Book Club · fitness

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 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM0Xv0eVGtY)

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:

  • desire: grasping, clinging, wanting
  • aversion: anger, fear, impatience
  • sloth: numbing out, switching off, disconnecting, becoming sluggish
  • restlessness: anxiety, fretfulness, agitation
  • doubt: inability to make a decision

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.

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.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week one–Concentration

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.

Last week we read Chapter 2: Why Meditate? You can read about it here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

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.

Here’s Tracy:

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!

Here’s Christine:

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.

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.

Book Club · fitness

FIFI book club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, intro and Chapter 1

 Hi readers, and welcome to the first 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 we’re starting with the introduction to the book and Chapter 1. The book clubbers also share a bit about their experiences with meditation.

For next week, we’ll be reading Chapter 2: Why Meditate? Feel free to join us.

Now, on to the reflections. Let’s start with Tracy.

Tracy: I’ve been meditating off and on, when in my last few months of grad school I was maximally stressed out and needed to find a way to manage my anxiety. I taught myself using a book called The Joy Within: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation (Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares, 1992). Like Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-day Program, the book I used in 1992 offered a four week introduction to meditation. They have a slightly different approach than Salzberg, who recommends starting with 20 minutes, three times a week and then increasing the number of times of week until it’s a daily practice. Goldstein and Soares recommend starting with a daily practice, but aiming only for five minutes the first week, ten the second, 15 the third, and then finally hitting 20 in week four. That worked for me then because even two minutes of sitting quietly seemed like an eternity when I was just starting out.

I don’t need to be “sold” on the benefits of meditation. I cannot imagine life without it anymore because it is the only way I really get the mental break I need. It also gives me perspective and equanimity that spills over into the rest of my life. That said, I get in and out of routine with it, and right now I am fully out. I was supposed to spend four weeks at the Ontario Vipassana Centre this summer, meditating anywhere from 5-10 hours a day, but because of COVID that didn’t happen. This four week program might be just what I need to get back in touch with what I call “my inner silence,” which is the “place” I go when I meditate. Over the years, I have learned to get myself there whether I have a few seconds, a few minutes, or an hour.

I am going to try my best to approach the four-week program with “beginner’s mind,” and have already decided I’ll build to my daily practice her way, starting with three 20-minute sessions this week, four next week, etc. As my 14-month sabbatical comes to an end, it will be more important than ever for me to start my day from that inner silence.

Now, on to Emm’s reflections:

Emm: When I was in middle school, I used to sneak books off of my Dad’s shelves to read privately, alone in my bedroom. I delved deeply into his immense History of Western Art, giggled at Haig’s Humans, and conspired with The Devil’s Dictionary. When I nabbed Richard Hittleman’s Guide to Yoga Meditation, I assumed it would be yet another glimpse into the magical, foreign world of “adult thought.” Instead, it proved to be a practical guide to a basic meditation practice, and based on what I read there (certainly not the entire book), I began a regular meditation practice which followed me pretty consistently through high school and into college. In meditation, I’d found a quiet place in my mind, separate from the chaos of the rest of my life.

Years later, my meditation practice is mostly nonexistent. It fell out of favor over the years; I’m not exactly sure why. I think that a part of me is self-conscious meditating. I suspect I’d reach for it more if I were alone without fear of being “found out” or interrupted. Maybe part of me still feels like that kid stealing books off of Dad’s shelves? Maybe as an atheist, I’m embarrassed at the implied spirituality of the practice?

Regardless of these discomforts, I know I have benefited from it in the past, and I’m hopeful that I could benefit from it again. I would love to find again that place of nonjudgemental awareness that I know meditation can bring. I would welcome feeling less distracted and more able to focus my attention on a given task. It sounds like Salzberg believes in these benefits as well, and maybe she can help me reconnect with them.

Now, Christine will share some of her reflections.

