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Real Happiness and Meditation

The 28-Day Meditation Challenge: Week 2: Mindfulness and the Body

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Right now I’m in Barre, teaching at the center I co-founded, the Insight Meditation Society. We just had our third storm in a week – first snow, then ice, then snow. It’s visually very beautiful – large icicles (don’t walk under them though – they are falling), mounds of pristine white snow everywhere. But there is the little matter of travel, come Saturday early morning, when I leave Barre for my ‘official” book tour. What to pack, given that Denver is having blizzards and San Francisco a heat wave? And what if it snows in Denver, Boulder, Santa Fe and Albuquerque? Yikes! If I find my attention starting to spin out, imagining iced over airplanes and looong hotels stays as events get canceled due to as yet unreported awful weather, I come back to awareness of my body -- even as basic a thing as my hands touching, or my feet against the ground. This anchors my awareness into where I actually am, and I relax.

The breath and the body are often spoken about as being our refuge because we can use the immediate, direct sensations of the breath and body to reconnect to the moment right now. So much of our time is spent in conceptualizing, projecting into the future, lost in anxiety, lost to ourselves. We need a way to cut through back to where we are.

It’s not that conceptualizing is bad, but it can be so predominant that we lose a sense of intimacy with our own experience. When we practice mindfulness of simple things like walking or moving, drinking a cup of tea, the sensations coursing through our body even at rest, this very moment comes alive, and so do we.

- Sharon Salzberg

As an antsy meditator thus far, I was so excited that I was “allowed” to try a more active approach to meditation this week. On Sunday night I gave it a whirl. It was late at night and cold out, so I chose the second floor of my house as my “path”. With the help of Sharon’s guided meditation, I spent 20 minutes focusing on the lifting, moving forward, and putting down of my feet. I added the mantra “lift, move, place” to every movement and…drum roll please…meditation success! Of course my brain wandered a bit because I was so excited to blog about the experience, but I was definitely able to focus for longer periods of time than my typical sitting and breathing meditation. Wooohoooo!

I gave it a second go around tonight on my walk home from work. I was a bit nervous that sounds of the city would be a major distraction, and that the second time around things would be more familiar and therefore easier to stray from, but again…success! So what if I had to look down at my feet the entire 13 blocks to stay focused? The important part is that I was focused.

The only thing that is getting my over-achieving, perfectionist panties in a bunch is the fact that I feel like I’m cheating. I keep thinking that because this doesn’t feel like real meditating, it doesn’t actually count. Leave it to my ego to get involved.

Tonight I came across the last sentence on page 101: “We can practice meditation in four different postures: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down, and each one is equally “real”, a complete practice in itself”. I don’t have a tattoo, because I never thought there was anything important enough to tarnish this beautiful bod…until tonight…

- Kira Licata, Account Executive at 160over90 in Philadelphia

I just tried the Body Scan Meditation for the first time. That was relaxing. I thought I was really in the zone until my legs jerked and I realized I was in the middle of a dream where I was changing the light bulb in the bathroom and fell off the ladder.

In the moments between dozing, I really liked thinking about the way my body felt without assigning value to it. An itch on my head, my hands going cold as they fell asleep at my sides. I tried to think of these not as sensations to do anything about, just to pay attention to. As I reflect now, it makes me feel sad for all those little physical feelings we rush to alleviate without examining first. Like we’re the parent, and the sensation is the child we’re shoveling food into or shuttling to piano lessons without pausing to ask, who are you? What are you all about? A disclaimer: I watched three episodes of In Treatment before meditating. One of Gabriel Byrne’s patients is going through a divorce and the whole struggle is really starting to permeate my analogies.

- Hallie Haglund, Writer for The Daily Show

I've been meaning to do Sharon's walking meditations all week. Last night, snow fell. And this morning, I shoveled. I was really scared to shovel because that's how I hurt my back a few weeks ago. As a result, every few steps, I stopped and checked in with my body. Was anything twitching? Pulling?

