FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week three–Mindfulness and Emotions

Hi readers, and welcome to the fifth 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 two. 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 three of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Mindfulness and Emotions. Here are our reflections.

First up is Mina:

I love this bit in the Week Three chapter about how mindfulness works with our emotions by opening: “…the possibility of finding the gap between a trigger event and our usual conditioned response to it, and of using that pause to collect ourselves and change our response.” Even if we’re not Olympic athletes or Formula 1 race car drivers, nanoseconds can matter deeply in our lives. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve not even paused to take a breath before my auto-response has exploded, usually incinerating my partner, possibly others in the vicinity and most definitely sparking a backdraft into me.

Forget enlightenment, finding that pause is, for me, the single biggest possibility offered by meditation. Mastering the pause is not the work of a week. More like a lifetime. Sharon Salzberg points out in this chapter that the pause has two parts. First is the pause itself. Taking that breath. Noticing. The second part is how we are in the pause. What is the quality of our noticing? This second part is where I have the most trouble. Because, as she points out, we need to notice without judgment, without blame, without casting aspersions on ourselves or others, and without giving into our discomfort, by lashing out at ourselves or someone else. That. Is. Hard. Learning to be comfortable with whatever arises can cause me enormous amounts of agita.

This past week I was supposed to be working diligently on a client project that’s due next Friday. Instead, I mooched around more than usual and told myself it was because my ankle was sprained. Also, we decamped to Montreal (from New York) for 3.5 months this week, so I was preoccupied with packing and traveling and unpacking and settling in under quarantine restrictions. Then there was the non-client, pro bono work that I love and so keep doing no matter what. And then there was my undertaking to myself (as part of this book club) to meditate for twenty minutes a day, instead of my more usual ten minutes.

As the week progressed, I got increasingly anxious about my client project, and increasingly intransigent about doing it. While meditating, I’d think to myself, “What a wastrel. You are obviously a highly unimportant person if you have this much time to meditate. Oh, and arrogant, too, thinking you’ll still be able to finish the project on time.” And so on.

But … this book was also whispering in my ear, “You are not your thoughts. What does it feel like to be ignoring your client project to the maximum like this? Be with what’s arising. No judgment.” And guess what? Instead of biting my partner’s head off when he asked me if I was stressed, I explained where I was at and how I was feeling. Same movie. New ending. This week’s chapter supported me in a moment of need, when my ability to find the pause was tenuous.

Here’s Christine:

This week’s topic really resonated with me.

As a storyteller by both trade and inclination, and as someone whose ADHD fosters emotional extremes, I am always looking for ways to notice both the internal narratives I create and the feeling that initiates them.

Years ago, when I was seeing a psychologist for situational depression, I was asked to create a mood diary to help identify some of the things that brought me down. I couldn’t do it. It was completely impossible for me backtrack from the feelings to the thoughts I had followed to get there. At the time, this added to my feelings of frustration and failure. Since my ADHD diagnosis, I know that I had multiple obstacles in my way – the spiderweb of thoughts, stories and connections that every event generates, plus the extreme emotional reactions/RSD that can come with ADHD, plus my challenges with task initiation (keeping a notebook at hand and summoning the motivation to write while already feeling bad? Tricky to say the least.)

I could probably do it now if I had to. I know lots of ways to help build habits and my medication generally gives me a little space between a given thought and my action – even internal ‘actions’ like creating a story. That doesn’t mean that I can always catch my thoughts before they drag me into feeling bad but I can usually trace them backward more easily these days.

The fact that my medication creates that space between thought and action (with varying success depending on how tired/busy/overwhelmed/awash in emotions I am) makes me curious about how more mindfulness could create a bigger space between those things.

My storytelling and coaching self was also drawn into the discussion of how we tend to mix up our thoughts (and the connecting stories) with our whole selves. Salzberg gives the example that when we strike our funny bone we don’t think of ourselves as a sore elbow but when we have a sad thought we think ‘I’m sad.’ A lot of my coaching practice involves helping people separate their stories from the facts about themselves, and I’m interested to see how meditation can be another tool in helping people develop that skill.