Christine: Before I even began to read the book I gave a little thought to meditation – which I have practiced on and off for years. I enjoy it and I find it helpful but I have never practiced it long enough (both in the sense of individual sessions and over time) to really see the benefits in other areas of my life. I guess I mean that I find it a good thing in the moment – to ground myself, to find calm…using it almost as a reaction to feeling stressed. However, I haven’t been dedicated enough to the practice over time to find many proactive/preventative benefits so I am interested in seeing if this collaborative (yet individual!) effort helps support me to develop that.

And, I know that I face the same issue with meditation as I do with exercise or lots of other things – task initiation. It’s always a challenge for me to begin a task, no matter how enjoyable, helpful, or necessary that task is. So, while I am reading I will also be looking for ways to make it easier to start any given session.

I really like Salzberg’s ‘matter of fact’ approach and I love this particular quote from the introduction to the book – “By knowing yourself better, being kinder to yourself and others, and having a better facility of connecting in the moment, you’ll find that a deeper kind of happiness is available to you than just what is forthcoming at a tasty meal. It’s a lasting tranquility, a sense of peace, a feeling of satisfaction.“

This is the same kind of language I use when speaking to my coaching clients about issues they are facing and it feels good to see it applied to this particular practice.

Given that I am someone who struggles with how to manage and apply my attention, I am intrigued by this particular quote in Chapter 1, “At its most basic level, attention, what we allow ourselves to notice. literally determines how we experience and navigate the world.”

This set me off to wondering about how my ADHD affects how I am experiencing the world and how that experience is different from what other people experience. I am very interested in exploring this further as I read the book and as I practice meditation. I wonder if the practice will help me to increase my ability to notice what I am noticing and to have a little more control over where my attention goes? I understand that that is really the key to this whole thing, but does the fact that I already struggle with this more than the average person mean that I am going to struggle more with a consistent meditation practice? Or does it mean that the rewards might be even greater for me?

I’m interested to find out.

Speaking of ADHD challenges, I found myself very resistant and irritated by her suggestion that the reader should choose a specific time each day to meditate. I completely understand *why* she suggests that – things that are time-specific tend to get done – but given the alarming fluidity of my schedule lately, the idea of picking a consistent time to meditate feels stressful. So, instead of trying to pick a time that I will do it from now on, I will choose a time day-by-day. That means that rather than saying ‘I will meditate at 5pm daily.’ I will say ‘Today, I am meditating at 5pm.’ Tomorrow, I may choose a different time. I think that achieves the same purpose without making me stress about whether my chosen time will still work in a week. (Yes, I do overthink everything time-based, it’s an ADHD feature.)

I’m looking forward to working through the practices in this book and seeing where they lead me.

And now, my reflections.

Catherine: I’ve meditated off and on my whole adult life, since graduate school. I’ve taken two MBSR courses (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) that use meditation techniques for both stress reduction and pain management. I’ve done weekend-long yoga and meditation retreats at the Kripalu center in western Massachusetts, and used those immersion experiences to kick-start a new plan for regular meditation. Each time I’ve restarted meditation, however, my practice has petered out. I never created a stable place for it in my day or in my life.

However, one place I’ve consistently done meditation in recent years is at yoga classes. Several of the classes have either a short meditation at the beginning or end of class, or use yoga nidra (a deep relaxation exercise). It’s reintroduced me to meditation as a part of body awareness and body appreciation (the latter of which I’m always in need of).

Sharon Salzberg’s book is one I had bought a few months ago, but didn’t pick up until July. Focus and attention and concentration have been in very short supply since March, for obvious reasons.

This July, my yoga studio Artemis offered a 4-day Zoom meditation class. It started at 7:30am, which for me is a significant effort. But it felt like such a relief! I had the beginning of techniques to turn to anytime– starting with my own breath.

Meditation doesn’t fix whatever ails you, but I think it will help me develop greater capacity for non-judgmental awareness. I’m currently meditating every day when I first get up, just after coffee (nothing happens before coffee). I’m looking forward to being with the other bloggers and you, dear readers, as we go through the weeks of reading and experimenting with sitting in quiet.

