Sharon Salzberg's 28-Day Real Happiness Challenge (2019 Edition)

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. 

 May it be 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.

Day 6: Meditation on Balance

formal sitting: February 13th, 2019

IMG_1576.JPG

Today was a more literal take on the theme of balance - as in, are you literally being balanced while you sit. Sometimes the very posture of meditation can be intimidating and appear physically limiting, but all that is truly required is that one sit in what Gil Fronsdal likes to translate as “a dignified seat”. This is why sitting either on the floor or in a chair is equally effective. 

In today’s session, Sharon explains why the posture is so important. Far from esoteric or ritualistic, today’s emphasis on the choice to sit tall is practical: it will help keep you awake!  However, the idea isn’t to sit straight as a rod. I like to envision the spine like a stack of coins: they don’t have to be precisely atop one another, but if too many begin to shift, the tower will topple. Most importantly, though, all that is necessary for the stack to remain vertical is gravity. As such, once we feel the spine relatively aligned, we can envision the muscles releasing around it, and settle into both an active and easeful posture. 

Equally as important as the physical posture is the idea of bringing balance to one’s mental posture. Proving why she’s at the top of her field, Sharon introduces the rather advanced phenomenological concept of watching the subtleties of energetic balance and how to bring conscious attention to that which typically goes unwitnessed. Addressing a very real problem, Sharon teaches us to regulate our energetic focus, bringing enough vitality so as not to fall asleep, but not so much as to make the practice feel forced. 

When I began practicing in earnest in 2013 falling asleep was a near constant concern. Andy Puddicomb, the brilliant mind behind HeadSpace, offered the suggestion to envision a lightbulb glowing above my crown. This image helped me stay focused and the vision of literal brightness energized me until falling asleep during my practice was no longer a concern.

Another thing Gil Fronsdal has said, though, is that many of us need sleep more than we need to meditate. If you’re exhausted, perhaps taking a nap would serve you well - but if you’re feeling well-rested and still find yourself sleeping on the cushion, know that this is totally normal. In time, and with techniques like Sharon and Andy’s, you should get past the sleepy slump.

Day 7: Distraction Meditation

FORMAL SITTING: FEBRUARY 15TH, 2019

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 7: Distraction Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 7: Distraction Meditation

(Written immediately after the formal sitting, aboard a plane en route to Guadalajara from Mexico City on February 15th, 2019)

Sharon rounded out the first week of the challenge, dedicated to concentration, with my absolute favorite of her techniques thus far - and it’s so simple you won’t believe how powerful it is. The instruction is that when you notice a thought - no matter how beautiful, intriguing, painful, or recurring - simply note “not breath”.

THAT’S IT.

In today’s sitting, for the first time I instinctively combined this technique with another she teaches, which is to gently return to the breath not by force, but by simply recognizing it: “There’s the breath.” She describes this as how we might recognize a friend in a crowd (“Oh! There’s my friend!”). Practicing these two techniques together, allowed for every other thought to become so vague that they each simply dissipated.

The last few days I have been in Mexico City juggling appointments, meetings, presentations, emails, and updating spreadsheets, while falling progressively behind on the dissertation chapter draft I’d hoped to finish weeks ago. Self-care has taken the form of good food,  hydration, and vitamins; communications with Bae (who is in London this season); and catching up with #CDMX homies. So far I’ve squeezed in a pair of asana practices, one long walk, and my weekly therapy session, and the #RealHappinessChallenge has been my sole source of meditative bliss. As I round out my seventh sitting - which has taken two weeks (and three countries) in real time to complete - I acknowledge that I do feel as though I can see and prioritize my thoughts more easily. However, right now my struggle is finding patience.

