Memorial: Joel Baehr

Joel Baehr

Meditation Teacher, Visiting Teacher, Mitra

Joel Baehr, an ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister since 1967, was a graduate of Haverford College, Union Theological Seminary, and the Westchester Institute For Training in Psychoanalysis. He also practiced as a psychotherapist and an organizational consultant since 1970, integrating spiritual practice with psychology and ordinary life.

He studied and practiced with teachers in many traditions including Quaker, Sufi, Roman Catholic, and Siddha Yoga. Joel fell in love with Tibetan Buddhism in 1992 while on retreat at Gampo Abbey and thereafter became a student of Lama Surya Das, Lama John Makransky, Chokyi Nyima, Lama Willa Baker, and others.

At the request of Surya Das, Joel wrote and taught for years an online course, “Buddhism and Everyday Life,” which enrolled hundreds of students. He was meditation teacher and Mitra in the Natural Dharma Fellowship (NDF) Margha program, a meditation teacher and Board member of Foundation for Active Compassion, and a teacher and practice leader in a number of independent sanghas: at First Parish, Cambridge, MA; Rising Light Sangha, Saranac Lake, NY; Snow Lotus Sangha in Watertown, NY; the Awakening Heart Practice Community; and a weekly online group.

Read Joel's Full Bio here

Just after midnight, in the wee hours of Friday, September 22, 2023, our beloved sangha member Joel Baehr left this life for the other side. Since the unexpected death of Joel’s wife Annie in July 2021, his two daughters Amy and Becky had been a consistent presence, keeping Joel company and arranging his care.

The path of Parkinson’s disease is a long one, and Joel navigated it — from the beginning to the end — with extraordinary grace, grit and acceptance. Like the bodhisattva Vimalakirti, he invited his loved ones into community around him, radiating wisdom and bodhicitta to everyone in the room. He often said about his condition, “I’m so grateful” and “What a teaching!”

Joel continued to join retreats long into his illness, even when he could no longer walk. One day during his last onsite retreat at Wonderwell, Joel orchestrated a spontaneous party, finding the wine glasses in the pantry. Getting the music going, Joel danced in his wheelchair, lifting his glass and declaring, “A toast to the human realm! It’s the best of the realms!”

As he became more ill, unable to leave his room, Joel’s mind remained clear, while his heart seemed to grow even bigger until it dissolved into those who came near him. His daughters often sat vigil by his bedside. His devoted aide Moses was always near caring for Joel’s physical needs, and his dharma friends Yonder Gillihan, Eric Brus, and Dave O’Neal were frequent visitors, joining him to practice meditation and read aloud, offering spiritual care, and simply enjoying good conversation and wine.

During the second week of September, Joel decided he was ready to let go of this life. With the support of those closest to him, witnessed by a beloved therapist, Joel began a fast, refraining from food and drink. As word spread, Joel called a farewell gathering of friends and family. As the days past, his friends, students and teachers showed up in force, sharing their last well wishes and gratitudes.

Nine days into his fast, Joel stopped speaking and his breathing changed. By the evening of his passing, Joel was on the threshold, his body’s life force gathering within. It was then that I arrived at Joel’s bedside. Stepping into his room was like entering a field of radiance. Present there were his two daughters Amy and Becky, together with his beloved partner Martha, as well as Yonder, Eric, Dave, and Moses.

We gathered in a circle around Joel, placing a statue of Tara near his head and lighting a candle, tears wetting our cheeks. Dozens of other members of his spiritual family soon arrived on Zoom. Together we invoked Joel’s personal benefactors, asking for their blessing and protection.

We chanted the prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, praying for Joel’s smooth passage through the bardo. The oral instructions on recognizing the clear light of awareness were whispered in his ear, and the sangha offered their individual prayers for Joel’s peace and freedom.

That night, a few hours later, on the cusp of the Fall equinox, Joel finally let go. His child clear-light mind joined with the mother.

Joel — Dzogchen yogi, bodhisattva, dharma guide, father, grandfather, uncle, brother and beloved friend—you showed us how to live with passion and gratitude. But perhaps even more profoundly, you demonstrated to us all how to die.

You showed us that the fruits of practice are not theoretical. Like the great bodhisattvas of the past, your awareness, generosity, compassion and tolerance will stay with us forever as an extraordinary beacon lighting our way, even as the flame of your embodied presence releases into the great expanse.

