Jamez Baraz belongs to that spiritual lineage which the American community has baptized “Jubus”, or Jews converted to Buddhist practices. As a confirmation of sorts, his mother, a Yiddish mother if there ever was one, gave a talk in the context of one of James’ seminars, in which she made a surprising revelation: “As all good Jewish mothers, one of my favorite pastimes was to complain. I complained over everything and over nothing. One day my son proposed that I follow each complaint with the phrase ‘And, still, I know that my life is truly blessed’. I did as he asked, and my level of happiness increased considerably. Now I can no longer complain in peace… my son has ruined my life!” she exclaimed, to a burst of laughter from the audience.
If happiness was an unexpected turn of events for his mother, for Baraz himself it has been a consciously chosen path. A number of years ago, he made this commitment: he would distill from the Buddhist precepts and practices an aspect which is not usually focused on by teachers or practitioners: the inclination to awaken and cultivate joy. After many years of practicing Vipassana meditation (one of the oldest meditation techniques in India, originated in the Theravada tradition), after attending countless retreats, after leading many himself, after founding the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California with prominent meditation teacher Jack Kornfield and others, Baraz felt the need to offer something different, something he himself had somehow lost along the way and was intent on regaining. In 2003, he launched a course called “Awakening joy”, with the intention of helping others reach a state of deep and sustained well-being.
The concern had been born early on. He recalled the exact moment in a conversation via Skype with Mystic Vision. One afternoon, as he attended his first class on Buddhist philosophy, he suddenly remembered he was wearing his basketball team’s T-shirt, and with the realization came the memory of the pleasure and excitement he derived from watching his team at play. If he became a true blue Buddhist, would he eventually lose this lifelong passion? Would he end up watching the games with equanimity, turning his head this way and that in silent approval of his team’s moves? With some trepidation he went to his teacher, Joseph Goldstein, during a break, and shared this fear. “Not at all –Goldstein answered-. At the most, you will get less depressed when your team loses.”
This was all the encouragement James needed. He persisted in the practice, which drove him deeper and deeper, opening up new perspectives for him and enriching his view of life. “However –he says today-, at some point I began to take myself and my practice far too seriously, and almost without realizing it I lost my joy. Some Buddhist practices are easy to misunderstand, and perhaps on an unconscious level I thought it wasn’t valid to enjoy or feel passion for what I was doing, so I repressed it.”
It was a long road back, but he found it by exploring once again the Buddha’s teachings, probing those passages where the master not only talked about avoiding suffering, as in the Four Noble Truths, but of reaching the highest happiness, as well. “I wanted to achieve this not just for myself, but to be able to share it with others,” he adds.
The course he created, Awakening Joy, and the book by the same name which would appear as a result (in co-authorship with Shoshana Alexander), is directed at people of any religion or none, and it renders Buddhist practices accessible by undressing them of all doctrine and any sense of demand. In Baraz’ proposal there is no exhortation to meditate long hours in lotus position, fast one day a week or shave one’s head. If fact, he reminds the reader more than once that he should not make an effort to be happy, nor punish himself if he is not able to feel joy. The road he points to is built on pillars of Buddhism such as mindfulness (developing witness consciousness), cultivating detachment and virtues like gratitude and love, but its background score is one of maintaining a compassionate attitude towards the world, and especially towards oneself. “This is meant to be a nourishing experience –he says-. Whatever you do, please do it with enjoyment. And what you can’t do, just let it go.”
Bill Gates praised the book in his personal blog with these words: “I don’t read a lot of self-help or inspiration books, but even if you never read anything in this genre, this book is one you should try. It’s about enjoying life, consciously picking things that make life more enjoyable and purposefully thinking about them.”
Gates is not mistaken. Awakening joy is, in fact, and invitation to be happy. But not happy all the time, or happy on the basis of denial, repression or unconsciousness; happy in the Buddhist way, which means with loving acceptance of all the states life has to offer, without attaching to any of them. The reigning strategies of the book (and the course) are three principles described by the Buddha: inclining the mind towards joy, promoting wholesome states (such as gratitude, equanimity and compassion) and enjoying the wellbeing these states bring about.
Baraz also supports his teaching and recommendations on the latest findings of neuroscience, such as training the mind by expanding states of wellbeing the moment they occur, intentionally prolonging them and registering their effect on the body. But as announced by the book’s subtitle (“Ten steps which will put you on the road to real happiness”), the path is built on a series of practices designed to develop important attitudes and qualities of mind.
This is how he summed them up in our dialogue: “We begin with the intention of awakening joy in ourselves. Then mindfulness brings us to the present. Gratitude opens our hearts. The capacity to work with difficulties assures us that we can face any situation that arises. Living with integrity aligns us with our highest values and frees us from blame, bringing inner peace. Letting go of attachment liberates us and lightens our burden. Learning to love ourselves suspends self-judgment and allows the purity of our essence to emerge. Connecting with others lets our love expand. Compassion appears when our heart meets the suffering of the world, and responds to it. All these are important ingredients of happiness. But, in the end, we come to a kind of wellbeing which is natural and is truly beyond effort.”
“Our basic nature is peaceful, and there is a true joy in that. A baby that is fed and clean squeals with happiness. The same is true for adults, and this has been proven by neuroscience: if we are not under the vise of stress, our natural state is that of calm, content, creativity and caring. These attributes are there, they don’t need to be manufactured. That’s why it’s so important to quiet the mind and inhabit the present, because in those moments, that is the state that comes to greet us.”
“Besides the neuroscience usage,” adds James, “the term ‘natural state’ is pointing to who we are when we’re not confused, and is known by many names in various spiritual traditions (Kingdom of God, the God Within, the Still, Small Voice, one’s Buddha Nature or True Nature).”
Furthermore, he points out, this is what often surprises people in meditation retreats: as soon they manage to calm down, they feel the love and the wisdom that has always been inside. “The same sometimes happens when we relax by taking a break, walk in nature or do some yoga. The obscurations don’t get in the way when there’s enough space created in the mind for the wholesome qualities to naturally shine through.”
This kind of inmanent joy looks a lot like awe and is based on a profound connection to the world and a sense of reverence for the richness of life.
Peace, contentment, happiness, rapture. Whatever the subtle nuance with which we feel it, joy does not seem to be so much an aim to achieve, as a home to which we can return. Anyone tempted to think this just another utopian promise can simply ask James Baraz. Or, better yet, James Baraz’ mother.
For those tempted to hear her for themselves, here’s the link: