INCLINING THE MIND TOWARD JOY
With our thoughts we make the world.
One evening after hearing me give a talk on real happiness, a student approached me. “I have something to show you,” he said, opening a slick magazine to a two-page advertisement. There, in shimmering glory, was a beautiful woman draped in gold jewelry, looking satisfied and happy. Across the pages in bold lettering were the words: “The Gold Shivers.” I felt both amused and appalled as I read the pitch:
From the First Small Shiver
when a Shimmering Necklace of Gold Beads Catches a Woman’s Eye.
To the Great Shivers of Delight
when the Coveted Object Actually Becomes Hers . . .
Among Life’s Pleasures, Count this Deeply Held Euphoria as Unique.
The Only Way to Get the Gold Shivers is by Getting the Gold.
Because we’re bombarded with thousands of marketing messages like this every day, it’s easy to think that gratifying our desires is the way to find happiness. We might even know, as one bumper sticker says, “The best things in life are not things,” but we can still believe that something else out there will make us happy. When I find my soul mate, or when I write the great American novel, or when I retir . . .
There’s no denying the hit of pleasure we feel when we fulfill a desire for a particular experience or object or goal. But how long does the satisfaction last once we receive the “coveted object”? Perhaps until we notice there’s something else we want. When we equate true happiness with getting something (or someone), we can end up like hamsters in an exercise wheel—running but never arriving.
If genuine happiness is not based on objects or experience, where can it be found? And how? Like following a road map, once you know where you’re going, it’s easier to figure out how to get there.
TAKING THE FIRST STEP
The journey of awakening joy begins with setting a clear intention. Although we all want to be happy, most of us don’t place an explicit wish for that at the center of our lives. We think if we are successful, rich, or liked by others, happiness will come. We tend to hope that achieving certain goals in the future will make us happy. But these are roundabout ways to get to happiness, and they don’t necessarily work. What does get you there is starting where you are and discovering what you are looking for in the midst of your current life.
You might think that the circumstances of your life will have to change a lot before you can find happiness in the midst of them. While it’s true that our well-being is affected by how we live, we also know that even in the best of circumstances we can be unhappy. And sometimes in very challenging situations, we can feel surprisingly at ease. While this book will encourage you to bring experiences and circumstances into your life that contribute to your well-being, the key factor is deciding to change your mind. As my colleague Sylvia Boorstein puts it, “Happiness is an inside job.” When we consciously intend to be happy, actually saying that intention aloud or to ourselves, we set in motion a radical transformation. Profound changes begin to take place inside us, in our body and our mind. The momentum of positive change grows as we learn to choose actions and situations that align us with our intention.
THE GOLD OF TRUE HAPPINESS
I was a gloomy existentialist in college until one day it struck me that I actually wanted to be happy. I believed the only way to achieve that was to get and to do what I wanted. My personal strategy to ensure happiness was trying to string together enough moments of pleasure and gratification that the underlying unease couldn’t get through. Getting the latest album of cool music felt good—for a little while. Having fun at a wild party was exhilarating—at the time. But no matter how many happy moments I had, I still didn’t feel any closer to being a “happy person.” I felt like I was on a roller coaster, and the ride down seemed to last a lot longer than the occasional trip up. There had to be another way.
That was what led me in 1974 to Naropa Institute, a kind of spiritual summer camp, in Boulder, Colorado. I’d read some books on Eastern philosophy that made me question a lot of my assumptions, and I wanted to check things out for myself. When I walked into meditation class that first day, I was excited about the promise of an exotic new teaching. There in the front of the room a man was sitting cross- legged—but he didn’t at all fit my image of the great spiritual guru I was expecting to see. In fact, he didn’t seem very different from me. He was Jewish and sounded like he was from New York, and I wondered if this guy could really tell me something new. But after spending the first ten minutes of the lecture judging the package, I decided to start listening to what he was saying.
Within moments it was clear that Joseph Goldstein understood something about genuine freedom and happiness and how to get there. I saw for the first time the possibility of not being a slave to my neurotic thoughts and fears. By the end of the class, I knew I had found a sure road to happiness, and I was determined to follow it.
Joseph talked a lot about one of the basic teachings of the Buddha— the recognition that everything we experience in life is impermanent. No matter how good things are, they will change. Well, that’s for sure, I thought. That’s the story of my life. We don’t get what we want and feel frustrated. We get what we don’t want and feel upset. Or we get what we want and then find out it doesn’t quite satisfy us in the way we thought it would. We find that the pleasure of the gold shivers lasts for a few moments, then fades away. As those famous “philosophers,” the Rolling Stones, so profoundly put it: “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Because everything changes, no circumstance, experience, or object can give us lasting happiness. Our bodies change, our minds change, the seasons change. Yet we try to hold on to pleasure, youth, summertime, happiness. As Joseph puts it, trying to hold on to anything in an ever-changing reality is like holding tight to a rope you’re sliding down. All you get is rope burn. And the more you hold on, the more you suffer.
What is the way out of this predicament? 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. As you work with the practices offered here, you will discover that happiness is not a place you arrive at but rather the result of training your mind to ride with ease and flexibility the roller coaster of life.
