Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg– Keeping the Practice Going

Hi readers, and welcome to the seventh 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 four. We blogged here about week three. we blogged here about week two. We blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read the first entry 1 here.

Today’s group post is about keeping the practice going, so it will be our last one. For 30 days. We’ll be back in a month to update you on where each of us is in terms of meditation. If you are meditating, or have been reading this book or doing a course on meditation, we’d love to hear from you about how that process is going for you.

NOTE: we will all be checking back in a month from now to report on ways the book and the meditation exercises have affected our own meditation practices and also how mindfulness has inserted itself into our everyday lives. Stay tuned!

And now, without further ado, is Mina:

I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this book and re-immersing myself in Sharon Salzberg’s gentle, yet firm voice. I love her straightforward insights. I love that she is very clear that meditation is about daily-ness—doing it regularly and showing up with more patience and kindness in our daily lives, in regular situations.

In a section of this Keep Going chapter titled, Make Sure Your Life Reflects Your Practice, I was struck by a quote she attributes to a teacher from India: “It seems to me that some people here want to meditate in order to have great transcendent experiences or amazing alternate states of consciousness. They may not be too interested in how they speak to their children or treat their neighbour.” Yes! Though I would also add that it’s not just about how we treat our children or community, but also how we treat our own selves, too. This is the biggest promise of meditation. Not fireworks and transforming into a cone of white light rising up into the sky to join the lucky enlightened ones, but more kindness, patience, ease and love.

Early in this chapter, there’s a multi-paragraph long list of all the benefits of meditation, including: help us drop painful habits, be calmer, be kinder to ourself and others etc… All of which brings me back to the first chapter of the book and a question I posed in an earlier book club post—is meditation alone enough to accomplish all this? I don’t think so. I have had a daily meditation practice for almost two years now. While I find it a powerful tool as I work toward that list of great outcomes, I need more resources to support the practice and access its benefits.

I think of meditation in terms of food pairing or food synergy—that’s the science of combining foods to access more of the nutrients. Meditation is the same. To access its nutrients, we have to combine our sitting practice with dharma talks and other sources of insight (therapy, retreats, or other self-refinement modalities). So that before we even take our seat on the cushion, we have begun to understand ourselves better. Combining multiple sources of wisdom, with what we are learning in our meditation, is a surer way to access the nourishment of our sitting practice.

That’s where books like this one come in. Meditation can definitely help us feel happier. Not instantly. Not without commitment. And not without the scaffolding of books like this, to give us the guidance we need to access the energy and aliveness that meditation offers. I feel revitalized after spending time in the company of Sharon Salzberg’s words.

Here’s Christine:

Reading Sharon Salzberg’s ‘Real Happiness’ has been a terrific investment in self-care.

Even though I didn’t put the work in to develop a consistent meditation practice*, I still got a lot out of the meditation that I did do, AND I got a lot out of reflecting on the content of the book itself – and the feelings that arose as a result.

This final section felt very good to read. I especially appreciated this commentary on the point of meditation:“This is why we practice meditation – so that we can treat ourselves more compassionately; improve our relationships with friends, family, and community; live lives of greater connection; and, even in the face of challenges, stay in touch with what we really care about so we can act in ways that are consistent with our values.”

Like most of us, that list encompasses my most important goals in life and even the little bit of meditation I have done during this process has helped me move closer to those ideals. And, I really love the idea that meditation is about giving ourselves internal space to respond differently – it’s not about changing ourselves or others, it’s about expanding the capacity we already have.

I also appreciated Salzberg’s advice about being willing to start over (which happens to be a specialty of mine) and about just showing up for practice. In her discussion of that latter point, she quotes the advice of her teacher, Munindra-Ji, who says “Just put your body there. Your mind will do different things all of the time, but you just put your body there. Because that’s the expression of commitment, and the rest will follow from that.”

I wish I had read that at the beginning.

I essentially give that same advice for developing a writing practice (short version – practice being in your writing spot, if you can’t write, just sit. Next time, sit and write a complaint about how hard it is to be there. Eventually, the regular writing will come.) and I hadn’t thought to apply it to meditation. I think I need to make a more conscious list of my procedures so I have it available for transferable skills moments like this.

Anyway, I love having that permission to just sit. And her further discussion in that section expands on that helpful beginning. She reminds us not to evaluate our progress over and over during a session and to use the right criteria for evaluation. In this case, the criteria she suggests is about how life is different and how well we are able to go with the flow rather than any sort of metric about minutes meditated or distractions therein.As I consult my notes, I realize that I could write essay after essay about the insights in this book in general and this section in particular so I think I will just finish here by saying that this book was worth every second I spent with it so far and I plan to spend even more.If you want to have a little more mental space in your day to day, you, too, may be able to find it by creating space in your schedule for reading this book and for doing the practices within. I made the space for reading but didn’t make quite enough space for the practices. In October, I’m going to create that extra space in my schedule so I can create even more space in my brain. I’ll let you know how it goes.*To be clear, the issue is not her program or meditation itself. Despite my initial intent, I was not able to prioritize meditation for a variety of reasons during the time frame of these review posts. And I’m ok with that. Now that I have read the whole thing, I suspect I will have more success with consistency. I always forget that I need the big picture when I am learning something new. In TKD, for example, I need to see someone perform the whole pattern slowly before I can start learning it. This meditation practice isn’t exactly building on the step before in the same way but I think I still needed the context of the whole to fully commit to practicing the pieces.

Here’s Tracy:

I am so grateful that Catherine invited me to this book club for Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness. As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, it really kick-started my fading meditation practice back into action. I have diligently managed to commit to 20 minutes a day almost every day for the past 5 weeks, with very few exceptions and it feels good.

