Awakening Joy by James Baraz: a book review

Awakening Joy cover

In March, I reviewed Scott Adams’ latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It has much in common with the book I’m reviewing today: both focus on the myriad, day-to-day choices we make and how they can steer us toward or away from the lives we want to live.

Though one of the numerous “failures” Adams recounts was a book on meditation, he wrote How to Fail in purely secular terms. Baraz, who took up the study of mindfulness meditation in 1974, writes from a Buddhist perspective, but says, “many people, including myself, consider Buddhism to be more a philosophy than a religion, a way to live a harmonious life.” This tone should make Awakening Joy accessible to people of any faith or no faith.

Baraz, a founding member of Spirit Rock, first taught an Awakening Joy class in his living room in 2003. In working with initially interested but skeptical students, who didn’t just want to sit around singing Kumbaya, Baraz honed the presentation that is encompassed in his book and a five month online class.

The book has ten chapters or “Steps,”  which center on topics like mindfulness, compassion, forgiving oneself, and letting go. In some ways the first step is most challenging – figuring out what “joy” means personally and accepting that we want it and deserve it, now and not at some future time when we will have “earned” the right to feel good.

Baraz quotes the Buddha who said, “Whatever the practitioner frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of the mind.” Can it really be that simple? Anyone who has ever tried to meditate knows that working with the “inclination of the mind” may be simple but isn’t easy.

Awakening Joy is written with simple concepts, personal stories, and exercises designed to cut through our suspicion that feeling good means becoming Pollyanna. We’ve all seen small children manifest joy. What happened to us along the way? Baraz presents a series of simple steps designed to help us turn back toward the direction we’d rather travel.