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.

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.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Light Passing through Red Tulips

Sitting at breakfast
I stare at light passing through

The glow
of the flower flesh is so
delicate, so
fresh so alive so layered
so pink so purple
so dark so light
so shadowed and cupped and
bottomed white.

The straight green stems
hold them up to the light.

I think,
I've just got to put
all this so fresh so alive
into words.
But I cannot possibly.
Even the 1,000
words of a picture doesn't
close come to it.

I sit and stare at
light passing through
red tulips.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Note to Readers: Students in the Happiness Class this week read psychologist James Pennebaker's book, Opening Up, which presents very persuasive evidence that writing one's deepest thoughts and feelings leads to direct improvements in health. Pennebaker studied groups of college students who wrote several times a week about troubling events and the emotions associated with those events. His research suggested that students who did this "expressive writing" had fewer visits to the health center, stronger immune systems, and lower levels of stress.

In her weekly response paper, Lori Walker chose a marvelously creative way to express her reactions to Pennebaker's book. Her short story, "ROOMMATES" follows here. What a great job, Lori, thanks so much for this! And thanks for last week's fabulous response paper too, a first-class essay on Albert Camus' puzzling character, Meursault!!

By Lori Walker

I have the worst roommates ever. Seriously, it’s really bad. I don’t remember meeting them, I don’t remember them moving in, and I don’t remember ASKING them to move in. One day they were just there, in my space, using my resources, wasting my time. My house is not big enough for all of them, and besides, I was here first.

Most of the time I can keep them locked in their rooms, but it’s not easy. They are clever, and they whine, and beg and yell and scream to be let out; but isolating them is really my only option. I can’t even walk around my house. There is this one girl who just follows me around, just yelling at me. She balls up her fists, her dirty blond hair in her face and her face twisted into an ugly grimace. Every minute of every day. She gets right up in my face, I feel spit as she yells the words:


There is another girl too, she isn’t as aggressive as Blondie, but just the same, she follows me around all day, all night. She’s always crying, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without her sniffles, her tears, her puffy red eyes.


She’s tugging at my shirt, she is blocking the doorways. She looks up at me with her glassy eyes, her chin quivery and snot running down her face; I can’t stand looking into those big brown pathetic eyes.

Those are the worst of the roommates. There is a boy too though. He’s gorgeous; he is never aggressive, never mean, and never nasty. He generally keeps to himself and stays in his room.

Oddly enough, though, he bothers me the most. If I go past his room, he just looks at me. Stares at me. Looks through me. His perfect face is like stone, his golden red 5 o’clock shadow covers his strong chin, his green eyes are filled with pain, and your heart aches to look into them.

“What did I do? How could you? I loved you, didn’t you love me?”

His eyes fill with tears, and I walk down the hall.

The old lady comes out of her room. She looks me square in the eyes and says, “Sweetie, you are alone. I’m sorry but that is the truth. No one will ever love you, you are tainted.” She stands with her hand on her hip and sticks her finger in my face. I smack it away. She smells of a sweet perfume, and hairspray. She makes me feel like I could be safe with her in the house. She hugs me, strokes my hair and whispers to me. “Honey, you are alone, always alone. No one will ever be there; nothing will make you feel better.”

I push her away and go to my room.

I can’t sleep most of the time, after I lock everyone in their rooms. I go to my own room and try to get some peace.

My head feels fuzzy, my eyes droop, the world is starting to fade away, and then I hear it.

It’s so soft sometimes that I miss it, other times it's so loud I fear my head will explode. It’s a baby, or a toddler, I don’t know. I’ve never seen it, just heard it. One night its cries were so loud, so desperate, that I went down the hallway to the room they were coming from. I thought that if I could save this baby from whatever was happening, then I could get some sleep, some peace, some serenity. But when I got to the door, I couldn’t open it.

