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Real Happiness and Meditation

The 28-Day Meditation Challenge: Week 1

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Welcome everyone. It is a great joy to think of you all participating in this challenge.

We all seem to relate to structure in different ways, or perhaps more accurately, in different ways at different times. Sometimes we rebel, sometimes structure seems like an imposition, other times it helps create clarity out of chaos and delineates a path so we don’t have to try to make it up all by ourselves all of the time.

I generally feel supported by structure (though sometimes I do rebel.) Having a method of practice and knowing what my commitments are help me not to just get lost in discursive thinking –“What should I do? Should I do this or should I do that? Oh, time must be up…no time to do anything.”. It helps me to put off evaluation until I’ve really experimented with something (as compared to constantly separating from a process to ask, “How am I doing?” “Is this as good as it gets?”)

I started my own meditation practice within the context of intensive retreats, very structured, with bells ringing marking beginnings and endings of sittings, a posted schedule, periods of silence. But it was awfully hard for quite a while for me to practice when I wasn’t on retreat. I think a 28-day challenge, bringing some structure to my ordinary day, would have helped.

- Sharon Salzberg

For each and every distraction, as soon as I registered it, I just tried to shift my focus back to my breath. And it wasn’t that hard. What felt like five minutes into the session, my legs went numb, but even that couldn’t distract me. Next thing I know, the voice on the CD was telling me to open my eyes and that the session was done.

Standing up, I felt pins and needles all through my legs. But I also felt exceptionally light. The tightness in my chest was gone and I felt energized enough to take a walk before proceeding over to a friend’s house for dinner.

So I’m thinking, maybe there is something to this. Stay tuned to see how the next four weeks go.

- Kate Torgovnick, writer and editor at TheFrisky.com

I've been expecting this experience to be a rich one, but I have to say, it's already exceeding my expectations in surprising ways. As the days led up to the Challenge, I could feel my restlessness, my anticipation, a sense of occasion. I could sense that my awareness had been amped up before it even began. And now that I am here, well, this is best explained with the anecdote of the bubble bath.

Last night I finished my first reading of Real Happiness in the bathtub. I like bubble baths, but it usually seems like there is something more productive to do or something more productive that needs to be done that I then don't do in place of taking a bubble bath. But with the undone reading on my mind, I decided to multi-task.

So I finished the book and lay there enjoying the smell of the bubbles -- coconut-lime, which is somehow really neither, synthesized and synthetic as it is, but pleasing nonetheless -- and I was considering Sharon's words on lovingkindness and it struck me that my brain has really been going non-stop, seemingly for months. (If three posts can be said to constitute a theme, this is it. I've been kind of consumed with unhappy work issues, not the least of which is the busy-ness of work itself, but the thought-overdrive I'm sure is also from the upheaval of any kind of regular practice - meditation, yoga, anything, chalked up to the initial busy-ness of work. No balance...).

But somehow, a kinder thought crept in there in the bathroom: It doesn't matter if you think these thoughts. They don't do any good and they don't do any harm. You can chase after them, but why? And then they mattered much less. The goal of my 28 days was suddenly something much different than eradicating them, or making peace with them, or being so much a better person that I didn't have them to begin with. Suddenly, they seemed apart from me. Which was a nice thought in and of itself. And then I felt a wave of solitude so visceral and so unexpected that I reached out to the tub wall to stop the velocity of it. In that moment, in that absence of clinging on, I was aware of missing all those little insect thoughts. And about that awareness, I can say nothing more profound than, "I was like, whoa!"

- Elizabeth Grove, Conference Management Associate

This commitment to sit has changed my mornings, which usually begin with me hurtling out of bed and heading to my laptop. (As an internet writer, my work is flexible but constant; the topics never stop coming and the "office" is never truly closed.)

Now, I rise and brush my teeth, wash my face, get dressed in loose clothing and take 20 steps to my sitting area in my spare bedroom. The extended quiet that meditation has brought into my morning just seems like a much better fit than the immediate hurry-scurry; I'm finding I prefer to ease into the day this way.

Today, reflecting upon the experience afterwards, it brings to mind a lighthouse. Getting through the initial difficulties of letting go of thought, there come a time in my meditation when that internal "opening" of awareness occurs. Day 1 was like walls coming down, Day 2 was like greyness stretching.

Today it felt like I had ascended the long upward spiral of a lighthouse and come out at the top.

- Linda Lowen, Writer and Women's Issues Guide for About.com

For work purposes, I'm now one of those people walking around with an iPhone and a Blackberry, constantly checking, checking, checking emails and messages and updates that seem far too important to ignore, neglect or even postpone.

For the next few minutes, I left my phones unattended, watched my son being silly, and tried to simply breathe.

