Sri Ramakrishna was known for his God-intoxicated state. One day, he went with a devotee to a reservoir in a Temple garden in order that he might teach him how to meditate on the formless God. The reservoir was filled with tame fish.
Later, the devotee recounted:
“Visitors threw puffed rice and other bits of food into the water, and the big fish came in swarms to eat the food. Fearlessly the fish swam in the water and sported there joyously.”
As they sat by the reservoir together, Sri Ramakrishna exclaimed to the devotee:
“‘Look at the fish. Meditating on the formless God is like swimming joyfully like these fish, in the Ocean of Bliss and Consciousness.’” 
Joy brings in God: if we are joyful, it expands our consciousness and this makes space for God to come flooding in. If we are depressed, it contracts our consciousness, so that our mind becomes too narrow for God to enter. And if we are angry or bitter, then God is blocked out completely and He/She cannot reach us at all.
For this reason, the Hasidim made the maintenance of a state of joy a central pillar of their teaching. In Likutim Yekarim, the Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch writes:
“The main thing is that one should be joyful, in particular at the time of devaykut – attachment to God. Because without joy, you cannot remain attached to God.”
“Through simchah shel mitzvah (spiritual joy) and attachment to God one merits to reach ruach kodesh (Divine inspiration).” 
Clearly, Rebbe Dov Baer is not talking about being happy in the conventional sense. He is talking about a special kind of “joy in God.” In Hinduism, this special kind of joy is called ananda. Ananda is normally translated as Divine bliss, which is probably a more accurate definition of what Rebbe Dov Baer means by “simchah shel mitzvah.”
This Divine bliss is a feeling of all-pervading livingness that fills one with immense joy: the joy of being home, the joy of being who we really are – a joy that is of the very essence of God or the Self.
How do we attain this extraordinary spiritual joy? How do we taste of this Divine bliss?
The Gospels tell us: “Except…you become as little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 18:3
There is something wonderful about the joy of a young child. They are completely taken up by it. When they laugh, it is with the whole of their being. One moment, they are indifferent to the most elaborate and expensive toy, and the next instant they are ecstatic over some simple, valueless object. The pure joy of a child is to be cherished.
Sri Ramakrishna used to tell his devotees stories about his visits with his nephew Shivaram in his native village of Kamarpukur:
“At one time I was staying at Kamarpukur when Shivaram was four or five years old. One day he was trying to catch grasshoppers near the pond. The leaves were moving. To stop their rustling he said to the leaves: ‘Hush! Hush! I want to catch a grasshopper.’
“Another day it was stormy. It rained hard. Shivaram was with me inside the house. There were flashes of lightning. He wanted to open the door and go out. I scolded him and stopped him, but he still peeped out now and then. When he saw the lightning, he exclaimed, ‘There, uncle! They are striking matches again!’”
Sri Ramakrishna was overjoyed at the excited enthusiasm and delight of his nephew because he understood that, like himself, his nephew saw everything as filled with consciousness. Both he and the young boy lived in a state of mind where the whole world was sentient and alive. Experiencing the world in this dynamic way filled both this enlightened soul and his young nephew with incredible joy.
Another reason why a little child feels such joy is the fact that he is always in the “here and now.” A child is not lost in his head thinking about forgotten yesterdays or nebulous tomorrows. He experiences every moment to the fullest. He is completely absorbed in whatever he is doing.
This characteristic is also true of enlightened beings. They have the direct and natural demeanor of a child. And like a child, they experience incredible joy by living every moment to the fullest.
So the first key to experiencing spiritual joy is to become like a little child: to learn to experience life directly, to see the world around us as vibrating with Divine consciousness.
The Hasidic text, Likutei Maharil, gives an insightful analogy to explain the difference between the joy that is experienced by a tzaddik or realized soul and the joy of an ordinary human being:
Looking at the physical splendor of a very beautiful object will give us a certain amount of joy. However, our joy will be that much greater, if this magnificent object actually belongs to us.
This same principle applies to the experience of God. There is a undeniable joy that we experience, when we come to the realization that there is a God in the world. But this is nothing in comparison to the joy that is experienced by a tzaddik or realized soul who knows with certainty that God is real. 
The tzaddik or realized soul does not really live in this physical world. He is in a state of constant communion with God, where he experiences a continual expansion of his consciousness. His joy in this state is unimaginable.
Whenever someone would come to Sri Ramakrishna and begin talking about how “we are all sinners”, Ramakrishna would reply with forceful astonishment:
‘What? I have taken [repeated] the name of God; how can I be a sinner? God is our Father and Mother.’
“I am a child of God, the King of Kings. Who can bind me? …I have repeated the name of God, and can sin still cling to me? How can I sin any more? How can I be in bondage any more?”
The God-realized person is not preoccupied with imperfections and faults. He has risen above the petty desires and agitations of the personality. He experiences life in a state of inner freedom that belongs to the consciousness of the soul. He dwells in this world but is not of it – he is “swimming joyfully in the infinite Ocean of Divine Bliss.”
The second key, therefore, to the experience of simchah shel mitzvah, spiritual joy, is to strive to rest in the consciousness of the soul, where God is real and the personality is submerged in the radiant effulgence of the Spirit. If we live our life on this level, neither expectations nor regrets will arise to trouble us. In this state, all the sensitivities and self-recriminations of the ego simply fall away.
For most of us, such an elevated state of consciousness is yet a distant goal. We are still immersed in the battles of the personality and this physical existence. However, there is another level of consciousness that we can all embrace which also evokes a sense of spiritual joy.
In his commentary on the Biblical verse “Sos asis baAdonai” – “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord” (Isaiah 61:10), Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains that there are two different levels of joy which are expressed in this verse. The first level of joy is the immediate experience of God’s presence. This joy is expressed through the first word: Sos – I am presently rejoicing in the beauty of the Lord. The second expression of rejoicing – asis – refers to the joy that remains, even after the experience of God’s presence has left us: the joy of having had the merit to taste of God’s infinite and eternal presence and to be blissful in His/Her service. 
We may not have reached the goal, but at least we are on the journey. We are no longer wandering unconsciously through life, hypnotized by the glamour of material reality. We are on the spiritual path, following the great adventure. We are striving to live a life where the search for God and a sense of higher purpose and meaning play an important role. We may have not yet met God “face to face”, but we have experienced His presence moving in our life. And that by itself is cause for us to feel a great sense of joy.
As Swami Chidananda told the members of the Sivananda ashram during one early morning talk after meditation:
“We have mentioned the thrill, the joy of the spiritual adventure, this journey to reach the great destination. We have mentioned that the joy, the thrill is not so much in reaching the destination but in the effort itself, in the onward and upward progress towards the goal. It is in the journey itself that the joy is there.”
Let us all hold on to that “joy in the great journey of the spirit.” And let us strive ever onward towards that sublime consciousness which is our natural state of Divine bliss.
Copyright © 2007, by Yoel Glick
first published 2/2/2007
- ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 256↵
- Maggid of Mezeritch, Likutim Yekarim, p. 2, 50↵
- Gospel of Sri Ramkrishna, p. 490-1↵
- Likutei Maharil, Torah portion Etchanan↵
- Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 159, 138↵
- Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Torah portion Vayechi,in the name of the Maggid↵
- Swami Chidananda, The Importance of Joy, Divine Life E-Magazine, August 2005↵