BG 192: Making Joy Our Default Setting

Episode Description:

Insight meditation teacher James Baraz joins us to explore the many facets of joy, happiness, and well-being. We begin by finding out how joy became an important part of James’ practice, since in his early years with Buddhism he was, in his own words, “dead serious about practice.” It turns out that part of what helped him break the spell was the Advaita Vedanta teacher, H.W.L Poonja, as well as the teachings that the Buddha himself gave on joy and well-being.

We also look at the positive psychology movement, which James pulls from often in his teachings on Joy, comparing and contrasting positive psychology with Buddhist psychology. And finally we discuss what it means to cultivate Joy, and how that cultivation relates to a recognition of Natural Joy (the joy that’s present without any special effort).

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Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn. I’m joined today, over the phone, with James Baraz. James, thank you for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks. We really appreciate it.

James: Thanks. Nice to be here with you.

Vincent: Yes. Today, we wanted to explore a topic that I know is close to your heart, and that’s the topic of Joy. So, a little bit of background here: You’re one of the co-founders of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center out in Marin, California. You also lead retreats there. I was actually telling you before the interview that my wife and I had spent a month practicing there a couple of years ago, and you’re one of the retreat teachers. So, you’re definitely a face that’s around in that area and you are doing a lot of things, both there and on the East Coast, at Inside Meditation Society. So, I’m sure a lot of people in the inside tradition have heard your name.

Then, you’re also the co-author, along with Shoshana Alexander, of a recent book that came out called “Awakening Joy.” As I understand it, this book actually came out of a course that you were doing in the Berkeley area called “Awakening Joy.” My understanding, I think, I’ve heard you mentioned this before, is that it became a lot more popular than you’d expected. You had a ton of people join you, both there and online.

James: That is true.

Vincent: I was just imagining the topic of Awakening Joy, was this a course that transcended just the Buddhist practice and tradition. I would imagine people would be interested or drawn to this, whether or not they had a Buddhist background. Is that true?

James: Oh, yes, that was the point. Initially, it was seeing what principles and practices I could share with people that I teach who are into Buddhadharma. But then, I wanted to make it accessible. It is accessible, it can be accessible to anyone. So, the people in Oklahoma who’ve never heard of vipassana or something like that can apply the same principles.

Vincent: I was wondering, as I was exploring the book, and I know I’ve heard you talked about joy before. I was wondering, when you got into this topic, when it became important to you on your path.

James: When I first got into the practice, which I did in 1974, the first summer at Naropa Institute. I went there for five summers, and dove into the practice. I was in a long honeymoon period, where it really turned my life around, as it often does for people. Then I hit a period for a while where I got very serious about practice, dead serious, as I sometimes say.

I had some unconscious perspectives around the Buddhist teachings that didn’t serve me so well. Somehow, I mixed up the end of suffering with the end of living. I have a passionate side and a celebratory side and I came from a devotional background before I got into Buddhadharma. Somehow, there was a dissonance between my natural personality and the way I approached life and what I started to take as the Buddha saying that it’s not okay to enjoy life.

That was not on a conscious level but on an unconscious level. I, as many people can do, got very serious about practice, and sort of, lost my joy for a while. Then, when I came back to myself and realized what had happened, I wanted to take a look and see just what the Buddha actually said about happiness. Is there a way to apply it, not just on the cushion, in deep connection, and presence, but in one’s daily life? When I did, I saw there was some fabulous teachings about well being, happiness, and joy, that I not only practice for myself, but I wanted to share it with others.

Vincent: I know, along with the Buddhist teachings on joy and happiness, that you also pull a lot from what’s called the Positive Psychology movement. I’ve heard you tell some really beautiful touching stories from books that are related to that movement. I wondered if you could say a little bit about what the Positive Psychology movement is and also how you’ve connected it with your own Buddhist teachings on joy and well-being and happiness.

James: There’s a whole zeitgeist that’s been happening in the last 15 or 20 years, both with the Positive Psychology novement, neuroscience and brain research, and a kind of lightening up and more spaciousness within the Theravada tradition, as far as opening up and having more relaxed and alive connection to applying the teachings. So I’d say that there is this movement towards what real happiness is that’s been very much in all of those arenas.

Positive Psychology was started by this guy, Martin Seligman, who is the head of the American Psychological Association, this is in the 1990s. After studying pathology for many decades, and the psychology movement focusing on what can go wrong with somebody, he had the bright idea of looking at what well being really is. And wrote a book called “Authentic Happiness” that started this whole trend of wellness in psychology, with a lot of research and techniques that I find very helpful and commonsensical, as well.