Book Club · fitness

Starting Aug 18: FIFI book club reads Real Happiness, by Sharon Saltzberg

At Fit is a Feminist Issue, we are all about exploring the ways movement expands our lives and reveals truths about ourselves. Also, we like writing about how fun it is, and how hard it is, and the ways the meaning of movement changes. We’ve even devoted a few FIFI book clubs to diving into a book on movement. We read the 100 Day Reclaim, by Mia Shanks. You can see some of our posts about it starting here.

We also read The Joy of Movement, by Kelly McGonigal. We posted all about it, and you can start reading about it here.

This time, we are switching it up a bit. We’re going to explore the ways that stillness can present new truths and new possibilities for us. We are reading the 10th anniversary new edition of Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.

The cover of the book Real Happiness, by Sharon Saltzberg.

Sharon Saltzberg is a world-famous writer and teacher and lecturer on meditation. She co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, has taught and spoken and written and worked with people all over the world. You can read more about her long and interesting life and career here.

You can also join us in reading her book, Real Happiness: a 28-day program to realize the power of meditation. There are four weeks’ worth of (optional) meditation and other exercises in the book, along with QR codes to link to some online meditations. You can find those meditations here, so you don’t actually need the new version of the book.

We’ll be posting our thoughts and questions and responses to parts of the book each Tuesday afternoon at 2pm, starting August 18. If you’d like to read along with us, we’d love that. And feel free to post any of your thoughts or responses in the comments.

For August 18, we’ll read the introduction and Chapter 1– What is Meditation?

Also, if any of you have comments or experiences or responses you want to share about practicing meditation, we’d love to hear it. Some of us are new-ish to practicing, others have had an off-and-on relationship with sitting, and some of us are regular meditators. There’s room for all here. As always.

See you all next Tuesday!

Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness

Book Club Week 7: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 7

A few months ago we started a virtual book club.

You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Want to catch up?

Read Week 1 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/10/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-1/

Read Week 2 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/17/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-2/

Read Week 3 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/31/book-club-week-3-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-3/

Read Week 4 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/09/book-club-week-4-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-4/

Read week 5 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/16/book-club-week-5-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-5/

Read week 6 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/21/book-club-week-6-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-6/

Christine

This was a hard chapter for me to get through but that’s my issue, not the author’s problem. I am not the right audience for the discussion at hand.

Chapter 7 was about the motivation, benefits, and mindset for doing endurance events.

I am not wired for endurance events. I am not even wired for considering endurance events.

This may be, in part, due to my ADHD issues with time perception (lots of things already feel endless to me – I don’t need to take on extra ones) but also, I have a visceral negative reaction to the descriptions of the pain and suffering that are part and parcel of these events. I cannot wrap my mind around someone undertaking them on purpose. Even the descriptions make me frustrated and angry.

Is this a logical reaction? No.

Does it make any sense at all? Nope.

Would I try to talk you out of doing an endurance event? Also, no – because that’s your business. However, if you tried to talk to me about an event like that, I would probably have to stop you so you could find someone more positive to talk to about it. I wouldn’t want my issues to put a damper on your excitement and accomplishments.

McGonigal says that that what separates ultramarathons from masochism is context and I am just going to have to take her word on that.

Anyway, all of that being said, there was useful information for me in this chapter.

I appreciated the observation from hiker and author Jennifer Pharr Davis that you don’t have to get rid of pain in order to move forward. This idea has bounced up for me in a variety of contexts in the past and while Pharr Davis is primarily talking about physical pain, it also applies to other types of pain as well. I find comfort in the idea that sometimes you can have challenging circumstances AND still keep putting one foot in front of the other (literally or metaphorically.)

I did feel some connection to adventure athlete Terri Schneider’s discussion of her exploits. She describes how pushing her body to its limits felt joyful and how she felt freed from expectations about how a woman ‘should’ behave. As a martial artist, that resonated with me. I do enjoy a tiring class or belt test and I have definitely felt like I was stepping outside some ‘shoulds’ by taking pride in my punches and kicks.

