Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week two–Mindfulness and the Body

Hi readers, and welcome to the fourth 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 blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week is week two of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Mindfulness and the Body. Here are our reflections.

I’ll start today (Catherine).

This chapter is my absolute favorite, even among other meditation books I’ve read. Why? Because it evokes all kinds of sense memories I have: very painful ones (my appendix ruptured when I was 30; that’s a 9.8 on the 10-point pain scale for sure), and also ordinary ones (I noticed this week that I rush like mad through teeth-brushing, so slowed down to see what it was like; answer: more interesting).

Saltzberg is in effect giving us permission to focus on what our bodies feel like when we’re going through our day. And how do they feel? Different from moment to moment. And what does this mean? Nothing much; it’s how bodies work. But, that feels like an enormous relief to me. Experiencing and witnessing non-earthshaking change for 15–20 minutes is having the effect of opening up something, a set of possibilities I’m too timid to identify or hope for. Is the world/my world really less fragile, less endangered, less burdened that I usually (these days) think it is? Dunno. For now, I’ll just continue to sit and walk and breathe and attend to those sensations.

Here’s Mina:

Week Two of this book’s program is about mindfulness and the body. In keeping with the theme, I’ve been listening daily to one of my favourite 20-minute body scan meditations. Yes, I “should” be listening to Sharon Salzberg’s meditations, but I no longer have any way of listening to CD’s and I want what I want, my fave.

Early in the chapter, Salzberg talks about the difference between our direct experience and the add-ons we impose, which cause further suffering; what other Buddhist teachers call the second arrow. Applying that line of thinking to myself—my direct experience is that I’m not following the book’s specific meditations, but I’m avoiding the temptation to add-on, by criticizing myself for my lack of followership, or criticizing myself for not being a compliant book club member.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to my fave is that at the end the meditation teacher asks a series of questions that always intrigue and provoke me in different ways. If I am not this body, who am I? If I am not my emotions, who am I? If I am not my thoughts, who am I? She repeats the questions three times. The fact that she repeats the questions three times is something that took me a long time to realize. My mind would either have drifted before the questions started or it would begin wrestling with the questions and miss their repetition. Over time I’ve gotten more comfortable letting the questions be and noticing what bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts pass across the horizon in response. Some days I feel peaceful and loose. Other days I feel anxious and want to hang on tighter to my body, emotions and thoughts.

Then, after I’d written that paragraph above, I got a real test of the direct experience vs. add-ons. I sprained my right ankle on a run. Badly enough that I am wearing one of those big clunky surgical boots and will not be running (or doing yoga, or my skipping workout, or, or, or) anytime soon. The direct experience is a loss of mobility and freedom. The add-ons I’m struggling with are the enormous frustration of not being able to move how I like in my body and not being able to get my heart rate up in the great outdoors.

My mind’s first impulse is to catastrophize—I’ll never be fit again. I’ll dissolve into a muscle-less worm. Never mind other add-on self-talk in the category of blaming and criticizing myself for the accident.So, my practice at the end of this second week about body and mindfulness, is to notice my instinct to add-on, to be gentle with my body, so it can heal (because I know it will, despite my fears) and to be kinder to myself, because why suffer more than I need to?

Here’s Martha:

This was a curious chapter for me. I spent a fair bit of time in my 30s letting go of negative self talk so as another FIFI book blogger noted, it doesn’t always resonate when Salzberg uses those examples. I am intrigued by mindfulness as a practice as I have several friends and colleagues who use it for self-care. I did like the variety of options to approach mindfulness as the body scan is a common one (I often fall asleep before I get past my neck so I use it to fall asleep sometimes if I’m distracted).

I was challenged to think about the differences between concentration and mindfulness, and I concluded at the end of the chapter the difference is about the level of deliberation. Salzberg describes it quite well in the walking meditation. I’ll probably have to think about these two a lot more in the future as it’s still a little fuzzy for me.

Eighty pages into a 200-page book, and I have come to realize that there are things I do that could qualify as a meditation, but I don’t put myself in that space often enough to see it as a practice. Salzberg notes this in the section on every day activities as meditation, but I can’t see myself using teeth brushing as mindfulness exercise. This chapter more than anything has reminded me how little time I spend being still as I have a need to be always doing. So even though I may find binding a quilt a very mindful exercise, I’m not necessarily sitting with my thoughts in any focused way.

Here’s Tracy:

Week Two, “mindfulness and the body,” took me back to when I did the “Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Relief” course. The main thing we did in that course, for the entire 8 weeks, was a daily body scan. I didn’t see the point but I did it anyway. Now I think the body scan is a great way to learn how to pay attention.

I know I said at the beginning that I would go into the Real Happiness course with “beginner’s mind.” But I confess that I spent the whole week doing the body scan. I skipped the walking meditation (nothing against walking meditations, but I didn’t feel like it). Once I did a guided version (narrated by someone who isn’t Sharon Salzberg) that I found on the Insight Timer app (best app on my phone). The rest of the time I did my usual Vipassana meditation, which is a head to feet and feet to head body scan, paying attention to sensation.

