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 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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

You've Got the Gift List, but now it's Time for the Gratitude List!!!!

I am sitting here in my study where the rocking chair is right beside the window with the lighted candles. I just walked outdoors and the winter air was exhilerating. I looked up into the night sky at the brilliant stars and then at the old farmhouse where I live, with all the lighted candles glowing in the windows and it was so thrilling that I felt momentarily awed.

It hit me then. I am so very lucky to have a house. I don't want to take this blessing for granted. Especially now when there are so many people suffering without homes.

And then something else hit me. If I'm feeling so grateful, and if I'm going to make my students keep a GRATITUDE LIST next semester, then it seems only fair that I make one too. So I came inside and sat down here in the study. And now, here it goes. I have NO idea how long this list will go on so it will be kind of cool to see what emerges.

1) I am grateful for the sky, which is so often a beautiful blue.
2) I am grateful when the blue sky has clouds that are lit up by the sun and always changing.
3) I am grateful for my eyes that enable me to see the sky and the clouds and the stars and everything else that I see.
4) I am grateful for the fact I have a warm house.
5) I am grateful for the fact that I have dinner cooking on the stove.
6) I am grateful for the fact I have a loving partner.
7) I am grateful that I have three amazing children who make me smile every time they phone or email or visit.
8) I am grateful that I have two terrific and loving parents who are still alive at 85 years old. And they still occupy their own home.
9) I am grateful that I have two in-laws who are wonderful and also, independent (and headed out to explore the world shortly.)
10) I am grateful for two sisters and a brother, and two brothers-in-law, and a sister-in-law, and their spouses, all of whom I value very deeply.
11) I am grateful that I can sit here and compose a GRATITUDE list, as I'm sure there are millions of people around the world who for one reason or another are not in that privileged a position.'
12) I am grateful for clean water that flows magically out of my kitchen sink (it's well water and delicious to drink.)
13) I am grateful for my wood stove and grateful for the wood I can burn in it all winter.
14) I am grateful that I survived cancer ten years ago.
15) I am grateful that I have legs and arms.
16) I am grateful that I have toes and fingers.
17) I am grateful that I can read and write.
18) I am grateful for stars at night.
19) I am grateful for the sun and the moon.
20) I am grateful for the wind in the trees.
21) I am grateful for all the trees, especially the ones growing in my yard.
22) I am grateful for flowers in the spring.
23) I am grateful for my houseplants, two of which (the violets) are flowering right now, right here, on this desk.
24) I am grateful for the camera I have to take the photos I love to take.
25) I am grateful for this laptop on which I can write.

I think it's time to take a break. But that's not a bad list. I think it took me about half an hour to make that list. And the thing I realize...I think I could go on forever. I am reminded now of the Thanksgiving Prayer that I witnessed one day on the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation in northern New York state. I sat and listened while a tribal leader thanked every single thing imaginable in the Universe. The Thanksgiving Prayer is a tradition, and now I understand why it is recited. When you start thanking every little thing around you, you start feeling the power of the world. You start feeling connected, and I think you cannot help but start feeling happier and more content.

To be continued...

Students Grumble, But Then Find Siddhartha's Journey Inspiring

By Claudia Ricci

NOTE: This post appeared in the Books section of the Huffington Post.

If you're on a spiritual quest to find your SELF, or even if you're not, you might enjoy reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I assigned it to my freshmen this past semester and at the start, many of them grumbled. They were just not impressed. They were bored. They kept complaining and whining and asking me, what happened? You've assigned all these great books, and now you assign us this? WHYYYYYYYY?

I smiled and gave them a short list of reasons. The novel forces them outside of their comfort zone. It raises some profound ideas and questions about how to live our lives. It's a short novel and reads easily. And, it was recommended by a former student who took the same class and later served as my teaching assistant.

And lastly, I told them this:

"I promise you that this book will NOT be the worst book you ever read in college."

A spiritual quest novel and a novel of ideas, the book follows a young Indian man who is on a path to finding peace and enlightenment.

As one might expect, it's not an action book. It doesn't offer fireworks. It's rather quiet and rather contemplative. It demands that you think about what's going on. It asks you to ask yourself questions about what the heck Siddhartha (or Sid, as one student nicknamed him in his journal) is up to.

Much of Siddhartha's quest is very much tied up with a search for the self, or more precisely, for the erasure of self! What a concept! Get rid of our egos? Those egos that we can never really escape? Why ever would we want to do such a thing?

"Siddhartha had one single goal -- to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow -- to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought -- that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self-- the great secret!"

But it's tricky business trying to do away with the Self. No matter how hard you try to rid yourself of your SELF, it has a way of sneaking up on you, meeting you around every corner. As a Samana, an ascetic, Siddhartha fasted and meditated and prayed and engaged in self-denial and suffered pain -- "He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it."

Later, Siddhartha recognizes that perhaps it isn't the self at all that should occupy his attention; rather he realizes that he would be better served to listen for an authentic inner voice:

"He had known for a long time that his Self was Atman [the overriding reality of Oneness] of the same eternal nature as Brahman, but he had never really found his Self, because he had wanted to trap it in a net of thoughts.The body was certainly not the Self, nor the play of senses, nor thought, nor understanding, nor acquired wisdom or art with which to draw conclusions...He would only strive after whatever the inward voice commanded him not tarry anywhere but where the voice advised him. Why did Gotama once sit down beneath the bo tree in his greatest hour when he received enlightenment? He had heard a voice in his own heart which commanded him to seek rest under this tree...he had listened to this voice. To obey no other external command, only the voice, to be prepared -- that was good, that was necessary. Nothing else was necessary."

Later, after Siddhartha immerses himself in the pleasures of the flesh -- women, fine food, good clothing, gambling, money-making -- and then despairs and tires of that lifestyle, he comes to see again that he must listen to an inner voice to lead him out of despair.

"Onwards, onwards, this is your path. He had heard this voice when he had left his home and chosen the life of the Samanas; and again when he had left the Samanas and gone to the Perfect One, and also when he had left him for the unknown. How long was it now that he had heard this voice, since he had soared to any heights?"

Siddhartha's epiphany -- or one of them -- occurs shortly after he abandons the sensual life he's been leading. Disgusted with himself, he approaches the river, where he sits beside a tree and gazes into the water. He spits at his rotting image. Nauseated and repulsed by himself and the way of the flesh he's been living, he wants to die: "Might the fishes and crocodiles devour him, might the demons tear him to little pieces." He is drawn toward death but in that moment he hears a special sound, the one word, the one sound, the "ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers."

He speaks THE HOLY OM and it is profoundly transformative. "At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha's ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognized the folly of his action." He is horrified by the fact that he is so lost he wants to die.

Overwhelmed and inspired by the sound of OM, he falls asleep and when he wakes, he feels revived, refreshed, renewed, reborn. He meets Govinda his friend again, realizes that he is going in circles or spirals, but feels happy and liberated.

Once again, the saving grace for Siddhartha is rooted in voice, which he refers to as a bird..."you have again had a good idea, have accomplished have heard the bird in your breast sing and followed it." Indeed, he realizes that the source of his joy is the bird: "the clear spring and voice within him was still alive -- that was why he rejoiced, that was why he laughed, that was why his face was radiant under his gray hair."

Finally, Siddhartha recognizes that the bird of voice, "singing happily" inside him, has led him toward his long-time goal, that is, to destroy the Self:

"No something else in him had died, something that he had long desired should perish. Was it not what he had once wished to destroy during his ardent years of asceticism? Was it not his Self, his small, fearful and proud Self, with which he had wrestled for so many years, but which had always conquered him again, which appeared each time again and again, which robbed him of happiness and filled him with fear? Was it not this which had finally died today in the wood by this delightful river? Was it not because of its death that he was now like a child, so full of trust and happiness, without fear?"

