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, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

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