7-Week Bardo Practice Sessions

At Joel’s request, his Dharma communities will be conducting a 7-week Tibetan Buddhist bardo practice on Zoom. In the traditional bardo practice, dying or recently deceased persons receive guidance and assistance in traversing the Bardos (transitional states) around the time of death and in the hours to weeks after death. Joel’s Zoom bardo practice will take place daily on a schedule that will be posted on the calendar below when dates become available.  Details like dates and times for the early days of the practice are provided on the calendar below. Please continue to check the calendar for additional dates & times.
We will use the same Zoom link for the entire 49-day Bardo practice.

If you are interested in participating, please save these details.  We will not be sending out reminders.  FYI… The first time you use this link you may be asked to register (as a security measure).  Once you have registered, the link should work automatically from then on.

Share a Remembrance

We invite you to share a short “remembrance” of Joel with our Sangha. Please indicate if you wish to include your name or remain anonymous.

Click the button below to go to a form where you can leave a short anecdote or remembrance in 100 words or less.

Your contribution will be posted in the last section at the bottom of this page.

Use this helpful online tool to track your word count –

Bardo Prayer

As I roam in samsara, driven by my habitual patterns, may the light of transcendent wisdom draw me forward,
 leading me on the path of radiance,
 the pristine awareness of the spaciousness of reality.


May the compassion of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas support me from behind. Thus encircled, may I be protected
 from the fears and projections of the bardo
, and be guided to the domain of an awakened one.

Remembering Joel

My memories of Joel are all jumbled together.
  • Seeing him leading meditation at the Quaker Meeting House on Saturday morning.
  • Playing the Lama Cheno chant and singing with absolute fervor.
  • Talking about living with Parkinson’s, with such vulnerability and openness.
  • Always turning any gathering into a party.
On retreat, I pushed his wheelchair on Philbrick Hill, talking about everything and nothing. Sitting together at home, with takeout Thai food, the conversation going between Dzogchen and the Red Sox. What a life, what a teaching, what a transition. I remember most, his laughing, his twinkling baby blues, and how he poured every bit of his love and attention into us all. Towards the end, in multiple conversations, Joel said “the dead are laughing”. I wrote this poem many years ago and got to read it to him on our last visit. He laughed…. The Dead are Laughing We are crying, the living, who are left alone But they are laughing Free, free at last Just wanting us to live well, embrace life, and keep going They have no hold on us, nor do they want to They are lying there, released from the burden It doesn’t matter how they die, only that they are not of this world any longer We who stay, are the ones who mourn, who cry, who wish they would come back But they are flying away, waving at us cheerfully as we disappear into the distance They free us, but we don’t want to go Confused, sad, wanting what we cannot have We don’t understand that they are exploding with joy, let go finally to rise The ancestors, the ones who have gone before, we cannot have them back It is not in the right order of things Released to life, we can only walk forward, into the light of life, flowers that smell so sweet, and the love that creates humanity anew.

Joel is a friend, mentor, and teacher. I will enjoy many benefactor moments of Joel from the past 13+ years since I met him and Annie at the first NDF Winter Retreat in Dover, MA in 2010.

Mostly I enjoy his stable, loving presence in all the forms that took through silence, joking, laughing, drinking wine, and even poking fun at Revere where I live (calling it ‘bullet vest required’ to Brendan Kennedy before he came to Revere). And for those who have heard Joel’s interpretation and names for the enneagram types, we were blessed with Joel’s direct and light-hearted teaching.

Dearest Joel… Deep bows and Emaho!

Thank you to Joel!

He was my first real teacher of the Path, after years of studying. His (with Annie’s) instruction brought me into the greatest sky ever. The little basement sangha, looking at the carpeting, the removed carpeting, the chit-chat, the chanting, the words of wisdom will never be forgotten. Now he is one of my benefactors floating alongside my heart-head. Yet the only actual quote I can recall was his recurring “Let’s meditate” and so we will.

Everything is workable.”  I got this gem of a pith instruction from Joel during one of his Monday night teachings for NDF a few years ago, and it is still echoing in my awareness.

He was describing his situation and the physical limitations of his condition by way of explaining why an attendant could be seen puttering in the background.