If you think about it, the "self" is really the source of so much of our pain. Fear of death is rooted in the self's awareness of its own mortality. Pride, greed, jealousy, all of them center on egoical drives set up in the self seeking to materialize its desires.

Siddhartha isn't the first man on a spiritual path, determined to find and lose the self.

In the end, many of my students found themselves liking Siddhartha a lot. I'm reading their final papers, and many chose to write about the many lessons that Sid taught them. Lessons like how to stand up to parents. How it is to follow a journey, and keep changing one's mind about the goals and the direction. How to think about what one wants in life. Where to look for teachers, and how much to rely on one's own experience and inner wisdom.

And how to sit by a river and see all of creation passing by.

I'm not sure how many of the students loved the book. But many of them learned something.

Funny thing about works of literature. The "classics" so often have a way of speaking to us, over and over again, through the years.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Journal Exercises to Increase Your Happiness

By Claudia Ricci

This year's Happiness class doesn't start until January 18th, but ideas for the class are starting to roll around in my head like sparkling marbles, in part because students interested in the class keep coming to my office to ask me what it's all about. So here is a preview of some of the journal assignments that I will present to the students. I can't decide yet which ones will be mandatory. The Gratitude List certainly will be, maybe others too. I invite you to make comments and suggestions for other assignments.

1) Start a GRATITUDE LIST being very specific about the things in life for which you are grateful: "I am grateful that I have eyes to see the sky. I am grateful that I have teeth to chew my food. I am grateful that I have food." See how long you can make this list. Can you make it a daily practice to write down three or four or five things for which you are grateful?

2) Identity the "small" moments in which you become keenly aware of something that makes you joyful. Be specific: e.g., “I saw a tree this morning covered in ice and the sun hitting it was so pretty, I just stood there in awe.” Turn these into Haiku? Longer poems?

3) Describe specific SENSATIONS associated when you are really paying attention to what you are doing: "I enjoyed the smell of my morning coffee. I enjoyed the way the warm cup felt in my hand. I enjoyed the smell of the night air when I stepped outdoors."

4) The next time you find yourself feeling calm, take a moment and "draw" the feeling associated with it. Find a color for it. A visual. Collect images that make you feel calm.

5) Identify one small thing you can do to help another person.

6) Stop what you are doing and close your eyes. Take one or two cleansing breaths. Then start to breathe naturally and label your breathing in the following way: Take a breath in, then let it go and label it SKY. Take a second breath in, let it go and think WATER. Breathe in a third time, breathe out and label it MOUNTAIN. Label the fourth breath SUN. Then repeat this cycle a few times. Can you work up to ten cycles? Write about what it feels like to label your breathing in this way. Can you find a few minutes to do this every day?

7) Make a list of ways in which you can show others what it means to be happy.

8) Have a conversation about mindfulness with someone, in which you try to explain what it means. Then write about that conversation and what it taught you.

8) Forgive someone for something small. Write about that. Forgive someone for something "bigger." Write about the idea that we should "Forgive everyone, for everything.”

9) The next time you get angry at someone, write about it. Write about why you are angry and how exactly it feels in your body. Be specific. Put the writing away and later come back and write these words at the top of the page: "What will this matter in 100 years?" See if you can “enlighten” yourself as to why that anger is/was there and why being angry doesn't really get you anywhere, except for more angry.

10) Do something nice for yourself and write about how that feels. Then, do something nice for someone else and write about how that feels.

11) Write about whether or not you are impatient. What does it feel like to be impatient? What prompts you to feel impatient?

12) Find a living object (flower? Tree? A baby? ☺) and see if you can stare at it for five whole minutes without stopping. Then write about what that felt like.

13) See if the next time you eat, you can wait one whole minute before you dig in. Later, write about what went on in your head during that minute. What did you notice? Did you feel more gratitude for the food? Did you think about any of the people (farmer, factory worker, trucker, grocery store shelver, grocery store check out person, cook) who had to devote their time to making it possible to have this food?

14) Write a couple of paragraphs about the sky. Then wait a few hours and write about the sky again. Has it changed? How? Write about how you feel about a blue sky. A white sky. Clouds. A sunset. A rainbow. Write about the prettiest sky you've ever seen.

15) TRY LAUGHING. (If you can't find anything to laugh about, watch this video of a baby laughing as his father rips up a rejection letter.) SEE IF YOU CAN LAUGH FOR ONE MINUTE 44 SECONDS, just like this baby did! Then write about laughing and why you think research shows that laughter can help you be physically healthier.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Check this out: Meditation Sparks Creativity in a College Classroom in Detroit

By Claudia Ricci

One of the most exciting things about attending a conference is that you often meet the most creative people doing the most amazing and creative things.

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a conference on "contemplative pedagogy" in higher education at Amherst College. Sponsored by the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, the conference attracted swarms of fascinating educators from across the country, all of whom are committed to using meditation, mindfulness and other "contemplative" practices in their college classrooms.

The faculty using these practices are generally very innovative and incredibly dedicated and dynamic teachers. They are the type who not only think outside the box, they tend to dismiss the box altogether and rethink the whole container problem top to bottom. Teachers who use contemplative practices also tend to place great value on teaching to the "whole" student, not just to a student's disembodied mind or brain.

One such extra-special teacher I met is Molly Beauregard, who teaches at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. Art schools tend to be extremely competitive; they are pressure cookers for the students who attend them. Routinely students pull all-nighters to get their creative work completed to meet tight deadlines.

To help students deal with the stress, and to get them in touch with their creative powers, Beauregard has developed a fascinating new class in which the college students learn to manage their stress by meditating twice daily.

After the conference, Beauregard emailed me a wonderful short video produced by The David Lynch Foundation. The video will show you exactly how meditation is helping these young college students discover new ways of finding happiness and satisfaction despite very demanding workloads.

Watching the students meditating reminded me, once again, about the enormous power of meditation. Not only does it heal us, emotionally, spiritually and physically, it makes us feel better. As suggested by this video, meditation also opens the doors into our deepest and richest sources of creative power. A few years back, filmmaker Lynch wrote a very popular book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, in which he shared his own Transcendental meditation practice (he's been practicing meditation every day for more than three decades and established the foundation to promote meditation.)

Hats off to you Molly Beauregard, for this incredibly exciting work out in Detroit! And thanks to David Lynch and the foundation for making the film.

This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post and MyStoryLives.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Of All the Thousands of Books I've Read, This is the One That Stands Out

Note: this article appeared on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.

By Claudia Ricci

I've never stopped to think how many books I've read in my life. But it is has to be several thousand. I had to read hundreds of books just to get through my doctoral program. I've always been a reader, and I've always kept a big stack of books beside my bed. I usually have several books going at once. I'm a book person, and so books are my life.

But this morning I got to thinking. How many books have really mattered in my life? How many books have really changed my life or made a real difference? How many books have really stuck with me?

The books that I've loved, I keep. I have most all of Virginia Woolf's books on one shelf. There are books by Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Julia Alvarez, James Baldwin, John Irving and dozens of other favorite authors. There is my friend Peg's wonderful novel, Spinning Will. There are the two books that I wrote.

But the book that has had the most dramatic impact on me is a different sort of book altogether. It's called Lovingkindness,and it's by Sharon Salzberg,one of the nation's most influential meditation teachers.

That book profoundly influenced my life. And it helped me through an enormously difficult experience last fall.

Lovingkindness is not a big book. Not at all. It's actually rather small. The pages are very tiny. And her message is not new. And yet, it is monumentally important: "We spend our lives searching for something we think we don't have, something that will make us happy. But the key to our deepest happiness lies in changing our vision of where to seek it."

The key to happiness lies in the awareness that we are deeply connected to other living beings through "metta," or lovingkindness. What Salzberg does in her book is present a set of specific exercises to help cultivate feelings of lovingkindness toward yourself and others.