But there’s a difference in positive psychology then in the kind of exploration of happiness that I use with Buddhist teachings. There’s some overlap, but this is not just about putting on a Smiley smile on one’s face and saying, “Oh, yes, let’s just forget your troubles, come on, get happy,” as the old song goes. Real happiness is about engagement with life, with the ups and the downs. As the Buddha said, “If you understand suffering, if you truly understand suffering, you come to the end of suffering.” So, it’s about being here for the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows and feeling connected with life, having an authenticity, of being right where you are, and connecting within an aliveness that’s inside of you as well. So, I draw on the Positive Psychology movement, but really the heart of what I’m sharing is from Buddhadharma.

Vincent: One thing I found really helpful when you were sharings with the stories about people that had found an incredible amount of joy in their lives–and none of them were Buddhist practitioners–I found it really helpful to hear some of those, in part, because, I guess, I’d been a bit Buddhist-centric in my thinking. That somehow, people who are really joyful really deeply happy, somehow, were doing some sort of contemplative practice, if not Buddhism. I wondered if you could say a little bit about that, because I know a lot of people that are part of some of the stories that you share, are just normal people. Just down-to-earth normal people who may have been through some difficult stuff, but they’ve found this deep abiding joy, not through any particular practice, sometimes.

James: Yeah, the way I see it, you don’t have to be a practitioner to know what happiness is. We are all born into this world with a natural state of well-being. You take a baby and change her diaper and feed her and give her a little bit of love and what do they do? They squeal with delight. That’s why we like being around babies. It kind of reminds us of that place inside of us. The same thing with an adult, whether or not they’ve ever done any kind of meditation. You put an adult in an MRI machine in a neuroscience lab and hook up their brain. If they are not stressed–which is a big one right there–and have a physiological needs met, the natural state of the brain is calm, creative, caring, conscious, and contented.

So, that’s who we are when we’re not lost in confusion or when we’re not stressed. Clearly, Buddhist practices have a great power in looking at and cutting through stress. But, there are some people who, naturally, have that inclination or who are connected with that place inside that naturally wants to go for happiness. Then, there are a lot of people who’d come to Buddhist practice out of tremendous suffering and woundedness, who are looking for answers to get beyond or to somehow process all their pains. So, there’s nothing on either side that’s going to guarantee you either dukkha or joy. It’s something that is an ongoing exploration for each person.

Vincent: It’s funny as you describe the sort of natural joy, I was thinking to some of the stories you told about your experience with this teacher Papaji. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that? Because it seems like he was a teacher who pointed back to, and even in the way you, I remember you describing him, seemed to radiate a sort of natural joy, this inherent joy. Could you say a little bit about Papaji and how your experience with him has informed this topic?

James: Oh, big time. He’s one of the people that I dedicate the book to. Papaji, also known as Poonjaji, H.W.L Poonja, was this Advaita teacher, student of Ramana Maharshi, who had this amazing presence and joy. And I went to visit him, this is in 1990 was the first time I saw him. This is actually while I was in my serious phase, and actually he broke the spell. After being there for a number of weeks and I had so many questions, he said, “Give me all your questions, give me all your questions.” And finally at the very end, I had one last question. I said, “Poonjaji, I want to ask you something.” “Yes?” “It’s about emptiness.” “Yes, tell me your question.” I said, “Poonjaji, when Buddhists talk about emptiness, there is a real seriousness and solemnity often, the profound emptiness. But when you talk about emptiness, you’re laughing, there’s tears, you radiate a kind of positive energy that’s just so engaging.” And I said, “Why is your emptiness so much more fun than Buddhist’s emptiness?” He thought for a while and he said, “Well, when somebody is a meditator and they’ve touched the place of real peace inside, then they can easily get tricked into thinking that that stillness is where the emptiness is to be found, and that anything outside of that stillness is antithetical…” He didn’t use those words, but this is the gist of it. “…Is the opposite of that profound emptiness.” But he says, “My emptiness,” I’ll do a little Poonjaji imitation. “My emptiness rejects nothing. Nothing from my emptiness. My emptiness includes sorrow, and joy, and love, and restlessness. Nothing is rejected from my emptiness. Nothing.” And then he laughed, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” And it woke me up to, as is said in some Buddhist teachings, samsara and nirvana are one, but somehow I had separated them. And when I got back in touch with that, I realized I had been excluding my aliveness and my joy, and that kind of brought me back to myself.

Vincent: And it’s interesting because as I was reading your book and as I was checking out some of the different sections, I saw a real trend where you’re highlighting often times this joy, this natural joy, and sort of pointing to the fact that it’s there. Just like you said with the people that are sitting there in an EEG and all their basic needs are met, their minds are just naturally like that. But then a big part of the book is also very specific suggestions on how to cultivate or develop that natural joy.

James: Yeah.

Vincent: In one sense it’s a little confusing, but in another sense it’s tied in it seems like to this very recurring paradox in practice of the sudden and the gradual, of the natural and the developmental, or something. And I wondered if you could say a bit about the in terms of joy, in terms of that facet of things?

James: Yeah. They’re both true. First to define what I’m calling joy, which there are many words in Buddhadharma that talk about basic, positive states, whether it’s joy or rapture or contentment or ease. And so what I’m calling joy is really standing for all of those states of well-being that are associated with wholesome states, Kusala, and there is a feeling of expansion and ease and openness that comes from them.