I’ve realized that because I am in the middle of a work-related travel season, the pitta aspect of my vata-pitta-kapha tridoshic nature is off the charts, and each time something takes longer than the time for which I have allotted it, my frustration goes from 0 to 60 in 30 seconds flat. The other day my partner and I spent more time than planned on FaceTime and I didn’t know how to handle the creeping sensation that stress was mounting until it outweighed the sweetness of our conversation. Last night an old friend and I were catching up and enjoying quality time, and as my bedtime came and went I watched as my body language communicated that I had closed down, even as I continued to give advice from a genuine place of concern and interest. Taken together, these two experiences revealed that I have not been able to enjoy the fact that I am prioritizing love in my life. While reading up on ayurvedic healing, it dawned on me that I need to actively incorporate more kapha-related activities into my days. Now that I have practiced getting concentrated, as I get ready to move into Week Two of Sharon Salzberg’s Challenge, which is dedicated to Mindfulness of the Body, I look forward to remembering to be where I have chosen to be, breathing into the moments I have consciously made time and mental space for, and practice being fully embodied in each experience. 

May it be so.

Ashé.

WEEK TWO: MINDFULNESS OF THE BODY

Day 8: Walking Meditation

formal sitting: February 16th, 2019

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 8: Walking Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 8: Walking Meditation

(NOTE: The following was written Tuesday, February 19th while aboard yet another pair of airplanes)

Yes! It’s Mindfulness of the Body week! This  is one of my absolute favorite elements of a mindfulness practice because of all that it allows. By bringing our attention to our senses, we automatically return to the present moment. Unless one is a superhero or a character in a delightfully dystopian speculative fiction novel, one cannot taste the past or hear the future. We do not actively smell the past, but rather trigger our memories thereof. We see our daydreams not with physical eyes, and no  remembered or anticipated hug can compare to the lived experience of a lover’s embrace. And so, what better way is there to embody planting our feet in the present than with walking meditation?


The first time I practiced walking meditation was during an intensive with Rolf Gates, whose autobiographical 365-day Meditations from the Mat accompanied me during my first years {Yes: years. Have you discovered my tendency to take timed things beyond their limits?} on the cushion. Right away I realized that even the post-modern roots of my dance training couldn’t override my instinct to alter the walk in some way, as I asked myself: 

“Could I make my movements more seamless? More balanced? Slower? Is my posture optimized?” 

In other words, I missed the point. Today’s practice made it clear that the months and years between my first and most recent rounds of walking meditation have done little to override this urge. However, practicing while experiencing hyperactivity of the pitta aspect of my tridosha blend, I am reminded of what it feels like when a meditative technique compounds, rather than neutralizes, a predominant energetic pattern. While I absolutely love being in my body in this way, because I’ve seemingly been going nonstop for the last six weeks, my brain and body are calling for a little less action, and a little less movement. 

And yet...

This is when I reconsider Sharon’s call to:

“Feel your feet from your feet,

not as though who you were - your consciousness was -

up in your head behind your eyes

somehow trying to look down

to feel your feet”

-Sharon salzberg, Day 8

...and I realize that perhaps the reason I haven’t been able to enjoy simply BEING in my body is because I’ve been trying to pilot it instead.

Day 9: Sensation Meditation

formal sitting: February 16th, 2019

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 9: Sensation Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 9: Sensation Meditation

NOTE: The following was written Tuesday, February 19th while airborne.


“Bring your attention to your hands. Notice that the direct experience we have is not one of fingers. It’s different sensations, pulsing, throbbing, warmth, coolness.” -Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness challenge 2019, Day 9

In recent years a few of my closest friends who have suffered through illness and were recovering from injuries have asked about using meditation for pain management. While all three of my favorite dharma teachers have offered numerous lessons on the topic, I am always hesitant when leading guided meditations for those confronting pain. It might be because my first yoga teacher once warned against the misconception that meditation will not only assuage even extreme pain, but dissolve it completely. While referencing childbirth, he explained that mindfulness meditation instead allows us to feel everything more keenly, and although neither he nor I had ever experienced child bearing ourselves, the image was terrifyingly clear in my eighteen-year-old imagination. When I began meditating in earnest more than a decade later, however, I realized that this explanation was both accurate and incomplete. 

As Sharon describes in today’s meditation, on the occasions when pain has accompanied me in a sitting, I have noticed that the more I attempt to focus my attention on the pain itself, the less cohesive it becomes. Sometimes the pain literally appears to move as my attention gives chase, and I have a hard time describing the sensations themselves as the warmth, throbbing, stabbing, and tightness shift. However, while I have found refuge from pain in this way, I am still wary of “prescribing” this technique to anyone else - perhaps because it feels like inviting someone with extreme pain to directly confront their most imposing dragon. 