However, the biggest feeling of connection and resonance for me started when McGonigal was describing her own experiences with wall climbing. Her description of a metaphorical ‘reaching-out’ to others for support when she couldn’t quite muster up her own faith made sense to me. And I enjoyed the resulting discussion of interdependence and how being able to offer and receive help is an added benefit of certain types of exercise.

After gritting my teeth through most of the descriptions (again, this is my issue, not an issue with the writing nor an issue with the people described) I was happy to have found this section at the end that let me relax into familiar territory and ideas that resonated with me.

Catherine

McGonigal explores the mystical world of the ultra-endurance athlete in Chapter 7. The stories chronicle pain, suffering, determination and hope. These are lofty sentiments, sincerely expressed and wholly appropriate to explain the process of achieving super-human feats.

But what about the rest of us? I, for one, don’t plan on running 100 miles, cycling across country in less than 2 weeks (check out the Race Across America if you’re interested), or hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. What is there for me to take away from these stories?

We are many of us endurance athletes, but of a different sort. Committing to a practice of running, swimming, walking, cycling, lifting, playing, training day after day, year after year, is most definitely endurance activity. We deal with aging, injury, illness, natural disaster, job loss, divorce, and depression. Life events can send us into distraction, despair, cynicism, and loss of agency.

Don’t leave yet! Here’s the good part: endurance is all about acceptance and hope. Acceptance that where I am is not the end, but rather a point along a line (maybe an undulating one) that leads me through my relationship with my body. The hope is for completion of segments of that line—new personal bests, recovery after injury or illness, or finding a new normal amidst a backdrop of very non-normal circumstances.

Endurance athletes like those McGonigal talks with strike me as special creatures with niche talents and unusual psychological makeups. They are cool to watch and hear about. For most of us, though, being an endurance athlete looks like life: get up, eat breakfast, put your gear on, pump the tires, and set off. You don’t know what it’s going to look like or feel like. But it’s what you do. That’s endurance to me.

Sam

Again, I liked the stories best. If there’s a reason to read this book, that’s it. There isn’t enough detail here about the studies that are mentioned to satisfy a reader who cares about research. That said, I’m not interested in challenging McGonigal’s claims and the stories are inspirational on their own.

(An aside: If you want a great research book on the topic of sports endurance, read Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. I loved it and started reviewing it here and got distracted.)

A confession, while I am not an ultra-marathoner, endurance is in my sports repertoire. I’ve ridden my bike some pretty long distances. I liked that McGonigal’s discussion of ultra-races includes the community and connection aspects of such events. I’d never be tempted to ride my bike alone 660+ kms but I’ve done it lots now as part of the Friends for Life Bike Rally fundraising ride with hundreds of other cyclists. Recently I reviewed a book about a woman who rode around the world and for her, it was global community that sustained her.

But I know that’s not true for all endurance athletes and I wondered if some of the solo sorts might feel left out by this chapter. Cate has blogged here lots about her solo cycling adventures, also major endurance events, and while they’ve never tempted me, I know she’s not alone in craving that kind of radical independence.

Have you been reading along? What did you think? What bits of this chapter spoke to you?

Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness

Book Club Week 6: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 6

A few weeks ago we started a virtual book club.

You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Want to catch up?

Read Week 1 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/10/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-1/

Read Week 2 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/17/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-2/

Read Week 3 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/31/book-club-week-3-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-3/

Read Week 4 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/09/book-club-week-4-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-4/

Read week 5 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/16/book-club-week-5-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-5/

Catherine

Chapter 6 of McGonigal’s book is about how nature helps us get out of our own heads and into a different state of mind. She cites E.O. Wilson on biophilia, who defines it as a hard-wired instinct that’s key to human happiness. Wilson says, “the emotions that modern humans tend to feel in nature—awe, contentment, curiosity, wanderlust—contributed to early humans’ ability to thrive as a species that had to find its place in a complex and constantly changing landscape”.

As I read this chapter about the feelings of transcendence, connection, care and contentment that immersion in nature brings, I can’t help but notice how distant those feelings are now. Parks and green spaces and beaches and wilderness areas are closed. And rightly so; when the governor of Florida re-opened beaches for socially-distanced recreation, crowds of people thronged the shores.

