Book Club · fitness

FIFI book club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, Chapter 2: Why Meditate?

Hi readers, and welcome to the second 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.

Last week we started with the introduction to the book and Chapter 1. You can read about it here.

For this week, we’re reading Chapter 2: Why Meditate? Why– so many reasons why… Here’s what out bloggers have to say about this chapter.

First up, Mina:

I’ve had an on and off relationship with meditation for more than 15 years. Since my first silent meditation retreat, eight years ago, that relationship has been more on than off and I’ve deepened my practice. For the last almost two years, I’ve meditated daily.

I love the topic of Chapter 2 of this book—science confirming what meditators have experienced anecdotally for years. That is, that meditating regularly has great benefits, including enhanced calm, concentration and connection to self and others, as well as improved health and wellbeing.

And yet, there are, in my experience, two tricky elements worth mentioning. First, as Sharon Salzberg points out in this chapter, meditation needs to be regular, just like physical exercise (which we also write about a lot here). Like exercise, there is no one and done with meditation. When we stop exercising, our muscles shrink and our fitness diminishes. When we stop meditating, the benefits retreat. There’s no pinnacle, no end point of enlightenment that will then free you from the invitation to practice. As a teacher of mine recently said, “None of us gets away with enlightenment, our challenges are grist for the pearl of our self.”

The second bit of tricky business is that noticing unexamined assumptions and kicking open doors (mentioned in this chapter) is only possible if we are open to it. We need to bring the intention to allow those things to happen with us to our meditation cushion. I missed this piece of the puzzle in the pages we read for this week. I’ve observed in my own practice and others’ the fine line between rumination and spotting unexamined assumptions. We are always navigating the border between falling down a rabbit hole into a swirl of entropy, instead of rising above our mind habits, into the spaciousness where we stop self-limiting, trying to control the uncontrollable (which is almost everything) and discover our best energy (benefits the chapter mentions). Helping us chart that course is what I’m hoping for in the next chapters in the book.

Here’s Tracy:

I read this chapter for last week and have just completed week one: “Concentration” because I wanted to take her suggestion at the outset of Chapter Two. She says, “If you’d like to get started on your meditation program right away, you can turn to Week One.” I did that. And I have included 20 minutes of meditation as part of my morning routine for the past seven days.

That said, chapter two is about the way meditation benefits people who practice it in their every day lives. The main selling point Salzberg offers is that “you’ll begin to spot the unexamined assumptions that get in the way of happiness.” I interpret her meaning here to be that meditation can help a person learn how to keep an open mind and let go of limiting thoughts (some of her examples: “I’ve blown it; I should just give up”; “We have nothing in common”; “I won’t be able to do it”; etc.).

Chapter Two also gets into the science of the benefits of meditation, using findings from empirical studies to support its capacity to reduce stress, improve cognition, improve the immune system, and deal with conflict. It is frequently used as part of therapy, to help people with anxiety, depression, and OCD.

As I said last week, I don’t need to be sold on the benefits of meditation. I know for certain that I do better in all areas of my life when I am meditating regularly. I’m going to stick with Week One for another week to sync with the book group commentaries and because I enjoyed this week of getting back to basics. Although 20 minutes is generally regarded as too short in the meditation technique that I practice (Vipassana), it’s longer than I’ve been doing lately, and I already feel more grounded than I did two weeks ago, when I was hardly meditating at all.

Now, here’s me (Catherine):

Like Mina and Tracy, I have a long history with meditation. I also have a long history of not sticking with meditation. What starts/restarts my practice is generally some event or crisis or “I’ve had it!” moment, often in the middle of the night. That’s what I think Salzberg means when she talks about emotions “kicking open the door” for meditation to come in.

I’ve taken the MBSR course mentioned in Chapter 2– twice. What can I say? I’m slow on the uptake… I was also deeply suspicious and guarded and closed off. Over time, with each new exposure to meditation, sitting with myself has gotten more familiar. I won’t say it’s easier, as each day and each sitting is different. But I think it is important for getting to know myself and my stories and my feelings better, and see them as just those things, not Holy Writ about who I am.

Salzberg says that meditation teaches us how to examine the assumptions about who we are and what we can and cannot do or be. Then we can see them for what they are: just some assumptions. Defusing their power can bring us closer to happiness, she adds. Let’s see how that goes as this round of meditation practice proceeds.