As a psychotherapist I developed the confidence to accompany a client in an exploration of their greatest fears and most potent traumas without sinking into emotional quicksand. However, as a meditation teacher I sometimes worry that the silent, solitary nature of each person’s journey means that I won’t know when my students get stuck. Yet, I am reminded that what I love most about yoga as an eight-limbed practice is that it is a profoundly personal, self-guided journey. As practitioners, we learn to trust our innate ability to moderate our own effort, energy, and focus. Thus, while I may never know the specific pains, thoughts, or emotional journeys of my clients or students, I do have the ability to help equip them with the tools by which they may craft their own strategies of self-exploration, and though I cannot see the images in their mind, I can remind them that sometimes rather than pushing forward, it may be necessary to open their eyes, breathe, and ease off for the day - and that that, too, is part of the self-knowledge that comes with this journey.

Day 10: Body Scan Meditation

FORMAL SITTING, TAKE ONE: Tuesday, February 19th, aboard a plane back to Mexico City from Cancún

AFTER ONLY six hours IN TOWN ON a business trip.

FORMAL SITTING, TAKE TWO: one week later on Tuesday, February 26th

while relaxing beside my sister on Cancún shores.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 10: Body Scan Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 10: Body Scan Meditation

The first time I attempted this meditation was on one of the most stressful days on the second leg of my winter travel season. When I attempted to scan my physical body, my brain was aflame with all that I had done, all that I’d forgotten or been unable to achieve, and all that I would still need to accomplish before bed that evening. All that noise made it nearly impossible to focus on my body and stay present. In fact, about two-thirds of the way in, I gave up trying altogether, and decided to wait until I could find the time (and an active wifi connection) to try again.

Sadly, that moment came an entire week later.

Perhaps this delay was rather serendipitous, and the perfect do-over: I am now in the same city under very different circumstances and am reminded of how meditation provides us with the perfect opportunity to see how our perspective changes everything. Rather than rushing back to my favorite AirBnB in the Mexican capitol, I enjoyed today’s practice while lounging in front of my favorite body of water. Yet, to my surprise, and in spite of the fact that I was listening to Sharon’s words in one ear and the rush of the ocean in the other, my mind wasn’t exactly perfectly still. (Why would it be?) However, this time I was able to come back to the body, back to the instructions, and back to the present much more quickly. As I scanned, I was able to watch as my attention flowed between parts of the body, flitted off to thoughts of the past and future, and drifted in-and-out of sleep. When I opened my eyes at the end of the practice, I was amazed by how much more calm and blue the ocean appeared. Had it been that way all along? Could it really have changed so much in only fifteen minutes? While I know very little about the changing seas, I am confident that my mind, indeed felt much more steady and much more clear. I was overcome with relief and happiness at being able to bring presence to this first day of much needed (partial) rest that I had been looking forward to for months.

Ms. Ousley, my favorite teacher during my senior year of high school, was the first woman I’d ever known who really seemed to know at least a little about everything. I soaked up her advice and wisdom like a sponge, and I still remember that she suggested that one avoid attempting to layer work and play, and literally used the deleterious example of working at the beach. It became clear to me weeks ago that these few days in Cancun with my sister would have to include a bit of both work and play, and so today’s practice reminded me to be fully alive in each moment that I’ve chosen. In the moments I choose to work, in the moments I choose to simply enjoy my sister, and in the moments I choose to FaceTime my beloved halfway around the world, I must honor each choice, and bring my full attention to every experience. Remembering to come back to the breath, to feel it move through my body, is one of my favorite anchors to the present. I hope that it will serve as my anchor at the beach this week, and far, far beyond.

May it be so. 

Ashé.

Day 11: Walking Meditation 2

Formal practice Thursday, February 28th in Cancún, Mexico.

Reflection written Wednesday, March 6th in Medellín, Colombia

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 11: Walking Meditation 2

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 11: Walking Meditation 2

I was so excited to practice walking meditation at the beach, and an entire movie rolled out in my mind as I envisioned a picturesque practice. Not only was the actual practice less cinematographic than my expectations, but it was also much more similar to a seated practice than I would have guessed.