As I shoveled, I practiced my breath. Breathe in, snow out, breathe in, snow out.

How's the back? It's okay. How are the legs? They are okay. It's going to be okay. It's supposed to be warm this weekend.

Winter will not last forever.

This was important, because I was afraid to shovel. And now I'm not.

Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

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

While I didn’t do meditation sessions, per se, this week, I still have been bringing the lessons from the challenge into my real life. Every day, I find myself a little better at letting life’s little annoyances go. When I find myself getting antsy waiting for a train, or when the woman at Subway takes forever to make my sandwich, or when writing just isn’t coming easily for the day, I breathe in and out and just release the frustration.

Similarly, I am being more mindful of my body. Whenever I have the thought, “My back hurts,” I try to break that down and focus on, “What am I actually feeling?” I noticed that the pain isn’t a steady thing—it comes in and out. By focusing on the tightness, I can make it dissolve. Similarly, I’m trying to check in more with my body when it feels great. Last night, while out on a date with a very cute guy, I felt giddy. And as we talked, I took a minute to note what my body was feeling—the feeling on my smile, the sensation in my stomach as I laughed.

I even used Sharon’s principles when I had to go to the dentist last week—something I fear. As I sat in the chair, mouth open and shiny metal tools picking at my teeth and making all sorts of horrible noises, I decided to shift my focus and check in with my body. I noticed that my back felt very relaxed, and that the leather of the chair felt very cool against it. I felt the subtle breeze through an open window. I felt the subtle tingling of my legs being straight out in the chair. By focusing on that, rather the unpleasantness, before I knew it, the appointment was over.

- Kate Torgovnick, writer and editor at TheFrisky.com

I was really tired and I was laying in bed under the duvet with my head on the pillow....took a deep breath and just relaxed my body. I had been in multi-tasking mode all day to this point - going hard to get it all done. I just followed my breath...breathing deeply....and did a body scan. Where I felt tension (which was pretty much everywhere), I relaxed my body....my awareness was with how it felt to let go of the day. I had not given my body a second thought all day...and truly....it held up to the challenge I gave it....all day long. Something to think about.

This challenge has been good for me. Awareness.....being present......the breath always there to go back to. And the add-ons...oh hello....the add-ons. I was on my way to a philosophy lecture two nights ago...and it came to me. My story...the story I do.....a lot. I am not good enough. My blog is not going to be good enough. Who would read anything I have to say. I am not smart enough. What can I possibly offer? The story.....and off I go. That's my deal....and it is a recurring story.

I will keep meditating....in this community....and with my sangha....and when I can and when I am aware....hold my story with an open heart....in lovingkindness to myself. Love myself.....I am good enough...and I am here. Meditation brings me here....right now......the present moment. Breathe.

- Tracy Strauss, Administration Manager

Today seemed to come and be ending before I knew it. I was lying down next to my five-year old a little while ago thinking, does it count as meditation if you have a child in your arms. He was very, very asleep by then. I pulled myself up and came downstairs. Found myself sitting down at the computer for no real reason. I went to the kitchen, found my timer and sat. Ah beautiful breath, it felt like I'd been ignoring an intense thirst all day. The sounds of the house distracted me. I could hear my older son coughing, the furnace kicking on in the basement, and the gentle quiet chugging of the dishwasher. I went back to the breath, but then I was thinking about my writing class. I was thinking about the book I am reading. I decided to try counting. I made it to four, started over, made it five, started over, made it to sixteen. Wow! I was thinking, I made it to sixteen! But I forgot where I was. I went back to one. Wondered if I pushed the start button on the timer. I will not look, I said to myself. But I did, I had a minute left. I took a few more breaths, then turned the timer off. I sat a few minutes, sending gratitude to my teachers. Practice.