Does McGonigal have something to offer us for accessing the transformative powers of nature in these sequestered days? Yes. She describes how astronauts on the International Space Station all perked up around their new crewmember Rose, a spouted zucchini plant that one astronaut carefully nurtured from seed. NASA now recommends gardening in space as a psychological balm against the artificiality of space travel.

Yesterday I spent some time tending to my house plants, watering and pruning and staking and planning for repotting. I’m also starting an herb garden on my back porch. For me, caring for things live and green cuts down on the whingeing and promotes a quieter, softer mind state.

Walking through our neighborhoods, noting the developing buds and green shoots and flowering flora is a pleasure worth slowing down and taking in. Maybe we need to think of it like athletic training. I’m considering this and will report back.Christine

Christine

When comes to exercising outdoors, my ADHD-related challenges with *starting* an exercise session are compounded. Not only do I have to get myself organized to do the exercise itself, I have to get extra clothing on and I have to be prepared to face whatever weather is happening out there.

(Don’t start with the ‘There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing’ thing with me. I’m not buying it.)

I like to BE outdoors and I like doing outdoor things but, like with many things in my life, I have trouble bridging the gap between wanting to do something and actually starting it.

This is where McGonigal’s Chapter 6 ‘Embrace Life’ is going to come in handy.

This chapter is all about the underlying physiological reasons that exercising in nature is good for us. It’s not just about the movement, it’s not just about nature itself, it’s about the brainspace that we can access when we are exercising outdoors.

She says that in our regular resting-brain state our minds are not quiet, they are, instead, chattering about our social connections – our relationships with others, our place in our own social world. This is not inherently bad (in fact, it is quite useful) but it can create challenges when we are dealing with mental health issues. In nature, however, our resting mental state almost immediately flips to a different sort of consideration. The sights, smells, and sounds of nature draws our attention outwards and we get ‘out of our heads’ and tune into the world around us. We begin to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

That’s the kind of information that can help me get past the challenges of starting.

I know that I feel better in nature – exercising or just being – but having it described in this way is very tangible and helpful. Knowing the specific type of feeling I am seeking (and how to achieve it) can be another little push in the direction I want to go.

I was also very intrigued by her descriptions of groups who do gardening/landscaping/outdoor work for their exercise and how they can be motivated by seeing their progress…that there is a visible difference in their space from the time they start to the time they finish. This ties in nicely with another struggle of mine – not being able to see how the pieces add up to the whole.

One of my challenges with consistent exercise is that it is hard for me to recognize that any given single session will add up to a greater whole of increased fitness. There’s not often a tangible, positive result from a single workout so it is hard to convince myself that there is any point to a given session (Yes, intellectually, I know the difference but it’s not my intellect that is front and centre when I am trying to convince myself to put on my sneakers.)

So, this chapter has me wondering two things –
1) How can I regularly remind myself that exercising outside will give me that expansive ‘unity sensation’ that I enjoy?
2) How can I add that element of tangible, visible results to my exercise activities?

Chapter 6 is an interesting, enjoyable, and thought-provoking chapter and I will definitely be able to make good use of the information it contains.

Sam

I’ve decided I like this book best when I ignore two things: brief descriptions of theory without enough detail to determine if they are actually backed up by studies–that’s not the kind of book this is, and also the analogies with drugs and drug use–that’s not the kind of person I am, though clearly the author thinks lots of people will find it useful to think of exercise that way. Not me.

What I do love though are the stories. This chapter has some great stories about our connection to nature and the implications for human happiness, especially when it’s outdoor exercise in green environments.

I loved reading about emails to Melbourne’s trees. Melbourne gave 70,000 trees email addresses so people could report on their condition and instead, or in addition, people all over the world wrote letters to the trees themselves. See People from all over the world are sending emails to Melbourne’s trees.

I enjoyed reading about the author’s difficult decision about what to do with her elderly, ailing cat and how it was all made easier by a walk in nature with her partner that put things in perspective.

