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Real Happiness and Meditation

The 28-Day Meditation Challenge: Week 3

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Welcome to week 3 of the 28-Day challenge, where we particularly pay attention to emotional states. Right now I’m in Boulder, Colorado on my book tour. I actually began teaching meditation in Boulder in 1974, during the first summer Naropa Institute opened. It’s Valentine’s Day right now, the anniversary of the Insight Meditation Society – we moved in Valentine’s Day 1976. The passage of time brings up so many emotions – gratitude, awe, disbelief (where has the time gone!!), poignancy (I’m somehow not 23 anymore), uneasiness (looking back at a 35 year span necessarily brings up the sense of one’s mortality.) – so very many feelings. Anniversaries and returns are good for that! Even Valentine’s Day alone might be good for that!

I know it’s challenging but very liberating to develop a different relationship to our emotions. So often we dislike what has come up, struggling against the emotion, feeling ashamed, frightened, angry about what we are feeling. Or we get submerged in the emotion, being overwhelmed by it, defined by it. And then defined by the next emotion. In cultivating mindfulness we are developing a new relationship to our emotions, finding the place in the middle between those 2 tendencies. With that new relationship we experience some space, some room to breathe, and we also experience understanding and compassion.

So may this next phase in our adventure together be interesting, empowering, and opening.

- Sharon Salzberg

I am on the train from Madrid to Bilboa. Seat 8a by a window which holds in it a rainbow for an instant, a late lasting oyster pearl sunset then darkness and I close my eyes to meditate. Sharon encourages this week noticing the thread in my mind, the add ons, the habitual thoughts that come in. Name them but also try and separate the threads. No wonder I am a runner. I want to get away from how I talk to myself. It's down right nasty and mean. I feel myself pushing against myself. I have been traveling alone this week in Madrid where I have never been. Sometimes I am thrilled to wander the streets and put my toe into the raging rivers of art but too often I feel the foreigner- inept and outside. I have felt this as long as I can remember. I don't hold myself when I am unsure. I kick. I collapse I can feel a molecular gripping. I return my awareness to the breath where it flutters for a moment. What about the kindness of letting go. Right there next to the thought of kindness is the muscular holding. Right there is the habitual thinking that I must push myself to accomplish to deserve to be alive. I know right there is the opportunity to be really different. I try on the idea that these thoughts are coming out of the elderly spanish gentlemen who sits a seat ahead of me with a cane and a confusion. I feel compassion for him, for everyone in the train car who must wage wars of their own against themselves and others. So many unecessary wars. Poor humanity. Poor red winged black bird. For an instant I cup myself in a warm pool of light.

- Lucinda Ziesing, Writer, Actress, Producer, and Teacher

I COME BACK TO MY BREATH....I am aware that I am breathing in....I feel the sofa beneath me. I appreciate my mindfulness here (huge understatement). I remind myself I am choosing to sit and experience Worry. I notice I STOP myself from shooting back with zingers of founded positivity to disprove Worry's scenario (and Inner Critic's tourette-like add ons). I know that the point is to see it, investigate it, Worry wants to be heard, I can listen. Some of the words create dread, I have memories of my elementary school yard... I notice my breath, I listen to the cars out my window. My skull is tight, the tension is familiar, from eons ago-the days of school yards and an empty house, and then a thought, "I'm not enough." I am breathing, it's okay...

And my eyes are moist in remembering me as a little girl. That's when she first clenched her stomach.

- Dahne Zuniga, Actress

I chose to venture into the past with the session. Over 3 years ago I was in an 8 year relationship that was abusive. I was always put down and treated with no respect, not trusted and the love given was conditional. I was depressed because I allowed my girlfriend to take over my mind and I allowed her to make me second guess my true nature. It was hard trying to be my normal loving self in this relationship because everything that I did was WRONG. Then I started to think sadness, sadness, sadness, hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.. Not for me but for her. I know life will always be hell for her. Her mind isn't well. I started to notice that my jaw was tight and my tongue was pressing against my upper pallet. The last time I was with her was at a counseling session. At that time in private I was told that she has "Borderline personality disorder". Being with a person like this takes a huge toll on your mind and heart. They love you then they hate you. I was verbally abused for a long time, but I allowed it. The only person that you can control is yourself. The only person that can truly love you is you.

As I started to think about this I put out loving vibes and positive energy out towards her. Then I started to think to myself, it's not my fault and never was. You did more than your share in trying to help the situation. Then the words came to my head. Breathe-in love, exhale pain. In-hale love , exhale pain... I came back to my breath.