I have wandered away from the daily Vipassana practice, so it felt good to reconnect with it even if for 20 minutes and not the recommended one hour, twice a day. I have nothing much to report about that besides the grounding feeling of doing it daily. Routine, for me, provides a foundation for my life that I definitely feel is missing when I let the structure of routine slide.

The one thing I haven’t done but that I plan still to do is Salzberg’s “everyday activity meditations.” This is where you take something you do all the time and on auto-pilot, and do it mindfully – slowly and with awareness of each part of the movement. It could be brushing your teeth, making your coffee, slicing a tomato, folding your laundry. She suggests a drinking tea meditation, in which “we try to be more fully present with every component of a single activity – drinking a cup of tea.”

I will report back on this next week, but I will admit now that my busy mind is already saying, “when am I going to fit a mindful cup of tea into my day?” I also plan to do Week Two’s “try this: do a task in slo-mo.”Overall, I’m in touch with my body and didn’t find the mindfulness of the body theme to be a bit challenge. I expect that week three, Mindfulness and Emotions, will be a different thing. I am less in tune at times with my emotions and I have lots of feelings these days.

Here’s Christine:

I haven’t meditated in a week.

Last week started off weird with a night of virtually no sleep and I didn’t sleep well for several nights after that. My fledgling self-care plan (journaling, meditation, reading, etc.) fell away bit by bit until, by the end of the week, I found myself using coping strategies (more reactive than proactive) rather than the proactive methods I had been using in the two weeks previous.

It’s not that I didn’t have pockets of time for meditation, it was that I kept thinking I would do it at a ‘better’ time, later. I felt that I had so little attention to give that once I was focused on the work I needed to do, I should keep going for as long as I could in hopes of accomplishing anything at all. (I am not stating this very well, this is not about me needing to feel ‘productive’ per se, it’s about me needing to have some tangible evidence of where my day went. It’s hard to explain.

But even though I didn’t choose meditation, I did choose the kind of self-kindness she advocates throughout everything I have read so far. I didn’t delve into any sort of unpleasant inner monologue, and I reminded myself that I had reasons for feeling so off. I wasn’t hard on myself at all about it.

I did notice, however, that it took a bit of extra effort to avoid what I call ambient anxiety (the sort that kind of floats over you without any immediately discernible origin.) Until that started floating around last week, I hadn’t realized that I had had a bit of a break from it. And, as it occurred, I kept thinking ‘meditation was keeping this away last week’ – I don’t know if that thought is true but it feels that way. It didn’t actually help me move from not meditating to meditating but it gave me some space for reflection.

I’m going to observe and see if this week’s meditation keeps that ambient anxiety at bay. Since I don’t live in a lab and I can’t control most of the factors, my observations won’t be scientific but they will be useful to me.

So, now that I have ‘confessed’ to not meditating, I will also confess to not having read this section about mindfulness until this morning so my thoughts on it will be (fairly) brief.

{By the way, I am so tired of the word mindfulness. I cringe every time I hear or see it because it has been so overused by the type of wellness gurus who thrive on encouraging people to blame themselves when the guru’s advice doesn’t work…”Well, my darling, if you had been truly mindful…” }

I am really intrigued, once again, by her discussions of attention in this section and, shockingly, I have some thoughts:

Previous to reading her discussions about the difference between feeling something in your body and getting caught up in thoughts about that sensation, I think that I believed that getting caught up in the thoughts was part of paying attention to the sensation. This wasn’t a conscious choice, it was kind of automatic – not unlike the thoughts themselves. This is odd because I regularly coach people to step away from that kind of thinking when they are writing, and I make that choice when I am writing or drawing. I’m curious about why I apparently don’t consistently apply it to physical sensations.

Her suggestions about having more meditative moments during the day sound kind of painful for me. Not physically painful, but mentally painful. I have to invest a lot of energy in keeping my attention on my work or on the tasks I have chosen for the day. So, it feels really risky to plan to sink into small tasks like making tea. I feel like I could get very off track very quickly. I’m curious about this, too. Would learning to invest more focus in those moments actually give my brain a break? Or would they lead to me wandering off track for a while after my tea is made?

Given my aversion to the word ‘mindfulness,’ I really enjoyed finding out that you can also refer to it as ‘wise attention.’ I LOVE that idea. Her discussion of how the m-word, or wise attention, helps us to separate our experiences from the thoughts we add to those experiences was really helpful for me.

I guess I am going to be a week ‘behind’ in the meditation practices since I really want to give the ones from this week a try but I won’t be hard on myself about it. I can’t change how last week went and since the overall purpose here is to develop a practice, learning to work around side quests like last week will be useful overall.I will, however, be sure to read Week Three a bit earlier than next Tuesday morning, though.