The baby squealed, wailed actually, like a tiny banshee. I’ve never heard a more terrible sound. A tired little whimper escaped from the room. I thought back to my childhood, when my grandmother and I would volunteer at the pound. I remembered that whimper. The puppies there had been abused. I remembered holding one puppy's tiny shaking body. He had been beaten, tortured, starved.

I remember how I could feel his ribs through the mangy fur; I kissed him on his torn ear. I would play with him, nuzzle him, love him; and then it was time to go. I promised the mutt that everything would be ok, that I would find it a home. I never kept that promise. Like the puppy this baby had to be alone too. Probably scared, hungry, wet, and shivering. Its cries are so piercing. If only I could make them stop. The door won’t open, and you know what? Maybe I don’t want to open it. So I go back to my room and lay down. The crying stops. It’s whimpering now, soft sobs, heart wrenching sobs.

I wake up the next day and it’s very quiet. I sit in bed, still warm with sleep, and enjoy the sound of nothing. I get up and open my door, preparing myself for the walk down the hallway. I take a step out on the cold floor…



I push Blondie out of the way; the old woman is trying to embrace me, I tug my shirttail away from the brunettes blubbering, I feel the boys eyes grasp onto me. The baby is crying again. Whose baby is that? I turn the corner and then I see her, the Beauty Queen.

Sometimes I forget she is there, she never talks, never does anything. She just sits in from of the mirror, curling her hair, painting her nails, straightening her hair, trying on blue make up, pink makeup, ooops...too much eyeliner. She braids her hair.

She is pretty, until you see the scars. Her arms are covered in them, small straight cuts, all the same size, they start at her wrist and go up to her elbow. Some are white scares, some are just pink, most are crimson red, and others are still caked in blood. If you look closely you can see her legs have scars too. She sits there and tries to cover them with makeup, but there are too many, they are too deep, they are fresh enough that they sting. Frustrated she throws the makeup brush at the mirror; claws at her hair, black tears streak her face, her makeup ruined. Then suddenly, as if someone had drugged her, she stops. Then like nothing ever happened, starts brushing her hair again, starts painting on her face again.

The baby is crying, that piercing banshee shriek again, why won’t anyone help it? I head back to my room but to no avail the yelling continues.


I try to push Blondie off, but she is so strong. I squirm out from underneath her fall into the old woman’s arms.

“She is right you know. Sweetie, no one will ever love you, and no one ever did. That’s just how life is.”

I push her away, the crying brunette pulls at my shirt, tries to get close to me, tries to get my attention, she is so close I can feel her tremble, taste her salty tears. The baby hollers. I’m scrambling to get away, I need a way out, Blondie and the old women are smothering me again, I smell perfume and hairspray, I taste salt, I feel nails breaking my skin. The baby’s wails pierce my ears. I’ve fallen into the boy’s frigid room. His eyes are so cold they shatter my heart. Beauty Queen throws a hairbrush my way, a tube of lipstick hits my cheek. And suddenly I can’t stand it anymore.


As I escape towards my room, I can’t breathe.


I reach my room, lock the door and sink to the floor in a mess of blood, tears, and humiliation. I didn’t ask for this, I don’t want this. I don’t remember falling asleep.

I wake up in my bed, still dressed from yesterday and decide that I’m not going to put up with this anymore. I go to my desk, rummage through the draws for a paper and pen. I’m going to write the roommates a letter, it seems silly, and perhaps it won’t change anything, but this way they will know how I feel. Before I know it the pencil is scratching on the paper. My hand flows so fast I can barely read what I’m writing.

Blondie, don’t ever touch me again, I am worth something, I am a person.

The point of the pencil breaks, and I don’t even care.

I was wrong, please don’t cry anymore, I’m sorry for what I’ve done, will I ever see love in those green eyes again?

My wrist is burning, the wood digging into my pencil.

Beauty Queen, you are beautiful, you don’t need makeup, let those scares heal, you are gorgeous just how you are. Little baby, If I could find you I would help you. Where are you? How can I save you?

Seconds turn into minutes, minutes into hours, I am finally done. I stand up, and get ready to give these letters to the roommates. I open my door, and it’s silent.