Before I was medicated for ADHD, I was often drawn to meditation because I felt that there was something important in there for me. And I could meditate – sometimes even for long sessions – but I couldn’t make it a habit. I remember speaking to my doctor at the time and saying that I felt like creating a meditation habit was on the other side of a river and that I wanted to try medication to see if it would help me build a bridge to the habit. (Interesting that I chose that metaphor at the time. It’s no wonder that things like this ‘Motivation Bridge’ video end up helping me so much –

By the time I was medicated, I had a lot of family things to deal with and lost track of the plan to add more regular meditation to my life. I have come back to it multiple times since, though. I find it cool that my instincts were right – I function better when I have space between thought and action. I thought at the time that medication would help me meditate and that would be the path to finding that space. Instead, the medication gave me the space but I still think meditation will, over time, make that space larger.

Here’s me, Catherine:

This week of meditation shifts the focus to emotions, and that’s been significantly harder for me than the previous two weeks (which were about attention to the breath and then attention to the body). Why? Well, even though breathing and bodily feels are foundational, emotions can feel bigger and more dramatic, more overwhelming. Breathing in and out is soothing because it makes my emotions simmer down, recede to a distant corner, hopefully to slink away.

But that isn’t the lesson Sharon Salzberg teaches us here. She notes that we erect barriers to happiness, and facing our emotions can help us get around or over those barriers. The barriers, FYI, are:

The sloth one really hits me where I live. My anxiety and sadness reactions tend toward shutting down; I sometimes feel overwhelmed and very low energy. Retreating to my bed or mindlessly zoom-scrolling just exacerbates the problem, and then I blame myself for my weakness. Yuck! So what does Salzberg recommend?

The RAIN method: recognize, accept, investigate, and non-identify with the emotion. By slowing down and adopting a non-reactive reaction to a passing emotion, it just… passes.

It was hard to do the difficult emotion meditation this week; it got a bit intense for me. But, one of my meditation teachers told me that it’s always possible to back off and go back to the breath, or to acknowledge the intensity and let that feeling pass.

Meditation is a life-long contemplative self-knowledge development process. Each time I restart it, I develop a bit more resilience or a bit more depth in the contents of that meditation. Every day, every sitting is different, and I am finding that I really look forward to what is unfolding.

And here’s Tracy:

This week I actually did what the program suggested because I’ve been sort of using it as a nudge to get me back to a daily practice (which it has) but have only been loosely following it. But since I had an initial “no way” reaction to the week’s theme of “Mindfulness and Emotion,” I took that as a sign that I needed to pay attention and not avoid. So glad I did.

I also took more detailed notes after my meditations this week (I’ve been keeping a notebook where I make a little entry after each sitting). My first entry says: “Her teacher when she was 18 was Goenka! [that is the teacher whose method is taught at the Vipassana Centre]. I did the guided and learned RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, Non-identification. Worry and fear came up…”

Keeping the notes helped me recognize that worry came up a lot last week. I have just adopted two little rescue kittens and one of them was having some litter box issues. She was peeing beside the box, and then took it to other places where you really do not want a kitty to pee. Medical has sort of been ruled out. I jumped way ahead to “I’m going to have to separate these cats because she’s a nervous kitty who needs to be a solo cat and if I don’t re-home her she will be miserable and eventually I’ll have to throw out all of my furniture and this is what my life is going to be for the next 15-20 years” (she’s done it twice, and both were easy clean-ups).

It was a good opportunity for me to the same issue can seem emotionally overwhelming one day and completely manageable the next. I also learned that I tense up and stop breathing when I get worked up emotionally, and that a lot of my “negative” emotions live in my chest and throat, both of which get tight. And that consciously breathing helps me calm down.I also started the week with last week’s mindful tea-drinking exercise and I highly recommend it. It was the most pleasant cup of tea I’ve had in years.

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