Here’s Christine:

Like the rest of Team Meditation, I like how, in Chapter 2, Salzberg compares meditation to exercise, noting that if you do it repeatedly, there will be inevitable (good) results. Of course, like exercise, there are an awful lot of ways to meditate and all kinds of overthinking I can do but I’m choosing to focus on choices that make sense for me right now.

Unlike some other members of the team, I did not jump ahead to meditation practice right away. I intended to but I kept talking myself out of starting (Yes, I am shocked at this turn of events, too. Ha!) So I was relieved to realize that our project for today was still about discussing the benefits of meditation instead of getting deeply into the practice. Basically, I was really glad to realize that I have a bit more time to get things sorted in my head before getting started.

The benefits she describes have a lot of appeal for me as someone with ADHD. The thought that a structured ‘rest’ period in my day could also help me make few assumptions about the world, help me to avoid limiting myself, and encourage me to figure out what is most important to me is really intriguing.

I will admit, I am a little skeptical about some of the benefits – even with their scientific backing. Perhaps I am actually skeptical about my ability to continue the practice regularly enough to see those sorts of benefits but I am definitely going to work on it.

Last week, I mentioned that I resisted the idea of choosing a specific daily time to meditate. This week, I am a bit hung up on the idea of starting with a 20 minute session. I am trying to find a balance between wanting to do this experiment ‘right’ (i.e. following the practice as outlined) and wanting to make adjustments/accommodations to increase my chances of being able to effectively develop this habit. I was considering trying the approach that Tracy described last week and building upward from a 5 minute habit but instead, I have decided to use 20 minute guided meditations until I am used to the practice. (I’m not sure what she is going to suggest in the next chapter but in case she was going to suggest just setting a timer and just breathing for 20 minutes, I wanted a backup plan so I don’t flounder in the moment.)

Since I am also committing to this practice as a way to help me create some additional ease around my ADHD thinking patterns, I am developing a list of self-observation questions to see if meditation makes a difference in those areas. For example, I am interested to see if it becomes easier to choose where my attention goes and if I can find some ease around intense emotions. (People with ADHD struggle with emotional regulation as well as attention regulation and many of us also have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria.)

Salzberg closes the chapter by saying that by meditating we are opening a door of possibility, a door to authentic and accessible happiness, and she welcomes us in to sit. Even though I am a pretty happy person overall, I really love the idea that greater happiness is just right there waiting and that this practice can help us build the muscles to access it.

PS – After writing this, I tried a 20 minute guided meditation on Insight Timer last night. I really enjoyed it and the rest of my evening felt quite orderly and peaceful. This bodes well for continued practice.

Here’s Marjorie:

I’m going to trust my fellow bloggers to address the meat of this chapter. Instead, I’d like to address a writing decision that’s problematic for me.

I don’t like her examples. I don’t relate to them. Meditation can lead to people spotting their unexamined assumptions that get in the way of happiness. I can buy that, but I can’t relate to “She’s the smart one; you’re the pretty one.” Do people own these cliches as truths? Probably, but more likely it’s more nuanced than that. I was raised by a father who is deeply mistrustful of women and especially of women’s emotions. Do I still have moments when the very expression of emotion seems so taboo that I bottle it up and apologize if any squeezes out? Absolutely. But it isn’t as simple as “girls shouldn’t cry.” Minimizing it to this level may make writing easier, but it doesn’t speak to the complicated realities, and it alienates me from her to some degree. These simplifications reduce my trust in her as a guide.

And here’s Martha:

I have written about making a habit by doing something for 30 days. I have also written about making room for the big rocks (my priorities) rather than letting the small rocks (less important, or distracting activities) take over. Reading this book (chapter by chapter) has given me some insight into how busy my mind actually is and why making time for meditation is useful and important.

I have always associated meditation with stillness (sitting and watching waves roll in) but looking at it as another form of exercise was interesting. When my trainer develops a program, she looks at complementary work so I don’t overuse and risk harming a specific part like legs or arms. In looking at meditation as an exercise for the brain and heart, I realize that maybe my fitness has all been physical rather than addressing some of the mental components.

The piece that spoke to me most deeply in this chapter is Salzberg’s point about meditation as a way to identify unexamined assumptions. In my day work, I’m often paid to look for and examine assumptions so it feels odd to turn that lens on myself. It’s probably why I haven’t done any specific practice “along the way.”

So, readers: what do you think about the science behind and benefits of meditation? We’d love to hear your impressions and experiences.