- Jacqueline Burt, writer, lucyismycopilot.squarespace.com

I decided not to kill the sound on my laptop before I started meditating during the workday, right before lunch. Much like how we exposed my daughter to as much sound as possible at all times when she was a baby so she'd drop like a hat in the middle of the mall, I want to be able to meditate pretty much anywhere. If it's going to be handy, it needs to be portable.

When I began sitting, I heard the chip of Tweetdeck. I felt annoyance rise, and sort of an insistence, too. In my line of work, paying attention to social media is required to do the job, so it's hard to find that balance between being engaged and being alone with yourself.

I allowed myself a thought: I'm going to sit here until Tweetdeck sounds like the birds outside.

I really wanted to be able to hear that chirp and not have some sort of physical stress reaction to it. I feel pulled in so many directions all the time -- it can be very overwhelming to me. I love what I do, but I think it's only human to long for some peace and quiet even when there isn't peace and quiet. Perhaps that's what my mind can give me -- peace and quiet in the middle of chaos.

- Rita Arens, BlogHer.com’s assignment and syndication editor

This morning I started out fidgety, distracted, and blah, thinking "I really don't have the energy nor the inclination for a great revelation". I noticed right away that two strong anchors kept getting my attention more easily than usual: my breath and sound. These particular anchors didn't care about my mood apparently, they were just there ready for work: a little girl spoke excitedly to someone out on the sidewalk, all kinds of birds chattering very exotically to each other, a "Whoohoo!" from a bicyclist whizzing down the hill (Geez, everyone out there is so joyful).

Returning to my breath and the sounds in the midst of many distracting thoughts, became rhythmic. Gentle but determined. Catch myself, note 'thinking' or 'not breathing', now watch the next breath. Over and over. When 20 minutes came to soon, I set it for 15 more. Me and my anchors were on a roll. I even concentrated and counted 11 breaths- except for a memory of an ex's 14 year old black Labrador on breath 4, and a big weird suspended hesitation thing between 7 and 8, I got there!

- Daphne Zuniga, Actress

I didn't feel like sitting today. I had eaten far too much chili, slept far too little last night, and really only wanted to play Agricola in my pajamas. As with most things that are good for me, actually starting is the most difficult part of meditating today. I had to heave a great sigh and willfully move my body each step into our spare bedroom that should be my office, if only I were working more. Once in there, I had to grit my teeth, tell my brain to calm down, and ease my body into a sitting posture.

It takes me longer to feel calm than the other two days I've tried meditation. My mind is particularly busy today, and I can't seem to just hear the sounds all around me. I get angry at the barking black dog. When I hear the washer filling, I get upset that I've done so much laundry. Where does it all come from? When I hear my son babbling, I get very tense and wonder why he's not asleep, hope the babbling won't escalate into tears, ask myself whether my husband knows he's "on call" while I'm meditating.

Suddenly, I am able to begin properly. I take a few deep breaths, I lower my shoulders, and then just concentrate on the breath. I give up on the other sorts of meditations suggested for week one because, today at least, they distract me. I begin to count my breaths in and out. I feel an odd weightless sensation, as if my head is sort of swelling larger and floating off of my neck. I have no idea whether this is to be expected or if I've just fallen asleep. But I like the sensation, which gets me thinking about how I'll try to describe it later, which gets me thinking about what I'm doing tomorrow. And back to the breath again.

Somehow, restarting again is much less difficult than walking up here to sit. I'm so glad I dragged myself into the room to breathe and start again.

- Katy Rank Lev, writer, katyranklev.com

It seems to me that meditation breaks the spell of modern life. After meditation, I think "my phone is beeping" and keep walking. Before mediation, I think "life will stop if I don't answer this phone." I stand on the street corner, often dumping all the contents of my hobo bag all over 7th Avenue. It's a dumb way to live but I literally can't stop myself. I answer the phone and it's Mr. Kim, my dry cleaner.

Meditation stops the addiction chicken that runs in circles in my head. Meditation has enabled me to think, "who cares" when my phone beeps on 7th Avenue. Meditation has helped me prioritize, discern, analyze. By allowing me to hear the quiet, meditation helps me understand the noise.

- Beth Wareham, Executive Director of Publicity for Workman Publishing

We go to sleep at night, believing that we have tomorrow. If today is a good day, we trust tomorrow will be one, too. That’s just how it is. We take life for granted - until something stops the steady flow of “good days.” Suddenly everything we knew to be true - everything we counted on - goes up for grabs.

It happened early this morning. Sadly, I learned that one of my sweetest students has about six months to live. At least that’s what the doctor’s say. This woman walks into the room and you’d best reach for your sunglasses because somebody just turned up the lights. Her voice has so much love in it – it wraps you in a cozy blanket. She lives life and you feel it. She is so ALIVE. How could she ever not be?