Now as far as the natural joy or the natural well-being? First of all, one thing to remember is we all yearn for happiness. Every one of us wants to be happy. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t. Even the people who say, “I don’t want to be happy. I feel like being grumpy.” Well, that’s their way of being happy. So, whatever turns you on. But we are looking for this place of wholeness and ease and completion inside, that one could call joy or well-being. And it’s right there, it’s right in there. We experience it, we all know what well-being feels like. There’s a great treatise by Buddhadassa, Ajahn Buddhadhassa, “Nibanna For Everyone.” He says, “We all have these moments within us. We’d go crazy if we didn’t have these mini-nibannas where there is this feeling of peace or this feeling of release and relief from the agitated mind.” When you’re in nature sometimes or you just stop for a few moments and you take a break. But we usually miss it. So he says this is a capacity and a place that we return to, often we just miss, it’s just very fleeting.

That said, we can cultivate our well-being through specific practices, which are right there in the Buddhist teachings. And just like with mindfulness, we can be mindful for a moment, and we can cultivate it so that it’s more where are minds land. Or loving-kindness, too. We all know what it’s like to feel kind, to be kind, and yet you can cultivate that loving-kindness consciously.

So you want to have both aspects, where you realize this is who you really are, and then over time develop that. And for this it’s, both in the Buddhist teachings, the Buddha says in one discourse, Majjhima Nikaya #19, he says, “Whatever one frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of their mind.” And in modern neuroscience, the axiom is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” So the more you incline your mind towards particular states of well-being, the more they tend to be where you naturally land, and you can cultivate that default setting in your heart or your mind. So what I’ve done with the course and written in the book is how to consciously cultivate these wholesome states that give you access to the well-being that’s there all the time.

Vincent: Thank you. So, I know we’ve almost touched on this already, but I feel like, for me, personally, it’s a really interesting question. That is you were talking earlier about the way that you’re approaching Buddhist practice for some time that you’re kind of “dead serious” about it. I was just thinking that there’s a similar thing I’ve observed, both in myself and with other practitioners, which is not about being dead serious but about making the point of practice to be in this loving state or joyful state, kind of in a 24/7 type of way.

There’s a way in which I’ve noticed that it’s so easy to, unlike what your teacher, Poonja, was talking about, to have an emptiness that rejects nothing but somehow to start to think in terms of joy and love versus these other states: anger, resentment, misery, sadness, grief. Whatever the kind of negative state might be that feels like it’s polar opposite to joy. I just know, from a psychological perspective, that it’s very easy, I guess, to repress certain aspects of our experience. I wondered, being a teacher who focuses on joy, how you work with that dynamic, both with yourself, since it’s been such an important topic, and then also, with students that you work with?

James: Oh, well, it’s essential to include it all. If you’re just thinking you’re supposed to be skipping through a meadow in slow motion like a commercial, you’re missing out on what life is about. Truly happy people are not happy all the time. They’re engaged, they’re here for everything through the ups and downs. If you’re going through loss or you’re going through a hard time or you’re outraged about the state of the world, then you’re human. If you don’t go through those things, then you’re probably living in incredible denial.

So, the deal is, how do you deal with those states so that they don’t completely swamp you and drown you. The Buddha’s teaching on wise effort talks about dealing with unwholesome states or what he calls unwholesome states, states of contraction, akusala. Like anger and bitterness and wanting and confusion and things like that. They’re part of life. How to guard against them and overcome them when they’re here, and there’s loads of practices for that. Then, how to cultivate wholesome states. And the fourth aspect to wise effort is to maintain and increase those wholesome states when they’re here.

So, when you’re feeling anger or you’re feeling loss, suppose somebody close to you is sick or dies or you get some scary news or a change of circumstance, to not be afraid to go into them. This is the key, this where you can feel the suffering and hold it with a wise awareness. Where you process it directly and say, “Oh, this is what fear is like. This is what anger is like. This is what sadness is like.” But that which is aware of the sadness is not sad. That which is aware of the fear is not afraid. The awareness can hold it all. So, it’s a matter of really understanding how to work with our sorrows and our fears that really is a path to joy. It’s actually one of the teachings in the Pali Cannon, there’s this one list, it’s a lesser-known list called Transcendental Dependent Arising. It talks about how suffering can lead to faith. Faith can lead to gladness, can lead to joy, can lead to happiness, can lead to contentment, equanimity, all the way up to full liberation. Learning how to deal with our sufferings and our sorrows our dukkha can be a direct pathway to joy and freedom.

This is one of the differences between, say my approach, and positive psychology, it’s really being here for the whole show. That means being authentic, right with where you are and learning how to open up to it, let it move through you without forcing it along but having the tools to open up to our difficulties. And even within them, to notice moments of well-being that are right there.


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