You start by bringing good feelings to your self. You focus on a time when you did or said something to another person that was kind and loving. You reflect on the happiness you felt when you helped someone. When you were generous. Holding these positive loving feelings in your heart, you start repeating four simple phrases over and over again:

"May I be free from danger."
"May I have mental happiness."
"May I have physical happiness."
"May I have ease of well-being."

The exercise moves out from here. After you spend time sending lovingkindness toward yourself, you select another person, a good friend, a family member. You spend time directing feelings of lovingkindness toward this friend or family member. You use the same phrases you used for yourself, only you replace the "I" by filling in that person's name.

The next step: you choose a neutral person, a bus driver. A person in a coffee shop. You don't know this person, but you extend feelings of lovingkindess to that neutral person. You repeat the phrases with the neutral person.

And then comes the hard part: you choose a DIFFICULT person. Someone who makes you furiously angry. Someone who has hurt you very deeply. Using the same techniques you used in the other situations, you extend lovingkindness to this enemy. This person who may not want to think about, let alone love and forgiven.

This is where Salzberg's book made an enormous difference in my life. This is where I found the book to be so profoundly helpful.

Last fall, I had to confront a woman whose actions had hurt me more deeply than I care to remember. And yet, I had no choice but to meet with this woman. I had no choice but to confront her.

I felt trapped. I felt very anxious. And then I discovered the techniques that Salzberg uses.

I began the lovingkindness practices slowly. I didn't force them. I practiced them at my own pace. I practiced "metta" during morning meditation, week after week.

And one day, sometime in November, something quite miraculous happened. I thought about this woman saying those phrases:

"May she be free from danger."
"May she have mental happiness."
"May she have physical happiness."
"May she have ease of well-being."

Suddenly, I smiled. I felt a warm glow fill my chest. I thought about the fact that this woman has a little boy, a child she loves deeply.

A powerful change occurred. I realized I could confront this woman in love, not hatred or resentment. I realized what Salzberg said was true: "All beings are deserving of care, of well-being, of the gift of lovingkindness." I was able, as she said, to "put aside the unpleasant traits of such a being and try instead to get in touch with the part of them that deserves to be loved."

I wish I could you more details, without revealing the situation that was involved. Because you would be amazed that I was able to forgive this woman, considering what she did.

But in the end, the details don't matter. What matters is that I was able to meet with this woman, and look at pictures of her baby, and smile, and feel some human compassion.

I keep Sharon Salzberg's book beside my bed. And I suspect that I am never going to take this one book off the bedside stack. Unless of course someone I love asks to borrow it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How I Learned to Eat A Raisin, and How it's Helping Me Learn to Do NO Thing

Not to sound too dramatic or anything, but this is a rather dangerous time of year for me. The middle of May -- when the school year comes to a screeching halt -- is usually a time when life turns into a slick wet deck and I go skating over the edge. I land in a deep dark pool and thrash around in the murky black water feeling like I'm drowning.

Nothing too dramatic about that.

It's been 13 years that I've been working as a college teacher, and for many of those years, after classes ended, I have been so depressed that I haven't known where to turn.

I am not particularly proud of this situation. People who are lucky enough to have jobs these days (and I regularly count my blessings in that regard) are generally lucky enough only to get two weeks off in the summer. Most of these people count the days until summer vacation arrives, and then they savor each of their days off, hour by hour. Most of them would kill to have a long summer vacation.

So what kind of a loser am I that I can't seem to enjoy my extended summer break? Why can't I just kick back and have fun? Why is it that the prospect of four "empty" months makes me so anxious that I often need to turn to one or more prescription drugs?

The answer to that question is complex, but simple too: I have a very very hard time doing nothing. (I can hear people screaming at their screens right about now, HEY LADY JUST GO GET A SUMMER JOB AND STOP WHINING. To all of you who are sitting at a desk at work, screaming at me, ready to smack your computer, I want to apologize and say, yes, I do realize that getting a second job is an option!)

But the issue here really is why can't I just enjoy doing nothing in particular? Why I have such difficulty with summer break is itself a long story, having to do with deep dark childhood neuroses that I won't bore you with here (never fear, though, there is always another post.)

In the past, after my May Nosedive, I've usually managed to cobble something together. I have volunteered for worthy causes, and once I ran a really cool program for a couple dozen kids down in DC. I absolutely loved that job but I haven't been able to get another program up and running here.

Generally, I busy myself with this and that in the summer: gardening and guitar, writing and painting. And of course, preparing for the upcoming fall semester. Through much of these summer weeks, I have struggled to stay ... happy. I have struggled with boredom. I have felt lost and low and hopeless. It's just rotten feeling that way.

OK, so it's that time of year again. But this year is different.

This year, I taught the happiness class and I found myself learning some amazing lessons. I think I learned as much as the students (hopefully) did.

Many of the readings for that class were life-changing. So too was the mindfulness workshop that I took, along with the students, with a wonderful teacher named Lenore Flynn. These experiences have given me enormous insight into something very basic:

how to live, each day, moment by moment, staying present and aware.

For those of you who already know what mindfulness is all about, and how it can really turn your head in a wonderful new direction-- you understand. And for those of you who are skeptical, I want to say that I truly do understand your skepticism. How can something as simple as paying attention to your breathing, and to the mundane minutia of everyday activities, possibly turn you into a very happy camper?

If I hadn't also seen it happen to many of the students, I too might be skeptical. But the fact is, paying very very close attention to the seemingly minor and unimportant matters of life is a rather revolutionary activity.

It is not an exaggeration to say that mindfulness teaches you to SEE and FEEL life and your role in it in a whole new way.

In the first mindfulness class, for example, Lenore led us in a meditation exercise as she frequently did during the workshop. But she also handed to each of us a couple of raisins. It was our challenge to NOT eat those raisins, at least right away. The task we were given was simply to appreciate those wrinkled little dried grapes in a way that we had never done before. Holding them in our hands, we had to stare at all their whitish folds. We had to study very carefully their appearance: their plump, or not so plump shapes, their size, color and fullness. We had to roll them around, feeling the squishy way they felt on our fingertips. We had to inhale the sweet fragrance of those raisins.

In short, it was our job to consider the "raisin-ness" of raisins, the very essence and nature of them. Sitting in the palm of our hand, those raisins were very tempting. But more importantly, they turned into rather profound little teachers, or at least I found that they did for me. Instead of just popping them into our mouths, we had to anticipate the pleasure that those raisins would give us. (Of course there were a few students who hate raisins, but that's another matter.)

When we were finally, after several long and drawn out minutes, allowed to place the raisins in our mouth, we still were not allowed to eat them. Instead, we had to TASTE them. We let them roll around our tongues. We savored the way those little withered grapes felt up against our cheeks. We salivated all over those raisins.

And finally, FINALLY, Lenore gave us the go-ahead and let us eat them.

You bet we tasted those raisins. You bet we enjoyed them more than we'd ever enjoyed a raisin before. I mean how many times has it taken five whole minutes to eat a raisin?

The point is, most of us rarely taste any of our food. We don't eat mindfully. We don't slow down enough to really pay attention to the look of our food. To the texture of it. To the smell of it. We don't think about the fact that many many people worked many many hours to grow that food, and to harvest it. We don't think about what it takes to prepare the meal.

Most of the time, we gobble down our meals faster than it takes for someone to boil a pot of water. I know I do, or at least, I used to.

Now, I have begun to eat more mindfully. I try to remember to say a small prayer before I eat each meal (my husband has joined me in this ritual.) I try to take a few moments to stare at the food in an appreciative way, giving thanks for the fact that I am fortunate enough to have food.