So as to leave my cell phone nestled between beach towels on my lounger, I chose a patch of sand only as far as the range of my Bluetooth earbuds allowed, which ended up being in the softer part of the beach rather than by the water. I walked only about 15-20 feet before having to turn and retrace my path. Aside from the delicious texture of the sand, my immediate thoughts went to the distribution of my weight as I formed footprints that were quickly swallowed by cascading grains in the wake of each step. And although this practice revealed the only two seashells I took the time to see during my week in Cancún, I was shocked - and frustrated - by how easily my mind drifted; I couldn’t even stay present for a sunlit stroll on the beach! I was overcome by the fact that there were more sensations to experience than I could attend to at once - the strength and temperature of the breeze, the sound of the waves, the rhythm of my gait - and to cope my mind seemed to focus in on a single aspect and run with it. For several moments noticing the people around me sparked thoughts of who may be watching me take my repetitive and ever-slowing stroll: 

“What is she doing?” 

“What is she wearing?"

"She must be meditating.” 

“What isn’t she looking at the water?"

"Why isn’t she walking more than a few feet when the entire beach is at her disposal?” 

For me, more sensory stimulation meant more distractions. Don’t get me wrong: I know that, when permitted, my brain will always find things to imagine, remember, and ponder rather than staying present with sensation of air moving in and out of my lungs. However, as much as I enjoy a long, even meditative walk through my neighborhood in Long Beach, New York, when it comes to my formal practice, I think I enjoy seated meditation most. Walking meditation helps me to connect to my body - and goodness knows that during my travel season I could use more of that - but there’s something about “taking a dignified seat” on my favorite zafu that makes me feel like I’ve reconnected to my inner home.

Day 12: Eating Meditation

Formal sitting 6:30am on Friday, February 22nd, just before dawn on the last day of the Mexico leg of my winter work travels, written immediately thereafter, and edited Thursday, March 7th aboard a flight from Medellin to Cali, Colombia.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 13: Eating Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 13: Eating Meditation

I woke up extra early this morning, and had time to cut and prepare two of my favorite fruits: guayaba and banana. I sat before the bowl of layered fruit and immediately noticed the birds chirping so frantically that they seemed exasperated, and I smiled in silent recognition of our apparent shared exhaustion. I looked down, noting how the otherwise dissimilar fruits shared a color palate. I pierced the first slice of banana with my fork, and noticed the way that the light gleamed off the slimy inside of banana coin, and its comparably drier, fibrous, outer ridges. As Sharon’s instructions continued I realized I had gotten ahead of myself and skipped the opportunity to explore the texture, weight, and experience of simply holding the fork. However, my slice of banana had begun developing desert-like cracks around the tines, and although I knew it was nowhere near time in the meditation to actually consume the fruit, I  anxiously put it in my mouth before it fell apart, and considered how odd it was for something moist to able to crumble. 

While I’d had to use the fork gingerly with the banana, only slightly penetrating the sliver so as not to split it outright, the guayaba could handle much more depth. Lifting it, I saw how its skin was slightly more yellow than it’s meat and slippery seeds. I savored its scent and giggled while remembering when I recently recounted the story of my mother’s visceral aversion to the sensual fruit. When I placed the slice in my mouth, I noticed its texture was not as uniform as that of the banana, and I could peel the thin skin away from the dense layer beneath, then exhume the jelly-covered seeds with my tongue. As I continued to enjoy my breakfast by alternating the coins of banana and guayaba, I noticed that the scent of the latter overpowered the former, but the flavor of the banana was still sharp enough to cut through the lingering taste of the more fragrant fruit. 

This time they were poetic thoughts that pulled me away from the present, but I managed to pause my preemptive draft-writing most of my meal. Halfway through the bowl, I felt a rumble in my belly and acknowledged that my metabolism had kicked into gear. By the time there were 10 coins left in the bowl, I discovered that what had appeared to be an equal banana-to-guayaba ratio had become 8:1, and before I knew it, the final bite, comprised of a pair of pressed-together banana slices, alerted me to the fact that my mind must have drifted, because I had missed the moment when I’d consumed the last coin of guayaba. 