What he shared was about the furthest thing from “workable” I could imagine.  I don’t recall the topic of his teaching that night, yet the attitude expressed in that statement, such a pure and simple refusal to shoot the second arrow despite enormous physical suffering, was a profound lesson in the Dharma. Would that we all could embody grace like Joel in our time.

Joel was my first Buddhist teacher when he came regularly to Saranac Lake to hold blessed space for us as we began our Rising Light Sangha. His generosity, wisdom, and kindness shone through every moment I spent in his company. I have enormous gratitude for the sessions I had one-on-one with him to negotiate a tricky family situation. He taught me about listening, being present for others with kindness and compassion, and how to negotiate a path of challenging illness and death with grace.

Blessings to you, dear Joel.

I wanted to share a message from Joel, it feels like a message to us all now:

Joel Baehr’s Birthday letter, February 16, 2017 (76 years old)

To all Dear Ones who might be interested in what’s been going on with me. Even though I am not good at Facebook and other ways of staying in touch, you are all in my thoughts, and I always wish you well. That’s another way of saying I love you all, and I cherish your regard for me.

Most important to me, as I reflect on my recent life, is how precious every moment is. Each moment is full of…….the whole shebang! When my awareness is constricted and narrowly focused (self-clinging), I, of course, fall into worry and petty concerns. But in the very same moments, the whole magical realm of the spontaneously arising world of experience is present. I only have to relax and allow it.
At root, that experience is objectless compassion – compassion as our nature, not as a relative quality. As Andrew Harvey expressed it, it is the heart broken open, ripped apart so that the entire universe can fit into one’s heart. Clearly, Buddhist practice is central to my life, even though I am still a lazy, short-cutting pleasure-seeker!

My greatest joy is teaching dharma, in psychotherapy sessions and meditation groups. (A close second is eating and drinking wine with friends!) Somehow I am listed on the Natural Dharma Fellowship website as a “Core Teacher,” and I also lead meditation groups for The Foundation for Active Compassion. One of these groups meets on Wednesday evening at 7, a combination of practitioners meeting at our home and practitioners around the country online. To join the group, for study and meditation, just come to our house or put this into your into your URL line at 7 pm (7:30 for just meditation)[redacted].

Parkinson’s Disease has led me into a world of being cared for, by Annie, my children and grandchildren, many friends, and a bevy of doctors. A strong case can be made that suffering is a great ally to spiritual growth. Parkinson’s is continually showing up in my life in usual and in new ways: constant stiffness, slow movement (like being tied up with strong rubber bands), difficulty balancing, intermittent brain fog, difficulty swallowing, sleep difficulty, constipation, and many others. I discovered a new one this winter: anxiety. 

I began experiencing strong anxiety, especially around doing things and going places, even things, places, and persons that usually fill me with joy. My executive function has weakened considerably over the past few years, but this anxiety was an add-on. I had planned to travel to California to spend time with my wonderful friend and teacher, Brendan Kennedy, and to visit with a number of other close and dear friends.
I canceled the trip when anxiety arose to the point that it drowned out positive anticipation. The anxiety certainly involved fear of not having the resources I needed to tend to my Parkinson’s symptoms, but it was more than that free-floating anxiety, an independent undertow that would not stop for long. I’ve worked on that a lot, and because the anxiety has diminished significantly, perhaps I’ll feel confident about a trip to California in the coming months.  

Other friends in even closer proximity might feel neglected for the same reason. As an example, when my great friend, Bob Morrison, invites me to play poker about a mile away, my first response is anxiety, and I have to work through that to agree to play. This is not like “me.” One of my neurologists says that such anxiety is a direct expression of Parkinson’s disease, not of “me”. So the “foreign” (not me) disease joins with my usual self to produce a new teratoid version of “me”! 
Sort of a proof for the Buddhist insight into “no self!” It’s bothersome – and very interesting – but, happily, it doesn’t affect the arising of the whole magical realm of the spontaneous world of experience, the nature of which is compassion. Marvelous!

My treatment is going well. My neurologist says I’m not a candidate for deep brain stimulation, because my symptoms are not strong enough – good news. I will continue to relate to Dr. Pascual-Leone, who does research into experimental non-invasive brain stimulation. I will continue to work out with my trainer, do Tai Chi, and take “lessons” from my Feldenkrais practitioner.

So, being so cared for, and so grounded in “free-floating” loving kindness, all is well with me! I wish the same for each of you.