New to me too are Green Gyms, a program in the UK that combines, exercise, outdoor activity and caring for the outdoor environment. “Green Gyms are fun and free outdoor sessions where you will be guided in practical activities such as planting trees, sowing meadows and establishing wildlife ponds. Unlike other conservation projects, the emphasis is very much on health and fitness – volunteers warm up and cool down in preparation for a range of light to vigorous activities to suit all abilities.”

This appeals to me because I am often struck by how compartmentalized our lives are and how something as simple as gardening ticks a bunch of well-being boxes (outside, and everyday movement, and maybe even vegetables at the end).

Like Catherine, I’m thinking about the outside lots these days as I’ve moved even my bike riding to inside. I have wistful canoe camping thoughts and while it might be a very long time before I am back inside a restaurant or a mall, I want to get back into the wild as soon as possible. Heck, I am looking forward to eating outside in the evenings in our backyard as soon as it’s warm enough.

Also, I plan to garden. Wish me luck!

Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness

Book Club Week 5: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 5

A few weeks ago we started a virtual book club.

You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Want to catch up?

Read Week 1 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/10/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-1/

Read Week 2 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/17/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-2/

Read Week 3 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/31/book-club-week-3-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-3/

Read Week 4 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/09/book-club-week-4-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-4/

This week is just Catherine and Christine chiming in. I’m too swamped!

Catherine

In Chapter 5, McGonigal writes about overcoming obstacles, generally by plowing over or through them. For the record, I have no interest doing a Tough Mudder competition. Ever. Any athletic event that involves even mild electrocution is not for me. I know whereof I speak, having zapped myself and blown several fuses in my house once with an ill-tempered hairdryer.

I can relate, though, to willingly embarking on a physical adventure where at some point you just take a deep breath and say, f**k it, here I go. My first scuba diving trip was just like that. I jumped off the boat into 15 meters of cobalt blue water, having no idea what would happen. There was terror at first, followed shortly by “hey, look at that pretty blue fish. Oh, look, there’s another one. I’m think I’m going to go follow them now”. I can’t convey how proud and thrilled I was for having lept into the wild blue water.

McGonigal’s exploration of the idea of high terror/low horror experiences is intriguing, and helps explain the appeal and payoff that comes from extreme events like Tough Mudder. However, I don’t think this idea applies to confronting serious physical challenges like recovering from or adapting to severe injuries. She relates inspirational success stories of people who trained at an adaptive fitness gym. They and their trainers set very difficult goals, and when they finally reach them, they get to post a message on the Wall of Greatness.

Not everyone in physical therapy or training is going to meet those goals, though. Sometimes overcoming obstacles means figuring out ways around them. One of my favorite mountain bike ride leaders Bill, who rides everything elegantly, always reminded us that “every mountain bike comes fully equipped with a hiker”. Some obstacles you commit to confronting and riding through or down or up. Other times, you get off and walk your bike around them.

McGonigal reminds us of the glorious feelings we can have in our bodies from doing, watching, witnessing and trying to master arduous physical tasks. I have reveled in such moments. Right now, they’re not resonating so much. Maybe it’s because we’re in the midst of Coronavirus time. I’m biding my time, moving my body in my local environment, keeping some resources in reserve. There will be “Cowabunga!” moments in my future. I’ll reread this chapter again when I’m ready for one.

Catherine

 Overcoming Obstacles

I am getting so much out of this book and it is meeting my need for certain key types of information that might help me work with my ADHD (instead of against it!) and become even more consistent with exercise. The (sort of) downside is that the information is wrapped in big ideas and big personal concepts that take a while to unpack and that kind of thinking doesn’t lend itself to a weekly review. So, I haven’t been covering everything that I want to cover each week but I suspect that I will be circling back to this book in future monthly posts.

The ideas in Chapter 5 – Overcoming Obstacles are definitely examples of the situation I am describing above. There is lots of great information in here but digging deep into how it applies to me and how it will help me will take a lot more thinking. So this isn’t all I will have to say on this topic!

