Awakening Joy in Plan B Nation

Joyful Runway

Much has been written about the psychological costs of job loss and other fall-out of the Great Recession, but far less ink has been spilled over how we can best address them.

“The worst things in life start showing up when people experience extended unemployment,” asserts Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in his chilling manifesto The Coming Jobs War, which paints a dire picture of a global job shortage. “Those wounded will probably never fully recover.”

In a similar vein, Atlantic journalist Don Peck cites a troubling litany of consequences stemming from long-term joblessness, including “growing isolation, warping of family dynamics, and a slow separation from mainstream society,” as he further details in Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

My reaction to such observations is mixed.

On the one hand, I welcome the acknowledgment that the Great Recession has exerted unprecedented stress on millions of Americans. It strikes me as a much-needed antidote to the view that the jobless, foreclosed-upons, and other casualties of these new hard times just need to buck up, to opt for the sort of relentless cheer skewered by cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.

On the other hand, it strikes me as unnecessarily disempowering to simply give in, to believe that there’s nothing we can do to change our relationship to the bad things that come our way.

It’s in this spirit that I’m embarking on meditation teacher James Baraz’s 10-month online class Awakening Joy. I first heard about the program from some like-minded friends (read: friends not prone to the aforementioned relentless positive thinking) and decided to give it a try. My initial skepticism largely faded when I learned that no one is turned away for financial reasons. (I myself opted to pay a small fraction of the total cost.)

Baraz—a founding teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California—draws heavily on the Buddhist tradition, but as he makes clear in the first class, the program is in no way limited to any particular religious faith.

So is it possible to “awaken joy” when we’re facing huge challenges?  Baraz says Yes. Where his approach differs significantly from many other proponents of positive thinking is that he—like the Buddha—is focused on the practical strategies that allow us to do this.  Rather than saying  “just do it,” his focus is on how to do it.

The first step? Simply cultivating the intention to be happy. To this end, Baraz and his teaching team provide a number of exercises and practices, including the act of reminding ourselves again and again of our intention. Another suggestion: Making a conscious decision to recognize and relish moments of well-being. (Positive psychology acolytes refer to this as “savoring.”) The theory is that where we choose to place our mind goes far to  determine how happy we are.

“More than 2,000 people have tested it, so it’s not some airy-fairy idea,” Baraz said of the class, in a 2008 O magazine interview. “I’ve learned that it’s possible to change, no matter what your history or the limiting beliefs you’ve held on to. If you have the intention to be happy and you do the practices, if you give it your best shot and are very patient, it works.”

That being said, the Buddha told his students to not take anything on faith—rather to “see for yourself.” That’s exactly what I’ll be doing, and I’m curious to explore what happens. Interested in joining me? Click here for sign-up information.

© 2012 – 2014, amy gutman. All rights reserved.