The air is still, it’s bright in the house. The sun is shining in the windows, and you can see the dust in the air. I hear birds. I walk down the hallway, and look into the bedrooms. Nothing, the boy is gone, Blondie is gone, no one is crying, no one is looking in the mirror. The house is silent, it’s just me. I just stand in the center of it all and look around. Everything in a mess, furniture is overturned, plates are smashed, the wallpaper is coming right off the walls. I don’t smell hairspray, I don’t smell anything. I hear my own heart beat, the sound is foreign.

I spent hours walking about the house, MY house. I started to clean things up; I opened the windows to let fresh air in. I laughed for no reason, I sang in the shower. My house was mine again; I was alone with myself and my thoughts. I began looking around for any trace of my roommates. Searching in corners, closets, breezeways, I found nothing.

I found them in the most peculiar spot. I found them in my room; on my desk. Buried in the pages of my journal. They were all there, I could see them all in the pages, and they were locked away there.

The house is slowly being repaired, it needs a lot of work; but it feels good to fix it. I found a baby crib and a yellow baby blanket. I haven’t moved it out of the house yet, I don’t know why. Sometimes I’ll find a bassinet in a closet, or a rattle on my dresser. I have yet to decide whether I’m bothered by the small tokens. I’ve had other roommates move in, but they have only stayed in the house for a short time. I’ve learned to deal with them, if they get too rowdy I just sit and write them a letter, and they get the point. I still have that journal, and more roommates have moved into it. My journal of solitude.

Writer Lori Walker is a junior at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is majoring in Psychology.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Thoughtful Student Wrestles and Finds "Moment to Moment" Meaning in Camus' "The Stranger" --

NOTE TO READERS: Trevor Williams, a recent graduate of RPI, with a major in biochemistry, is currently enrolled as a non-matriculated graduate student in the Happiness class. What follows is his extraordinary response paper this week, in which he reacts in a very deep and thoughtful way to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Williams' paper was three times the assigned length! It offers thoughtful, as well as philosophically- and spiritually-sophisticated insights into the existential dilemma posed by Camus' classic novel. The book features a narrator named Meursault, for whom life appears to have no meaning. What is always ironic and extraordinary (and somehow delightful to me as a teacher of literature) is how students like Trevor wrestle with meaning in a narrative that suggests life has no meaning!

For all your hard work thinking this paper through, Trevor, a HUGE THANK YOU. I am so grateful that you are in my class this spring, and I am deeply grateful for this amazing piece of written work!

As I first read the last section of The Stranger, I found myself caught up in the desperate hope for a way out. I could feel my own anticipation manifest in a desire for Meursault to be pardoned. I was swept along with the narrative, and I felt the incredible weight that was pressing down upon him. I, too, wished for him to have another twenty years to his life. And it was because of this hope that I missed the larger metaphor.

After a moment’s pause, I reread the chapter. It became readily apparent that all along, he wasn’t really discussing the situation of a condemned prisoner; he was talking about the fate that every living being shares.

I believe Camus is speaking directly to the moment each of us discovers our own mortality. There were two nights in my own life not long ago (during a time of struggle) that, as I was drifting off to sleep, I was confronted with the finite nature of my life. I’ve never seen that experience put so precisely in to words. ‘The verdict’ Meursault is referring to here is nothing more than the fact that we’re alive, than that we exist at all.

I feel that there are two key facets to this realization. The first is the ‘arrogant certainty.’ Death is an absolute; it is guaranteed from the moment we’re born. That alone is enough to lend the quality of absurdity to the experience.

But perhaps more profound is how little changes upon discovering our transient nature. I remember feeling this primal sense of horror or revulsion, deep in the pit of my stomach, and I realized that no one around me would understand. Moreover, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. No matter how thoroughly I explored the issue, there was nothing I could do to escape death. And the maddening part is how casually the mind will slip into patterns and routines, quickly covering up all the disconcerting evidence.

