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Mpofu's Happiness Cage and the Practice of Joy

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It seems counter-intuitive to practice joy. Joy seems to move like a hummingbird, flitting where it will, bringing delight and then disappearing. Can we control the hummingbird? Doubtful. When we try, we usually just chase it away.


Yet, in my life, practice often grows the flowers that attract the hummingbird. When I was young, I practiced basketball for hour upon hour. Later, I wrote every day -- as an artistic practice. (Still do.) Now I also have a practice of praying morning and night to God and the ancestors as I seek to make my life one of service, healing and celebration.

In those different forms of practice, I've learned two things:
  • Joy springs naturally from commitment and the regular affirmation of values like respect, kindness and appreciation.
  • Daily focusing of the spirit, heart, mind and body allows me (limited self that I am) to connect to love and light (limitless energy that pervades everything).

The spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hahn says practice opens the doorway to happiness:

Maybe intellectually people know that they should live in the present moment, but the habit energy that has been there for a long time is always pushing them to rush around, so they have lost their capacity to be in the present moment in order to lead their life deeply. That is why the practice is important, and talking is not enough. You have to practice enough to really stop your running around so that you can establish yourself in the present moment. That is the very beginning of the practice: stopping. Stopping, looking deeply, and finding happiness and liberation -- that is the Buddhist path. Interview in Shambhala Sun, July 2010

It's also where the happiness cage becomes very useful.

The idea comes from a wonderful new book -- Mpofu's Grandmother's Loving Lessons and the Wisdom of Her Ways.

Mpofu was a sangoma -- or indigenous healer -- who lived and died many years ago in Africa. She appeared in the dreams of two friends of mine who live in Santa Barbara, California -- one a urologist, the other a retired educator. Dr. David Cumes and Maryellen Kelley both say they felt compelled to compile the book after they had the extraordinary experience of both being present in dreams when Mpofu gave them stories about her grandmother. Mpofu said the stories were given "so that they could be imparted to others as lessons to help us all with our life challenges."

Here is a passage:

This day her granny said she had a surprise for Mpofu, that they would gather some reeds to make a happiness cage for her. As they wrapped thin vines around them to form a box-like cage, Mpofu wondered to herself what they would put into it. She knew her grandmother would have something very special in mind.

When the cage was finished her granny had presented it to Mpofu saying that she hoped her cage would always be empty. Mpofu was even more puzzled than disappointed. Her grandmother had smiled explaining to her that happiness is made of forgiveness, gratitude, kindness and love -- all things that must be given.

Mpofu had asked where did she find them to give so that she could make happiness. Her granny had tapped her on the head, touched her eyes, ears and mouth, taken her hands and put them against her heart and then opened them wide.

Mpofu began to understand what her grandmother was telling her -- that happiness is made inside you and only by giving of yourself. Her granny went on to say that whenever Mpofu felt out of sorts or unhappy, it would be wise for her to look into the cage to see what thoughts or feelings might be cluttering it -- that happiness cages must be kept clean and empty.

To me, practice is a way of checking on and caring for our happiness cages. Emptiness is not just absence, it is opportunity. It recognizes that as we hold on to regret and dissatisfaction about past experience so we clutter our cage and block our happiness.

What might constitute a good practice of joy? I have no detailed answer. But I will say that for me the regularity and the commitment of a practice is often what brings grace.

I believe prayer and meditation and being outside in nature all can be wonderful foundations for practicing joy.

But I also find opportunity in a cup of coffee.

I love java and the ritual of making it. In recent months, I have found myself stepping outside with the freshly-brewed coffee and taking a moment to give thanks. I find it natural to thank the coffee growers and harvesters, to thank the coffee trees and the sun and the soil and the rain that help the coffee berries grow and ripen. I find it natural to thank the roasters and the retailer. To thank Mother Nature for the curling wisps of steam as they rise and billow in strings of tiny water droplets. And of course, to thank God. I say my thanks aloud and then I take the first sip.

My 9-year-old son has watched and heard me do this "coffee ceremony" for a while now. He doesn't comment. But sometimes I see him watching me.

Well, the other day, he asked for a cup of ginger tea. I made him a pot, poured his cup and moved on to something else. A moment later, I heard his quiet voice. "Thank you God for this cup of tea. Thank you farmers for growing the tea..." I turned to him. He had lifted his cup -- and his gaze -- to the ceiling. He was smiling.

At that moment, I didn't need to check my happiness cage. I knew it was joyously clean and empty.