When I first printed this image, I thought it was quite a nice expression of childhood exuberance. Now, because I see the figure representing humanity standing in relation to the vastness of earth and cosmos it evokes the spirit of joy in me—and how that is our proper response to life. Given how our bodies evolved from the earth, I like how the figure seems to rise from the ground and reach for the sky. It speaks of our place in the universe, grounded and seeking.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist admonition of  “right perspective,” expressed in the Noble Eightfold Path. Images coming from the Hubble, radio and microwave telescopes are revealing the unfathomable scale, beauty and variety of cosmic manifestations—and that can be humbling. The human body is smaller than an atom in relation to the universal body, yet there is an immensity within, hinted at by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” More specifically, in our inner circle and outer observations, if we look for them, we can find demonstrations of the immensity within—our capacities for love, compassion, altruism, courage, humility, creativity, empathy, sharing, helping, growth and exploration to name a few. The evolution of matter has led to and resulted in, even accelerated, the evolution of reflexive consciousness. We know that we know. And as we catch glimpses of the universe story, we’re struggling to understand our place and the purpose of our power; to create, integrate and coordinate on the way toward a definition of humanity that is as much “we” as “I.”

Shakespeare’s despondent Prince Hamlet, contemplating suicide, wonders whether it is nobler “To be or not to be.” A variety of life experiences can raise this question in us, sometimes in circumstances where the joy has gone out, where we’ve lost the perspective of who we truly are, why we are here and what each of us has to contribute. Right perspective is knowing that, although minuscule and vulnerable in form compared to the immensity of the universe, we are each a vital and functioning part of the Source. To be is to enjoy membership in it, to be one with it, an expression of it. And there is no greater privilege. The operative word here is “enjoy,” to be in the state of joy as a result of this perspective.

Philosophers from Socrates on, regarding happiness as the ultimate good, debated its nature and how to achieve it. Today, formulas abound in books, on television and on speaking platforms to help us find or choose happiness. But joy is not the same as happiness. While joy can deliver happiness, in essence, it is a felt quality of alignment with purpose and connection to the greater life. For me, it comes in moments of gratitude, appreciation, increased awareness or insight. It’s a feeling of deep satisfaction that comes from focus and immersion, being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. When we’re aligned and in the flow, time stands still.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leader in the field of positive psychology, defines “flow” as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.” In his talks he says flow is the secret to happiness. Indeed, but in my worldview, happiness stands on the shoulders of joy. As I see it, happiness is a positive emotion that ripples like waves on the surface of the ocean. Joy is more fundamental, a emanation of soul from the depth of the cosmic ocean, a subtle confirmation or message that says our current thinking or activity is both aligned with purpose and in harmony with the advance of life.

To clarify with an example, it can be said of Adolf Hitler that he was in the flow, a visionary and a man of “integrity.” He was focused to the point of obsession. And he acted with integrity to his vision. But what we deplore is both the vision and his means of achieving it. We can imagine that he experienced feelings of happiness when things were going his way. But did it give him joy? We cannot know, but his boisterous, strident and dictatorial manner and speech—as revealed in film footage—are characteristics that dampen rather than attune to the subtle qualities that affirm life and the expression of the higher capacities cited above. Soul emanations are subtle. They thrive in calm and tend to rise to the surface when the emotions are still.

I like to think the soul uses joy to keep us on the path to fulfillment. An airplane pilot approaching a landing strip flying blind in a snowstorm pays close attention to the instruments that tell her when she is on or veering off course. When she’s on course, the trajectory lights are green and her confidence is maintained. If she can hold to it and correct for when the lights turn red, she will arrive safely at her destination. Likewise, subtle jolts of joy are an indication that I’m aligned with my purpose and connected to the larger system that affirms life and keeps me on course. Essentially, joy is positive feedback. May you have lots of it, and may it bring happiness along with it!

With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

William Wordsworth

About This Image

Title: Child Of Light

File #: 554-A3

I was visiting a local park with my family. I wanted to photograph the clouds over the hill but it needed a subject, so I asked Jennifer, who was about ten years-old at the time, to go up the hill. I had no preconceived notion of what I wanted her to do, so I just asked her to stand in a certain place and then raise her arms. The exuberance with which she did it was perfect, so I took the shot. It’s a simple images but it speaks.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography


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