Reb Nachman's "Rules" for Joy
The following are quotations from Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who notoriously suffered from terrible depression, on the subject of joy. I call them Reb Nachman’s “Rules for Joy” because these were rules to live by for Reb Nachman and his followers. If there are people who constantly live in a state of joy, they have no need for such instructions. For the rest of us, this wisdom is indispensable.
Meditations: Please read through the quotations slowly and meditatively, reflecting on examples from your own life of when they have applied. Think also of the future: as you read, imagine that you are implanting policies and procedures, to be activated if and when you lose your joy, and may not be able to think clearly or creatively. Set the intention that, when needed, the right quote and strategy will come to your mind and to your aid.
Writing Exercises: When you complete your reading, write your own rules for joy. Consider: what has worked in the past to bring joy to you and to others? What are the timeless truths and dependable strategies you have used – or might choose to use in the future – to bring yourself from despair to joy?
1. Remember: Joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.
2. Nothing is as liberating as joy. It frees the mind and fills it with tranquility.
3. Losing hope is like losing your freedom, like losing yourself.
4. Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks. If the only way to make yourself happy is by doing something silly, do it.
5. Depression does tremendous damage. Use every ploy you can think of to bring yourself to joy.
6. Today you don’t feel up. Don’t let yesterdays and tomorrows bring you down.
7. If despite a desire to be happy you feel down, draw strength from happier times. Eventually joy will return.
8. If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be. Even if you are depressed, put on a smile. Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.
9. Get into the habit of singing a tune. It will give you new life and fill you with joy.
10. Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.
11. Sometimes people are terribly distressed but have no one to whom they can unburden themselves. If you come along with a happy face, you cheer them and give them new life. Always wear a smile. The gift of life will then be yours to give.
12. Don’t confuse heartbreak with sadness and depression. Depression is really anger, a complaint against God for not giving you what you want. But when you have a contrite heart you are like a little child crying because its parent is far away…. Heartbreak involves the heart, while depression involves the spleen.
13. It would be very good to be brokenhearted all day, but for the average person, this can easily degenerate into depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day for heartbreak. You should isolate yourself before God with a broken heart for a given time. But the rest of the day should be joyful.
14. When you’re happy, it’s easy to set aside some time to pray with a contrite heart. But when you are depressed, secluding yourself to speak with God is very hard to do. That’s why being happy is so important that you should even force yourself to be happy, if that is what it takes.
15. Most people think of forgetfulness as a defect. I consider it a great benefit. Being able to forget frees you from the burdens of the past.
16. Avoid depression at all cost. It is the root of illness and disease.
17. Never despair! Never! It is forbidden to give up hope.
18. No matter how far you have strayed, returning to God is always possible. Agree therefore that there is absolutely no place for despair.
19. Never despair of crying out, praying and pleading with God. Keep at it until you succeed, until the nearness you long for is yours.
20. If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can repair. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.
21. Remember: Things can go from the very worst to the very best…in just the blink of an eye.
A prayer from Reb Nachman:
“God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy. [We must] overcome despair, seek pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves – and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.”