Mindful eating was just one lesson. Mindful walking was another. All 15 of us spent most of one class walking very very slowly back and forth across the classroom, thinking about walking. Paying attention to the micro movements of our leg muscles, our foot muscles. We paid attention to the way we lifted our legs, and how we set our feet down on the floor. We paid attention to the way that the floor supported us.

Mindfulness is all about paying very very close attention: paying attention when you breathe. When you eat, when you see, when you walk, when you talk, whenever you do anything. It involves taking time out to be grateful for every one of our blessings, the things we normally take for granted. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that each morning we wake up without a toothache is a day we should be grateful. How many of us say thanks for things like:

Having a bed to sleep in each night.
Having a roof over our heads.
Having clean water to drink.
Having a brain to think whatever we want to think.
Being able to walk.
Being able to chew and digest food.
Being able to hear birds singing.
Being able to hear lovely music.
Being able to see a gorgeous flower, or a stunning rainbow or a special sunset.

Even the so-called dirty chores of our life are, if we alter our perspective, something we can enjoy doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is responsible for inventing the incredibly effective Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the UMass Medical Center in 1979 in order to help people deal with chronic illness and pain (stress is a big factor in most chronic disease) writes very poignantly about how to clean a stove in a mindful way. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the joy of washing dishes, enjoying the warm soapy water on our hands.

Mindfulness isn't very complicated. It's just hard to do. It's hard to stay present. It's hard to stay grateful. It takes energy and sometimes, it takes work. A lot of work.

And so, this summer I do have a job. I have to learn to do nothing. A few days ago, I started to find myself on the edge of that very slippery deck. I started to see the way I could, without much difficulty, go slipping and sliding off the deck into that deep dark pool.

But now I've got a new set of tools, including a book (I didn't use in class) that Lenore Flynn loaned me. It's called Radical Acceptance, by psychologist Tara Brach.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has, like me, trouble slowing down and doing NO THING.

Brach describes in great detail the value of what she calls the Sacred Pause. Stopping, whether for a moment to check in with how we are feeling, or for a day, to contemplate life, or for a season, to take a sabbatical -- all of these are profoundly important activities.

Pausing is, after all, an edict of God's: the Sabbath is a day of rest, a day to stop DOING, and celebrate BEING. That's why, in the old days, stores would close on Sundays, so people everywhere could just sit and enjoy a big family meal.

Brach also preaches, as the book's title suggests, radical acceptance, that is, she suggests that we accept everything about ourselves, be it our unattractive noses, our straight (or curly) hair, our hips, our aging bodies, all of our shortcomings. That's not to say that we settle for all of our faults. But we have to start by accepting who we are, and embracing everything about ourselves, all the "shadow" parts of our personalities that we would just as soon tuck into the closet. It isn't until we embrace ourselves fully that we can begin to make the transformations that we need to make.

She isn't the first writer to discuss the shadow self. Carl Jung coined the term many years ago. Many have written about it (Deepak Chopra has a great book, The Shadow Effect, on the topic, one of my students did her class presentation on it.)

Brach's approach to the shadow is wonderful and compelling. She suggests that sll of us want so much to be loved and accepted that we try to bury our dark impulses. We try to "ignore our anger until it becomes knots of tension in our body; cover our fears with endless self-judgement and blame." (54)

"Our shadow," Brach writes, "is rooted in shame, bound by our sense of being basically defective."

The solution? Stop running away from the dark side. Brach tells a wonderful tale to illustrate her point: "A traditional folktale tells the story of a man who becomes so frightened by his own shadow that he tries to run away from it. He believes that if only he could leave it behind, he would then be happy. The man grows increasingly distressed as he sees that no matter how fast he runs, his shadow never once falls behind. Not about to give up, he runs faster and faster until he finally drops dead of exhaustion. If only he had stepped into the shade and sat down to rest, his shadow would have vanished."

It is with some shame that I admit to my shadow: I admit that I have a desire to be incessantly busy, staying so fully (and sometimes frantically) occupied that I cannot stop and sit and do NO THING. I keep busy so that I remain distracted from what my husband calls the "existential dilemmas" posed by life.

A big part of my "job" this summer is to step into the shade, and rest in the shadow. And use the mindfulness techniques to embrace the moment and contemplate why the shadow has had such a fierce grip on my life.

Mostly, I am hoping that I can learn to do NO THING and have that be OK. It's not that I won't do stuff. Of course I will (and I'll inevitably write about it, because I can't help myself.)

It's just that I want it to be acceptable, and sufficient, to do nothing at all, and simply enjoy the many beauties of summer.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What it Feels like to "Flip the Script"

Note to readers: Jamie Gibbons, a sophomore at the University at Albany, SUNY, wrote a set of very moving "Flip the Script" narratives that involve her grandfather. The first is called "Dead Flowers." The "flipped" story is "Red Roses." Here, Jamie writes about what it felt like to write those stories, and how the writing helped her to accept his passing.

By Jamie Gibbons

The "flip the script" assignment was a very difficult one for me to write. My grandfather and I were extremely close, especially during my teenage years. My grandparents were the two people that I could always count on, and get along with, all of the time. They were my favorite people to visit. My grandfather had been in and out of the hospital for a while. But when he went in during my senior year, I knew things were different, and worse, this time around. The day that I found out that he had passed away was the worst day of my life. My heart was broken into a million little pieces, and my entire life was changed forever.

I hardly talk about that day, or the months that led up to it. It becomes too difficult for me to speak about it, and it only brings back all of the horrible emotions I felt then. But when we received this assignment, something made me want to share my story. As I was writing the first draft, from my point of view, I cried at almost every paragraph. Tears of happiness, from the good memories, and tears of sadness, from the bad moments. It was hard for me to relive that bad of a time in my life.

When I finished that draft, I sent it to my grandmother. I talked to her on the phone every couple of days, and I thought she would like to read this story. After she read it, she called me immediately. She said that she had cried because of how touching the story was to her. I then proceeded to tell her that the other part of the assignment was that I could re-write the story, from my grandfather’s point of view. I told her that I did not know if I could do that. Not only would it be hard, but my grandfather was never one to share his emotions, or make it publicly known how he was feeling about something or someone. She told me that she wanted me to write it, and that I would not have to make up how he felt.

For the next hour, my grandmother told me how my grandfather had always felt about me. She explained how he felt before he went into the hospital, while he was in there, and on his final day. In a way, it was hard for me to hear, because it only made me miss him more than I already did. But, it was also good for me to hear, because it made me realize how much our relationship meant to him as well.

While I wrote down what my grandmother said, and made it into the second story, I cried again. I miss him more and more every day, and these stories made it more difficult. But they also helped me. They made me realize that what I had with him was something great, and that I was so lucky to have had this relationship. The flip the script assignment made me come to terms with my feelings about that event in my life. I realize now that although it will never be a happy memory, the moments I spent during my life with him will always be with me and remain as happy moments.

I would recommend this experience to others to try. I found that this writing helped me release built up emotions that I continued to hold in. Releasing these emotions made remembering that time, and other good memories, easier to talk about. This experience will help others come to terms with how they felt, and how they should continue to feel about the situation they have written about.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Grandmother Comes Back as Ghost to Make Amends

Editor's note: Rebecca Jennings, a UAlbany student majoring in art, took a different approach to the "Flip the Script" assignment, and produced an amazing story.

By Rebecca Jennings

It was kind of an odd feeling, like I had never closed my eyes to begin with. I was there and then all of a sudden I wasn’t. I had just aspired into this. I had waited for my daughter, Jessica to leave to do it. It was so strange; I had waited for it to happen for so long and when it finally did, it came so easy, easier than I thought. I had been so angry and bitter, tired and depressed for so long it all came as a relief and I was surprised how all of that had gone away so quickly.

