Today I have the “joy” of bringing to you James Baraz, who is the co-author with Shoshana Alexander of the new book Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness. This is a wonderful book based on James’ very popular 10 month Awakening Joy Course, taught in person and on-line. James has been teaching meditation since 1978 has lead retreats, workshops and classes in the U.S. and abroad and is a founding teacher along with Jack Kornfield and others of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. James lives with his wife in the Bay Area, has two sons and three grandchildren.
Today James talks to us about the essential ingredients to incline our minds toward joy in our lives.
Elisha: One of the primary steps in your program is to set a clear intention toward awakening joy in life. Can you tell us a bit more about how we can create and nourish our intentions to get started?
James: First, let me explain that when I use the word joy I’m not talking about skipping through a field of daisies with a big grin on your face. I’m referring to all the different kinds of wholesome states that are associated with well-being from contentment to aliveness to ease and peace. There are many flavors of well-being.
A truly happy person is not happy all the time. He or she is engaged and able to meet life’s challenges with openness and authenticity. That said, every human being wants to be happy. Even those who say they don’t—well that’s their way of being happy. But most of us postpone our happiness thinking, “When I become rich or successful or meet the right partner or go on my vacation, then I’ll be happy.” Setting a clear intention means placing happiness or well-being at the center of your life no matter what your circumstances. To do this you need to understand where true happiness lies. It doesn’t lie in the fleeting pleasure of getting the next gadget or having the next peak experience. Those things can feel good but they’re ephemeral. Real happiness lies in cultivating states that open the heart and lead to true well-being.
Elisha: What are the 10 Steps to Awakening Joy in life?
James: Each step in my course and that I write about in the book is a wholesome state that inclines the mind to well-being. In Buddhist philosophy, these so-called “wholesome” or healthy states are defined as those which lead to genuine happiness. They can all be developed and, what’s more, it’s suggested that when they are here one should maintain and increase them. Unfortunately, when we try to hold on to them or fear their disappearance we cut ourselves off from the well-being that is inherent in them. So there’s an art to developing them, enjoying them fully when they’re here but not getting caught in attachment to them.
I’ve put the cultivation of these states or steps in a particular sequence, a natural progression that unfolds and can be practiced over time. It starts with Intention to be Happy. Mindfulness, being present for your life, comes next. Third is the lived practice of Gratitude. Next, one needs to learn how to Find Joy in Difficult Times, that is, not contracting when life gets hard but learning how to open to all experience. The fifth step is The Bliss of Blamelessness, that is, living with integrity. The sixth step is The Joy of Letting Go in various areas—of stuff, of overcrowded schedules, of our limiting stories that keep us bound, of the control that we never had in the first place and, the ultimate expression of letting go, generosity. That step is followed by consciously practicing Learning to Love Ourselves. When we can do that, we’re not busy trying to get validation from everyone around us and we can allow our naturally good qualities to shine through. The eighth step is Connection with Others—letting our love out naturally, including forgiveness when our love is blocked, as well as feeling joy in the happiness of others. The ninth step is Compassionate Action, since expressing our natural capacity to care is a source of true joy. The final step is The Joy of Being: instead of trying to cultivate anything, just relaxing into your pure nature which is available at any time. Then you can listen to the rhythm of your life instead of trying to figure things out.
Elisha: When it comes to inclining our minds toward joy, what role does mindfulness play?
James: Mindfulness, the second step, plays a key role in this process. First, because it is the one factor of mind that cultivates all the other wholesome states such as kindness, clarity and generosity, as well as weakening all the unwholesome states like attachment, anger or fear. A moment of mindfulness interrupts the confused or contracted thoughts that we often find ourselves lost in. Mindfulness helps us be present for our lives and appreciate this moment just as it is without trying to make it a better one. Another reason that mindfulness is the underpinning of the program is that when a wholesome state—generosity for instance—arises, bringing mindful attention to it actually amplifies the experience. In neuroscience this is called “taking in the good.”
By letting the positive experience register with mindful attention you deepen the neural pathways to well-being. At one of the Awakening Joy classes, neuroscience expert Rick Hanson said that if you do this for thirty seconds six times a day for two weeks, you will notice a dramatic change in your level of well-being. It’s one thing to know that you feel good. It’s quite another to feel what it’s like to feel good by bringing mindful attention to the actual sensations of well-being as you experience them.
Elisha: In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided she talks about the lop-sided push toward positive thinking that has been a trend in our literature; so much so that there is a refusal to even look at the unpleasant aspects of life. How is your approach different?
James: I agree with her that if you think of happiness as just trying to avoid the unpleasant while maximizing your “feel good moments” this is a very limited view of things. My approach directly takes into account the First Noble Truth of Buddhism: there is suffering in life. The interesting thing is the more we learn to open up to suffering without fear or contraction, the greater the possibilities to open to all the joys as well. But the other side is that if we only focus on suffering that in itself becomes a problem. My approach is to authentically be with “the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows,” as Taoism describes life, and see that they’re all part of the fabric of our lives. Then every moment can be experienced as worthwhile either because we’re appreciating the blessings when they’re here or deepening our understanding when life is challenging.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who has been experiencing a real lack of joy in their lives for quite some time, what advice or wisdom would you give them to begin to awake to what may have been there all along?
James: I would first find out if they want to open to greater well-being and, if so, encourage them to get in touch with their intention to do their part to make that happen. Next, I’d ask them what does bring them, or has brought them, joy. That way they can get in touch with the fact that they have that capacity. I might have them write down a nourishment list of wholesome things that they love to do like being in nature or singing or some creative expression (I find singing every day helps tremendously!). Then I’d suggest that along with doing those things, they practice noticing as best they can any feelings of well-being when they arise—not to miss them but as much as possible, feel them in their body and take them in.
Finally, they need to be very patient with the process. Old habits have built up over time. New ones take patience and persistence. They should let go of any report card, and feel good about any positive developments and the fact that they’re facing in the right direction.
Thank you for the invaluable work you have done, James, which has provided the framework to transform so many lives.
To the readers, as always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.