- Christine Califra-Schiff, Writer

Today I decided to do a walking meditation. I was so inspired until I walked outside and realized how cold it was. I had to have chosen the coldest day to walk around the block for twenty minutes. I even forgot my gloves! I set my iPhone timer, put my hands and my phone in my pocket and braced the winds of N Moore Street. Walking meditation is a fairly new concept for me. I have done it a few times on retreat but it isn't anything I have ever practiced at home. I am a cushion girl. I love my cushion. But I realized that as soon as I started to walk that running to my cushion every morning as I do may just be a very safe way to practice. Walking. Step. Lift. Feel the base of my feet. The actual "living meditation" is the real challenge, right? Everything can be beautiful from the cushion. It's the messy, unexpected coincidences of everyday living that can be so frustrating. Accepting whatever is is far more accessible when I have a scented candle burning in front of me sitting in front of my altar with all the things I love surrounding me. Outside is cold, the scent is closer to sewage and I take my steps carefully walking around smeared dog poop and puddles of pee. I am walking during early morning dog rush. I am easily distracted so I go back to feeling the sensation of my foot in my cozy Ugg boot. I feel the weight of my body. My sister-in-law is learning how to walk again after a recent surgery left one side of her body very weak. She has to focus on her numb foot to try to bring sensations back. Here I am reminding myself to notice sensations I take for granted on a regular basis. Focus. Step. Lift. Touch. So many steps to walking. I am swept away with the mechanics that I suddenly lose my balance and fall to my knees like I have forgotten how to walk. I feel like I am back in church except I'm not kneeling in the gothic chapel of my childhood but underneath the open skies of TriBeCa. I decide that since I am already on my knees I would send out a prayer to whoever might be listening: may every step I take be an energetic message to Amy's happy feet. I get up. People are starting to look at me. "Need help?" "No," I said. I turn around and work my way back.

- Sukey Novogratz, TheWellDaily.com

I fell on the ice last weekend and sustained a bad shoulder injury – very painful, until yesterday when I got a cortisone shot which helped alot. It’s still in a sling, and I have pain if I move it, but it’s alot better.

It’s been interesting to sit each morning with the different levels of pain. The meditation helped me detach from it a bit – and somewhere in the midst of it, I had brief moments of realization that I was still the same person as I was before the injury. That might sound odd – one might think, “of course she’s the same person” – but actually, the sudden onslaught of serious physical pain and disability, and the attendant fear, has a way of making us feel diminished. I found that the meditation provided some fortification against that feeling, for which I am grateful.

- Merry L. Nasser, Divorce Lawyer in MA

On Thursday I did a bit of tea meditation, and was surprised at how little scent the cardamom tea had, until it had sat almost the entire meal, and the last few sips were truly flavorful and sensually infused.

Today, I did a driving meditation, on my way back from a quick trip to the store. I love this time of year for its incredibly stark beauty. Being in a mindful way only intensified my awe at the beauty of the natural world: shadows on snow, soft hues of grey brown bark, muted light and sky.

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

I am in Israel at the moment at my parents home, the apartment I grew up in. I sat in my old bedroom and meditated setting my attention on hearing. The apartment is in a quite street, in the middle of a busy neighborhood. It was about 6 am and the city just started to wake up. Coming from my current home in a Seattle suburb I got used to a very quite surrounding, so usually the hustled noise of this early morning hour bothers me, but I decided to give it a try and meditate on it with out judgment. Not an easy task to begin with:) so, I breathed through the noise of the garbage truck loading and unloading, the beeping of cars in a hurry, the wild siren of the police or an ambulance passing by, the buses as they stop and go. I felt myself both resisting, being annoyed by this noise, craving calm, as well as feeling the comfort of being back in an old familiar space. As I continued (trying) to let go of expectations, I was surprised to hear the unexpected, first, birds happy singing (it is spring time in Israel, but where did these birds come from?), then the crickets chirping, a dog barking in the distance and a little baby faint calling.

