How to Write and Think and Meditate Yourself Into Being Happier: The HAPPINESS CLASS!
ERDG 491Z -- University at Albany, SUNY
Professor Claudia Ricci, Ph.D.
READING & WRITING THE HAPPIER SELF: Spring 2012
Reading and writing transform the way we think, and how we see ourselves in the world. Neurological research now shows that changing the way we think can produce positive physiological changes in the brain. At a time when an epidemic of mental health issues plagues our nation, and threatens to paralyze students in the academy, this class presents a set of cognitive tools and practical skills that will help students refine and enhance their educational goals while examining a broad range of life issues. Beginning with philosophical ideas set forth by Aristotle, the class will rely on texts from psychology, neuroscience, literature and narrative theory, to open up discussions about the patterns of human behavior and thinking that tend to produce lasting fulfillment and deep reward. In keeping with research by psychologist James Pennebaker and others who have demonstrated the value of expressive writing, students will engage in extensive journaling and other self-reflective writing assignments as they seek to define what it means, and what it takes, to find happiness. Part of the work in the classroom will be to help students identify their individual “signature strengths” that can produce what positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines as “authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” In addition to classroom work, a special two-hour laboratory session, with attendant readings and writing exercises, will be required each week; students will work with experts in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spirituality and stress reduction, and will document how these techniques can help the student better cope with the inherently stressful nature of University life.
Saturday, May 5, 2012
Thursday, April 12, 2012
Before the woman could speak my father gave me the biggest hug and said “I am so proud of you son.”
I smiled reluctantly as I stared at the strange woman. She had a vaguely familiar look to her.
Slowly she began to approach me. “Congratulations Ryan," she said, "I knew the day you were born that you were destined for greatness.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”
At that point I was at a loss for words. My mother had run out on my sister and me when I was five. She had a drug addiction that she chose over her family. Every night until I was nine years old I slept with a picture of her under my pillow wishing she would come back. After a while I stopped praying and gave up hope. I always thought that the day I saw her would be the best day of my life but it wasn’t. I let out all of my built up frustration I had towards her.
“You bitch,” I said with tears building up in my eyes. My father had never heard me curse before.
“I know I made my mistakes in the past but I am clean now and I want to make it up to you.”
“You must think I am that five-year old you walked out on. I am 18 and I am on my way to college so save your shit for someone who cares. I made it this far without you so you can go back to the crack house you came from, because my mother died 13 years ago.”
My father placed his right hand on my shoulder and said “remember when your sister broke your favorite toy so you scratched her favorite CD?”
I nodded my head yes trying to figure out how on earth this was relevant to the situation.
“I told you that two wrongs in a situation don’t make a right. I told you that forgiveness was the answer in the first place.”
“How on earth do you expect me to forgive this woman for what she did?”
“Because you’re old enough to understand that she made a huge mistake and forgive her.”
I said to her “I would be lying to you if I was to sit here and tell you I forgive you. Maybe one day in my heart I will find it to do so but I just can’t now, it hurts too much.”
I started to walk home and I didn’t turn around. I lived an hour away but that walk was much needed. Of all the things to say to her I could not understand why I had said thank you. Maybe it was because seeing her again had made me feel free and had allowed me to see how much I had grown up.
That was the last time I saw my biological mother before she died two months later. I did not go to the funeral because the way I saw her on graduation day is the way I wanted to remember her for the rest of my life
Ryan Small is a freshman at the University at Albany, SUNY. He wrote this piece as part of a Flip Your Script exercise, which offers participants a means of finding forgiveness through storytelling. In a separate post, which will run on Friday, April 13th in MyStoryLives, Ryan writes very powerfully about how difficult it was to write this piece, but how incredibly healing it was to finally confront the feelings he expressed here. Stay tuned!
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Sometimes we say thank you right away. But sometimes it takes us a long, long time to realize how grateful we are for someone's act of kindness. Sometimes, we wait a little too long to say thanks.
This is a letter of gratitude that I probably should have written in 1972, or shortly thereafter. That was the year I was a sophomore in college. It was the end of March when I broke up with my high school sweetheart. We'd been together for three years and had an amazing relationship. Considering how old we were, it was quite something.
Which made it all the harder when we mutually decided that it was time we experienced college separately. We sat together in Harvard Square (where he was going to school) and he sang me songs on his guitar all night. And then, as the light of day made its way onto the city streets, we parted. I can vaguely remember that I walked away. And waved.
That was the romantic part. What came after was tumultuous. I was devastated. I had lost my best friend. I had lost my anchor. I was back at Brown, completely unhinged.
I couldn't study. I couldn't focus. I can remember walking the streets of Providence in a blur, mourning my lost love. I was sinking quickly into my first bout of depression. I tried going to the counseling center. It didn't seem to help.
And then came a kind of guardian angel in the form of a lab instructor.
Dr. Horace Martin, who was a practicing physician in the Providence area, was my lab teacher. At the time he seemed older, as in, he was balding and a bit heavy set in a middle-aged kind of way. Looking back, he was probably about 40.