I love the translator’s choice of ‘imperturbable.’ It captures the sense of inevitability, the unceasing flow of each moment towards death, but it also implies the subtle nature of the process, how deceptively calm it all feels. Meursault eventually finds relief in this, referring to ‘the gentle indifference of the world’.

When I awoke in the morning following those two nights of struggle and realization, I meditated upon the experience, and I was overwhelmed by a flood of compassion. In accepting the certainty of death, I felt connected to all of life –- everything that had ever lived, that was presently living, and that ever would live. The universality of death is an equalizer – I believe that Meursault saw this too, in a way, when he said, “Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as his wife."

There was another aspect to the whole experience that made it feel a bit maddening: how difficult it was to find people who understood. I was raised agnostic, and I believe that had a lot to do with how directly I experienced that sense of mortality. I can empathize with Meursault’s frustration with the chaplain. Religious beliefs (or the lack thereof) can be so fundamental that everything else in a person’s life is based around them. When confronted by the chaplain about the wish for another life, Meursault replies that he’d wish for “One where I could remember this life!”

Camus isn’t denying the very human desire for transcendence.

What he’s trying to say is that it frequently comes at a cost – it limits our valuation and experience of this life.

I felt as though I had woken up, but everyone around me was still asleep. In Meursault’s situation, everything is sharpened to the absolute limit – he is acutely aware of his impending death, and he wants to savor each and every moment he has left. He is frustrated by the chaplain because the talk of God or an afterlife only serves to take him out of the present. He doesn’t want to miss a single drop of life.

The reality is that it’s always like this. No matter how long we think we have left to live, each moment is just as precious as the next. The human mind has a very hard time accepting this, and so it requires constant vigilance. One of the points of mindfulness practice is to realize this truth.


Meursault’s discussion of the guillotine gets at this fundamental misperception: “For a long time I believed—and I don’t know why—that to get to the guillotine you had to climb stairs onto a scaffold. … I was made to see that contrary to what I thought, everything was very simple: the guillotine is on the same level as the man approaching it. He walks up to it the way you walk up to another person.” We often have a sense that death is a distant, foreign concept – something that will happen to us eventually. But there’s this sort of assumption that we’ll have to take some form of action, somehow be a willing participant. And so we procrastinate, we put off the difficult but meaningful things that we’d like to accomplish. We let ourselves get caught up seeking the moment to moment pleasures, but miss out on the moment itself.

Meursault also accurately points out the problem with hope – it is inherently future-minded and it implies a level of non-acceptance of the present. The line that struck me the most in the entire book—what I consider the most important teaching Meursault has for us—is summed up in his discussion of dawn: “They always come at dawn, I knew that. And so I spent my nights waiting for that dawn. I’d never liked being surprised. If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there.

We’re all aware of sayings like, ‘Live each day as if it were your last’ and ‘Carpe Diem’, but I believe we misinterpret them. Our culture reacts with reckless abandon, determined to squeeze every last drop out of life. ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ is another great example. These feel more nihilistic than accepting to me. We rush around over-scheduling our lives, doing our best to make sure we don’t waste a single day, but that’s missing the point. I think it’s borne out of fear – it takes immense courage to fully embrace the inevitability of death and not become frantic or desperate.

I’ve had a very hard time convincing people that it’s logically possible to be optimistic and compassionate while rejecting hope and embracing the absurd. I’d like to conclude with a portion of an interview I read – Pema Chödrön captures it perfectly:

bell hooks: Well, that brings me to my final issue. I have written it in big block letters: DON'T EVEN THINK FOR A MOMENT THAT YOU'RE NOT GOING TO DIE.

Pema Chödrön: Right. "Don't even think for a moment that you're not going to die." Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said that to a friend of mine who had cancer and was close to death and was having trouble accepting it. And instead of it coming across to her as cruel, it came across as immense kindness, that someone was telling her the truth.

bell hooks: It does seem that so much of our longing to escape has to do with the sense that the closer I am to suffering, the closer I am to death.