Never before did I notice all that rainbow of sounds in my childhood home, as I let go of my resentment of all that city noise, the field of hearing just opened up wide..

- Yaffa Maritz, Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Co-Founder of Listening Mothers.

I remember being on retreat with Sharon at IMS years ago, shortly after one of several breast cancer related surgeries. I came to rest – or so I thought. Getting re-adjusted to a post surgical body turned out to be a trip; it was almost impossible for me to find a comfortable lying down position. There was no rest for the weary. Our daily practice consisted of 45-minute rounds of alternating sitting and walking meditation. There were about 90 of us on retreat – too many to walk any old which way. So, we were told to walk lines.

I got intrigued when someone said there was a defunct old bowling alley in the basement and that when H.H. the Dalai Lama visited IMS he covered that ground. Off I went in search of his vibration. Even though it was dark there, I found my wooden floor board and faithfully walked it – end to end – over and over again, for 8 days. I saw the Dalai Lama in my mind’s eye – smiling while walking this same floor board.

To say it’s cold in Chicago is like saying birds fly. No kidding. The weather here invokes a definite bias to stay inside. So I walk lines within my house. I look down at my feet and thank them for being such cute and reliable chauffeurs. I go to my floor board and walk it end to end. Over and over again. I feel my bare feet caress the wood beneath. The wood contains earth elements. I send love to the remains of all the sentient life buried down under. I press my intention to be peace humbly and deeply into the earth. I walk the line.

- Elesa Commerse, Meditation Teacher working with cancer patients

After my sitting this morning, I thought I'd explore Sharon's Everyday Activity Meditations and make my breakfast a mindful experience since I'd fallen behind on Week 2 activities.

On my breakfast menu -- a cup of hazelnut coffee with soymilk, and two pieces of three-seed whole wheat toast.

I ate slowly with my eyes closed so I could isolate and experience the sensations. Usually I rush through breakfast while reading the morning paper so I can get to my computer and start the day's work. Today each bite was slow and small, and I chewed between 35 and 50 times. At first it was hard not to swallow involuntarily; my body seemed preprogrammed to inhale my meal at top speed. But as I lingered over the taste of the grains, the soft crunch of the sunflower seeds, and the contrast between the hard crust and the soft inner texture, it was incredibly pleasurable.

With my eyes still closed, I picked up the warm mug and cradled it in my hands, smelling the aroma. The warm coffee tasted smooth and rich and the soymilk much sweeter than it usually does. A meal that's usually not a big focus of my life suddenly felt like the finest moment of the day.

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

I love these feet!! I did a walking meditation today, back and forth 10 paces in bare feet. I went super slowly at firrrrrst....so I had time to say "lifting... moving...placing...". Here is what I discovered: my feet work so beautifully together! They are like a brilliant machine, a beautiful partnership, an old married couple that finish each other’s sentences and do a beautiful ballroom dance effortlessly.

One thing I love about meditation is how the tiniest simplest things can blow your mind; what appears so tiny it barely registers, becomes HUGELY amazing and fascinating. Take the cooperation between my left foot and right. While one lifts and moves slowly though the air, the other is sturdily planted on the ground to keep its partner up. When one almost touches the floor, the other is on its ball, ready for action. How supportive! While my head is tugging me about with the endless stream of thoughts, and various points of attention, the feet are getting their stuff done, simply.

- Daphne Zuniga, Actress

Tonight, the weather cooperated and I finally attempted a walking meditation. It felt so strange, to stand outside where all the neighbors could see and just feel my feet on the earth. As I shifted my weight, my thoughts drifted to happiness that I had my headphones and Sharon's voice as a sort of buffer--perhaps people thought I was listening to a really interesting song before I took off for my "real" walk?