- Keith Villanueva, Firefighter FDNY

I grew up in a home with a mother with borderline personality disorder. Suffered a lot of abuse....well into being an adult....until I finally shut down. Unwilling to feel anything....just wanting the pain to stop. Wishing I were dead....that then it would be over. Abuse continuing as an adult.....a domestically violent relationship....and so on. I never thought I could be with the pain....the hurt. Right at this moment....I can feel it.....the sadness....the grief...in my chest. But it is different. It is just sadness......sit with it.....hold it with an open heart...and let it go. I started to see a therapist.....who I will carry with me in my heart always. She also introduced me to meditation. I am grateful for her help with my journey. Through meditation I have been able to sit with the pain. I have sat and let out the tears....been able to sit with the grief. When it became too much....I could let my attention be elsewhere. Meditation has enabled me to see the story.....brought me more into the present....right here....right now....not living...dwelling in the past. That was a huge thing for me. I have been able to hold my own self in lovingkindess...although that is a work in progress! The most wonderful thing for me.....is that.....through meditation...opening my own heart...to me.....I have been able to open my heart to my mother.....let go of the anger....see her suffering....and hold her in my heart with compassion. It is not perfect...and is not always easy.....but I can do it. And I am grateful. I never thought I could hold her without anger. And I am grateful.

- Tracy Strauss, Administration Manager for a local courier

Wouldn't it be wonderful to RAIN my way through difficult encounters?

I'm having just the sort of day today that would generally send me into a spiral of dwelling, doubtfulness, and anxiety. It was with great pleasure that I thumbed through the "Meditation on Positive Emotions." I am so looking forward to sitting with this meditation later. I'm trying to do mini-meditations throughout the day to make my heartbeat slow or just so that I don't blurt out potentially-damaging statements.

In preparation for my meditation on positive emotions, I've been reminding myself of a few good things that happened today each time I feel my thoughts getting away from me. A preview: the sun is shining in Pittsburgh! I got a new issue of my favorite magazine in the mail! My socks are really comfortable today and make my feet feel really, really nice!

- Katy Rank Lev, Writer Katyranklev.com

There are times when I am heading towards depression that I look around at people rushing by me and my thoughts become very judgmental. “Where are all these people going? It is all so pointless to just run to a job. What are we all doing!” This mindset usually rears its ugly head on my own commute to work. The underlying judgment is about myself of course, when it is harder to see the meaning in what I will be attending to over the day (i.e. my job!).

Yesterday was such a morning. My job actually is very meaningful. I get to connect with Jewish communities worldwide and contribute to their vibrancy. But alas, I really felt like not going, and somewhere, deep within, I was questioning just about everything. That is my signal of impending depression. Caution! Well, as I ascended the escalator, I took note of all the people dressed in their business casual best spilling out of the train station. And the thoughts began, “G-d, where are these people all going? Do they even realize that they are alive!” I witnessed these thoughts and instead of going down the mind-depression route, I answered my own question.

“YES! They do realize that they are alive. These are hundreds of unique people off to contribute to the world in hundreds of unique ways, ways in which only they can. And I too am going to contribute in my own special way to the betterment of the world today. In a way that only I can.” I wanted to grab people by the face and stare into their eyes and shout, “We are wonderful!” I settled for a good inner giggle and an extra hop through the office building’s door. I had disarmed a recurring foe of self-doubt.

- Zvi Bellin, Ph.D., Jewish Educator and Contemplative Teacher in the Bay Area, meaningthroughbeing.com

It has been much harder to blog from El Salvador than I thought. Bear with me, I am still committed, but finding the quiet spaces to blog my reflections has been a challenge. This is my home, a place that I love, and a place I ache for constantly. The country is still recovering from a brutal civil war and gang violence is rampant.

One of the challenges for me as an immigrant in the US has always been having people I love so much in different corners of the globe not able to meet. My work with you and post-conflict societies has taken me to every continent. In each place I have developed attachments to people I do not often see. A goal of mine this year has been to find ways to have my worlds merge, particularly my Salvadoran and US worlds. Well, this week, it has been happening as some of my dearest friends from the US have come down to help me with the youth camp.

I must say that meditation has helped me feel less separate from all relational aspects of my life. Rather than feel my Salvadoran life as one compartment and my US life as another one, today while walking on a gorgeous, pristine beach, it all felt like part of the same breath.

More yet to come. I am getting there, one breath at a time,...Life does not feel so fragmented, at least not tonight. Thank you Breath!

