Articles May 5, 2015

Grateful Heart, Joyful Heart

James Baraz

The following is an excerpt from Awakening Joy, by James Baraz and Shoshona Alexander.

Einstein said, “There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.” The wonder of life is everywhere, but in this culture of 30-second sound bites and blockbuster action movies, we rarely take in all the little miracles around us. We’ve been trained to assume that something needs to be pleasant or intense to warrant our attention. If it’s not intense, we brand experience as boring and soon discard it for something more stimulating. And so we look for a never-ending diet of peak experiences. This is not only a futile endeavor; it’s a set up for disappointment as we continually look for an antidote for potential tedium. And we lose an important source of well-being and joy: our ability to deeply appreciate life as it is in the here and now. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, a great 20th-century Indian sage, once chided a student who complained about the tediousness of life, “You’ve done the most amazing thing; you’ve made life boring!”

Have you ever looked at a shaft of sunlight? As a child I was often fascinated by the swirling dance occurring in the light that beamed through my bedroom window. That simple activity filled me with awe. The idea of “watching dust” doesn’t exactly sound scintillating. But it was mesmerizing to see a whole world going on in there. All I needed to do was look with care.

The feeling of awe is accessible whether the lens of awareness is microscopic or telescopic. I’ve always been enthralled by astronomy. Growing up in New York City, it was impossible to see real stars in the sky. But I would constantly beg my parents to take me on a pilgrimage to my favorite spot in the world: the Hayden Planetarium. When the day arrived to see the new monthly show I could hardly contain my excitement. Sitting in that magic star-filled Sky Dome, my unfailing response to the show was “Wow!” Everything was so big. The vast expanse I looked at seemed limitless. It just went on and on and on. The Earth and everything on it including me was just a little tiny speck in all this. And it amazed me. I somehow felt both infinitely small and magically connected with it all. Those memories were among the happiest of my childhood. It was that feeling of awe that I kept looking to re-experience as I grew up and, I think, made me yearn for a spiritual path.

We were all born with this attitude of awe and wonder and we don’t have to lose it when we grow up. When we pause to notice what we usually overlook, a new world of possibilities opens. As we appreciate the wonder of it all, a profound humility expresses itself as gratefulness. A heart filled with appreciation and gratitude is a key to a joyful life.

How can we strengthen our appreciation muscle? It begins by using the tool of mindfulness to slow down enough to notice what is here right now, not missing what William Blake called the “minute particulars” of life. Soon after she began doing this practice, a student wrote me about the dividends she was receiving from looking more attentively to the world around her. “I’m allowing myself more time to appreciate what I see, be it the clouds in the sky, a fallen leaf, the trees changing, or my friends and loved ones. As I do this, I find myself loving life more and feeling the joy that’s inside me.”

In my Awakening Joy course I lead participants through the following exercise to discover for themselves the power of mindful appreciation. Try it yourself and see how it feels. Start by becoming aware of your general mood. Are you tired? Worried? Happy? Now, without trying to make anything special happen, take a few moments to notice everything there is to appreciate right now. In case you can’t think of anything, start with the fact that you’re alive, able to read this article. Notice how it feels to look at the moment with an appreciative eye. Now, let this feeling register in your consciousness. Explore the landscape of appreciation in your body. Do you feel light? Energized? Open? Do you notice any difference in mood from when you began? Every moment holds the potential for appreciation and gratitude. Practicing looking at life through this lens can have a dramatic affect on your level of well-being.

Some skeptical practitioners may read this and wonder, “But what about suffering? Are you suggesting we live in denial?” Although a central part of the teachings, I’ve seen many Dharma students fall into the trap of focusing on suffering so much that they forget to notice all the goodness around them. Some even feel guilty about enjoying life’s blessings. Certainly life has its difficulties. But our willingness to open to the hard stuff doesn’t mean only looking for what’s wrong and wallowing in it. With that view, instead of awakening joy we cultivate a “consciousness of complaint.” The notion that enjoying life is unspiritual creates a prison for ourselves.

As Ajahn Sumedho says, "Sometimes in Buddhism one gets the impression that you shouldn't enjoy beauty. If you see a beautiful flower you should contemplate its decay, or if you see a beautiful woman, you should contemplate her as a rotting corpse. This has a certain value on one level but it's not a fixed position to take. It's not that we should just feel compelled to reject beauty, and dwell on its impermanence and on how it changes to being not so beautiful—and then downright repulsive. That's a good reflection on anicca, dukkha and anatta (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self); but it can leave the impression that beauty is only to be reflected on in terms of these three characteristics, rather than in terms of the experience of beauty. This is (wholesome) joy—being able to appreciate the beauty in the things around us. People who can't see the beauty of the good or the true are really bitter and mean; they live in an ugly realm where there's no rejoicing in beauty and goodness and truth. Once one has insight then one enjoys and delights in the beauty and the goodness of things. Truth, beauty, and goodness delight us; in them we find joy."

With appreciation and gratitude we open our heart and let the blessings in life touch us. And we create a bigger container in our mind and heart to hold all the challenges that life inevitably brings without being overwhelmed. Instead of taking things for granted, if we look at experience through appreciative eyes we can let ourselves be continually surprised by life, develop a grateful heart, and awaken our natural capacity for joy.

James Baraz

James Baraz

Residential Retreat Teacher

James Baraz is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock. James started the Community Dharma Leader program and Spirit's Rock Family Program. James leads the online course "Awakening Joy" since 2003. He is a guiding teacher to One Earth Sangha, a platform devoted to Buddhist responses to Climate Change.