But then, I brought my attention back to my feet and set off toward the stop sign. I think I prefer walking meditation to sitting, though I find it more difficult. There is so much to distract me outside, what with the playing children and the sirens and the neighbors chattering in Italian. I certainly didn't get the swelling fullness I've started to experience when I sit in the silence of our upstairs guest room.

Somehow, though, just moving my body and paying attention to each aspect of a step, each "touch," felt wonderful. Moving with deliberation and purpose, even if it was slow going, was fresh and interesting. By the end of the meditation track on the cd, I'd only gotten about as far as the stop sign.

I turned around and walked back toward home, slowly and with my hands clasped behind my back. And it was nice, this short journey on flat sidewalk, a path I knew and didn't necessarily need to look at to steady my steps. With my gaze soft and the ground familiar, I could focus entirely on the bones of my feet and the feeling of my hips as I moved.

- Katy Rank Lev, writer, katyranklev.com

So far, I missed two days, which made me feel slightly like a failure, but then I rejoiced in the fact that I have already meditated more this month then I have all my life. I am getting better; I am trying to make it work, trying to build time into my schedule for it, and trying to move on more mindful and calm--no excuses!

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

Knowing that I rarely attempt evening meditation and fall unconscious when I do, I took a few minutes in my car in the parking lot to, at least, breathe consciously for a few minutes. I've done this pretty frequently since I started my job almost three years ago -- is there anything that cries out for breath more than a suburban parking lot in an office complex in northern New Jersey?

My spiritual teacher's husband, a professor of comparative religion told me once that he had gotten a research grant to study ghosts. Not, "Ooohhh ghosts," he clarified. "Real ghosts." He had always seemed, in addition to spiritual, kind of scientific. "You believe in ghosts?" I asked him. "Oh, yeah," he said. "It gets tricky because, of course, you are completely responsible for your own state of being, but sometimes, when a mood, a depression, a meanness, seems to take you over from nowhere, I think it can be a ghost. There are just some unhappy entities around, and they like to attach." "So what do you do?" I asked, meaning the general you. "Well, what I do," he said, "Is I say, very firmly, 'Get off of me. You cannot come with me.'"

I've spent a fair amount of time in the last three years walking through the parking lot and saying, "Get off of me. You cannot come with me." And you know, the days I do, those are usually the better days.

But in the absence of an exorcist, the breath is good too. And maybe there's not much difference between banishing unhappy entities and meditation in that both call you back to yourself and, I don't know, clear out the encumberances. I've been wondering about meditation, about the notion of Real Happiness, about suffering, and how it all fits together without meditation being some kind of reductive antidote, or Real Happiness as a reward doled out by something greater than me in exchange for dutifully breathing. So I'm kind of hanging out, as the difference between how I feel during meditation or how I feel having meditated and what I experience in daily working life becomes more sharply opposed. I know there's no magic solution, just breath.

- Elizabeth Grove, Conference Management Associate

The other day, I was looking at all the crap I had stored in my desk locker in order for me to go for a ‘run’ with a couple of guys from work. Notice the qualifiers around the word ‘run.’ ‘Nuff said. And I’m not saying that exercise doesn’t ultimately make me feel good – that alleged endorphin rush and all – but it’s not always convenient. That’s the beauty about meditation – there’s no extra equipment necessary. At least I haven’t seen a zabuton with a Nike swoosh yet. That’s not to say that someone hasn’t thought about it but I just don’t see a lot of coin in trying to sell meditation as a competitive sport. You don’t need special shoes or clothes or implements to drive you along in your sweaty endeavor. You just need to set aside some time (and I don’t care who you are everyone has fifteen or twenty minutes to spare) and put on the brakes, settle into your breath and give yourself the gift that keeps on giving. Yes, yes – it’s not always comfortable setting up shop inside your head. There will be moments, some of them really, really long moments when you will question your decision to sit with silence. But there is nothing in this life that feels as good as even that nanosecond of peace, that sensation of weightlessness that comes with sticking with it. Just do it.

- Debra Brown, Police Officer

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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