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.

How blogging changed my life–and how it can change yours

I´m blogging this.

Ear­lier this month, the New York Times Moth­er­lode blog fea­tured new research sug­gest­ing that blog­ging may make new moth­ers hap­pier.

It got me to think­ing about how this is also true for us denizens of Plan B Nation—and for much the same reasons.

The cited research—a small research study by Penn State Ph.D. can­di­date Bran­don T. McDaniel—suggests that blog­ging coun­ter­acts new moth­ers’ feel­ings of iso­la­tion. It found a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion between “blog­ging and feel­ings of con­nect­ed­ness to fam­ily and friends—which in turn cor­re­lates … with mater­nal well-being and health,” writes Moth­er­lode blog­ger KJ Dell’Antonia (who, in another life­time, prac­ticed law with me, but I digress .…)

Feel­ings of iso­la­tion are also a hall­mark of life in Plan B Nation—and one of its most dan­ger­ous poten­tial side effects. Long-term unem­ploy­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, has been repeat­edly linked to a down­ward spi­ral in per­sonal rela­tion­ships. Gallup Chair­man and CEO Jim Clifton sums this up suc­cinctly in his new book The Com­ing Jobs War: “Peo­ple who have been out of work for 18 months or longer lose engage­ment in their net­work of friends, com­mu­nity, and fam­i­lies. The worst things in life start show­ing up when peo­ple expe­ri­ence extended unemployment.”

Speak­ing from per­sonal expe­ri­ence (hello read­ers!), blog­ging can go a long way to help with such feel­ings. Two months ago, when I started Plan B Nation, I was in a pretty demor­al­ized place. I’d been un– and under-employed for more than two years and was hav­ing a hard time imag­in­ing a light at the end of the tun­nel. I didn’t really think blog­ging would help, but I’d been think­ing about doing it for a while and finally took the leap. If noth­ing else, I fig­ured, I’d at least learn some new skills.

Flash for­ward to today, and my whole out­look has changed—and largely because of this blog. Sim­ply put, blog­ging about my story has trans­formed my rela­tion­ship to it. It’s gone from being a source of suf­fer­ing to being my sub­ject. When I step back to mine it for mate­r­ial, I start to find it inter­est­ing. I start to see what it has to teach me (and how, in shar­ing it, I can maybe even help others).

And there’s a huge addi­tional poten­tial bonus to blog­ging in Plan B Nation: It can be a ter­rific source of pay­ing work. That’s cer­tainly been the case for me and—a quick Google search reveals—for many oth­ers as well.

Iconic blog­ger Pene­lope Trunk—if you haven’t read her, you should; you’ll either love her or hate her—is a big pro­po­nent of blog­ging as a career strat­egy. For doubters, she lists the fol­low­ing five rea­sons to embark.

1. Blog­ging makes career change easier.

2. Blog­ging lets you skip entry-level jobs.

3. Blog­ging opens up the world of part-time work.

4. Blog­ging makes it eas­ier to re-enter the workforce.

5. Blog­ging builds a net­work super fast.

I can’t say every­thing in this post will be true for every­one, but for me, it’s come pretty close. (For more evi­dence in sup­port, check out blog­ger Jen Gresham’s post on blog­ging as a career tool—part of BlogHer’s ongo­ing series on career rein­ven­tion.)

Will it be true for you? You’ll never know if you don’t try. (Pene­lope Trunk also offers tips on how to get started.)  You might con­sider, as I did, that even if your blog doesn’t fly, you’ll still have learned a lot.

Need more inspi­ra­tion? Try check­ing out other blogs that explore life in Plan B Nation. A few examples:

  • Brett Paesel’s darkly hilar­i­ous Last of the Bohemi­ans (about a fam­ily vaca­tion to India in the shadow of bankruptcy)
  • Whar­ton M.B.A. Sharon O’Day’s blog about women and money (which evolved from her own expe­ri­ence of start­ing over at age 53)
  • From Prada to Pay­less (“The life and times of a once glam­orous NYC fash­ion indus­try insider, to a mother of three girls, liv­ing pay­check to pay­check , fac­ing fore­clo­sure, and try­ing to find humor, and san­ity in it all, while look­ing (try­ing!) deli­ciously chic in her Pay­less shoes”)

Plan B Nation takes lots of things away from us, but it also fills our life with amaz­ing (if painful), strange, intrigu­ing, and unfor­get­table sto­ries. The trick is to see them, to lean into them. Blog­ging can help with that.

Do you have a favorite Plan B Nation blog? Please share it in the com­ment section.