Pema Chödrön: For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death—which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together—seems to be the most fundamental thing that we have to work with. Because these endings happen all the time! Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to feel that we're supposed to experience just the birth part and not the death part.

We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you're never in control. You're never in control. You can never hold on to anything. That's the nature of how things are. But it's almost like it's in the genes of being born human that you can't accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it. Training to allow all that to be there, training to die continually. That seems to be the essence of the lojong teachings—to stay in the space of uncertainty without trying to reconstruct a reference point.

We can stop looking for some idealized moment when everything is simple and secure. This second of experience, which could be painful or pleasurable, is our working basis. What makes all the difference is how we relate to it.

Excerpted from

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New Harvard Research Shows that Mindfulness Meditation Produces Positive PHYSICAL Changes in the Brain!!

The word is out. Just about every day, a new article appears celebrating the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation.

Last week, The New York Times featured an article by a woman writing about her husband's discovery of mindfulness meditation. Technically the class he took was called "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction," or MBSR. MBSR was developed at the UMass Medical Center some 30 years ago by then Professsor of Medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, who used the mindfulness training to treat patients with chronic pain, stress and depression. In the last three decades, thousands of people have been helped by the program and training that Kabat-Zinn developed.

MBSR meditation features prominently in the Happiness class I am teaching for the first time this semester at SUNY. My students are taking MBSR with nurse-trainer Lenore Flynn in a mandatory lab on Wednesday afternoons.)

Flynn worked with three of my students in an independent study in the Fall of 2010 (a test run for the new class!) The results were quite remarkable. One student, psychology major Allyson Pashko, had been suffering from such intense stress a year ago that she was physically ill (and hospitalized.) Doctors could not figure out what exactly was wrong with her.
Allyson is a new person today. She emailed me last week out of the blue to report that she is still seeing the positive effects of the mindfulness work she did last fall. This is an excerpt from her email:

"Now for the great news, I actually ended up recieving a job offer a couple
of weeks ago with a Long Island company that offers learning processes... I just started training this week and I believe I will go through about 2 weeks of full-time training and then observations to make sure I really understand the program. It is such a great place and
I can't be more excited!

Now for the best part, when I went in for the interview, the last thing the director said to me was, "well you seem like a very positive person, I'm sure you will be a great fit!" I thought to myself WOW! I can't believe that someone had actually said that to me. I thought back to all
of the work we had done last semester and it really helped me so much!

I just wanted to share with you my wonderful experience and I'm not sure this all would have been possible without all of your continued help. I
hope you can share my story with your students and it will encourage them to really work to their fullest and understand that this class really makes wonders happen."

In the Times article, the writer said that her husband had gone on a ten-day MSBR retreat. "Not my idea of fun," she said, "But he came back rejuvenated and energetic." Indeed, he was so transformed by the experience he decided to start meditating an hour in the morning and an hour every evening. The writer added:

"I’ll admit I’m a skeptic."

Meanwhile, though, she pointed to a new study, not the first, which suggests that 8 weeks of meditation can produce important physical improvements in the brain that lead to more well-being in life!

The Harvard research suggests that individuals who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in the gray matter of the hippocampus (associated with increased learning and memory) and importantly, a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, that chunk of the brain associated with anxiety and stress! The control group showed no such changes.

The study appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

The fact that only eight weeks of meditation produced brain changes that could be detected by MRI imaging is remarkable. What does this suggest for individuals who, like the husband of the The New York Times writer, are committed to trying to make mindfulness meditation part of their regular practice? Quite ironically, as I am writing this post, I hear my own husband upstairs. He just started chanting the "om" that signals the start of his own meditation. He's been meditating for almost four years now. He started during a time of great stress; he came home one day and I had set up a small meditation space for him in the bedroom, a quilt on the floor, a small table and a candle. (Later he got rid of the table, and we bought him a fancy round pillow.)

To all those people who are contemplating trying meditation, I say, go for it. Don't start by trying for half an hour though. To start, set a timer for say, five or eight minutes max.

