To deliberately take up this life as a spiritual journey and the focus of our practice is a tall order. And it remains a tall order even if we’re just trying to make it, trying to live decently without causing harm. It seems like a tremendous challenge for us. In certain ways we can appreciate our life as a spiritual problem—a problem that we first need to define and then seek to resolve. We want to feel satisfied, to feel that our lives are complete in terms of what we hope to be, to experience, to offer—however it phrases itself for us. As humans, we’ve become more and more refined in our capacity to identify the problem. Hence, we seek a solution that fits perfectly. But at the same time that we believe that what we need to solve a problem is a very specific solution, we’re also becoming much more aware of how mutable reality is—and how, within the context of an impermanent reality, it is impossible to actually accomplish that perfect solution.

I’m reading a book about cancer that looks at how the search for the cure for cancer has become ever more precise. Right now we can actually see how a genome has shifted and a cancer gene has appeared on the chromosome. We’re able to zero in so that a molecule falls precisely where it needs to be in order to affect the gene—but the thing is that the next day the chromosome has already changed. And the more precise we get, the more likely it is that we will have to run twice as fast to keep up with the impermanence of reality, so that effectively we’ll just remain standing still with respect to what we consider to be a problem. And so it goes with practice.

At first we approach practice with the sense that we will be able to figure this out, that the answer is in how we understand what concentration is, or in finding the precisely correct posture of the body, or in resolving that one particular koan. And yet the teachings say, “Don’t go there.” So then, at a certain point, we swing back to imagining that this problem can be resolved by doing nothing; we take the attitude of, “Oh, there is no problem; this is all perfect.” And so it goes. We oscillate. It is a tremendous challenge to find ourselves between the extremes of any duality—especially the duality of how to engage the problem of the human life.

What isn’t ambiguous at all is that when we nail it—when we are able to realize what it means to be completely intimate with a problem and its solution—what we’re left with is actually quite specific. When we are living it completely, our life is inherently joyful. When wisdom and compassion and the natural qualities of human life are available to us, joyfulness is one of those qualities. Hence, that’s one way of checking with ourselves. If we are, in a sense, navigating the problem in a correct way, our life will be joyful. Joy becomes a touchstone. Isn’t that amazing? The intrinsic joyfulness of being open, available, unprotected, giving, generous—all those qualities that are held together in joyfulness—will suddenly be the qualities of your life. And if that’s not happening, then we need to look a little bit more closely at how we’re practicing, how we’re living.

So although it is a tall order to recognize the problem, to notice something about our nature and to find ourselves within all of these teachings, we are actually provided with checkpoints to see if indeed our practice and our life are manifesting in accord with the Dharma. In a sense this koan is about true joyfulness. Pema Chodron wrote something like, “Joy is happiness without a hangover.” It’s a good way to think about it. Joy is a condition of your whole being where it never lacks. When you tap into joy, you don’t become addicted to it because it is self-perpetuating. It’s not like you come to the end of it and then you need to do something to get more of it. Joy is intrinsic to any situation. It’s intrinsic to life. Although the word “happiness” is used frequently, even the Dalai Lama speaks about the purpose of all practice being to find happiness, it’s problematic. “Happiness” is embedded in the Constitution, which entitles us to pursue it—and that’s precisely the problem: in pursuing it, we experience the hangover of somebody who is addicted to happiness.