I really enjoyed this practice, and the sense of calm and appreciation that it fostered left me considering building it into my new and/or full moon practices. I find that this form of meditation helps me to see things I usually completely miss and don’t even realize form part of my life. Perhaps best of all, it also serves as a reminder that unsung beauty and creative inspiration abound.

Day 13: Drinking Tea Meditation

Formal sitting February 22nd, immediately after practicing and writing about Day 12’s Eating Meditation.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 13: Drinking Tea Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 13: Drinking Tea Meditation

This meditation began with Sharon talking about a friend of hers who chose to make brushing his teeth a daily mindful practice. When I first heard her tell the story I thought it was a brilliant and simple way to build mindfulness into each day. During my 500-hour teacher training, one of my instructors challenged us to select a quotidian act that we would transform into a mindfulness practice for 40 days. Ever the eager beaver, I chose not a simple two-minute activity, but opted to bring my full presence to showering, which meant no mental multitasking while bathing. At first, it was so wonderful to feel the warmth, beginning with how the steam transformed my bathroom itself into a cozy and humid wonderland, and, of course, the cascades of hot water against my skin. After a few days I realized I was oil-pulling less often, since that is my usual shower-time multitasking activity of choice, and I even missed listening to music, since I’d decided that focusing on music would be a distraction that would keep me from focusing on the showering itself. It wasn’t long before I just wanted the challenge to end so that I could get back to singing or swishing in the shower or shower - and after going back to my regularly scheduled programming, I found that I appreciated those simple activities so much more!

So while a multi-day slow down still induces a bit of resistance, I was delighted to take a few extra minutes to enjoy today’s practice while sipping a hot cuppa. As I looked at the preferred mug in my favorite AirBnB, I noticed the edges had been stained by my previous cup of tea, and that the cylinder that is the cup itself seemed slightly taller and more narrow than a typical coffee mug. The cup had been cooling for quite some time, so I was surprised by its residual warmth once I finally wrapped my hands around it. In fact, it had been so long since I’d poured boiling water over the teabag that when I brought the cup toward my nose, I was abruptly brought to the present moment when I inhaled not the anticipated peppermint, but the chamomile I had uncharacteristically selected a half-hour before. Once I remembered having swapped my usual selection, I was impressed that the floral infusion that I’d so often considered subtle had grown beautifully deep, and when I sipped it, the flavor was equally surprising in its intensity. Because I had steeped it so long, it the swirls of liquid danced bitterly upon my tongue. Listening to Sharon’s voice, I thought about how she was at that moment in the hospital - or recovering someplace more comfortable - and I wondered if she is able to enjoy a cup of tea to soothe her throat, or if she’s using her voice at all at the moment. As my mind continued to drift, I sent her well wishes and hopes for a full and thorough recovery.

May she be happy.

May she be healthy.

May she be safe.

Thank you Sharon, for teaching me this and so many lessons. I hope to see you in person again soon!

Namaste.

Ashé.

Day 14: Washing Dishes Meditation

Formal practice March 7th in Medellin, Colombia, reflection written March 10th in Cali, Colombia.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 14: Washing Dishes Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 14: Washing Dishes Meditation

I’d known for what feels like weeks that Day 14’s practice would require washing dishes, so I was concerned that being on the road would mean that I would miss my opportunity to take part. However, while at one of the many Juan Valdéz coffee shops in town, I happened across a recycled plastic mug with small enough straining holes to make it functional for loose-leaf tea that I decided would make a nice addition to my collection.

Standing at the bathroom sink of my hotel, I was grateful to have brought a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s - and asked for extra wash cloths. While I waited for the water to warm, I took my new mug apart, separating the dial that closes off the straining holes from the lid itself. I wet the wash cloth, turned off the water, and squeezed soap into the cup and onto the wet cloth - in a way that reminded me of how I’d learned to wash dishes while in Mexico, where a Tupperware dish (or, more likely, an empty yogurt, butter, or other container) held concentrated soapy water, rather than the sink full I had grown up used to. 