Where was I? It felt like I was in a big ball of white fog just floating. Where was my body? There was no body. I was just there, suspended. Oy vey, it was all so new. The fog cleared up a little and I could make out a small grey silhouette behind the fog - it was me. I was still on the bed and my children were surrounding me. Time and space flew through air so easily, before I knew it arrangements had already been made and I could feel connections, or better yet, souls pull toward me like magnets. I could already feel the thoughts about me, the emotions. I could feel the movement of people traveling toward me. It had started, my last hurrah, my big bang. Oddly after feeling so bitter about the end I was now somehow excited; it was a new journey to travel, something I yearned to experience once more after I got sick. Also, I had always wanted to know who would arrive in the end. I was always curious about other people’s funerals and now it was my turn.

I spent most of my time exploring my new world and waiting with each family member for the “big bash”. The thought made me giggle to myself a little. I went from each of my children’s homes and then to my husbands and sometimes to my grandchildren and brother. It was depressing of course - sometimes they wept for me, sometimes they didn’t, sometimes they smiled, but mostly, they didn’t. If I chose I could hear their thoughts and feel what they feel, but I just sat with them and watched. I was curious, as I had always been a people watcher. I had watched as each of my mourners covered their mirrors and put on their black suites and outfits.

I sped through the time and space of night and arrived in the car of one of my children, Sharon with my two grandchildren also in the car. Strangely the fog around me moved into a vessel, a body-like craft. I no longer had to float around, and somehow I felt more human, a strange reminder of my former life.

I looked at my eldest grandchild in the front seat, Rebecca. She had a different aura about her. It was somber like everyone else’s, but it was also mixed with something else. It was anger and fear and panic and that’s when it hit me. Why couldn’t he have been first, She thought but it was immediately followed with guilt. It took me by surprise at first, but I understood. We had never had that talk about what happened before I passed - I regretted it now.

She was stiff in her seat, her elbow resting against the door with her head against the glass, looking out. It wasn’t until then that I could feel Rebecca’s knots in her stomach. I remained seated in my vessel next to my other grandchild, Michael as I watched the scene unfold.

She took a deep breath attempting to calm her nerves and Rebecca could smell the faint combination of her mother’s hairspray and perfume. Her attempt was in vain. Her mother, who was already easily agitated, was bickering with her brother, who was sitting in the backseat. Rebecca grew tired of listening to the argument and repressed a loud sigh.

Rebecca slipped on her earbuds, mellowing out to “One Headlight”. The song reminded her of me in a way she couldn’t understand, and she thought about the last few times she had seen me. The difference between the times she saw me on Christmas and the time she saw me two weeks ago was substantial. A single tear trickled down her cheek. She heard her mother answer the phone over the music.

“Sharon?” said a man on the phone.

“Hi Rabbi.” She answered in a sob and hearing the tears in her mother's voice made Rebecca’s eyes water once more. Rebecca hated when she cried, it always made her want to cry right along with her. They drove through the center of Monsey and the neighborhood was filled with people. There were people walking and riding their bikes, traffic nonstop. Buses flew around corners and cars were constantly beeping desperately driving to wherever they were headed. It was a Friday (Shabbat) and everyone was rushing to get last minute errands done before sundown.

Finally they had arrived at their final destination, The Gates of Zion. Sharon parked next to her sister, Esther’s van and she sighed. Rebecca decided to leave her bag and iPod in the car and opened the door, the air was brisk, but strangely she found it comforting. She felt the cool wind brush against her bare legs, her black skirt swayed to the side. The black accentuated her pale skin and she was sure she looked whiter than ever. She saw her Uncle Scott sitting in the van and he gave her a nod.

My body was in the hearse across the big turn around circle next to the graveyard. I sensed my cold body in the pine coffin and gave me the strange sensation of what would have been a chill running down my spine - if I had a spine.

My “eyes” found Rebecca again and I followed her for a bit; she worried me. She was looking around for her cousins and desperately hoped she wouldn’t come across her grandfather yet. She wanted to put that off for as long as possible, and I began to feel my guilt. As a human I was so used to suppressing feelings, so I wasn’t used to accepting the guilt. My other grandchildren walked out of the building to meet her and Michael. Stephanie, the tallest of the three stood before her red and teary. She gave her a hug and then turned to her brother Michael to do the same. Rebecca gave hugs next to her cousins Matthew and Allison. Matthew and Michael went off together to return to their strange comical relationship. They hadn’t seen them in several weeks and it was time for them to come together and catch up on each other’s lives. Watching Michael and Matthew interact was something I missed.

“I just can’t believe it. It all happened so fast. You remember how she was a few months ago.” Stephanie said to Rebecca, and she nodded giving her another hug. Rebecca didn’t know what to say, or how to respond, so she walked away to head inside where everybody else had retired while they waited. She swung the door open and immediately felt regret. An old man stood before her, waiting behind the door, Rebecca suspected that he had probably been waiting for her to walk through it.
“Hi Rebecca.” He greeted her in a way that made Rebecca shutter. I could sense all she ever wanted was for him to pretend she didn’t exist, and only then, she thought everything would be fine.

“Hi” she replied calmly and stalked past him and to where her other aunt, my daughter Jessica, and uncle stood. She could feel the fire in her throat but swallowed it back down to her core. She pleaded for it to stay there, for the sake of her mother. All she wanted was to get through the next few hours without any hysterics. It was hard to hold back some of her disgust, but she was surprised by how easily it was to let go of the panic she had grown accustom to feeling. Oh Rebecca, I’m so sorry I couldn’t understand; I’m sorry I was so unwilling to understand, so hopelessly blind of the abuse. I hoped somehow my apology had reached her ears. It didn’t seem likely; she remained seated in a corner hiding behind the protection of her brother.

Michael had grown up a lot in the past year. Michael and Rebecca were protectors of one another, though they didn’t realize it.

Michael intentionally blocked their grandfather’s view of her - he often worried to himself whether or not she was okay dealing with his presence. Rebecca was more protected than she thought, it was not only Michael who was watching over her, but her mother as well. Sharon would sometimes look over to make sure she was okay; Jessica had a thought or two about how she was feeling as well. Rebecca was right though, to some degree. Most of the time the family had forgotten about what he had done to her, and they still questioned if it had happened or not, but one thing she was wrong about was how much they loved her; how much I had loved her - how much I still loved her.

My husband tried to motion to Rebecca to come over so he could introduce a few people to her, but she decided to leave the room instead, slipping secretly behind people to walk to the graveyard. She didn’t want to deal with it. Why doesn’t he get it? Why don’t any of them get it? She thought. She wanted to visit another person buried in the cemetery, I let her have some privacy and my vessel took me to my children. Sharon and my daughter Esther were talking to old cousins while Jessica and her husband Mitch were talking with my other son Mark explaining that the funeral was going to start soon and that they should start walking.

I watched at the top of the hill as my family and friends walked the trail up to the empty grave - it was a strange sight to see. Many of the older people weren’t even wearing black, they had been to so many funerals they stopped dressing up for it. When everyone arrived at the top my coffin was carried to the grave and lowered down into the deep, cold ground. The wind whipped around everyone and gave the earth a little shiver, and I could feel it beneath me. It was strange seeing some people here that I hadn’t seen or talked to in months, some even years.

It made my vessel shake its “head” and I let out a giggle. All of my four children where lined along the grave with my husband beside them, and my grandchildren were there beside their parents to comfort them. As sad as it was, it was a beautiful sight. Sharon gave a speech and the burying began; each person lined to take a shovel and put as much dirt upon my coffin as they wished - everybody cried, Esther even had a whole tissue box with her. I assumed she was afraid she would run out.

When it was over everyone began to walk back down the big hill ready to resume to his or her lives. A light shined behind me and it brought a foggy mist with it, which rolled onto the grass of the cemetery. My mother stood in the light and I smiled inside, I knew what was next, but I couldn’t leave yet - there was something I still had to do. I watched as Rebecca walked with Sharon to the car and went inside; somehow I just knew what had to be done.

