Sharon Salzberg's 28-Day Real Happiness Challenge

INTRODUCTION

Celebrating her forty-fifth year as a meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg is not only one of my three favorite meditation teachers, but has likely been a teacher for my other two favorites. With nearly a dozen books under her belt (the latest of which is the beautiful and true Real Love , released in 2017), each February Sharon invites beginning and seasoned practitioners alike to join her for a 28-day challenge based on Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, transforming the book into an interactive experience. It’s totally free, and it isn’t too late to join in. But if you come across this post well past February, my suggestion is to pick up a copy of the book and begin wherever and whenever you are. Unless you have an OCD streak like I do, in which case I suggest you instead align your challenge with another 28-day cycle by kicking it off with the new moon. (Plus, that keeps February free for twenty-eight days of meditating on the contributions, legacies, traditions, and ongoing celebrations and struggles across the African Diaspora for Black History Month.)

A PRELUDE

(…because a preface would sound like an excuse..)

Prelude: Part 1 (February 2nd, 2019)

…and here we are: two days behind schedule, and treading water rather than flowing with all the things I’m attempting to juggle. Here’s a little secret about me: I’m a libra, and I identify {gasp: yes “identify”} so strongly with that label that it crosses into the territory of attachment. As a student of Buddhism I know that both identification and attachment are hindrances to peace, and as a lover of postmodern approaches to psychotherapy, I also know that something is only a problem if it is a problem for me - and here’s why my love of the scales actually is both a hindrance and a problem: I am not always in balance. 

I know: some revelation, right?

But bear with me. 

You see, as someone who also identifies {there goes that word again} as a yoga teacher, I have already set the bar high for myself to practice what I preach, and adding the understanding of myself as a libra, symbolized by the scales, I have inherently cultivated a standard by which I experience a near constant underlying evaluation of authenticity. The problem, though, and true hindrance does not merely arise by asking myself whether or not I am living up to my own standards and walking the walk. Gentle and compassionate self-check-ins are a great way to avoid cognitive dissonance and live a life that honors one’s values. However, it becomes harder to approach myself with kindness when I forget that what I do is not the same as who I am.

And so, as I get ready to dive into this year’s Real Happiness Challenge - a day late, sitting on my travel zafu in the swiveling desk chair at my hotel room desk, typing away while the to-do list for the work that I’m actually paid to be here awaits my refocused attention, looming ominous and literally longer than the lines on a single sheet of my yellow notepad contain - I do so looking forward to the opportunity to spiral back to center and find the balance that I value so much while also reminding myself that my ability to balance is not where my value actually resides.


Prelude: Part 2 (February 4th, 2019, 6:30AM)

...and despite the noble intentions of Prelude: Part 1, it still took me a pair of days to find my way to the cushion. The part of me that loves order was shaken when my partner jokingly corrected me by calling what was left of the 28-day challenge a “20-something-day challenge”. Then, as I reached for a new pack of contact lenses after accidentally dropped one on the floor, it dawned on me: when better to begin anew than with the new moon?

And so I return to my cushion in the stillness of a San Juan sunrise ready to begin again, ready to see what has shifted internally since last year’s Real Happiness Challenge, and ready to manifest something somehow more than all the joy and blessings that have already come to pass. 

May it be so.

Ashe.

WEEK ONE: CONCENTRATION

Day 1: Breath Meditation

formal sitting: February 4th, 2019

#RealHappinessChallenge @sharonsalzberg

#RealHappinessChallenge @sharonsalzberg

“...and with great kindness to ourselves, we can begin again.”

- Sharon Salzburg 

NOTE: The following was written before sitting for Day 2’s meditation.

Yesterday’s meditation was all about the breath. One of my favorite things about Sharon's way of teaching a breath meditation, and one that I have incorporated into my own meditation and yoga teaching, which her the suggestion that we simply watch the breath wherever it’s most obvious to us, be it the sensation of the air moving in and out of the nostrils, the rise and fall of the chest, or the expansion and contraction of the belly. It is such a simple and profound tool. In Day 1’s meditation Sharon also reminded us that we can literally meditate anywhere, because we are literally breathing everywhere.