Stuffing the wet cloth into the cup, I felt the bubbles form as it sloshed around, and I acknowledged the luxurious excess inherent in such an elaborate affair for only one dish. I left the sudsy cup in the sink as I washed the lid and dial in turn, rinsing each after cleaning it, and placed them both on a clean hand towel before rinsing the cup and adding it to the towel. Suddenly grossed out by the idea of leaving clean dishes to dry in the bathroom, I scooped up the towel, cup, lid, and dial, and scuttled over to my hotel room desk where I laid them out to air dry.

I remember first hearing about this meditative practice from Gil Fronsdal, who recounted tales of washing dishes around the world, and his realization that the ability to place one’s hands into warm, soapy water is itself a privilege struck a chord with me.  So today I give thanks, not just for the clean water that allowed me to wash this dish, but for the means to have been able to purchase it in the first place, for the private bathroom and each of the luxuries of my hotel room that provided the space and clean, hot water and towels for washing and drying it as well.



WEEK THREE: MINDFULNESS OF THOUGHTS & EMOTIONS

The following was written Sunday, March 10th, in Cali, Colombia, after a dawn asana flow and the formal sitting for Day 16’s meditation in Cali, Colombia.

Of my three annual two-month stretches of travel, my winter travel season is the most filled with deadlines and goal posts. In other words, stress! This year I have felt it in the tightness of my hamstrings, the ever-present - and unreachable - crick that lives somewhere beneath my right scapula, and the constant traffic of my thoughts. Like birds in a cage (a horrific metaphor, I realize), the three branches of my career - writing my dissertation; the educational organization for whom I travel; and Pramana Wellness - are each full of energy, but bound within the confines of their respective designated times of focus.

I know that this is not balance.

I also know that this is temporary.

Soon I will be finished with the writing, travel seasons come to an end, and, before I know it, I will finally be back in the studio, standing before a group of yogis and yoginis helping them find their way inward. And in the meantime, practices like today’s offer a reprieve from the sensation that everything is merely a means to an end, which is a detrimental thought, because I love what I do. All three branches of this bespoke career path I spent years cultivating is, in itself, a gift. Stress robs me of this realization, which is why mindfulness meditation - the practice of learning to see my thoughts - is the most important nutrient, most renewing elixir, and most healing practice in my life. It is the epitome of a game changer.

I give thanks for this practice itself, and for the teachers who have helped me to make it my own.

Namaste.

Ashé. 

Day 15: Mental Noting Meditation

Formal practice Saturday, March 8th after a sunrise asana practice in Cali, Colombia. Reflection written before bed Sunday, March 9th, and edited & posted Monday, March 11th.

IMG_1921.JPG


Mental noting is one of those strategies that sounds great in theory, but it can also feel like a distraction of its own, depending on the type of habitual thought processes one experiences - or, as my partner might suggest, depending on one’s astrological sign, given the fact that what I’m about to say will be stereotypical of the libra that I am. The key here is to keep Sharon’s advice in mind: you can select any word or simple phrase “if the note comes easily and you don’t need to struggle to get exactly the right word.” The first few times I practiced this technique I would get caught up on the semantics: “Is this worrying, or is it planning?” In fact, I found the process of labeling to be so distracting that when Sharon introduced listeners to the option to state “not the breath” in another meditation, I was relieved to have the myriad possibilities temporarily stricken from the record. Which is why I was a little nervous to see how today’s sitting would go - especially since I haven’t had the best track record with meditative focus as of late. And so I sat, and breathed, and labeled.

“Planning.” 

{breath}

“Planning.”

{breath}

“Planning.” 

The pattern was clear. Today’s meditation was relatively short, and before I had time to second-guess my labels, the time had drawn to a close, leaving me optimistic that maybe the "mental noting” practices that we will do this week wouldn’t be as predictable - or repetitive (given my current work-related mental obsessions) - as I might’ve expected. 

Day 16: Meditation on Positive Emotions

Formal sitting Sunday, March 9th after a dawn asana flow in Cali, Colombia. written during the same sitting that I wrote the Week 3 introduction. Edited Monday, March 10th.



