Hi readers, and welcome to the third 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, which is week 3 of the book club, is week one of actual meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Concentration. Here’s what we thought about it.
First up, Mina:
The first week of the 28-day program that Sharon Salzberg proposes is about concentration. Two short passages struck me in particular: “When our attention is stabilized in this way (i.e. when we concentrate) energy is restored to us” and “Not paying attention keeps us in an endless cycle of wanting. We move on to the next thing because we aren’t really taking in what we already have; inattention creates an escalating need for stimulation.”
In 2018, I took the year off shopping for any clothes, shoes and bags (yes, including workout gear). One of the things that surprised me the most was how much extra time I felt like I had. Not because I had previously been spending hours and hours a week shopping, but because it turned out that a lot of my mind space had been taken up with thinking about new things I wanted or had convinced myself I needed. I was not paying attention to all that I had and my inattention created an escalating need for the stimulus of new things.
Over the course of the year, I felt the effects of my attention stabilizing. Energy was restored to me. By imposing the concentrated discipline of not shopping on myself, I was able to notice how much attention I squandered. Plus, I fostered a whole new (and renewed) appreciation for what was already in my closet. I took extra pleasure in wearing the clothes I loved, over and over again. That year was like a concentrated meditation around my relationship with shopping and reminded me of the power of noticing, the simple act of taking note of what is.
That’s all the book asks of us in Week One. Sit. Notice. No judgment. That said, I found ways to judge myself. For example—inspired by the book, in the spirit of engaging anew with my meditation practice, I decided to increase my daily practice to 20 minutes. Yes, that’s right, my daily meditation is most often only 10 minutes (and yes, there’s one of my self-judgments in that word “only”).
Then, on Saturday (only 4 days after my new resolution), I decided I wanted to pamper myself. I tinted my eyelashes and used the 10-minute waiting period while the dye was on my lashes to meditate. Then I did another 10-minute meditation while my clay and berry face mask dried on my skin. 10 + 10 = 20 minutes. As if my life is so busy, that I need to multitask beauty regimes and meditation. Another self-judgment. So, as recommended in the book, I’m paying attention to that self-talk and releasing it. As Salzberg writes in the takeaway section, I’m being kinder to myself.
This week I stuck with Week One: Concentration, even though I did that last week. I like the simplicity of this sort of concentration, where I focus on the breath or on sound or on sensation and return to it whenever I notice the mind wandering.
She provides a very straightforward direction that is, to me, the essence of all meditation: “See if you can let go of any distractions and return your attention to the feeling of the breath.” That holds for whatever the focus of the meditation is (it may not be the breath).
It is also very comforting to remember that “once you’ve noticed whatever has captured your attention, you don’t have to do anything about it. Just be aware of it without adding anything to it — without tacking on a judgment…, without interpretation…, without comparisons…, and without projections into the future…” She calls it acknowledging without judging.
It’s all a really good reminder for me of how far I’ve come since I started meditating in 1992 and couldn’t sit quietly for two minutes at a time and thought that meant I was “doing it wrong.” I hear so many people get frustrated with meditation and say it’s not for them because they’re “not a good meditator.” They think a good meditator’s mind is always quiet and never wanders.
For me, over the decades, the key learning in meditation has been all about gaining awareness of the distractions and learning to ease the mind back to the intended focus of attention. That simple practice spills into the rest of my life “off the cushion.” That’s not to say I always live in awareness. But the more I meditate, the more I can carry that practice into my day to day. I am enjoying reconnecting with daily meditation as our book club reads Real Happiness.
Here’s me, Catherine:
Getting started on a new program is always exciting for me. However, a part of that excitement is anticipation and expectation about what will come out of that program, how I will be refreshed, improved, newly chilled and one with the universe. And even though I’ve started and restarted meditation practice many times in my adult life, this summer’s restart found me with the same hopes and pressures and judgments about events or states that hadn’t even occurred yet.
Here is where Sharon Salzberg’s steady and experienced voice comes in, telling us that this practice is just about breathing. And starting over. And paying attention to that cycle, without judgment. I love her recorded meditations– she offers low-key guidance and companionship throughout the 10–15 minutes that I’m sitting. I admit that I haven’t done a lot of unguided solo meditation; I tend to rely on a person or a recording for company in my silence. For right now (and maybe always), that’s just fine.
I have one recorded meditation that’s just bells ringing at the beginning, and at 5-minute intervals up to 30 minutes. Combining that with a hearing meditation (I’ll do this one on my back porch, listening to the wind through the trees) is sometimes very calming. Other times, I feel like I need a voice to remind me of what I’m doing, where I am, directing me to attend or focus on a part of my body or my environment. This week is all about the concreteness of meditation– the here, now, me sitting, me listening, me noticing. And me letting go of judgment. What a relief every time I have a non-judgmental moment!
I’m not fully finished processing my meditation experiences from this week but I have been meditating every day. Some of the time I have been using the meditations from Salzberg’s website but I find those short meditations a little frustrating because she doesn’t really tell you to begin and she doesn’t always tell you to stop. I keep thinking that her initial comments are an introduction before the meditation so I don’t jump in right away. And since there are pauses in her meditation guidance, and since I know she doesn’t always clearly say to stop, I find myself breaking my concentration (the irony!) to see if I am still supposed to be meditating. (Of course, there is also the chance that I am just zoning out at the wrong times and missing part of the instruction, but it is frustrating, either way.)
As for the chapter, I enjoyed her discussion of how our attention gets fragmented in the current world and how meditation may help with that and I liked how she had practical advice for how to deal with common challenges that people face when developing a practice.
One of my favourites is her advice about how to deal with a thought that takes your attention away from your breath. Instead of labelling it with a judgement, she suggests noting that it is ‘not breath’ and returning to focus on the breath instead. There is something beautifully simple about that and it matches a practice I have for my most distracted days. On those hectic, distracted days, I will set a timer that has the label ‘Are you doing what you mean to be doing?’ so that question pops up on my phone screen when the timer goes off. It’s a good and gentle way for me to identify being on task versus being off task. The ‘not breath’ label has the same feeling for me.
I also appreciated her reminders that your meditation practice will include ups and downs, sleepiness, distractions, and so on. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing it ‘right’ or that we aren’t making any progress, those things are all part of the practice. I especially appreciated the statement that “…success in mediation is measured not in terms of what is happening to us but by how we relate to what is happening.”
One of Salzberg’s suggestions in this section is to keep a sitting journal. I really liked that idea so I created a little folding record book for myself. She had suggested keeping it this week but that didn’t happen so I am going to keep it for the week ahead instead. Her journal questions involve how you felt during the session and how your emotions are at the end of the day but I am also adding some notes on whether I felt more able to stay on task throughout the day. I’m really curious to see how meditation might influence my capacity in that way.
I have been enjoying my meditations overall – even the long ones – and I am finding relaxation benefits already. When I have done my meditations in the evenings, I find that I get a gentle ‘second wind.’ Not a revved-up, excited feeling but a small boost in well-being that lets me finish my evening in a steady, relaxed manner.