What’s Your Relationship to Happiness?
After suffering through a childhood filled with loss and turmoil, Sharon Salzberg discovered meditation in the early 1970s. She went on to write several books to share what she had learned. And she helped create the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, one of the best known meditation centers in the United States.
As her practice deepened, she wondered what her brain looked like while meditating. She got the chance to find out when visiting Yale and meeting with Judson Brewer, the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School, who also taught at Yale.
“We had been talking about equanimity, a balance of the mind. And I asked, ‘Can you reveal it in a test?’” she says. “And he offered to plug me into this cap he was testing.”
During the test, he had her meditate and describe the experience at the same time. She remembers having a flurry of thoughts at one point, but she was able to remain peaceful and continue her meditation, thanks to her years of practice. When he showed her what he captured, he described activity in one part of the brain, her flurry of thoughts, but not in the part of the brain that would have recorded agitation.
“He turned the computer around and he said, ‘Remember asking about equanimity?’” And he pointed to the screen. “‘That’s what it looks like. Agitated thinking but not getting agitated from it.’ My brainwaves mirrored that.”
She says one of the biggest misconceptions about meditation is the story that it must always be a peaceful and restorative practice. Sometimes it is. Sometimes meditation reveals discomfort and uncomfortable, unwieldy emotions. Over the course of time, the goal of meditation is, in part, to change your relationship with those thoughts, emotions, and storylines.
Four-Week Challenge Offered
That, and many other facets of meditation, will be the focus of a four-week program being offered by R.J. Julia Booksellers, beginning on Sunday, Feb. 2, being facilitated by Madison’s Kate McGetrick of Rise Therapy & Wellness, which is right down the street from R.J. Julia. The program is part of the The Real Happiness Meditation Challenge, #Commit2Sit in February, in which people can participate by taking part in the program, either by signing up through the bookstore (www.rjjulia.com/event/real-happiness-challenge-guided-discussions) for $25, which includes Salzberg’s book.
Or, they can follow along for free, with a good-will donation optional, through Salzberg’s website www.sharonsalzberg.com/2020-real-happiness-challenge.
The program being offered through the bookstore and on Salzberg’s website draws from Salzberg’s New York Times bestselling book, Real Happiness, which is being re-released in 2020 in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the book.
There are a wide variety of other options available. McGetrick is offering the Loft at her studio at 786 Boston Post Road, Madison, every day Monday through Friday from noon to 1 p.m., as a space for those who would like to meditate. Every Friday at noon, the studio will offer a guided meditation in the Loft. Many other studios offer opportunities to meditate as well. And it can be done at home, at the office, or anywhere where you can find a quiet space. The key, says McGetrick and Salzberg, is to truly commit to sit every day in February.
On good days and bad.
When it’s easy and when it’s hard.
When you have the time and when you don’t.
Here are some thoughts on how to do that from McGetrick and Salzberg, who has designated each week of Commit2Sit February to a specific focus.
Week 1: Concentration Practice
“Week one introduces the core techniques of concentration practice by working with the natural breath...engaged awareness, and the secret sauce for any practice: the art of beginning again,” says Salzberg’s website.
Starting meditation can be hard for people, says McGetrick, but it’s made easier by Salzberg’s introduction to the fundamentals of concentration, and using the breath as an anchor to gently bring you back from wherever your thoughts may have wandered.
“That’s really essential, using the breath to bring you back,” says McGetrick. “And then you can use that technique to bring you into week two.”
Salzberg says, in addition to using the breath as an anchor, there are other options.
“For people for whom it does not work, there is listening to a sound, and other things,” she says. “The foundational exercise is choosing an object of awareness, resting your attention on it, and keep returning to it. Gathering that energy that we usually throw all over the place. We keep returning to that.”
Week 2: Mindfulness of the Body
“Week two introduces mindfulness practice by moving the awareness into the body, [and]... also introduces walking meditation, a body scan meditation, and a few meditations that incorporate common household tasks,” she says.
“So this is where we can take it outside of a formal setting,” says Salzberg, with part of the goal here allowing practitioners to access the benefits of meditation in their everyday lives. “When we’re sitting, many sensations come up. We have a more embodied experience of our bodies. That allows us to understand more about what is going on.”
By way of example, she says someone might experience a minor twinge of physical, mental, or emotional discomfort. And then, in their mind they start to build a story about it, about how much worse it’s going to be tomorrow, and next week, and it keeps building because of what is going on in the mind.
“We’ll learn to see the difference between what we actually experience, and what we’re making it. And that gives us some options.”
McGetrick says she loves focusing on mindfulness of the body.
“What is so cool is that our body is often telling us something. I bring this into my therapeutic pratice. Tension in your neck. Knots in your stomach. How do we bring our attention to that, and ask our bodies what they are trying to tell us, and listening? Once we become familiar with this practice, we are able to offer a whole wealth of healing internally.”
Benefits can accrue both to the body and brain, she says.
“They’ve done studies and they can see on a cellular level how the brain cells fire together in a way that strengthens decision making, memory, emotional flexibility,” she says. “And then the different parts of the brain have the ability to communicate better.”
And, the program is set up to facilitate social connections as well, she says, through Salzberg’s site, which has an option for participants to share experiences through blogging, through the weekly sessions at R.J. Julia, and through the 30-minute free mid-day meditation sessions at her studio on Fridays beginning at noon, at Rise Therapy and Wellness, 786 Boston Post Road, Madison.