Rebecca I called to her: I love you with all my heart, I always have, and with that message I gave all my strength, my love, and my hope to her. It was all things she needed, to do what she was planning. She wanted to tell everyone how she felt: betrayed by her family for pretending the abuse never happened, like they didn’t care. I knew that when she told them, things could be different for her. I was sorry I couldn’t protect her and talk to her about it, and now it was too late, this was the last thing I could do for her.

As she looked out the window at where I was, I knew it had reached her; tears were in her eyes then and she smiled a little. She was going to be okay. I returned to the top of the hill, where my mother had waited, we smiled at each other, and I went with her into my final journey; wherever it led me I would go.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


By Trevor Williams

Inside our values we find our pain, and inside our pain we find our values.

This is a central element in the philosophy behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Living our life, following our deepest longings, we open ourselves up to true disappointment; we face many 'little deaths' of our self, our ego, each step of the way.

I sat down to write and explore my reactions to receiving the news that I wasn't accepted to the Mind and Life Retreat, and the phrase that came was, "These Moments Define a Person."

How do we act when something we've fully invested ourselves in falls through? What do we do when something we've openly identified with fails? These moments define us, because they show us ourselves. They test us, they call our bluff. They ask, "Are you ready to die? Have you held anything back?" In reality, all moments are like this, but it often takes those intense disappointments and losses to shake us to our senses.

I'm going to relate my experience here through the lens of Buddhism as I understand it; what the practices mean to me, and how they've brought me to this moment here and now.

It begins with mindfulness, with attention to and awareness of our moment to moment experiencing. This is vital; its importance cannot be overestimated. In Island, mynah birds have been trained to fly around the island uttering constant reminders of this essential truth.

“But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now’?”
“Well…” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.” (p12, Island)

This is important enough to me that I intend to dedicate my final paper solely to the exploration of mindfulness, awareness, and attention. For now, I will consider it as the gateway through which the rest of these concepts can be explored.

Mindfulness allows me to take a moment and reflect upon my inner state. It gives me that first inch of space in which I can dive in to myself and see how things really are. In this instance, I find: disappointment, confusion, disbelief, and a brief moment of denial (I caught myself re-reading the email, 'Just in case'!). These come as: "This is rather upsetting, I was really looking forward to this retreat!"; "How could this be, anyway? Wasn't I a perfect candidate, open to experience and full of potential?"; "Maybe I misread the email..."; " but maybe they sent me the wrong one! If I just wait a few moments, I'll surely receive the correct one, along with a sincere apology for their mistake."

Fortunately--thanks to my practice--I was prepared: all of that occurred in the span of a few seconds before shifting to acceptance. Acceptance means two distinct but related things here; literal acceptance of the event as reality, and acceptance of the various thoughts, emotions, and sensations that it evokes. The first half of this is what I meant above by the myriad 'little deaths' of our Self. In the instant I chose to accept the letter of rejection, it could be said that an entire universe of possible selves was put to death. All of those hypotheticals no longer existed; they moved from 'real possibilities' to the realm of fiction, and I had to let them go. We have this habit of holding on to things, clinging desperately out of fears that if we let them die, we too will vanish. But the moment we become entangled like this is the moment we stop living the Reality that IS.

We become stuck because we struggle with the second half of acceptance; acceptance of painful thoughts and emotions. These parts of experience are by definition aversive, but it's important to realize that they're parts of our experience all the same. To reject them is to reject part of ourselves, part of our life. We must learn to allow ourselves to feel deeply both our triumphs and our failures, else we risk losing everything.

This is where the importance of self-compassion can be seen. It acts as a doorway to this acceptance; self-compassion allows us to step back and accept the fact that we're struggling to accept parts of ourselves. It's a meta-cognition, a sort of trick of the mind to allow more space if we find ourselves becoming enmeshed with our experience. "Ugh, this grief is just too much to bear! I can't handle it, there's no way I can accept that" - "Oh wow, there's a part of me that's really struggling here; I can't make the struggle disappear, but I can be compassionate towards that part of myself that's really in pain."

That self-compassion acts like a wedge, a foot in the door. It allows me to see that there was something really difficult about this experience of having my application declined. With just a little push, I then move into compassion (Karuṇā) for others; specifically, the other applicants that also won't be able to participate in the retreat. "If this is difficult for me, then it's probably difficult for the others too. Some elements of it will be unique to each person, but there's also something universal about the experience of having an application denied, or the feeling of rejection in general."

The next step follows naturally through the practice of insight (Vipassanā): "It's not just the people who didn't get in I'm connected too.. everyone that applied had similar aspirations, and although I wasn't selected, that means that there was another applicant who was. I might feel some disappointment that I won't get to be there personally, but in the bigger picture, the experience isn't lost." This is the heart of interdependence, the truth of the causal chains that bind all of reality. It gives me space to feel empathetic joy (Mudita) for the participants who were accepted, and loving-kindness (Metta) towards all involved.

Reflection upon all of this brings hints of equanimity (Upekkhā). Some were accepted, some were denied. Ultimately, nothing here can be judged as either 'good' or 'bad', it's all manifestation of an ever-changing interconnected universe. To hold on to preferences only generates suffering, and it furthers the illusion that we are each a distinct 'Self' disconnected from the rest. There is paradox inherent in using language to communicate this.. even the title of this essay contradicts the idea of 'No Self'. The goal of non-attachment is not detachment, but rather complete, spontaneous engagement with life as it unfolds; true existential freedom.

"Therefore everything that is appears good to me. Death appears to me like life, sin like holiness, cleverness like folly; everything must be just as it is, everything requires only my assent, only my willingness, my loving approval, and for me it is good and can never harm me." (p120, Siddhartha)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Students Flipping Life Scripts: VERY POWERFUL WRITING EXERCISE!!

Students are writing up a storm in response to the Flip the Script assignment. Freshman Taina Wagnac handed in this incredibly powerful story the other day. Two days later, she flipped it around.

Here, first, is her original story, the tale of how she finally was reunited with the father she had never met before:

"A long-awaited reunion"

By Taina Wagnac

I was ten years old when I first met my father. I found him sitting in the living room when I rushed home from school that day, my report cart clutched tightly in my hands. My mother had promised me a brand-new bicycle as a reward for my good grades. He was wearing a silk black shirt with blue jeans. He had an air of power and strength about him. I had no idea who he was until my mother, who sat on a chair across from him, said “well, aren’t you going to hug your father?” I was shocked. I didn’t know I had a father.

The only thing I knew about him was his name, Jean-Mary Wagnac. My mother didn’t keep any pictures of him so I didn’t know what he looked like. No word could have described the many emotions I felt that day. It was a mixture of anger, joy, and sadness. I wanted to run toward him and hug him like I have never hugged anyone before. I wanted him to take me out for a sundae or to the park. But I was rooted to my spot; I could not move.

My father slowly got up from the couch and walked toward me. His eyes glanced down at the white crumpled paper in my hands.

“What you got there kiddo?” he asked in a rusty voice. My father reached for the report card and I felt it slip from my grasp. He began to pace around the living room, looking over my grades and making comments here and there, “a 90 in French…not bad, could be better….need to improve in math…”

As he paced around the room, a wave of anger washed over me. Who was this guy? Who did he think he was, coming back after years of abandonment and immediately assuming the role of my father? I didn’t even know if he was really my father or if this was a joke. I looked over at my mother. She had her elbows on her knees and her hands covered her face. She looked so weak and fragile. My mother dropped her hands from her face and looked at me. She tried to smile but to no avail.

For years, I dreamed of meeting my father. I was the only one of my friends who never had a father waiting in front of the school gates. Every night, I would dream of my reunion with my father. He would bring me tons of gifts and beg me to forgive him. He then would weave these stories of how he was stranded in a forest and had no access to a phone and had no way to communicate with my mother. That, in fact, he did not abandon me and that my mother and I were the only ones that kept him alive.