He was a kind man, and as luck would have it, he was very very intuitive. I hadn't given him any direct indication that I was in trouble. I was shuffling through the lectures on base pairs and DNA structure. I'm not sure how, but somehow this man figured out that I was deeply depressed.
I don't even remember the particulars of how he approached me. All I recall looking back is that he made it clear he knew I needed someone to talk to. Someone to lean on.
He told me about his family. He told me he had seven children, and they all lived near Providence. He asked me if I would like to come to dinner with his family.
I went. I remember nothing in particular except that his wife made a big family dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. I remember the warmth of the family. The kind of family I'd grown up with.
After dinner, he and his wife insisted I stay over for the night. I did and the next morning, Dr. Martin drove me back to campus.
That morning, he gave me the best advice perhaps that anybody, certainly any teacher, ever gave me. He told me to be very very good to myself. He told me that every single day of my life I had to treat myself to something special. Even if it was a very little treat. Buy yourself a candy bar, he told me. Looking back, I think I see why this man reached out to me. I think he saw a kindred spirit. Here in his classroom he recognized the danger signals, the signs that a student was suffering, or at least having a very rough time. I suspect he'd had his rough moments, and here he was, paying back.
So why am I writing this now, almost 40 years later?
I am teaching a new class called Reading and Writing the Happier Self at my university. We are reading all kinds of books about happiness -- texts from neuroscience, psychology, narrative theory, literature, as well as readings in contemplative pedagogy and spiritual practice. The lab for this class is a series of classes in mindfulness-based stress reduction.
One of the best books we are reading -- a student favorite -- is Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness, a book I've written about before. A book that has changed my life. A book that basically says we have to love ourselves and everyone else in the world. Not in a sentimental or passionate way, but in a way that brings out our deepest compassion. Even our enemies deserve our compassion, our "metta" (which can be translated from the Indian Pali language as "love" or "lovingkindness.") Much of Salzberg's book is devoted to the metta practices, the meditations that are designed to help us learn to love ourselves and others, including the most difficult people in our lives.
At one point Salzberg writes: "Great fullness of being, which we experience as happiness, can also be described as love. to be undivided and unfragmented, to be completely present, is to love. To pay attention is to love."
Dr. Martin paid attention to me, in a way that teachers frequently do not. He recognized my suffering and tried to be present for me.
I've thought about Dr. Martin's kindness many times through the years. About two years ago, I decide to try to find him. I tried finding him through the Rhode Island Medical Society. I tried finding him through the internet's White Pages. I found a few listings, including two for Horace Martins who were in their 80s. I didn't do anything further.
But now I regret that I didn't keep trying.
I wrote to a very nice editor at the Brown Alumni Monthly today and asked her if she could help me locate him.
It didn't take but a few minutes for her to respond, sadly, with his obituary. Dr. Martin died in April, 2010 of lung cancer, at the age of 79. He left his wife and seven children behind. In this obituary I learned that he had several degrees and so many professional accomplishments.
I am sad to think that had I done this two years ago, I might have sent him a thank you letter, one he richly deserved.
I think perhaps I should send this now to his family.
I think of him so often, especially as I am teaching this new class. I think of the lessons he taught me: the one about being good to myself. But the other one too: to attend to students. He showed me by example how important it is to pay close attention to not only the minds of your students, but to their hearts as well. He taught me to keep my eye out for those students whose faces make it apparent that they are really suffering. He taught me not to be afraid to reach out to a student to show her or him that you care, that you are there for them. That you are really present.
Lately, I've been getting more and more immersed in contemplative pedagogy -- a term that applies to the use of some rather ancient practices, like meditation, self reflection, in university classrooms. There are many benefits to these practices; they appear to help students both academically, by developing better focus and thinking skills, and also, emotionally, by promoting well-being. There is a growing movement among university educators to use contemplative practices to engage the whole student.
Last year, the first year I taught Happiness, I told my students that this new class was in part a tribute to a teacher, to Dr. Martin.
I now want to tell the world, and his family. I am eternally grateful for his simple act of kindness in 1972.
Had he not taken me home to dinner with his family, fed me spaghetti, I might have ended up dropping out of school.
Instead, I stayed. And today, as a teacher, I try as often as I can to pay back his kindness with my own kindness to other students, recalling always what he did.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Put down your pen, your pencil, your books and close your notebook.
Sit in a comfortable position, and close your eyes.
Take a long slow breath in, and let it out through your mouth.
Breathe normally. And now, with your eyes closed, see yourself sitting in the sun, on a soft blanket in the sand. You are staring out there onto the emerald green water, and the waves are cresting, and sparking and glinting in the rays of the sun.
You are there for the day, just to lay in the sun. Or to seek refuge in the shade of a palm or a pine tree or a cypress.
You breathe in the salty air and it clears out all the winter fog and congestion.
You feel the warmth of the sun on your face
You have to do nothing but sit there in the sand
and breathing and staring out at the green water.