So here’s another secret: one of the hardest things about practicing mindfulness is remembering to be mindful.

Yesterday was the start of a week during which I will be celebrating the first chakra, and focusing on grounding during my travel season. The hardest thing about meditation at this stage in my journey is still simply remembering to practice when I’m not formally practicing. Yesterday was the kind of day in which the stressors didn’t make themselves clearest to me until they’d created a list of completed and unfinished tasks that weighed on my conscience at bedtime. By then I realized I hadn’t remembered to come back to my breath with intention even once all day. 

And so today before I sit for Day Two’s lesson, I am reminded of the importance to begin again, and remember that this is called "a practice” for a reason. 

 Maybe so.

Day 2: Hearing Meditation

formal sitting: February 5th, 2019

#RealHappinessChallenge @SharonSalzberg

#RealHappinessChallenge @SharonSalzberg

NOTE: The following was written as a reflection on Day 2 before sitting for Day 3’s meditation.


While updating my blog yesterday, perched upon my zafu, I began to reconnect with my ability to choose. As time ticked I made the choice not to do my formal sitting at that moment, taking the gamble that I would make time before too many hours had passed. I chose to dilute - if not completely dissolve - my own grumpiness, breathing consciously, diminishing the potency of stress, despite the fact that it had overflowed into the dawn from the night before. And I chose to refuse to let either of those things dim the light of the new day, nor creep into my voice as I sent morning recordings to my beloved, who is currently four time zones away.

I noted - but disempowered - the little voice that warned the lack of a formal sitting might sabotage the biggest presentation of my business trip thus far. After the presentation went well, I realized I had more than an hour of extra time between appointments, and I chose to savor the warmth of the day by finding a bench, and enjoying Day 2’s meditation. The invitation to meditate usually is accompanied by the option to keep eyes open or closed, and so I didn’t think much of choosing the former since I was surrounded by passersby. Before beginning, I noted a fountain across from me, and imagined that my sitting would be comprised solely of the soothing babble. What I found instead, was a kind of mental chatter so utterly distinct from the usual flow of thoughts that accompany most of my formal sittings. With eyes open, suddenly colors were more vibrant, and what was once an overt rushing of water from the fountain seemed like mere background noise to the rustling of leaves in a nearby bush, the laughter and chatter of children in every direction. A kinesthetic person, I would have imagined the warmth of the air and the gentle breeze would have held most of my attention, but in this sitting the loudest experiences were those to which I typically pay least attention. The most interesting aspect of the sitting for me, though, was the quality of my thoughts. Rather than daydreaming about the future (or my mounting to-do list), my thoughts stayed much closer to real time: 

"Is that an iguana?! Should I check? No: it’s probably a lizard. If it is a lizard, I’m not in danger.

So, no: don’t move. Ok. What else do you hear?”

After the sitting, I chose to stay where I was, and, out of the corner of my eye, I watched as a lizard slid down a narrow tree trunk. For the next few hours, it was easier to stay connected to the ability to choose. When a teacher at the second school visited discovered I’d set up shop at a table she’d been using during prior breaks (and was less-than-kind in letting me know so), I was aware of each twinge of my facial expression, the tone of every syllable in my response, and the clearest sensation I had was remembering what it was like to be in her shoes. And so I chose to smile genuinely, to explain how I’d arrived at that table without a defensive or defiant tone, and without undermining my own needs in the situation, I extended my hand to help in each concrete way that I could. But mostly, I allowed myself to take care of myself while giving her the space and time to let her own emotional journey play its course. This is the reason why I love this practice. On the days that choose to sit, the ability to choose my thought patterns and responses becomes stronger, if only for the hours immediately following the practice. On a more subtle plane, it is almost as though the time spent in meditation is stored up, and reemerges when I need a few moments - even if infinitesimally small - to breathe into my values, and choose to move accordingly.

Day 3: Mental Noting

formal sitting: February 6th, 2019

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 3

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 3

NOTE: The following was written as a reflection on Day 3 before sitting for Day 4’s meditation.

