How to Write and Think and Meditate Yourself Into Being Happier: The HAPPINESS CLASS!
ERDG 491Z -- University at Albany, SUNY
Professor Claudia Ricci, Ph.D.
READING & WRITING THE HAPPIER SELF: Spring 2012
Reading and writing transform the way we think, and how we see ourselves in the world. Neurological research now shows that changing the way we think can produce positive physiological changes in the brain. At a time when an epidemic of mental health issues plagues our nation, and threatens to paralyze students in the academy, this class presents a set of cognitive tools and practical skills that will help students refine and enhance their educational goals while examining a broad range of life issues. Beginning with philosophical ideas set forth by Aristotle, the class will rely on texts from psychology, neuroscience, literature and narrative theory, to open up discussions about the patterns of human behavior and thinking that tend to produce lasting fulfillment and deep reward. In keeping with research by psychologist James Pennebaker and others who have demonstrated the value of expressive writing, students will engage in extensive journaling and other self-reflective writing assignments as they seek to define what it means, and what it takes, to find happiness. Part of the work in the classroom will be to help students identify their individual “signature strengths” that can produce what positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines as “authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” In addition to classroom work, a special two-hour laboratory session, with attendant readings and writing exercises, will be required each week; students will work with experts in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spirituality and stress reduction, and will document how these techniques can help the student better cope with the inherently stressful nature of University life.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
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.