05/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Johnny Appleseed of Joy

I first met the author and meditation teacher James Baraz five years ago at a silent Metta ("loving kindness") retreat at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA, just north of San Francisco.

There was one instruction for the week-long gathering: alternate sitting and walking meditation while silently repeating the phrases "May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at ease." Day after endless day, I sat and walked, sat and walked, forcing myself to obey the rules and suppressing the instinct to run screaming into the Woodacre woods to hang out with the deer, wild turkeys and snakes, for whom silence was not required. To fight the boredom, I began singing the phrases to myself. This provided a bit of relief, followed hard by the suspicion that I was succumbing to the karmic equivalent of a baseball player taking steroids so he can hit more home runs.

After several days, I met with Baraz and fessed up to the singing, bracing myself for confirmation that I was indeed screwing up. When his face lit up like a beaming Buddha as he crooned a few bars to demonstrate how he himself sang the phrases, my mirror neurons lit up and I instantly felt his joy. Naturally I went back to being miserable soon thereafter, but recalling that uplifting moment has helped me cope with more than a few difficult moments since.

Since 2003, Baraz has expanded his Buddhist teachings to become a kind of Johnny Appleseed of joy, supervising the ten-month online course Awakening Joy for thousands of seekers who might otherwise be Twittering away their time with aimless Facebooking. Now, with co-author Shoshana Alexander, he's published Awakening Joy (Bantam), a book which -- interspersed with aphorisms, endorsements from course-takers who've been helped and quotes from wise folks like Albert Einstein, Erasmus and The Buddha -- details his ten-step path to "put you on the road to real happiness."

Baraz says, "As we incline the mind toward wholesome states of well-being, such as gratitude or kindness, they are more available to us. Current brain research confirms this. As we practice certain states of mind we actually change our brain structure, deepening the groove towards depression or happiness."

Baraz emphasizes that his program is no touchy-feely exercise in Pollyanna: "'Joy' can be an intimidating word. I work with some people who are severely troubled and deeply skeptical of their ability to feel better. But their very willingness to engage in the process is huge, and though there are no guarantees, many who have felt hopeless have awakened to their tremendous capacity for hope, joy and a proactive commitment to reducing suffering in the world."

Activist progressive heroes like the late historian Howard Zinn (A People's History of America) and Daniel Ellsberg (Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers) have endorsed the value of these teachings. Ellsberg: "This book should be read by every person who cares about making this a better world. It can enhance the joys of working to develop a wiser and more compassionate society, and help make us both happier and more effective in challenging times."

Eschewing the conventional book tour, Baraz is in the midst of a 25-city swing that includes an Awakening Joy workshop at each stop in coordination with a local dharma organization.

Baraz believes we are more inclined to experience true happiness when we reinforce beneficial neural pathways by making a habit out of such activities as mindful breathing, noting moments when we feel good and engaging in creative expression. At a time when the disassembling of music education in public schools approaches the point where the only school chorus left may be the fictitious one on Glee, you can probably guess my favorite of his recommendations: singing.