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, 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)

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