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.

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

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