Perhaps the best way to start is to take a class; it helps to have regular instruction and the support of a trained teacher and a group of people around you.

Meditation has changed my life profoundly. It has helped me to live without anti-depressant medication, and that is something I never ever thought would be possible. It's also given me enormous energy. (People keep asking me how I write so much; I tell them I have a lot of energy and I credit meditation.) It's not just that you feel more relaxed sitting on the mat, focusing on breathing in and out. IT'S OFF THE MAT THAT YOU SEE GREAT CHANGES TOO!

All through the day when life throws its wrenches my way, I stop and take in a long slow breath and say, OK, just let it go. Just stay focused. Just realize that "this too shall pass" (one of my Mom's favorite quotes!) I really think that the meditation practice I started in 1996 has made me see life in a different way. It's made me happier, and it's showed me how to find joy even in the weirdest small moments when you wouldn't otherwise expect to find joy!

This winter for example, I am like most folks, not loving all the snowstorms and the fierce cold. But I'm watching (being mindful) of my reactions to the incessant snowfall. All I can say is, I am not going totally crazy.

I tell myself, "it is what it is. It will be what it will be." I get nervous looking at that block of ice, now approaching two feet in thickness on the porch roof. I start to worry that it might bust up the roof. I breathe. I say. Whatever it will be (I also take the roof rake to it!)

But if it wrecks the roof, well, so be it. We will deal. We will get the roof repaired.

Yesterday I was trying to cross the backyard to bring the compost outdoors. I wasn't even trying for the spot we've got set aside back behind the garage. Much too far, and way too much snow. No, I had decided to go just to the edge of the yard beyond the old apple tree.

It was so exhausting, sinking deep into drifts with each step. Finally, half-way to my goal, I collapsed, and just sat there, me and the compost container, sunk in the snow. I started to laugh. I found this bizarre situation comical. Instead of being annoyed and angry about being trapped by snow, I said to myself, hey, might as well accept it. It's just...snow. It will eventually go away and spring will come and all those hundreds of tulip and daffodil bulbs will come poking up out of the lawn.

I struggled up out of the snow and trudged the rest of the way across the backyard.

Mindfulness has taught me to let go and stop resisting whatever it is that I am fighting. I'm also learning to stop complaining and whining about this and that. I've learned to try to find the smallest moments of joy in whatever it is I am doing. In our first mindfulness class last week, Lenore Flynn led us through the "raisin-eating" experience (famous in MBSR-training.) You take a couple of raisins in your hand and you pretend that you've just arrived from another planet and you've never seen raisins before.

You spend long minutes just staring at those raisins. You look at the shape and the color and the texture and the minute wrinkles.

Then, just when you think you can't stand another minute of raisin-contemplation, you start to feel them with your fingers. And then you slip them in your mouth. But no eating -- you feel how the raisins feel in your mouth, on your tongue.

In other words, you become mindful of what it feels like to eat a raisin.

All week since that class I have been much more mindful of what I've eaten. Interestingly, some practitioners are using mindfulness with diets and food disorders. Making people more mindful about what they eat helps people to slow way down and to appreciate every morsel of food that they put into their mouths. This kind of food-related mindfulness training tends to get people to eat less and enjoy food more.

There are also specific mindfulness classes designed to help depression.

Well, so, mindfulness, like life, isn't perfect. It doesn't always work. I still curse and get frustrated and angry. But I can pull myself back from the brink. I can think myself out of dark corners. I can live with what happens. I am way more forgiving of myself and others, and unfortunate (and worse) circumstances.

To the skeptical New York Times writer (her name is Sindya N. Bhanoo), I have two things to say: thank you SO much for writing this article. And very humbly and respectfully I would add: try joining your husband. Try meditating!

P.S. I also want to thank my husband for forwarding The New York Times link about Bhanoo's article to me; in forwarding it, he told me that this article was one of the most frequently viewed on the Times site! Now that is quite remarkable. And is it any wonder! We have the capability of changing our brains for the better! What a great message!