With each breath in, maybe you want to name it.
Breathe in. Sun.
Breathe in. Ocean.
Breathe in. Sky.
Breathe in. Earth,
And keep going, repeating the names for each breath.
Over and over again. And when another thought enters your ocean refuge, just let it go sailing out over the waves, and return to your breathing,
Monday, January 23, 2012
Try this: close your eyes and slowly take in a long slow breath.
Release the breath from your nose, letting the air make a little puffing noise, quietly so only you can hear it.
Do it again. Slowly.
And when you release the air, let go of all the stress you're holding in your body.
Let your neck and shoulders go limp.
Let your head hang forward.
Let your jaw go slack.
Let your back soften.
Let the muscles soften in both arms.
Breathe in again. And again, let the air out with a quiet little puff. Think about your entire body going limp.
All the stress draining onto the floor and disappearing.
Keeping your eyes closed, now imagine a screen, a white screen, in the space right above your nose.
It's a screen like those you see in a movie theatre, or the one right here in the classroom.
This is your own private little movie screen. See it there in your mind right above your eyes, stretching to fill your forehead?
Stare at it for a moment. Let it stay white. Steady your inner gaze right on that screen.
Now shift your attention back to your breath.
Breathe in, normally. And then let the breath out, with a tiny puff. Feel the air coming out of your nose.
Maybe it feels warm. Maybe it feels cool. Maybe it wants to be a color.
Golden like the sun. Light blue like the sky. Pink and orange like a sunset.
Or white like the fluffy clouds and your movie screen.
Just let your breath be whatever it wants to be.
Try this for a few minutes.
Soon, something will pop up onto your movie screen.
A thought. A story of something you did. Something that's bothering you. A person you're angry at. Something you have to do. Somewhere you have to go. Somebody you miss dearly.
See it there on the movie screen.
And very slowly, breathe in. And when you release your breath with that little puff, imagine your breath magically wipes the movie screen clean.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Puff. The screen is clean.
The screen is clean.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Maybe you want to count your breaths.
Breathe in. Puff out. One.
Breathe in. Puff out. Two.
Breathe in. Puff out. Three,
Breathe in. Puff out. Four.
Maybe there is another movie there.
There will be.
More and more and more movies.
And every time one more movie appears. One more thought. One more person. One more story. One more troubling idea.
See it there on the screen.
And then, puff it away with your breath.
Feel the breath.
And now, continue. As long as you can.
See the movie.
Let the breath puff the movie screen
Friday, January 20, 2012
Before I started reading the words out loud, I was worried that it wouldn't work. I was afraid that when I finished, the students would say, "why did you make us do this boring thing?"
Something quite different happened.
When I finished reading, and looked up, each and every student in the class was sitting there in perfect stillness. There wasn't a sound in the room. Not a single student opened his or her eyes for almost 25 minutes. I was shocked. I kept looking at my watch thinking, should I just let them sit there? I did. I was astonished at the power of these simple words to relax a group of young people.
Finally I decided it was time to bring them back to the classroom. When I did, several of the students said they felt refreshed. One young woman said that she had never been able to meditate before, but that this exercise had helped her sink into a deep meditative state. I asked the students to write about what they felt. After a discussion, we decided as a class that we would try this exercise again. My husband thinks I should record the words and include them on the Happiness class blogsite. Maybe I will, so that other people can try it if they want to relax in a sunny waterfall.
Suddenly, we are all sitting in the sun, below a gigantic waterfall.
The water showers each of us in the most blissfully perfect temperature,
You look up and see the tiny little prisms of color in the water droplets as the sun passes through them.
You just close your eyes and sit there, letting the gloriously warm water fall on your head....
feeling it slip down your forehead...
over your eyelids...
onto your eyelashes...
the back of your neck...
down your arms and legs...
your hands and fingers and toes.
You just sit there, letting the water flow down, carrying away all of your stress.
You don't have to go anywhere.
You don't have to do anything.
You just sit there and
The water pools at your feet and disappears.
You feel so relaxed that you smile.
If you were to look up, you would see the water sparkling in the sun.
You can feel the water,
the warmth of it, the sun's rays gently hitting the top of your head,
You just let the water drain every bit of stress away.
You just sit there in your own perfect waterfall, and all around you are the most beautiful flowers and trees.
You stare at the most beautiful flowers and trees. You
would swear that you were
in some sort of Paradise.
When you're ready,
write about what it looks and feels like
to sit there.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
What is HAPPINESS?
Is happiness the same for everybody?
Who determines happiness?
How important do people think happiness is?
Is making yourself happy more important than making others happy?
How important is it to surround yourself with happy people?
Do you have an obligation to make other people happy?
How does freewriting make us happy? What other daily routines and rituals make us happier?
Is there really a way to make yourself happy?
If you buy a new car, and it makes you happy, is that "synthetic" happiness?
Are older people generally happier than younger people? If so, why?
Are married people happier than unmarried people? If so, why?
Does religion make you happy? Why?