- Selena Sermeno, Clinical Psychologist, Native of El Salvador

It started with yoga being my reward for meditation but now it seems that meditation is my reward for yoga. Maybe it’s not even that so much has physically changed within me but it’s my mindset - It’s my belief in the power of meditation that has begun to calm me. I felt relaxed during the studying for my test, and then relaxed during my test, and then blissful after my test. I feel relaxed for a very strenuous interview I was accepted for and even more so excited and anticipating a public speaking portion that normally I would be dreading with all my heart and anxiety.

It’s something about being brought back to the moment. During my practice, whether walking or sitting, I see my thoughts readily drifting to these anxieties that take over my whole body – mentally and physically, but it’s the fact that I can bring my attention back to my breath, back to my step, back to my state of calm and here and now and who I am and have become that make me so calm and strangely, bring a smile to my face as I meditate.

I see things differently and I am brought back to the moment, to me.

- Mimi Maritz, Senior at Boston University Studying Psychology and Economics

I am feeling more mindful and aware of the busyness of my mind especially when not meditating. I notice waves of anger. And the complex of emotions below the surface.
I have moments of clarity. And total confusion.
It sometimes feels like I am in a rubber room. By rubber room, I mean my mind like a rubber ball bouncing off the walls. And I mean, me, my mind and I, in an imaginary padded room in a psych ward. It's a wonky kind of detachment.

Times like these I wish I wish I were more of a painter, so I could paint this red rubber room. But since I tend to work more with objects,maybe I'll make an assemblage series:
1. A red rubber ball in a small red box. (anger)
2. A white rubber ball in a small white box. (clarity)
3. A black rubber ball in a small black box. (confusion) 4. A gold rubber ball in a small gold box. (illumination)
Looks like I've got a new project!

- Riva Weinstein, Artist, Writer and Creativity Coach, modernsacred.com

Since I've been working on recognizing the primal emotion I'm actually feeling (before the part of my brain that's afraid I will brain the nearest mammal tries to paralyze me with anxiety and pity sure to leave me safely immobile on the couch in tears), I get that I'm mad, and I'm also wishing to dominate the world around me. What I'm actually feeling? Why can't they see how great this novel is? I've worked so hard! I'm ready for my reward now. Like a four-year-old, I'm ready to be done and get my candy.

Knowing I'm mad, I can choose to act on it -- break a chair, punch a pillow, yell at my husband -- or I can choose not to. One of the things my psychologist told me -- which was a shocker to me -- is that emotions aren't moral. Anger isn't "good" or "bad," it's like dirt. It can be helpful at times, hurtful other times. The anger isn't Rita. Rita can choose what to do with the anger. It just washes over me sometimes like wind.

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

So, I sat and tears ran down my face. Old old sadness. Grief. Let it come. Let it be. Be still, for I am enough. I guess this is the point of meditation--that the stillness allows these fled feelings to stop burrowing deeper. Okay. I can do this. Thank you. Thank the one who made the stream and the bees buzzing around my scented hair while I sat next to the stream. Thank god I am here. I am going to practice experiencing what is in front of me. I am going to keep trying to be present.

- Pamela Tanner Boll, Artist, Writer, Filmmaker, and Activist.

Once I get to the breath, it occurs to me that letting go completely to only thinking about that introduces me to a last barrier of fear. I meet control in its rawest form and see that it is standing there in front of me, clutching my mind, my mind embracing it back--and it is then that I tell both of them, 'you know, I know it seems like your relationship is everything but really it is stunting your growth to cling like that, why not take a time out?"

And I let go to the breath and in those moments the breath is the strongest most brilliant most humbling thing--constant, willful, tender, nuanced and at once definite.

- Emily Alp, Writer and Editor based in Doha, Qatar

As I meditated this week, I focused not only on my emotions, but also on my past emotional distance. I realized that the way I experienced my emotions was a reflection of how I was raised--to be a strong Black woman in need of no one. From my mother, I learned that signs of weakness and vulnerability were secrets with which we should never burden anyone else, and so I emulated her, hiding my pain from loved ones--always trying to be strong to keep my family standing.

However, after my heartbreak, I realized that it also takes strength to admit our weaknesses and to ask for help, but I am still learning to do this. I am still working on being more open and honest with myself. My meditations this week made me feel empowered, however, as I reflected on my past pain. I reflected on the words of my ex, who despite breaking my heart ruthlessly, taught me how to feel fully. I reflected on the realm of emotions and realized that each emotion teaches us something about our lived experience.

