy is ours.”

Most of us seek fulfillment in a fragmented way. Some of us are trying to achieve it through material possessions and others by renouncing possessions. Some seek fulfillment in the form of physical comforts and pleasure and others by embracing asceticism. For the most part there is a huge divide between people’s material and spiritual pursuits, a divide that has penetrated every aspect of our worldview and shaped our philosophy of life. As a result, we have lost our sensitivity to the connection between our body and mind, between our mind and soul, and between who we are as individuals and who we are as members of society. Success in one aspect of life, therefore, fails to infuse other areas with a sense of satisfaction. We can have vibrant, healthy bodies and yet be emotionally weak; we can be prosperous and yet suffer from internal emptiness.

Experiencing the fullness of life depends on knowing ourselves at every level and building bridges among these different layers of our own being. As individuals, we are made of body, breath, mind, and soul, and we must gain a direct experience of the interconnected nature of these different levels of our being. We have to learn the art of providing nurturance to all these aspects of ourselves, for only then can we gain true health and reclaim the lasting joy that is our birthright.