Overcoming Obstacles is all about motivation, encouragement, and hope. She describes all kinds of different scenarios that illustrate the key components of activities and programs that support people to persevere and push themselves (in useful ways) towards the goals they have set for themselves. The personal stories are inspiring in themselves but her information about *why* they work is especially valuable.

In fact, the way that McGonigal handles stories is one of my favourite aspects of this book. Not only does she share individual stories as examples but she also refers frequently to people’s storytelling capacity, and to the stories they tell themselves as they proceed through their lives. As a storyteller and a life coach, I LOVE these references. In some cases, they confirm information that I already use in my practice and in others they expand it in new directions – it’s great!

I really enjoy the way in which McGonigal discusses the mental challenges involved in preparing for and completing physical challenges. Too often, the mental work of exercise is dismissed or lumped into ‘Grit’ or ‘Just set your mind to it!’ Obviously, grit and determination play a role in the mental effort required but it is much more complex than that (especially for those of us who are not neurotypical) and I appreciate the ways in which she addresses the thinking required to accomplish physical tasks.

Book Club · Book Reviews · cycling · fitness

This Rode I Ride (A very short book review)

I decided as part of my own #StayingAtHome that I’d try to get some more reading done.

I picked up This Road I Ride: Sometimes It Takes Losing Everything to Find Yourself, a book I ordered after seeing it recommended by cyclists in various cycling Facebook groups of which I’m a member. Maybe it was Cyclists over 50? I can’t quite remember. Life these days feels a bit of a blur.

The book certainly tells an engaging story. It’s a story of Julianna Buhring, a woman who loses a loved one and sets out to set the women’s record for riding around the world on a bike. There are a few striking things about the book and Buhring’s story. It’s a gripping read. Lots of people talk about having read it all in on go and I can see that.

Buhring wasn’t a cyclist when she started to train for the journey on her hybrid commuting bike and she only started riding a real road bike just 10 days before she left. She wasn’t an athlete in the sense of having a sports/fitness background and yet she managed to ride 18,000 miles in 152 days. Even as she’s riding across various countries she still doesn’t sound like someone who is a member of the cycling community.

Instead the community that supports her trip–with subsistence needs like food and shelter and emotional support–are other former members of the cult in which Buhring grew up. She connects with them all over the world.

I talked about this book and the Joy of Movement which we are group reviewing here on the blog at a meeting of an International Silent Reading Book Club organized by fellow cyclist and blogger Todd Tyrtle. You can read about that here.

Now I want to read more about Buhring’s childhood in the Children of God cult. That book is called Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Those They Trusted.

My review is pretty short:

You can read more in this review from Kirkuk Reviews here:

“When Buhring (co-author: Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed, 2007) met adventurer Hendri Coetzee, she was working as a “quasi-missionary” for the Children of God in Kampala, Uganda. The two were immediately and powerfully attracted to one another, and for the next several years, they maintained an intense connection despite the distance that separated them. In 2010, just as Buhring (now an ex–cult member) was nearing her 30th birthday, Hendri was killed on an African kayaking expedition. More grief-stricken than she had ever been in her life, the author realized she needed to do something to save herself “or be swallowed up by the profound melancholy I was drowning in.” So she set herself a goal: to travel around the world by bicycle. She had no training and no sponsorship, yet within a year and a half, she gained both. Leaving her home in Naples, Italy, Buhring began her journey in the United States. Traveling against fierce headwinds, she cycled between Boston and Seattle, averaging 175 miles per day. After losing her way in New Zealand, she was forced to traverse—without a map or functioning GPS—through icy, mountainous terrain. She crossed the deserts of Australia and then made her way through Malaysia, Thailand, India, Turkey, and finally Italy. Hunger, illness, and the threat of equipment failure dogged her, as did moments of doubt and fear. As grueling as the journey was, however, ex–cult friends and strangers she called her “road angels” gave her the journey-affirming aid she needed. Buhring’s book is a testament to the human will to overcome and survive as well as a moving portrait of a woman on a deeply personal quest to define the meaning of her life.A searching, engaging memoir from an author who “can be at home no matter where…in the world.”