It is said that libras have a hard time making decisions, and while I typically eschew all things perceived as inherent disadvantages, when it came to today’s meditation, I fit that description “to a T”. Sharon's suggestion to silently recite the simple word “in” on the inhale and “out” on the exhale felt comfortable and familiar, but when she opened the possibility of using "a word that evokes some particular meaning” for me, my brain went haywire! Words and images crescendoed, and I saw a mental picture of my partner's smile, which was followed by the sound of the word “love”. Then I envisioned her smile mouthing the word “love”, which, in turn, became a memory of her saying “yes”. I beamed joyfully I as I drifted very, very far from the call to “let [my] attention actually rest in the sensations of breathing”. Before I knew it, the session had reached its end, and I wondered if I’d meditated at all. But when the joy I experienced in the session carried me not only throughout my work day, but well into the next - especially when I had to wait until the late afternoon to sit for Day 4’s meditation - all doubts were dispelled. After all:

“We don’t meditate to get better at meditating. We meditate to get better at life.”
-Sharon Salzberg

Day 4: Counting Meditation

formal sitting: February 7th, 2019

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 4

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 4

NOTE: The following was written as a reflection on Day 4 before sitting for Day 5’s meditation.

Before sitting for the counting meditation I couldn’t believe how little time it has taken to begin feeling the difference returning to the cushion has already made on my wellbeing. Or, perhaps, I couldn’t believe how easily and fully I’d forgotten this knowledge. I was super excited to sit for today’s session as soon as I read that it would be a counting meditation. Counting is a popular way meditation teachers help practitioners train the mind to focus on the breath while also providing a proverbial trail of breadcrumbs to get back on the path once we realize the last number we remember consciously thinking got lost in the muck. The instructions as given by Sharon today somehow created space for me to practice this form of meditation in a way that I don’t recall doing, or at least that I haven't in quite some time. I paid close attention to the inhale while thinking “in” and labeled the corresponding exhale with a number. It’s so strange to me how much space there is around this simple act. Sometimes while practicing counting meditation I think of the number at the bottom of a breath, just before the inhale or exhale begins, and other times I label its conclusion. Most often I number both the inhales and exhales, and so there was something oddly captivating about naming the inhale and numbering the exhale. It felt much more calm, much slower, and created so much more space than my usual methods of counting. As it would turn out, the next day - the last of this season's Puerto Rico trip - I was not able to sit at all - or rather, between morning appointments, packing, checking out of my hotel, and catching my flight back home, I was unable to find the space, time, and Internet access to stream Day 5’s session. Therefore, Day 4’s meditation has remained with me for two days, and across three countries, now that I’m settled into my first evening of the Mexico City leg of my travel season. Now that’ve reflected on Day 4’s practice, I feel not only ready to see what Day 5 has to offer, but I can already sense how there is more space inside my Being to allow curiosity and delight to commingle with my physical fatigue.

Day 5: How Do You Speak to Yourself

formal sitting: February 9th, 2019

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 5

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 5

NOTE: The following was written on February 12th, 2019.

I really wanted to take my time reflecting on this one because it has been perhaps the single most significant aspect of my journey over the last three-and-a-half years. 

And here’s where it gets personal. 

My whole life I have been pensive and self-reflective, often more familiar with the world of my thoughts than the one around me. However, my thoughts, if the place of my dwelling, were not always a safe haven. I struggled with self-esteem throughout my adolescence and well into my adulthood in a way that not only caused me harm, but also fed unto itself by challenging my very identity. I felt like a fraud who could never become successful because I was inherently hypocritical: how could I try to teach others to love themselves through my work as an educator and a psychotherapist when I did not know how to do so myself? 