I had a couple of insights when reading the final chapter, “Keeping the Practice Going.” The first was in response to when she says, “With a strong foundation in how to practice meditation, we can begin to live in a way that enables us to respect ourselves, to be calm rather than anxious, and to offer caring attention to others instead of being held back by notions of separation.” I love this idea of living more calmly and I have found over the years that I have attained the ability to do this at least some of the time. When I am practicing regular meditation I have a better chance of carrying a calm countenance into my day. I also like the notion of “caring attention.” I contrast this with a different kind of attention that I can give others when I am not grounded: annoyed attention; judgmental attention; frustrated attention; fix-it attention.

My favourite recommendation from this chapter for when the practice is waning is “start over.” Somewhere along the way a laminated bookmark fell into my hands. It says “Remember you can still start over every morning.” I taped it to my bathroom mirror alongside the quote that got me through my divorce: “Beware for I am fearless and therefore powerful,” from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I like to remind myself that I can actually start over at any moment of any day. If I didn’t meditate in the morning, I can meditate now. If I don’t meditate now, I can meditate before bed. Indeed, I can even do a bedtime / sleeping meditation, which I do in a pinch, when the day has gotten away from me and I know that I will not stay awake long enough to sit. I open the Insight Timer app and play one of Jennifer Percy’s Yoga Nidra for Sleep meditations. But mostly, I will do my 20 minutes of silent sitting in the morning. And if I miss a day entirely I will pick it up the next day. Meditation has helped me let go of all-or-nothing thinking where it has to be perfect. I love the idea of starting over, fresh page, new day!

I also appreciated the point about using ordinary moments. It’s fine to sit in silence, but I can also close my eyes and breath at a stop light while driving, or pay attention to my breath when I’m sitting in a meeting at work, or pause for a moment to be more mindful and attentive when I sit down to a meal.

And I had an insight when reading the section about life reflecting my practice. I used to think (recently, in fact) that in order to get my meditation habit kickstarted I would need to go away to the meditation centre for a ten-day course. That only ten days of ten hours a day of meditation would reinforce my habit. But I no longer think this. If I weave meditation throughout my day and into my life, then every thing I do can be a meditation of sorts. As Salzberg says, “Are we living according to our deepest values, seeking the sources of real happiness, applying the skills of mindfulness, concentration, and lovingkindness throughout all areas of our lives?” I don’t need to be at a meditation centre for that. Actually, as wonderful as the meditation centre is, it’s an artificial environment sheltered from my actual life. A stronger practice can emerge when I am incorporating meditation into my daily life and letting its effects flow into all areas. That’s a new way of thinking about it for me — quite dramatically different from my thought that I had to “get away” in order to “get it.”

That is the one new way of looking at it that I hope sticks when I am longing for the opportunity, lost this summer due to covid-19, to spend a month in the cloistered space of the Ontario Vipassana Centre.

Here’s Martha:

In some ways, I wish I had read this chapter first. It spoke to me so clearly. I loved the practical, focused tone – especially the part about perfection. However, I also recognize that if I had I wouldn’t have identified all the way I do practice a form of meditation. The issue is that I have no regular practice but I have an intermittent one. And Truth be told, I joined this read-a-long so I could form a regular practice. (I am just a bundle of contradictions today!).

The timing couldn’t be better though. I embark on my 60th year tomorrow and what better way to kick off such a momentous adventure than by committing to practicing what I have learned. I usually end my day with a quick think about what I did that day and I set out a plan for the next. Salzberg’s book is about taking on a lengthier process to ground one’s self and to be. She quotes a teacher who says “just put the body there.” I’m reading that as make the space, take yourself there and the rest will follow.

I’ve watched as slow food, slow fashion, slow teaching have emerged and influence how we approach our everyday lives. Why not with meditation? Salzberg’s focus on making ordinary moments meditative ones highlights the mindfulness even as she encourages the longer focus. My approach to meditation has been fast; I flit from a moment to a moment but never go deeper. I’ll use my morning and evening resets as a place to start from and see where this new approach takes me. I like the idea of the meditation journal as a place to collect insights, howsoever random they may appear at first blush. The only thing I am sure of is that the next 30 days are going to be interesting …

And me, Catherine:

Daily meditation practice has been a lifeline for me these past few months. That’s not an exaggeration. When I haven’t been able to move my body– my usual go-to for anxiety, stress, and trouble focusing– I have been able to sit and listen to a guided meditation. Even 5 minutes helps. Even 3 minutes. Even 10 deep breaths. They all help.

How do they help? Meditation, over time, helps create a neutral space for observing, noticing what I’m doing and what I’m feeling. I cannot convey to you all how important that space is for me. Being able to occupy it sometimes, for a moment or two, offers a little perspective from which to see self-judgment, self-blame, other negative thoughts and emotions, as what they are– just some thoughts and emotions. They come. They go. That’s the way of them.

This morning is day two of ouchy-crick-in-neck time. I slept oddly, and it’s been bothering me. In addition to some gentle stretching and occasionally anti-inflammatories, I sat this morning and meditated on bodily sensations. My ouchy neck was the initial focus, but over time the feeling kind of dissolved, and I got sort of bored with it. I returned to the breath, and then noticed tingling in my right foot. So I focused there. At the end of 15 minutes, I felt more balanced– by that I mean more aware of my body as a collection of changing sensations over time. It was a relief to let go of focus on one thing and judgment of it as bad.

This doesn’t always happen in meditation; sometimes I’m thinking about lunch, or work, or imagining going to the beach, etc. At some point I’ll notice this and head back to the breath. This is what mindfulness is, says Sharon Salzberg: heading back to the breath when you notice you’ve moved away from it. Yeah, I can do that.

We’ll check back in a month from now. Until then, keep breathing…

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