My so-called father stopped pacing around the living room and looked up from my report card. He looked at me and noticed that my fists were tightly clenched.

“Taina, are you alright?” he asked me quietly, concern showing in his eyes.

Something inside me snapped when he said my name and I let out a bloodcurdling scream. My mother jumped up from the chair, her eyes wide open, and my father dropped the report card and backed away from me. I wanted to scream at him to leave and never come back. My mother and I were fine without him. She was working hard to provide a life for herself and me.

Couldn’t he see that he was no longer needed? I wanted to know why he had left when I was merely a newborn and if he even thought of us and how we were doing. I wanted to know all these things. But when I opened my mouth again, no words came out, only a small whimper. I was afraid of the answers. I didn’t want to know the reasons why he’d left for fear that I was one of them. I was afraid of the truth. In all of my life, I had never felt so small and defenseless.

My world was falling apart and there was nothing I could do about it. Without a word, I escaped to my small room. I lay down on my bed, placed my pillow over my face and let my salt tears flow down my face. Till this day, I barely speak to my father only on birthdays and Christmas. I have yet to forgive him for leaving my mother and me.

NOW READ the FLIPPED SCRIPT, where writer Taina Wagnac gets in touch with her anger. There is of course more than one way to "flip the script," on a story, and ultimately, the idea is to work toward writing a version of the story in which the narrator is able to embrace acceptance and/or forgiveness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"FLIP YOUR SCRIPT" -- Using Narrative to Find Forgiveness by "Rewriting" Life's Dramas

NOTE TO READERS: For the past year and a half, I have been experimenting with writing exercises that show how narrative, or story-telling, may serve as a way of promoting forgiveness and empathy.  I'm calling the exercise "Flip Your Script."

Students in several classes have now completed the exercise and the turnaround in the attitude of many of the writers has been dramatic.

The exercise is simply. In the first part of the assignment, I ask the students to write a story -- with names and details changed -- that presents a situation or relationship with another person or persons that has caused difficulty in life. In the second part of the assignment, I invite the students to think about ways in which they might revise the story, or "flip the script." In effect I am asking the student to step into the shoes of the person who has hurt them, and tell the story from that point of view.

The resulting narratives have been astonishing, and many have led the students to report that they have forgiven the person who hurt them. In some cases, the writer reports a dramatic change in feeling even after writing part one of the exercise.

Here now is Part One of a flip. Stay tuned to see what Lauren Johnson writes next!
By Lauren Johnson
I stood in the doorway of my friend Ricky’s bedroom, completely silent and stiff. I felt as though somebody had kicked me in the stomach, and I could barely breathe. I watched as Ricky and my friend Kim continued to play the song they were working on before I arrived. They seemed completely unaware of my emotional state as they lost themselves in the music coming from their guitars, smiling and nodding at each other through each riff. They were putting together a song for us to perform at our high school’s respect day festival. But at this moment, it was the furthest thing from my mind.
Kim looked up and began to notice that something was wrong. She slowly tripped over her last few chords before stopping altogether. All of the emotion I had been bottling up in those few minutes that seemed like an eternity began pouring out. I finally started to cry, and Kim immediately ran over to me and took me down the hall to the bathroom. Poor Ricky, like most high school guys, was completely out of his element when it comes to consoling a crying girl. He waited in the bedroom as I began to open up to Kim in the bathroom about what had just happened.
It was a cold February night, and I sat bundled up in the passenger’s side of my father’s Explorer as he drove me to Ricky’s house. I was gushing to my Dad about how excited I was for Respect Day. Singing and music was such a huge part of my life growing up, and I loved having the chance to collaborate with friends. We continued to talk about it for another minute or two, when I saw him reach for the knob on the radio, turning down the volume. This moment of silence was never one that led to good news. Like most kids, I knew that cutting out background music was going to inevitably lead to trouble. I began thinking about what I did wrong or worse, what I would be getting grounded for. Nothing could prepare me for what he was about to say.
“Your mother and I decided to separate” he began, “I have an apartment at a complex across town, and I’ll be moving out this week.” I swear I thought I was dreaming. My parents had been married for over 16 years. This couldn’t be real I thought, my heart pounding out of my chest. I began to flashback to times growing up when my little sister and I would yell at them for making out at the kitchen table. This can’t be real, I thought. This isn’t supposed to happen to me. This is what happens to Jackie’s parents, or Craig’s parents. This is what happens to the 60% of families that aren’t mine.
Sticking to my character, I concealed any sign of emotional distress to my father. I was, after all, his Virgo first born. I was the strong one who acted completely rational and coolheaded even when my world felt like it was falling apart. We began discussing the details of the split, although there is only so much you can cover in a 10 minute drive. We pulled up to Ricky’s house, and I told my father I loved him while getting out of the car. Little did he know it was taking every fiber of my being to keep from screaming out loud. I began feeling a flood of emotions from sadness to anger. Everything from “how did this happen!?” to “how could he tell me like this, in a ten minute car ride?!” began to race through my head.
I took a moment to compose myself, as I walked through the front door and began to slip off my boots. My heart continued to race. “Take a deep breath!” I told myself, but my heart wouldn’t cooperate with my head. I heard the faint sounds of two guitars playing in the background. I took one last big breath, and began to head up the stairs to finally face the music.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

This Is Happiness, says the Scottish photographer Who Took the Photo!


Paul Brett, of Edinburgh, Scotland, is a photographer and member of the photo-a-day blog journal called Blipfoto.

A few days ago, he published the photo below under the title "Things That Make Me Happy."

The photo brought tears to my eyes as it made me think back to my own babies, who are now 26, 24 and 21!

The baby pictured here is Daisy Joy Ann Coughlin, named after three generations of grandmothers!

Born on January 25, 2011, at 9 pounds, 5 ounces, Daisy Joy has a grandma named Carole Ann, a great grandma named Joy, and a great great grandma named Daisy.

Congratulations to the whole family. And to Paul, best of luck with your wonderful photography!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

With Mental Training, We Can Change the Physical Form of Our Brains

By Claudia Ricci

If I could recommend only one book from the Happiness class this semester, it would be science writer Sharon Begley's text, TRAIN YOUR MIND CHANGE YOUR BRAIN. (Students are reading Begley's book this week for the class.) If you only had time for one chapter, you could read the opening and take away some incredibly important information.

The premise of the book is very simple: MENTAL ACTIVITY CAN PHYSICALLY CHANGE THE HUMAN BRAIN FOR THE BETTER. It is a revolutionary concept, and it is no New Age pie-in-the-sky promise.

The research laid out in the book is cutting-edge, and it's coming out of some of the most prestigious neuroscience labs around the country. What is perhaps most astonishing about the research is that it is being conducted by researchers IN COLLABORATION with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist monks who are long-time practitioners of meditation. Much of the collaborative research is generated by dialogues between scientists and Buddhist monks who belong to a professional research organization called the Mind and Life Institute, based in Colorado.

What the scientists are finding in the labs as they "wire up" and study the brain activity of the Buddhist monks through functional MRIs (a way of picturing the activity of the brain), is that the long-term practice of meditation and mindfulness dramatically changes the brain for the better. In one set of experiments, researchers found sharp increases in gamma waves in the brains of seasoned meditators, suggesting "the power of mental training to produce a heightened brain state associated with perception, program solving and consciousness."

This heightened gamma activity, curiously, was present in the monks' brains even when they were NOT meditating. The more hours the monks had meditated, the stronger was the baseline gamma reading.

The monks' brains also showed a greater activity in those portions of the brain associated with generating compassion for others.

For years, the prevailing wisdom among scientists, as well as the general public, was that the adult brain was, in the words of a famous Spanish neuroanatomist named Santiago Ramón y Cajal, "fixed, ended and immutable."

