Prophet of Joy
An East Bay meditation teacher reminds us all to have a nice life.
“Count your blessings” might sound like something your grandmother nagged you to do, but it turns out it was good advice, at least according to James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness and one of the cofounders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in West Marin. Baraz, who based his book on a 10-month-long course he teaches in Berkeley, says years of experience, as well as modern neuroscience, support his conviction that taking the time to reflect on the good in our lives helps us create more of it.
Baraz recently agreed to be interviewed in his appropriately serene and uncluttered house in North Berkeley.
Diablo: As you look around at people in the East Bay, do you think we’re experiencing a joy deficit?
James Baraz: The East Bay has a combination of critical thinkers who can be realists and skeptics, and say, “How can you be happy in the midst of everything that’s going on, with the economy, tensions in our society, and different questions about where the planet is heading?” And then there are others who are incredibly conscious, who say, “It is essential that I have a perspective on things and open up to my own well-being as a way to get through all this.” Because if you only focus on what’s wrong in the world, then it paralyzes you, and there’s no energy to make a difference.
Can we train ourselves to experience more happiness?
Yes: First it’s understanding where real happiness lies, and generally it does not lie in the next toy or experience or thing we can acquire, not that those things aren’t to be enjoyed. In essence, what I want to communicate is: Tune in to all the goodness inside and around you, and don’t miss those moments of well-being because they can easily be missed in our busy lives. When you look back, will you say, “Oh, I’m so glad I spent my life doing all the tasks I was supposed to do”? No, you’ll want to know that you appreciated life and that you’ve lived it fully, and that you’ve really been here for the gift of it.
Is there any one thing that people can do to awaken joy?
One of the quickest and most effective ways to access it is through gratitude, practicing gratitude. When you can stop and reflect on what you’re thankful for and let moments of gratitude sink in, it actually changes the neural pathways in your brain, letting these feelings register in a deep way that starts to affect your whole level of being. You can actually change the structure in your brain. That’s the modern thinking in neuroscience, that there’s a plasticity to the brain. It takes practice, but it works.
But is it possible to feel that well-being if your income has shrunk, your assets have depreciated, and even your retirement is in jeopardy?
Generally, at the heart of well-being is a feeling of connection with yourself, with others, with life—authenticity—just being right where you’re at and not trying to pretend you’re anywhere else, and feeling alive as well. Yeah, if somebody’s going through hard times, they might miss those moments, but there are probably still other moments when they see kids playing and laugh, or get their hearts touched, or feel caring and compassionate toward somebody in their life, or go to a movie and laugh at a comedy, or are out in nature and appreciate a sunset.
What about you? Do you feel you always keep things in perspective, or do you sometimes blow it?
I have not reached full enlightenment [laughs]. If you press the right button, I can be back in the third grade with paranoia and insecurity, but one thing that’s happened over all these years is that it doesn’t last very long. There’s a natural center that I come back to. I go through loss; I go through concern about the world. It’s just at the same time, I know how amazingly blessed I am, and so is anyone who’s alive. It’s just about not missing that.
On a very simple level, it sounds as though what you’re talking about requires people to rest and reflect more than is usual in our culture.
You need to be honest with yourself and see if stress is running your life. It helps to step off the treadmill a few minutes each day, whether it’s for quiet meditation or just sitting with a cup of tea. You need to slow down long enough to ask, “What really counts in my life?” It’s not like you have to go away to a meditation retreat for three months or a week. Those things can be useful, but it’s not just about retreating. It’s about taking time to slow down enough to appreciate your life.The 10-month Awakening Joy course, offered in Berkeley and online, starts in February. The suggested donation for taking the course is $250. Go to awakeningjoy.info for more information. ■
► Three-Minute Attitude Adjustment / by James Baraz
One of my neuroscience friends [Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain] has a formula that he’s found very helpful, and it’s called “taking in the good.” Say you’re sipping a cup of tea, and you’re thinking, “Oh, it’s so comforting to have a cup of tea.” If you can, take a moment, and continue to reflect. He suggests 30 seconds, six times a day; that’s three minutes. I know that’s a lot. But if you can do that over a two-week period, you’ll notice a dramatic shift in your well-being.
► Making it Happen /
Reading Awakening Joy is one thing, but experiencing the exercises in the book is quite another. During my interview with Baraz, he suggested that I “might as well just get a little hit” of what it feels like to cultivate well-being.
After being guided through a short meditation on what I was thankful for, Baraz asked how I was feeling. I was very calm and relaxed. I felt as though I had suddenly found myself resting in a nest lined with soft fur. Even my voice changed, becoming much lower in pitch, which was noticeable on a recording of the interview. Here’s the exchange:Baraz: Close your eyes, and bring to mind some blessing in your life, something that you’re grateful for, something that you’re grateful to life for. And now, have an image of that person, situation, blessing. Give a very simple, silent thank-you, to that person or to life, and as you do this, just let your awareness take that in and just relax into that feeling of gratitude. “Thank you.” Take a breath. Bring another blessing to mind: someone, something. Once again, a simple, sincere thank-you. “Thanks.” Now just let your awareness relax into that. What do you feel? What’s it like in there?
Jarvis: Much more relaxed. Kind of softer. Whoa, I mean, seriously more relaxed.
Baraz: A moment of well-being. You didn’t have to go out and have an expensive meal. You didn’t have to do anything but just sit here and open up to that channel, and not only open up to it, but really let it register. Your whole mind and body relax and open. The well-being is right there. You don’t have to manufacture it. You just have to invite it out.