"There is a point in every meditator’s practice called the Joy Point. This is the point where the meditator gains reliable access to inner peace and inner joy, at least during meditation. The most important thing about this is self-sustaining momentum. Once a person hits the Joy Point, the virtuous cycle of joy and skillfulness keeps him or her going."
If you are familiar with the supposed benefits of mindfulness or meditation, but have difficulty applying yourself to a regular mindfulness practice, former Google software engineer Chade-Meng Tan’s new book, Joy on Demand, can get you started.
Tan’s book takes the topic of training our minds and gives it a geeky, modern twist, full of simple explanations, interspersed with nerd jokes. He has reverse engineered how to ‘think’ your way into a joyful life and shows that it is easier than you might expect.
The Big Idea
"Taking advantage of major opportunities often requires completely letting go of something safe and comfortable, and venturing into a deeply uncomfortable unknown. Doing so takes two things: the self-confidence to put yourself in very uncomfortable situations, and the self-awareness to clearly know your values, priorities, and purpose in life."
Most books are written by experts who have forgotten how hard it is to get started. They sit in ‘expert land’ saying, in effect, if you’d just exercise, meditate, study, or be thankful for 20 minutes every day for a decade or so you will get the benefits you want. No wonder so many people with improvement goals never get started—most cannot imagine themselves being consistent for long enough.
Tan, who considers himself a lazy person—but lazy in the sense of being too lazy to do unnecessary work but wanting high-quality—has searched for the easiest way to teach people how to ‘train our minds’ and bring joy into our lives. He acknowledges that many beginners want to know “how long and how much do I have to practice before I see benefits?”
Tan quotes research that suggests we only need between 15 minutes to two hours to gain some benefits and as little as 50 to 100 hours to start to change your life. Changes can be, for example, learning to react less intensely so that we become more resilient in the face of painful experiences, or learning to deal with the discomfort of the unknown as we take action on major opportunities.
But not satisfied with the answer of 15 minutes, he goes on to ask, “what is the absolute minimum amount of practice required?”
His answer, surprisingly, is “one breath”. Especially a breath where you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, because that activates the parasympathetic (calming) part of your nervous system.
And as an aside, it explains why “taking a deep” breath before you say something you might regret helps if you also breathe out fully before you speak, because this helps to soften the shoulders so you are less likely to tense up for a fight.
How to make mindful breathing a habit
"The moment you wake up, take one mindful breath and know that you have just been given the gift of another day to live. Or you can add an hourly chime to your watch or smartphone and get a mindful breath once each waking hour. These are all great cues, and I use all of them. The one I most highly recommend, however, is this: every time you have to wait, take a mindful breath."
Tan’s book spends time explaining how we can turn a mindful breath practice into a habit. The benefit being that if we can make it a habit we no longer have to think about it. He walks us through how to form a habit loop. (If you don’t know about the habit loop, described by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, you can read the Actionable summary by Jill Dohahue.)
To form a habit we need a cue, a routine (in this case taking one mindful breath) and a reward (the sense of calm from the long breath out, or the slightly better feeling that it gives us). Tan cleverly nominates a type of cue that we all face—waiting—one which frustrates many of us.
Every time you need to wait, you can take one or more mindful breaths and you get multiple benefits. You are building a habit of mindfulness (which becomes more automatic over time), you get regular mindfulness practice, and you also get to defuse the frustration of waiting. That’s three benefits for the price of one breath.
Make sure you try it next time you have to wait.
Savoring slices of joy
"For the mind to get familiar with joy, first it has to notice it. So, we train the mind to perceive thin slices of joy."
As Tan describes it, everyday there are tiny moments of joy. Here are just a few of mine: waking to a pinky-orange sunrise, the feel of the sun on my back, the aroma of coffee, the warmth of a firm hand grasping mine, an internet story about people doing good in the world, the athleticism of Roger Federer, a funny dog video… the list goes on.
Normally these moments flit by and are gone from short-term memory because they are very short and they aren’t very intense. But Tan says that if we learn to really notice these thin slices of joy and, even better, if we stop and savor the moments and then even better still, if later in the day, we remind ourselves of the slices of joy we experienced, we start to reprogram our brain to think about our life as consisting of lots of joy, rather than lots of frustration or struggle.
The icing on the slice, so to speak, is that the phrase is enjoyable just to think about. It’s fun to ask yourself “Would I like a slice of joy with that?” The answer is “Yes, please!
You can have guilt-free second, or even third helpings of joy in a day.
What Tan does so well in Joy on Demand is to take the subject of ‘training your mind’, one that can either seem too ‘woo woo’ or unobtainable, and show you how to break it down into tiny little actions that make it easy to start.
Instead of fighting our Western habit of wanting things easy and wanting them now, he works with these traits to show us how we can have a more regular sense of peace and joy, one mindful breath at a time. Wouldn’t we all like a daily slice of that in our lives!