As late as 1999, neurologists writing in Science magazine declared that no new brain cells (neurons) could be generated in the adult brain, and that the functions assigned to different portions of the brain were fixed and not changeable.

If something happened to damage that part of the brain that controlled the movement of your left arm, for example, well, then, so be it. You couldn't expect another part of the brain to morph in such a way that it took over the control of the left arm.

New research has now disproved that old dogma of the fixed and immutable brain and instead shown that the brain has enormous plasticity. "The brain," suggests Begley's book, "can adapt, heal, renew itself after trauma, compensate for disabilities, rewire itself to overcome dyslexia, and break cycles of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder."

This is a book worth reading, because the implications are enormous. For older adults, it suggests that keeping active, and challenging ourselves with mental activity -- playing piano, for example -- well into our advanced years, have direct benefits.

The findings also offer hope for people who suffer from depression and other mental illness, like obsessive compulsive disorder. The book offers direct evidence that by learning new ways of thinking -- particularly mindfulness, which is really awareness -- we can rewire the physical meat of our minds.

"By thinking differently about the thoughts that threaten to send them back into the abyss of despair, patients with depression have dialed up activity in one region of the brain and quieted it in another, reducing their risk of relapse. Something as insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion."

There is no way to summarize all of the findings that this book lays out. And the way it's written -- in a lively engaging tone with a lay audience in mind -- all of the research is accessible. Certainly, it isn't the only text on this exciting new nexus of research, connecting neuroscience and Buddhism. This new view of the brain as a highly-mutable organ, is being widely circulated. (National Geographic did a long piece, for example.) But I am particularly impressed with Begley's book, and so are my students.

In June, the Mind & Life Institute's Summer Research Institute will be held in Garrison, New York. Previous summer conferences have been held in Dharamsala, India and Washington, D.C. The summer conference brings together investigators (and graduate students) in neuroscience, psychology and medicine, as well as scholars and mindfulness practitioners. The scientists present and discuss new research on mindfulness and neuroscience; they also engage in meditation practice.

It is difficult to get admission to this popular conference; a wonderful student in the Happiness class has applied for "admission" to the summer research institute. Trevor Williams, who recently graduated from RPI with a degree in biochemistry, and who is planning to apply to grad school in either neuroscience or psychology, recently asked me for a letter of recommendation for the conference. I wrote the letter.

Lenore Flynn, who is teaching the weekly mindfulness "lab" portion of our class and doing a fabulous job, has also applied as a research fellow.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that both of them get to go. And when they come back, I'm hoping they'll share with me some of what they've learned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"My Journal Saved Me My Freshman Year of College!"

By Carrie Holmes

James Pennebaker, psychologist and author of Opening Up, poses a series of questions in the opening chapter of his book.

He asks, “Why do people throughout the world seek to tell their stories? Is there some kind of urge to confess? Is it healthy for us to divulge our deepest thoughts and feelings? Or, conversely, is it unhealthy not to disclose the private sides of our lives?”

While I must admit, most, if not all of these questions never crossed my mind prior to reading them, I was intrigued.

I immediately thought back to the first time I told my story (well part of it, as I do not believe I have told my entire story.)

I tried to recover my feelings and thoughts as I went through that process. What made me tell my story? How did it feel? How did I feel? It became apparent to me that the only way to answer these questions would be to first answer to opposite; what made me not tell my story?

For a long time I carried the secrets of my past, and at some points in my life, secrets of the present. I was yoked to those secrets. They were agents of oppression, and I was in bondage to them. There was this one particular incident: it occurred freshman year of college, during the summer before freshman year, to be exact. I had just met this guy who, at first, seemed very nice to me.

We began seeing each other.

Being young and naïve, I thought this relationship was going to be "it." I thought that I had found the love of my life and I was looking forward to the next four years with him in college.

Then one evening we were in his car and he was driving and suddenly I did not recognize where we were going. He pulled into some abandoned lot and to make a long story short, I was violated sexually.

When I got back to campus, I acted as if nothing had happened. The way I saw it, I was lucky to be alive. I tried my best to forget about it and focus on the remainder of the summer program that was the reason for me being in Albany in the first place.

Many people may think that I was crazy for not telling anyone what happened to me that summer. I can imagine now what some of my friends would have said to me: “You have to go to the cops," and "Don’t you want him arrested?" and "Don't you want revenge?"

To have talked about the issue would have meant that I would actually have had to confront the issue, and as Pennebaker suggests, “Confrontation forces a rethinking of events.” (pg. 10)

Unfortunately I just wanted it all to go away! I was confused, I was hurt, and I was scared by this traumatic experience.

“People are less likely to talk about parental divorce, sexual trauma, and violence than the death of a family member. Death appears to be socially acceptable…” (pg.19). Date rape was something that I had only heard about until that experience, and even so, it was not something “socially acceptable.”

The only accounts I had heard were statistics, or from TV shows. It was not something that was discussed. Even if I wanted to talk about it, I did not know how. Talking about being raped was not something I'd been taught in school. I was still processing it all. I was coping with it the best way I knew how and that was to keep it to myself.

I remember how guilty I felt. It seemed like people always had something negative to say about women who are raped. I also remembered the loud words of a fellow high school student, who had said, “If a girl gets raped it’s her fault for putting herself in that situation.” I couldn’t tell anyone]because I felt that it was my fault, at least that’s what I thought at the time.

I beat myself up every day for being so “stupid.” As every day passed, it became easier and easier to keep it all bottled inside.

No one can deny that talking about what happened to me would have been in my favor, but there were too many things riding on keeping it secret. Back then my friends always saw me as strong, primarily because I had gone through so many other traumas growing up. That was another reason I could not bring myself to talk about what had happened. I did not want my friends to view me as weak or defenseless. I did not want to be exposed. I wanted to remain the strong Carrie that every relied on; I wanted to be the one to help them through their issues.

Pennebaker explores the “healing power” of expressing emotions and writing about traumatic situations. He says that “writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of…rape victims” (pg. 40). When I read this quote I must say that I had to agree. Not only did I agree with this statement but also the statement “writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression.” (pg. 40)

These two quotes really highlight my freshman-year experience. After my assault, I took an English class with one of the most inspiring professors of my college career (she is also helping me now to maintain my sanity senior year.) It was in this professor's class that I began writing about my traumatic experience. She required us to keep journals.

While there were some assignments given, most of what we wrote in our journals was about how we felt and what was going on in our lives. One evening I chose to write about the rape for the first time. I had a lot of feelings. I felt nervous, I wondered what she would think, I felt relived, I felt liberated, I felt sad, I felt angry, and I felt all kinds of ways. I can say today that that was one of the best choices that I have made in my life.

As Pennebaker suggests, writing about my experience allowed me to understand how I felt. Journaling also allowed me to get some closure about the situation; I was no longer hostabe to the secret. I could move on. I was no longer depressed about the situation.

Although there were still things going on in my life that caused stress and depression, I had discovered writing and realized what a very good coping mechanism it could be for me. And so I wrote my way through freshman year. With every opportunity that I got, I wrote about an experience, whether in a journal entry, or a class assignment, I wrote.

If there was anything that I could add to Pennebaker’s work, it would be the fact that writing about a situation that is traumatic gives you power over it. Through my writing I was able to recreate a lot of situations that felt like they were out of my control; that proved to be very helpful in my healing process.

I have come to understand that although my reasons for not telling my story may have been valid, and even “normal,” expressing myself has had many benefits. Through writing, a different feeling came over me; something shifted in my life.

Truly, Pennebaker is right: “a change does come over people when they write about traumatic experiences for the first time.” (pg. 43)

I know one thing: I'm glad I wrote, and I will continue writing!

Carrie Holmes is a senior at the University at Albany, State University of New York.