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Deciding to be Happy

by James Baraz

An excerpt from Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness.

Vickie was hoping for a miracle. For five years she had been living with chronic pain, unrelieved by anything doctors and healers had been able to offer. By the time we spoke, her disappointment had spiraled down into severe bouts of depression. “Often I break down and cry just from trying to get through the day,” she told me. Vickie had come to talk about whether or not she should enroll in an Awakening Joy course. “But I just can’t believe it’s possible for me to be happy,” she said.

Recently her situation had gotten even harder. Friends who had been trying to help for years had begun to drift away, afraid of being pulled into the black hole of Vickie’s despair. “And my boyfriend has real doubts about our future,” she said through tears. “I know he loves me and feels a lot of compassion for me, but he says he wonders if I haven’t given up on life.”

“You’re going through so much, Vickie,” I said softly. “But I’ve seen other people going through really hard times make major changes when they decided to. I think you can do it.”

Despite her doubts, Vickie decided to enroll in the course. The very first meeting of the group proved to be a critical turning point for her. As usual I opened the course by asking participants to get in touch with their intention to bring more happiness into their lives. The evening was spent exploring this uplifting prospect, and by the time the class ended, the room was filled with enthusiasm and promise. Some participants lingered to talk with friends, and others came up to ask questions or make comments. I noticed Vickie sitting quietly at the side of the room, and when the others had left, I went over to see if she was okay. “I just don’t see how this will work for me, given my physical condition,” she began. “I can’t even conceive of what it would be like to be joyful.”

“I understand how you can feel that way,” I said, taking a seat next to her. “And don’t try to be any different from how you are at this moment. But I think the most important ingredient in changing your situation is letting yourself be open to the possibility of finding joy in your life. That needs to happen before you can get clear on your intention.”

I knew there had to be a way to help her realize she had the capacity to enjoy her life. I had seen so many people, including myself, turn their lives around once they had embraced that possibility.

“Vickie, are there ever any moments in your life when you’re enjoying something?” I asked her.

She replied, a little hesitantly, “Yes … when I play with my three-year-old niece.”

“Can you right now bring to mind an image of playing with your niece?”

Vickie settled into her chair and closed her eyes. Almost immediately a tiny smile appeared.

“Now just stay with that image and those feelings for a few moments,” I suggested. I could see a subtle change pass over her face as she sat there in silence. When I asked her to describe what she was feeling, it took her a while to find the words.

“I feel a kind of tingling throughout my body … a lightness in my mind … my heart feels warm …”

“Okay, good. Now let yourself breathe in that feeling, allowing it to deepen with each breath,” I suggested, knowing that letting the experience fully register in her body and mind was a key to making the shift she wanted.

“Now project your mind forward in time and imagine that you’ve practiced accessing this feeling of well-being regularly during the next months of the course. Can you tell me what your life would look like then?”

I could see Vickie’s body relax as she reflected.

“I have less stress … I enjoy being with my friends again … I see myself taking more walks in nature, and letting myself have more fun.”

“Great. If this feels worth going for,” I said softly, “take your time to get in touch with your intention and make it happen. See if you can decide that you’ll do your part to bring it about.”

As she silently contemplated that suggestion, it looked to me as if Vickie’s body actually grew lighter. When she finally opened her eyes, the smile she gave me was genuine and bright. “That was amazing,” she offered. “Something in me said not only can I do this but I’m going to do this.” That decision began a process within her that would eventually look like the miracle she had longed for. As the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves,” and Vickie’s “miracle” was actually set in motion when she was willing to open to the possibility of joy.

Finding the “Magic” Words For Your Intention

As Vickie found, setting the intention to awaken joy works best once you’ve recalled your capacity to be happy. Trusting that knowledge, you can make the heartfelt decision to do your part to make that happen. This is the heart of setting your intention to be happy—your determination to do what you can to fulfill your vision.

Finding a phrase that encapsulates your intention is a useful way to remind yourself of your direction. You might say something like “I intend to allow more joy into my life” or “I want to experience more happiness each day” or “May I live with a greater sense of well-being.” The exact way you phrase your intention doesn’t matter, and the wording may change over time. What’s most important is to begin.

Joan wrote from Canada about the struggle she got into when she tried to find the perfect way to state her intention. She had joined the Awakening Joy course in order to find more joy in her relationships with her husband and two children. “I keep falling into knee-jerk reactions such as irritation and negativity with them, “she wrote. Because the change she was looking for felt so important, Joan wanted the phrase she used to state her intention to be exactly right.

After several frustrating days of trying out various possibilities, she decided to just sit quietly and see what came. The words that arose were “I’m going to give joy a shot.” Not at all the profound phrase she was looking for! “I felt almost repulsed by the words and dismissed them,” she wrote. But the phrase kept coming back. At some point Joan realized, “I can just be silly with the intention and stop worrying about the ‘right’ words. Instead I can try to stay connected with the raw energy behind these ‘silly’ words and go for it!”

Reprinted with generous permission from Random House, Inc.

James Baraz is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, where he leads meditation retreats and is the teacher-advisor to the Spirit Rock family and teen programs. He has been teaching his online Awakening Joy course since 2003.