I am stunned and shaken. As much death as I have seen, my soul keeps hoping surely this one will steal away. I say the metta meditation for her. I cry. I hold her up to the light. I pray that she is able to prove the doctors wrong yet again. This mother, sister, friend - faithful one has fought hard for her life. She should live forever. She promises me she will.

Like I said, I never know what the day will bring. That’s why in the morning you will find me on my cushion. I want to be ready even if I don’t get to go.

- Elesa Commerce, Meditation Teacher working with cancer patients

It's still so dark but the light is blinking on the alarm, a silent warning that the dreaded bell is about to ring and crush my peaceful slumber. After I hit the snooze button, I love to listen to all of the morning breaths around me. There's the gentle rumble of my partner, the deep sigh of pup Bella as she repositions herself behind my knees and the distant whistle of her sister Lucy. It's all just a peaceful little orchestra warming up for the day.

Recently I was ridiculously impressed by a concept so simple I couldn't believe it left me with such a profound feeling; that the first thing we do when we are born is to inhale and the last thing we do when we die is to exhale. Recalling the final exhalation of a dying friend was a poignant reminder of how fundamental something we all take for granted really is.

So I roll carefully around Bella, lift myself out of bed and head to the cushion, grateful, grateful, grateful for my breath.

- Debra Brown, Police Officer

Sometimes when I meditate, I know I am on the right path when I reach what I sense as a warm darkness, a place where it is just me - mind, body and spirit. In that place there is a silence that feels true, and sometimes even a light, self-generated, its own fire. I am a visual person, so I think my mind gives me these images to process that safety and that calm.

Other times, I go into my breath and feel chaos, disarray, emotional depth which makes me fearful, like I am standing on the precipice of my darkest place.

The reports out of Egypt ride that line - on one side a people sitting, chanting, praying in their diverse belief systems, singing together, having found their essential selves again after a long absence; on the other side unimaginable darkness born of fear that turns people on themselves and each other, holding on to the familiar even though it is torturous.

I dedicate the past week's meditations to those who hold Tahrir Square, and in the most courageous way hold room for our dark humanity, our complex demands, our desire for liberation.

- Adrienne Maree Brown, National Co-Coordinator for the 2010 US Social Forum

Picturing All of You

People always used to tell me, in reference to the retreat center I co-founded, the Insight Meditation Society, that they drew inspiration and strength from the thought that people were practicing there. During a harried commute, or a challenging meeting at work, they’d say, they would imagine the meditation room and someone doing sitting or walking practice, with a clear intention toward cultivating awareness and goodheartedness and sense of purpose. This image would help restore that person’s own inspiration toward cultivating awareness and goodheartedness and sense of purpose.

Now I’m at the Insight Meditation Society, where we just began a lovingkindness retreat for about 90 people. I find I keep picturing all of you, being so committed to cultivating awareness and goodheartedness in your daily lives. You might not have the luxury of someone cooking for you, or a quiet serene environment. It takes that much more commitment to keep a meditation practice going, but honestly, I think that it also makes us that much stronger. I keep picturing you sitting as you’ve described in the various blogs and comments: with your cats and dogs curled close, or listening to the sound of tweets coming in, or in Rwanda, or by a manhole, and I feel very inspired.

- Sharon Salzberg

Read more at the 28-Day Meditation Challenge blog.



For the month of February we've invited a diverse group of people to participate in the meditation program that Sharon Salzberg lays out in her book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program

In the group participating, we have a firefighter, a comedian, an investment banker, a teacher, an activist, a human rights worker, and so many more all over North America. We have asked them to reflect on their experiences going. They are blogging about their experiences on Sharon's website: www.sharonsalzberg.com/realhappiness/blog. All are welcome to post comments.

We hope that the challenge fosters real dialogue about the potential of meditation to change one's life, and intrigues more people to find out what meditation is all about.

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SHARON SALZBERG has been a student of meditation since 1971, and leading meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. She teaches both intensive awareness practice (vipassana or insight meditation) and the profound cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion (the Brahma Viharas).

Sharon's latest book is Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, published by Workman Publishing. She is also the author of The Kindness Handbook and The Force of Kindness, both published by Sounds True; Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, published by Riverhead Books; Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as Wide as the World, both published by Shambhala Publications; and co-author with Joseph Goldstein of Insight Meditation, a Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate (audio), from Sounds True. She has edited Voices of Insight, an anthology of writings by vipassana teachers in the West, also published by Shambhala.

Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West. The ancient Buddhist practices of vipassana (mindfulness) and metta (lovingkindness) are the foundations of her work. "Each of us has a genuine capacity for love, forgiveness, wisdom and compassion. Meditation awakens these qualities so that we can discover for ourselves the unique happiness that is our birthright." For more information about Sharon, please visit: www.SharonSalzberg.com.

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