In 2001, shortly after I added Dance to my Psychology studies, I took my first yoga class at the at the University of California, Riverside Student Recreation Center. It wasn’t exactly a soothing experience. Not only did I struggle in my body, but my mind was going haywire. When Anna B. Scott, my West African dance teacher, incorporated yoga into her warm ups, I could finally start to sense how this practice would feel good in my own body. She introduced me to Inland Yoga, where Scott Miller became my first yoga mentor. It was there when I began to experience all the bliss and breakthroughs, challenges and frustrations that made me fall madly in love with this practice. There, too, was when I realized that meditation would eventually be the part of yoga that would change my relationship to life itself.

And here’s where it gets really personal. 

In 2013 I was unhappily married, living in another country, and far more lonely than I would have ever imagined. My partner was doing dangerous but heroic work that left me home alone for unpredictable periods of time that ranged from days to weeks on end. It was during that time that I started to take refuge on the zafu, and meditation became my primary expression of yoga. I began to realize that the daily act of coming back to the cushion was truly one of self-compassion, and a demonstration of faith that I could be successful in my practice, no matter how frustrating the prior practice had been. (There were several months of falling asleep on the cushion!) 

About a year or so into my dedicated mediation journey, I had gotten so accustomed to being there for myself, and bearing witness to my own thoughts, that somehow I could no longer pretend to be someone I was not - which is how the version of myself that I tried to become when my partner was home began to feel. From that point on, it was just a matter of time before we walked away from our marriage altogether, and I found myself beginning a new life. 

Shortly after making the decision to leave my marriage, I met someone and fell madly in love. (Not-so-)Long-story-short, after six months of a whirlwind romance, I found myself back on the cushion, and more heartbroken than ever. What followed was three years that would be the most significant period of self-reflection of my life. I was starting from scratch with no job prospects, no educational goals (I’d been waiting to hear back about my newest thesis proposal so long that I was all-but-certain that dream had passed me by; luckily, I was wrong), no lover, and absolutely no idea which direction to turn. 

And so, I sat.

And sat. 

And sat. 

And prayed. 

But I also spent A LOT of time listening to dharma talks and walking my godfather’s dog in an incredibly gracious exchange for a free place to stay post-divorce. I began to practice Buddhist precepts in earnest, and found a great sense of relief in learning how to watch - and choose - my thoughts. In what was initially born out of an aversion to the painful memories of my recent heartache, I learned to ask myself “Do I need to think about this? Do I need to think about it right now?” which led to asking other questions of my own thought patterns. In so doing, I began to notice the little phrases I would say to myself throughout a given day - when I stubbed my toe, or forgot my watch, or forgot why I walked into the kitchen - and, slowly, but significantly, I began to make conscious corrections. After catching myself thinking “Idiot!” when I’d forgotten something, I’d literally think “No. You’re not an idiot. You’re stressed,” and would sometimes (ok: often) apologize to myself. After several months of heart healing, I began to realize that this time my practice had not only given me a way to see myself, but to actually, genuinely, love myself - and perhaps for the first time in my life. Meditation gave me what two degrees in Psychology could not. When I began to realize that my own accompaniment felt not just like faith, but like unconditional love, I finally experienced self-esteem, and could understood firsthand why I personally could not be in a lasting, loving relationship until I could love myself.  

Watching my self-talk has become part of my daily self-care routine. I enjoy my own sense of humor and have inside jokes with, well, myself, and I have learned to trust my ability to love and care for myself even in the most stressful of moments. I spent three years exploring these truths and deepening my relationship with myself, and when romantic love finally came back around, I was ready - not just because it had been awhile since I’d been loved, but because I had never before loved myself enough to be myself and allow someone to love me for who I actually am. Once I learned to treat myself as I would treat a loved one, I attracted my ideal partner. I am now in the next phase of watching my thoughts, which is watching my thoughts not just when I am alone, or in uncomfortable social situations, but when I am in a growing and loving partnership. Now when I miss an inaccurate and unhelpful thought that is transformed into an inaccurate and potentially harmful phrase, I have a partner who supports me by gently encouraging me to take note of what I've said - and is not annoyed when I make verbal corrections. This is a new phase of my journey, and so I know there will be slip ups along the way, but it feels like the natural next step in this evolutionary journey. 

May it be so. 

Ashé.

And so it is.

Selena Brown