- Dena Simmons, Doctoral Student in the Health Education Program at Columbia University, Teachers College

A few years ago during a very anxious period in my life, I suddenly became afflicted with a fear of flying. This was a secret affliction. No one would even believe (not even my husband) that I, me the globe trotter, could be afraid of flying. No it wasn't the sudden arrival of my kids. They had been around..in fact we have passed on our travel bug to them! It was a rough patch for me..yes I medicated to fly...its no big deal to most people but to me it just wasn't the answer. yesterday i was feeling particularly mellow. my husband and i were going away on a rare alone trip. i boarded the plane and took my window seat next to my husband. Then the woman behind us started talking to her new found best friend about how afraid she is of take off and landing. Her new best friend said he wasn't afraid of that but mid air turbulence really bothered him. I started to think to myself, why did Brian and i travel on the same plane--i didn't start to panic like i might have a year or so ago but definitely began to feel uncomfortable... and then i took 3 deep breaths and started meditating. just naturally no panic, no pillow adjustment, nothing just three deep breaths and there I went. hearing the hum of the plane but not much else. i scanned my body for what must have been 10-15 minutes. when uncomfortable thoughts would come to me, i would acknowledge then let them pass-puff , gone...when i finished i felt like i had just woken up, refreshed and calm.

- Jackie MacLeod, thewelldaily.com

I found the meditation this week, particularly when employing the RAIN (recognition, acceptance, investigation, and non-identification) technique with my emotions, really enlightening. One evening, particularly stressed, I sat down on my bed and listened to Sharon's reassuring voice. I tried to quiet down and identify what my feelings were and where, in my body, I was feeling them.

I realized that I was feeling determined and stealth right in my belly. And then I realized something else: this is exactly the feeling that I had as a teenager right before I would take the basketball court of the lacrosse field. It turns out that when I'm really facing an overwhelming challenge, I go into this athletic mode in my body where I sort of turn down the volume on life, get really focused inward, put my head down, and determine to "win the game."

- Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and speaker, author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists”

And so it was to the moon that I woke up this morning. And I felt alert and I felt happy. And I started thinking about anger, and more precisely, the lack of it -- it was a really beautiful sensation, like finally finally getting a knot out of something. And I started remembering one of the many coffee breaks I take with my two co-workers on any given day. As I've mentioned, work is chaotic, and our boss is in a state of deterioration, which puts everything into siege mode. I had once said that dealing with him was probably like being kidnapped: boring except for the terror.

On this particular coffee break, my co-workers were both angry. I usually join them -- in fact, I'm often probably a leading indicator, but yesterday, I just couldn't access it. I tried. I tried a number of times. They tried to help: "Remember, Elizabeth, when he did that..." Or this. Or any number of things. They finally gave up. "Well," said one of them, "if you're not there, you're not there, more power to you..."

- Elizabeth Grove, Conference Management Associate

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience these days, in the quiet and the speeed. I’m in a culture where incredible and horrifying history permeates each day and yet everyone goes on – and how could they not? – roads are built and paved, repaved and painted, students strive for more, markets are bustling. And yet sometimes the strife comes up, in the most unexpected of ways: a driver confesses that he is the eldest of his family but he wasn’t always, as he refers to “’94,” when he lost his three younger siblings and his parents; I stop to photograph a church and realize it’s the site where 10,000 people were massacred, the stained clothes lying still behind on pews; I realize that I stop short each time I meet a new person, hesitating before I ask the standard “Where are you from? Where did you grow up? How many people are in your family?” get-to-know-you questions.

And yet there is connection still – there is watching as ten strangers crowd around to help jack up a streetside flat tire, there are the women walking the hills of Rwanda with babies on their back and packages balanced on their heads, gleeful in the company of each other; there is the omnipresent understanding that were a burglary to take place, members of the community would come together to find the culprit.

Before I came here, I was living in a fast-paced place of high power and careerism. I dreamed of posting the word “Surrender” on my doorframe as a reminder each day that there is no need to run for everything or to control. That was my practice – based very much on my context, my influences. And while surrender continues to be a theme as I try to stop myself from planning for nearly every iteration of what could be, this idea surrender is also joined by this sense of resilience around me – an awareness of how quickly things can change. It’s easy to have loss overcome, to have the paralysis of strife overcome….and yet in the moments of movement and of (rare!) silence in Rwanda, I can feel the importance of all of these levels of interaction, or interpretation, of recovery.

- Grace Lesser, Manager of Operations for Rwanda Works, Rwanda

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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