@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 16: Meditation on Positive Emotions

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 16: Meditation on Positive Emotions

Like so many of this challenge’s meditations, I approached this one with the eagerness of a So Cal kid on a Disneyland morning. For my positive experience, I chose last week’s asana flows, which were truly a highlight of my trip to Cancún. Quiet, dawn practices are my absolute favorites, and there is nothing better than the opportunity to enjoy an outdoor practice overlooking the sunrise. I was privileged to be able to enjoy three such mornings in a row, from my hotel balcony overlooking the horizon, moving intuitively as the sky performed its sunrise show in all of its chromatic glory. I was overcome with gratitude and a sense of relief for simply being able to spend a little guilt-free time to myself without working, a gratitude that was experienced viscerally in the ease of my chest, my release of my breath, the embrace of my own body, and the joy of reconnecting to nature for the first time in what felt like weeks - if not months. And yet, despite being armed with so many beautiful sensations and memories, like so many of this challenge’s meditations over the last month, my mind was ablaze, distracting me so much that not only could I not stay focused on this bliss, but I couldn’t even hear Sharon’s words. Even still, the mere act of conjuring the joy and peace that already belongs to each and every one of us allowed me to treat myself with kindness, and as often as I needed to, I patiently ushered my attention back to the memories of those Cancún morning practices, and can still feel the effects as I write these words.

I completely agree with Sharon’s assertion that this kind of practice will help us train the mind to pay attention to beauty. It has been such an integral part of the last three years of my life, as I transitioned from one life to another, heartbreak to renewal, and has absolutely given me a completely different way to live. The practice on the cushion is just that: it is a training ground for a perspective that arose spontaneously. It revealed itself to me the first time I stopped in my tracks because I noticed the new blooms in my neighbor’s yard, and the beauty inherent not only of the flower itself, but in my ability to recognize it. This realization completely overwhelmed me - and the ache in realizing in that instant how many monumental and ephemeral moments pass me by every minute of every day. Without exaggeration, practices like today’s have given me the world.  

Day 17: Meditation on Negative Emotions

Formal sitting Monday, March 11th at dawn, and written immediately thereafter.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 17: Meditation on Negative Emotions

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 17: Meditation on Negative Emotions

I woke up this morning to a pair of messages: one from my sister, which I opened first then delighted in the latest performance by The Clairvoyants on America’s Got Talent that she sent, allowing it to be my morning coffee in lieu of a message from my beloved - whom, you may recall, is currently in London. Which, incidentally, leads me to the second message I received: a message from my partner’s best friend who, like me, hadn’t been able to get a message through to her since early yesterday afternoon. 

And, just like that, I was in full panic mode. 

It was with this weighing on my mind and heavy on my heart that I sat for today’s practice. I knew that this situation in particular - a loved one going missing - is one I have to bring a lot of conscious thought to in order to override the memories of trauma that marked the beginning of the end of a life I’d co-created with a former partner in Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of family members have been waiting for some sign of their disappeared. In other words, Sharon’s meditation focusing on negative emotions came just when I needed it most. 

As I sat, watched, and tried to disempower each future projection, fear, anxiety, sensation of guilt, physical pain, tightness, and constriction around my thoughts regarding the whereabouts of my beloved, another pair of memories were triggered:

…memories of me meditating to escape a broken record of heartbroken thoughts in 2016…

…memories of me crying in Lotus in 2008…

…and I remembered that meditation had been there for me in moments of greatest heartache and need, and how it served as a refuge from the stranglehold my thoughts had on my entire experience of the world. Most importantly, I remembered that it worked.

In the last few seconds of my sitting, I watched as the sensation in the center of my chest that felt as though my ribcage was caving in, and the pain just behind my left breast (“Oh! That’s my heart!”), was temporarily overshadowed by a sensation of openness in my back. Surprised, I wondered "How could pleasure be found in such a terrifying moment? How can pain literally transform into a sensation of even partial openness?” And as I write this now I have to try to stop myself from adding on metaphor and additional projections. So, instead, as I type this I’m noticing how my breath is restricted by fear, and my postured is hunched, my belly caved in, and I am hoping that the work I’ll do in the next few hours will be enough to keep me focused elsewhere while my partner, whom we all hope is merely enduring technical difficulties, finds her way to another phone and lets us know that she’s alright. 

