According to the nineteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, it is a great mitzvah to be joyful always. Yet, the pursuit of happiness may be challenging in a world where there is so much poverty, injustice, and suffering.
In Awakening Joy: Ten Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Happiness, authors James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander suggest that living in a state of joy is not only possible but also valuable. They are referring to a “general feeling of aliveness and well-being that is characterized by engagement with life, meeting its ups and downs with authenticity and perspective.” Truly happy people have the capacity to be present with suffering and, by acting wisely, to mitigate it. In order to most effectively engage in tikkun olam (the healing of the world), we must also attend to tikkun hanefesh (the healing of our own hearts). This approach encourages a focus on our capacity to effect change, however limited, and our caring and compassion for those who are suffering, rather than becoming stuck by our frustration and our sense of being overwhelmed.
Baraz and Alexander are not alone in their interest in this topic. In recent years, several leaders in the fields of psychology and meditation have turned their attention to the exploration of happiness. Former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, who for many years studied the learned helplessness theory of depression, has since pioneered the field of Positive Psychology, investigating how to achieve Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness (the titles of two of his books). Sylvia Boorstein and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg have also each written engaging books on mindfulness and joy.
Awakening Joy is based on a course on the topic that Baraz, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, has been leading for several years. I had the good fortune to take the class in person (it’s also available online at www.awakeningjoy.info). Walking into the room for the second session, I already noticed a marked increase in the level of enthusiasm and enjoyment among the 250 participants, a testament to the efficacy of the course material and to James Baraz’s ability to transmit his own warmth and easy, joyful engagement with life. Like the course, the book takes readers through an exploration of ten steps by which to cultivate qualities that foster and reflect a joyful perspective. While reading the book itself may be temporarily uplifting, the key to real transformation is in “working” the steps — using the inspiration of the personal stories, neuroscience research, and Baraz’s accessible, authentic tone to be motivated to actually do the concrete exercises in the book on an ongoing basis. It is possible to become a happier person, to cultivate more useful habits of the mind and heart, but it takes time, attention, and intention.
Rooted in Baraz’s three decades of teaching Vipassana meditation and informed by other spiritual traditions and neuroscience research, Awakening Joy is both accessible and substantive, encouraging each reader to find an authentic, unique engagement with the material. The chapter on mindful awareness offers suggestions for applying mindfulness to moments of joy and well-being in order to deepen the experience, as well as clear mindfulness meditation instructions. The book cites research on the mood-enhancing effects of mindfulness practice, or moment-to-moment attention to our direct experience. All of the other chapters in the book describe practices to cultivate states of well-being such as gratitude, contentment, compassion (beautifully described as “the quivering of the heart in response to suffering”), and the equanimity that allows for compassion without burnout.
The first step is “inclining the mind toward joy.” By verbally expressing a desire to be happy (in one’s own words), readers are encouraged to shift their focus from the experience or object that they believe will make them happy to the possibility of more joy in any situation. The authors write:
Awakening joy isn’t about fulfilling goals or changing particular circumstances. It’s about training the mind and heart to live in a way that allows us to be truly happy with our life as it is right now. Not that we stop aspiring to grow and change in positive ways, or that we remain in harmful situations, but we begin to find the joy inside us right where we are.
A guided meditation in which readers remember a time when they were truly happy makes joy an emotional and physical experience rather than merely an abstract concept. An exercise that I find particularly useful is creating reminders of the intention to be happy. I’ve put the words “ahavah (love), rachamim (compassion), chesed (lovingkindness), v’shalom (peace)” on my computer screen saver: a reminder of these qualities and of the moment they were chanted to a beautiful tune as I walked down the aisle at my wedding. Many of the exercises are simple; the real challenge and the real payoff are in continuing to do them over time so that ultimately they are integrated into one’s life and become habitual. Reminders and the accountability of a “joy buddy” and a “joy journal” help to maintain focus and motivation in a busy life.
The personal stories of class participants are an inspiring reminder of the role that the successes and challenges of others play in cultivating our happiness. The stories capture the supportive experience of being in the course. Baraz himself was “a gloomy existentialist” in college, and this book is a reflection of his growth into a teacher who exudes happiness and loving-kindness. In the book, Baraz tells of the recent transformation of his ninety-one-year-old mother after Baraz persuaded her to add the phrase “and my life is truly blessed” to the end of every kvetch (see the humorous video of his mother talking about her experience on the Awakening Joy website). The teachings in the book and in the course have also been personally useful to me, both in my own life and in my work as a rabbi. To date over 9,000 people have taken the course, and the numbers continue to grow, with many participants reporting a life-changing impact.
As the High Holidays approach, we are reminded of the verse from Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that you and your seed may live.” Awakening Joy encourages readers to choose life, to notice the blessings in our lives and the good in the human heart, and to act accordingly. Baraz and Alexander quote the following from late historian Howard Zinn:
What we choose to emphasize … will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places … where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
Rabbi Margie Jacobs is a consultant to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, teacher of mindfulness meditation and Hasidut, life coach, and ritual facilitator. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two daughters.
Source Citation: Jacobs, Margie. 2010. Love the Life–and Activism–You’re In. Tikkun 25(5): 81