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, February 21, 2012

In honor of Dr. Horace F. Martin, a much-belated THANK YOU

Sometimes we say thank you right away. But sometimes it takes us a long, long time to realize how grateful we are for someone's act of kindness. Sometimes, we wait a little too long to say thanks.

This is a letter of gratitude that I probably should have written in 1972, or shortly thereafter. That was the year I was a sophomore in college. It was the end of March when I broke up with my high school sweetheart. We'd been together for three years and had an amazing relationship. Considering how old we were, it was quite something.

Which made it all the harder when we mutually decided that it was time we experienced college separately. We sat together in Harvard Square (where he was going to school) and he sang me songs on his guitar all night. And then, as the light of day made its way onto the city streets, we parted. I can vaguely remember that I walked away. And waved.

That was the romantic part. What came after was tumultuous. I was devastated. I had lost my best friend. I had lost my anchor. I was back at Brown, completely unhinged.

I couldn't study. I couldn't focus. I can remember walking the streets of Providence in a blur, mourning my lost love. I was sinking quickly into my first bout of depression. I tried going to the counseling center. It didn't seem to help.

And then came a kind of guardian angel in the form of a lab instructor.

Dr. Horace Martin, who was a practicing physician in the Providence area, was my lab teacher. At the time he seemed older, as in, he was balding and a bit heavy set in a middle-aged kind of way. Looking back, he was probably about 40.

He was a kind man, and as luck would have it, he was very very intuitive. I hadn't given him any direct indication that I was in trouble. I was shuffling through the lectures on base pairs and DNA structure. I'm not sure how, but somehow this man figured out that I was deeply depressed.

I don't even remember the particulars of how he approached me. All I recall looking back is that he made it clear he knew I needed someone to talk to. Someone to lean on.

He told me about his family. He told me he had seven children, and they all lived near Providence. He asked me if I would like to come to dinner with his family.

I went. I remember nothing in particular except that his wife made a big family dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. I remember the warmth of the family. The kind of family I'd grown up with.

After dinner, he and his wife insisted I stay over for the night. I did and the next morning, Dr. Martin drove me back to campus.

That morning, he gave me the best advice perhaps that anybody, certainly any teacher, ever gave me. He told me to be very very good to myself. He told me that every single day of my life I had to treat myself to something special. Even if it was a very little treat. Buy yourself a candy bar, he told me. Looking back, I think I see why this man reached out to me. I think he saw a kindred spirit. Here in his classroom he recognized the danger signals, the signs that a student was suffering, or at least having a very rough time. I suspect he'd had his rough moments, and here he was, paying back.

So why am I writing this now, almost 40 years later?

I am teaching a new class called Reading and Writing the Happier Self at my university. We are reading all kinds of books about happiness -- texts from neuroscience, psychology, narrative theory, literature, as well as readings in contemplative pedagogy and spiritual practice. The lab for this class is a series of classes in mindfulness-based stress reduction.

One of the best books we are reading -- a student favorite -- is Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness, a book I've written about before. A book that has changed my life. A book that basically says we have to love ourselves and everyone else in the world. Not in a sentimental or passionate way, but in a way that brings out our deepest compassion. Even our enemies deserve our compassion, our "metta" (which can be translated from the Indian Pali language as "love" or "lovingkindness.") Much of Salzberg's book is devoted to the metta practices, the meditations that are designed to help us learn to love ourselves and others, including the most difficult people in our lives.

At one point Salzberg writes: "Great fullness of being, which we experience as happiness, can also be described as love. to be undivided and unfragmented, to be completely present, is to love. To pay attention is to love."

Dr. Martin paid attention to me, in a way that teachers frequently do not. He recognized my suffering and tried to be present for me.

I've thought about Dr. Martin's kindness many times through the years. About two years ago, I decide to try to find him. I tried finding him through the Rhode Island Medical Society. I tried finding him through the internet's White Pages. I found a few listings, including two for Horace Martins who were in their 80s. I didn't do anything further.

But now I regret that I didn't keep trying.

I wrote to a very nice editor at the Brown Alumni Monthly today and asked her if she could help me locate him.

It didn't take but a few minutes for her to respond, sadly, with his obituary. Dr. Martin died in April, 2010 of lung cancer, at the age of 79. He left his wife and seven children behind. In this obituary I learned that he had several degrees and so many professional accomplishments.

I am sad to think that had I done this two years ago, I might have sent him a thank you letter, one he richly deserved.

I think perhaps I should send this now to his family.

I think of him so often, especially as I am teaching this new class. I think of the lessons he taught me: the one about being good to myself. But the other one too: to attend to students. He showed me by example how important it is to pay close attention to not only the minds of your students, but to their hearts as well. He taught me to keep my eye out for those students whose faces make it apparent that they are really suffering. He taught me not to be afraid to reach out to a student to show her or him that you care, that you are there for them. That you are really present.

Lately, I've been getting more and more immersed in contemplative pedagogy -- a term that applies to the use of some rather ancient practices, like meditation, self reflection, in university classrooms. There are many benefits to these practices; they appear to help students both academically, by developing better focus and thinking skills, and also, emotionally, by promoting well-being. There is a growing movement among university educators to use contemplative practices to engage the whole student.

Last year, the first year I taught Happiness, I told my students that this new class was in part a tribute to a teacher, to Dr. Martin.

I now want to tell the world, and his family. I am eternally grateful for his simple act of kindness in 1972.

Had he not taken me home to dinner with his family, fed me spaghetti, I might have ended up dropping out of school.

Instead, I stayed. And today, as a teacher, I try as often as I can to pay back his kindness with my own kindness to other students, recalling always what he did.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ocean Refuge

Put down your pen, your pencil, your books and close your notebook.

Sit in a comfortable position, and close your eyes.

Take a long slow breath in, and let it out through your mouth.

Breathe normally. And now, with your eyes closed, see yourself sitting in the sun, on a soft blanket in the sand. You are staring out there onto the emerald green water, and the waves are cresting, and sparking and glinting in the rays of the sun.

You are there for the day, just to lay in the sun. Or to seek refuge in the shade of a palm or a pine tree or a cypress.

You breathe in the salty air and it clears out all the winter fog and congestion.

You feel the warmth of the sun on your face

and shoulders

and back

and chest,

You have to do nothing but sit there in the sand


and breathing and staring out at the green water.

With each breath in, maybe you want to name it.

Breathe in. Sun.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Ocean.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Sky.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Earth,

Breathe out.

And keep going, repeating the names for each breath.





Over and over again. And when another thought enters your ocean refuge, just let it go sailing out over the waves, and return to your breathing,