DECIDING TO BE HAPPY
Vickie was hoping for a miracle. For five years she had been living with chronic pain, unrelieved by anything doctors and healers had been able to offer. By the time we spoke, her disappointment had spiraled down into severe bouts of depression. “Often I break down and cry just from trying to get through the day,” she told me. Vickie had come to talk about whether or not she should enroll in an Awakening Joy course. “But I just can’t believe it’s possible for me to be happy,” she said.
Recently her situation had gotten even harder. Friends who had been trying to help for years had begun to drift away, afraid of being pulled into the black hole of Vickie’s despair. “And my boyfriend has real doubts about our future,” she said through tears. “I know he loves me and feels a lot of compassion for me, but he says he wonders if I haven’t given up on life.”
“You’re going through so much, Vickie,” I said softly. “But I’ve seen other people going through really hard times make major changes when they decide to. I think you can do it.”
Despite her doubts, Vickie decided to enroll in the course. The very first meeting of the group proved to be a critical turning point for her. As usual I opened the course by asking participants to get in touch with their intention to bring more happiness into their lives. The evening was spent exploring this uplifting prospect, and by the time the class ended, the room was filled with enthusiasm and promise. Some participants lingered to talk with friends, and others came up to ask questions or make comments. I noticed Vickie sitting quietly at the side of the room, and when the others had left, I went over to see if she was okay.
“I just don’t see how this will work for me, given my physical condition,” she began. “I can’t even conceive of what it would be like to be joyful.”
“I understand how you can feel that way,” I said, taking a seat next to her. “And don’t try to be any different from how you are at this moment. But I think the most important ingredient in changing your situation is letting yourself open to the possibility of finding joy in your life. That needs to happen before you can get clear on your intention.”
I knew there had to be a way to help her realize she had the capacity to enjoy her life. I had seen so many people, including myself, turn their lives around once they had embraced that possibility.
“Vickie, are there ever any moments in your life when you’re enjoying something?” I asked her.
She replied, a little hesitantly, “Yes . . .when I play with my three-year-old niece.”
“Can you right now bring to mind an image of playing with your niece?”
Vickie settled into her chair and closed her eyes. Almost immediately a tiny smile appeared.
“Now just stay with that image and those feelings for a few moments,” I suggested. I could see a subtle change pass over her face as she sat there in silence. When I asked her to describe what she was feeling, it took her a while to find the words.
“I feel a kind of tingling throughout my body . . .a lightness in my mind . . .my heart feels warm . . .”
“Okay, good. Now let yourself breathe in that feeling, allowing it to deepen with each breath,” I suggested, knowing that letting the experience fully register in her body and mind was a key to making the shift she wanted.
“Now project your mind forward in time and imagine that you’ve practiced accessing this feeling of well-being regularly during the next ten months of the course. Can you tell me what your life would look like then?”
I could see Vickie’s body relax as she reflected.
“I have less stress . . .I enjoy being with my friends again . . .I see myself taking more walks in nature, and letting myself have more fun.”
“Great. If this feels worth going for,” I said softly, “take your time to get in touch with your intention to make it happen. See if you can decide that you’ll do your part to bring it about.”
As she silently contemplated that suggestion, it looked to me as if Vickie’s body actually grew lighter. When she finally opened her eyes, the smile she gave me was genuine and bright. “That was amazing,” she offered. “Something in me said not only can I do this but I’m going to do this.” That decision began a process within her that would eventually look like the miracle she had longed for. As the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves,” and Vickie’s “miracle” was actually set in motion when she was willing to open to the possibility of joy.
FINDING THE “MAGIC” WORDS
FOR YOUR INTENTION
As Vickie found, setting the intention to awaken joy works best once you’ve recalled your capacity to be happy. Trusting that knowledge, you can make the heartfelt decision to do your part to make that happen. This is the heart of setting your intention to be happy—your determination to do what you can to fulfill your vision.
Finding a phrase that encapsulates your intention is a useful way to remind yourself of your direction. You might say something like “I intend to allow more joy into my life,” or “I want to experience more happiness each day,” or “May I live with a greater sense of well- being.” The exact way you phrase your intention doesn’t matter, and the wording may change over time. What’s most important is to begin.
Joan wrote from Canada about the struggle she got into when she tried to find the perfect way to state her intention. She had joined the Awakening Joy course in order to find more joy in her relationships with her husband and two children. “I keep falling into knee-jerk reactions such as irritation and negativity with them,” she wrote. Because the change she was looking for felt so important, Joan wanted the phrase she used to state her intention to be exactly right.
After several frustrating days of trying out various possibilities, she decided to just sit quietly and see what came. The words that arose were “I’m going to give joy a shot.” Not at all the profound phrase she was looking for! “I felt almost repulsed by the words and dismissed them,” she wrote. But the phrase kept coming back. At some point Joan realized, “I can just be silly with the intention and stop worrying about the ‘right’ words. Instead I can try to stay connected with the raw energy behind these ‘silly’ words and go for it!”
A GAME OF REMINDERS
The more you do something, the easier it gets. The more often you remind yourself that you are actually intending to bring more feelings of joy and well-being into your life, the more you will be open to them when they arise. And when you remain aware of your intention to grow in happiness, you’re more likely to make choices to support it.
Excerpted from Awakening Joy by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander. Copyright © 2010 by James Baraz. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.