It isn’t often that you have the opportunity and pleasure to read a book by someone you know well. What a treat to hear the voice of a person you know and love inside the pages of his first book. That’s what reading Awakening Joy was like for me as one of James Baraz’s longtime Dharma students. His sweetness, his optimism and his kindness are on every page. You might think that some special people are blessed to be like that, but, Baraz says, we’re all born that way. Inside, each of us has all the goodness, love and joy that we might yearn for. This book shows us that through practice we can learn to make choices that allow us to connect more consistently with those qualities in any moment.
What is joy? Rather than answer the question for us, Baraz suggests that we reflect on what the word evokes. For some it may look like energetic delight, for others a quiet contentment and peace. I have discovered that in my life, whenever aversion is absent, joy is present in a variety of mind states: kindness, stillness, elation, awe, creativity. Baraz invites us to explore well-being in any and all moments of our daily living, from cooking dinner, to taking a long hot bath, to opening our front door as though for the first time. Get to know these feelings of joy in yourself, he tells us; you experience them more often than you realize. They are your birthright.
Take the example of Edith, who tells how she had spent her life waiting for something better to happen—in her relationships and in her spiritual practice. She reports an insight which changed this habitual thought pattern and opened her to how rich and satisfying her life already was: “Isn’t it amazing,” she says, “how believing that there is some kind of ‘worthier joy’ elsewhere can keep one from seeing and experiencing all the joy that is already there?”
Either in person or online, over 7,000 people besides Edith have taken the Awakening Joy course that Baraz has taught for years. With a modicum of Buddhist terminology, Baraz presents the Buddha’s teachings and practices in an engaging and accessible way that has opened the teachings to the uninitiated and brought inspiration to experienced practitioners as well.
Written with Shoshana Alexander, the book now offers the wisdom and experience of the course to a wider audience. (Alexander has guided several other well-known Buddhist writers—Sharon Salzberg, Wes Nisker and Tara Brach—toward publication of their books.) I myself took the first Awakening Joy course offered and several versions of it since. Initially, I noticed that little bursts of joy would arise unbidden each day, although they felt accidental and unreliable. Slowly, however, I came to see how much choice I had in being happy. I could fall into my usual habit of being critical of myself or others, or I could recognize the tension and holding in my body that those thoughts created. This is the moment when the possibility of choice presented itself. Critical thoughts arose but they didn’t have the same force of truth behind them as they once had. Instead, I could let them go.
Underpinning his approach to awakening joy, Baraz draws together three of the Buddha’s teachings:
Happiness is a choice, and over time—through intention, mindfulness, integrity, working with difficulties and learning from our past actions—we can learn to make it a habit. The book outlines a path that leads to more joyful living in ten steps (one per chapter), each building on those that precede it. Awakening Joy is also a memoir of sorts; we see how a shy boy from Queens has flowered into a caring teacher who now shows others how to find well-being and share their joy.
Each chapter includes exercises and practices reinforcing the concepts Baraz has taught in his more than thirty years in the Dharma seat. His interest in neuroscience reinforces the many methods of arousing and developing positive mind-states. He cites Rick Hanson’s research in changing thought patterns: “The more you repeat a thought or action, the stronger the related neural pathways become and the more easily that thought or action can reoccur.” Awakening Joy is rich, as well, in wisdom from many Buddhist and non-Buddhist spiritual masters and insightful poets. Here’s Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
“Joy is not incidental to the spiritual experience. It is vital.”
As well as being a book that students with a Dharma practice will find useful, Awakening Joy is for people who may have no interest in Buddhism. You could buy this book for your mother. Indeed, Baraz tells of teaching his perpetually pessimistic eighty-nine-year-old mother a phrase to add to her frequent complaints: “. . . and my life is really blessed.” Seven months later, she finishes her annual birthday poem to him with,
“Though my eyesight has been dimmed I see clearer than before
The glass is not half empty, it’s overflowing to be sure.”
A radical insight coming out of reading the book, confirmed by my experiences in the course, is that my happiness is my responsibility. Despite what others do, or whether or not I like what is happening, I have a choice. In any moment, by my not choosing judgment or anger, what is open to me is the field of joy: kindness, creativity, love. For this insight, I am deeply grateful.