Week 3: Mindfulness of Emotions
“Week three continues with mindfulness practice, shifting to rich terrain of emotions and thoughts. This includes working with difficult emotions and also cultivating positive emotions for greater balance and resilience.”
Difficult emotions often do come up in meditation practice.
“That’s a surprise to people,” says Salzberg. “Sometimes it is peaceful or blissful. But there are times where there is anger, old frustrations, doubt. That’s natural. And that’s one of the skills of meditation, learning how to be with these states in a different way, how not to take it so much to heart, thinking ‘This is how I will feel the rest of my life.’ Through meditation we can take a familiar thing, a distressing thing, and relate to it differently.”
McGetrick agrees and adds that meditation can allow practitioners to take inventory of their emotions in a non-judgmental way, and nurture those emotions, allowing them to call in more positive emotions when they might be suffering.
Week 4: Lovingkindness Practice
“Week four introduces the methods of lovingkindness practice, exploring how and who we pay attention to. The week also includes the cultivation of compassion for ourselves, as well as walking loving-kindness practice.”
Salzberg says lovingkindness practice, while related to meditation, is not the same thing. Lovingkindness, cultivating connection and compassion for yourself and others, and meditation play well together, with one strengthening the other. She says lovingkindness is the practice of generosity of spirit. And meditation—in the same way that it makes prayer more meaningful, the practice of yoga deeper, and even walking down the street a more profound experience—opens a path for and deepens lovingkindness.
An example of a lovingkindness meditation might be sitting next to someone, someone you know or someone you don’t know, and silently setting an intention of safety, happiness, health, and peace for yourself. And then, for them. And then, for someone you like. And then for someone you don’t like. And then, for all.
“Taking care of all,” is how McGetrick describes it. “When we bring that into lovingkindness practice, we are better for our community, and better able to give care and love to our community. It’s incredibly powerful both for the individual and for the greater good.”
McGetrick says she is so happy to be helping with the program, working with Salberg’s book.
“I love this book. I love Sharon. She is definitely a pioneer when it comes to all of this. She’s out there teaching and speaking and working with all different communities,” she says. “I read this book a long time ago when it came out and I am so happy to be reunited with it.”
She says while the focus of the month-long practice is happiness, that results may vary. She says it might make more sense to think about the month as a month-long exploration of your relationship to happiness.
“It’s so important to be curious about what your relationship is to happiness,” she says. “Maybe you have a strong story in your head that it’s not ever going to happen. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself that happiness looks a certain way. But that might be a false story. I think the most important thing is to evaluate your relationship to happiness and get clear with that. If you can develop a healthy relationship with it, you might struggle less to find it.”
McGetrick says meditation has allowed her to better focus on what makes her happy, which are often very small things.
“Someone’s expression. Nature...Definitely relationships. A good conversation. Being heard. My children,” she says. “And with children, it’s always the small moments with them.”
Additional Meditation Resources
• On Sunday, Feb. 9, Meditation Session: Sights Set on 2020: 2 p.m. Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library, 146 Thimble Islands Rd., Branford. Meditation led by Doctor of Physical Therapy Audra Stawicki. Free. Sponsored by the Friends of Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library. To register (recommended), call 203-488-8702. For info, visit wwml.org.
• Ongoing: Guided Mindfulness Meditation Group: 5:45 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays. Fitness on the Water at Water’s Edge, 1587 Boston Post Rd., Westbrook. All levels welcome. Cost: $10 donation requested.
• Ongoing: Meditation and Float Yoga: 2 to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Short Beach Union Church, 14 Pentecost St., Branford. Led by Leesa Sklover. Cost: $15. For info, contact 917-860-0488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Ongoing: Meditation Classes: 5:15 to 6 p.m. Thursdays. Happiness Lab at the Grove, 756 Chapel St., New Haven. Cost: $10 per class. For info, contact 860-266-6041 or email@example.com.
• Ongoing: Meditation in Daily Life: Advice for Anxious Times: 7 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. The Nest, 1008 Main St., Branford. Cost: $10 per class. For info, visit www.meditationinconnecticut.org.
• Ongoing: Meditation in the World: 7 to 8:15 p.m. Wednesdays. Guest House Retreat & Conference Center, 318 W. Main St., Chester. Free. For info, call 860-322-5770.
• Ongoing: Meditation: Peace is Possible: Noon to 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays. Shoreline Center for Wholistic Health, 35 Boston St., Guilford. Cost: Donation. For info, call 203-464-0556.
• Ongoing: Meditation Practice and Study Group: 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays. Someday Farm, 272 Roast Meat Hill Rd. Cost: $20 drop-in; $42 monthly. For info, contact FarmingOurSomedays@gmail.com.
• Ongoing: Monday Meditation: 10 a.m. Mondays. First Church of Madison, 26 Meeting House Ln. Presented by The E.C. Scranton Memorial Library. Led by certified meditation and mindfulness teacher Johanne Vanelli. Free. For info, call 203-245-7365 or visit www.scrantonlibrary.org.
• Ongoing: Kundalini Yoga and Music Meditation: 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Thursdays. Short Beach Union Church, 14 Pentecost St., Branford. Led by Leesa Sklover. Cost: $15. For info, contact 917-860-0488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.