FIFI book club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, intro and Chapter 1

The cover of the book Real Happiness, by Sharon Saltzberg.

The cover of the book Real Happiness, by Sharon Saltzberg.

 Hi readers, and welcome to the first installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

This week we’re starting with the introduction to the book and Chapter 1. The book clubbers also share a bit about their experiences with meditation.

For next week, we’ll be reading Chapter 2: Why Meditate? Feel free to join us.

Now, on to the reflections. Let’s start with Tracy.

Tracy: I’ve been meditating off and on, when in my last few months of grad school I was maximally stressed out and needed to find a way to manage my anxiety. I taught myself using a book called The Joy Within: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation (Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares, 1992). Like Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-day Program, the book I used in 1992 offered a four week introduction to meditation. They have a slightly different approach than Salzberg, who recommends starting with 20 minutes, three times a week and then increasing the number of times of week until it’s a daily practice. Goldstein and Soares recommend starting with a daily practice, but aiming only for five minutes the first week, ten the second, 15 the third, and then finally hitting 20 in week four. That worked for me then because even two minutes of sitting quietly seemed like an eternity when I was just starting out.

I don’t need to be “sold” on the benefits of meditation. I cannot imagine life without it anymore because it is the only way I really get the mental break I need. It also gives me perspective and equanimity that spills over into the rest of my life. That said, I get in and out of routine with it, and right now I am fully out. I was supposed to spend four weeks at the Ontario Vipassana Centre this summer, meditating anywhere from 5-10 hours a day, but because of COVID that didn’t happen. This four week program might be just what I need to get back in touch with what I call “my inner silence,” which is the “place” I go when I meditate. Over the years, I have learned to get myself there whether I have a few seconds, a few minutes, or an hour.

I am going to try my best to approach the four-week program with “beginner’s mind,” and have already decided I’ll build to my daily practice her way, starting with three 20-minute sessions this week, four next week, etc. As my 14-month sabbatical comes to an end, it will be more important than ever for me to start my day from that inner silence.

Now, on to Emm’s reflections:

Emm: When I was in middle school, I used to sneak books off of my Dad’s shelves to read privately, alone in my bedroom. I delved deeply into his immense History of Western Art, giggled at Haig’s Humans, and conspired with The Devil’s Dictionary. When I nabbed Richard Hittleman’s Guide to Yoga Meditation, I assumed it would be yet another glimpse into the magical, foreign world of “adult thought.” Instead, it proved to be a practical guide to a basic meditation practice, and based on what I read there (certainly not the entire book), I began a regular meditation practice which followed me pretty consistently through high school and into college. In meditation, I’d found a quiet place in my mind, separate from the chaos of the rest of my life.

Years later, my meditation practice is mostly nonexistent. It fell out of favor over the years; I’m not exactly sure why. I think that a part of me is self-conscious meditating. I suspect I’d reach for it more if I were alone without fear of being “found out” or interrupted. Maybe part of me still feels like that kid stealing books off of Dad’s shelves? Maybe as an atheist, I’m embarrassed at the implied spirituality of the practice?

Regardless of these discomforts, I know I have benefited from it in the past, and I’m hopeful that I could benefit from it again. I would love to find again that place of nonjudgemental awareness that I know meditation can bring. I would welcome feeling less distracted and more able to focus my attention on a given task. It sounds like Salzberg believes in these benefits as well, and maybe she can help me reconnect with them.

Now, Christine will share some of her reflections.

Christine: Before I even began to read the book I gave a little thought to meditation – which I have practiced on and off for years. I enjoy it and I find it helpful but I have never practiced it long enough (both in the sense of individual sessions and over time) to really see the benefits in other areas of my life. I guess I mean that I find it a good thing in the moment – to ground myself, to find calm…using it almost as a reaction to feeling stressed. However, I haven’t been dedicated enough to the practice over time to find many proactive/preventative benefits so I am interested in seeing if this collaborative (yet individual!) effort helps support me to develop that.

And, I know that I face the same issue with meditation as I do with exercise or lots of other things – task initiation. It’s always a challenge for me to begin a task, no matter how enjoyable, helpful, or necessary that task is. So, while I am reading I will also be looking for ways to make it easier to start any given session.

I really like Salzberg’s ‘matter of fact’ approach and I love this particular quote from the introduction to the book – “By knowing yourself better, being kinder to yourself and others, and having a better facility of connecting in the moment, you’ll find that a deeper kind of happiness is available to you than just what is forthcoming at a tasty meal. It’s a lasting tranquility, a sense of peace, a feeling of satisfaction.“

This is the same kind of language I use when speaking to my coaching clients about issues they are facing and it feels good to see it applied to this particular practice.

Given that I am someone who struggles with how to manage and apply my attention, I am intrigued by this particular quote in Chapter 1, “At its most basic level, attention, what we allow ourselves to notice. literally determines how we experience and navigate the world.”

This set me off to wondering about how my ADHD affects how I am experiencing the world and how that experience is different from what other people experience. I am very interested in exploring this further as I read the book and as I practice meditation. I wonder if the practice will help me to increase my ability to notice what I am noticing and to have a little more control over where my attention goes? I understand that that is really the key to this whole thing, but does the fact that I already struggle with this more than the average person mean that I am going to struggle more with a consistent meditation practice? Or does it mean that the rewards might be even greater for me?

I’m interested to find out.

Speaking of ADHD challenges, I found myself very resistant and irritated by her suggestion that the reader should choose a specific time each day to meditate. I completely understand *why* she suggests that – things that are time-specific tend to get done – but given the alarming fluidity of my schedule lately, the idea of picking a consistent time to meditate feels stressful. So, instead of trying to pick a time that I will do it from now on, I will choose a time day-by-day. That means that rather than saying ‘I will meditate at 5pm daily.’ I will say ‘Today, I am meditating at 5pm.’ Tomorrow, I may choose a different time. I think that achieves the same purpose without making me stress about whether my chosen time will still work in a week. (Yes, I do overthink everything time-based, it’s an ADHD feature.)

I’m looking forward to working through the practices in this book and seeing where they lead me.

And now, my reflections.

Catherine: I’ve meditated off and on my whole adult life, since graduate school. I’ve taken two MBSR courses (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) that use meditation techniques for both stress reduction and pain management. I’ve done weekend-long yoga and meditation retreats at the Kripalu center in western Massachusetts, and used those immersion experiences to kick-start a new plan for regular meditation. Each time I’ve restarted meditation, however, my practice has petered out. I never created a stable place for it in my day or in my life.

However, one place I’ve consistently done meditation in recent years is at yoga classes. Several of the classes have either a short meditation at the beginning or end of class, or use yoga nidra (a deep relaxation exercise). It’s reintroduced me to meditation as a part of body awareness and body appreciation (the latter of which I’m always in need of).

Sharon Salzberg’s book is one I had bought a few months ago, but didn’t pick up until July. Focus and attention and concentration have been in very short supply since March, for obvious reasons.

This July, my yoga studio Artemis offered a 4-day Zoom meditation class. It started at 7:30am, which for me is a significant effort. But it felt like such a relief! I had the beginning of techniques to turn to anytime– starting with my own breath.

Meditation doesn’t fix whatever ails you, but I think it will help me develop greater capacity for non-judgmental awareness. I’m currently meditating every day when I first get up, just after coffee (nothing happens before coffee). I’m looking forward to being with the other bloggers and you, dear readers, as we go through the weeks of reading and experimenting with sitting in quiet.

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