Day 18: Meditation on Working with Thoughts

Formal sitting Monday, March 11th before noon, and written IMMEDIATELY AFTERWARD.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 18: Meditation on Working with Thoughts

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 18: Meditation on Working with Thoughts


First, a bit of background.

Six years ago a close family member of my partner-at-the-time disappeared, and our lives were turned upside down. Even though I watched as the effects of trauma took their toll on each member of the family - and despite each of the ways that my own life changed as a direct result of that experience - it hadn’t dawned on me that I, too, had been traumatized. But today, as my beloved’s best friends and I awaited word from her, the reality of my own trauma became painfully clear. 

After this morning’s formal practice (Day 17’s Meditation on Negative Emotions), I wrote my blog post draft, and prepared to head out for my first appointment of the day - all the while trying to keep my emotions from getting the better of me. I felt abject fear and even guilt at being able to move through my morning despite not knowing if she was ok. I headed downstairs to await my driver, sitting in the hotel lobby and attempting to work, all the while not acknowledging the fact that the physical sensations of tightness in my head and chest were growing more intense. By the time I made it to my first appointment, I felt as though my head were partially underwater, and I struggled to find the levity required to give a successful presentation. I was grateful that the guests whom I’d expected that would have required me to give my talk in Spanish had not arrived, and I switched to auto-pilot in English until nearly choking on the first of the simple jokes I typically recite during my chat. I remember thinking that there was no way I would have had the mental focus required to think in my second language, and, indeed, I barely managed to get through it in my mother tongue. During the individual Q&A, I noted from a perspective that felt distanced even from my own mind, that I had less patience for each minor faux-pas as students approached me interrupting each other with their questions. Once the audience had all left, I struggled to put my things away, and was grateful when the school’s director was unavailable to personally say goodbye. 

With time between appointments, I headed back to my hotel and up to my room, where, between messages with my partner’s best friends, I attempted to work. Out of the blue, my beloved messaged me to say that she’d accidentally left her phone with a relative the day before, and that she hoped I was ok. I burst into tears and gave thanks aloud to the Divine. Too slowly, the dim ringing in my ears that I had barely even begun to consciously register began to dissipate, and my chest and head felt as though they’d just been released from a vice. Finally, and only when my breath was still not back to normal after ten minutes, I recognized that so many of the experiences of the last few hours were actually signs of PTSD. 

And so, I meditated.

This second practice of the morning was strikingly different from the first, not, as I might’ve expected, because I was flooded with a sense of relief, but rather because my thoughts, now less terrifying, were actually harder to keep at bay. I realized more clearly than ever that when I am truly at my worst, meditation functions as a check out, and it’s somehow easier to leave the horrifying thoughts aside for the limited timeframe of my practice. However, in this sitting, practiced after the worst was behind me, my thoughts came and piled atop one another, almost like those eager students vying for attention, and I took solace in Sharon’s words:  

“We don’t have to blame ourselves for their coming, and we can learn to let them go.”

May it be so. 

Ashé. 

Day 19: Meditation on Working with Challenges

Formal sitting in bed on Monday, March 11th in Cali, Colombia. Reflection written 24 hours later in bed in Cartagena, and edited Wednesday, March 13th, after sitting for day 20 at dawn.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 19: Meditation on Working with Challenges

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 19: Meditation on Working with Challenges

After the day that I had, I decided one more meditation would be the perfect way to prepare to rest. As I sat at the head of my hotel bed, with my patio door open wide to let in the sounds of nature, my pillows creating an open nest around my hips, I noted the sensation of the perfectly tucked sheets beneath me, welcoming me to dive in, and it felt good just to sit cross-legged, without concern about which Lotus I was or wasn’t performing. The mattress was rather dense, which meant that it was much more fitting for meditation than my own bed would’ve been, and I could sit upright without my zafu. After the immensely emotional day I’d had, after the profound lows, the relief of learning that my beloved was just fine, the concern at my exaggerated reaction that was clearly not entirely rooted in the present, the simple act of closing my eyes was an invitation to feel my body and be completely immersed in the present - if only to escape the landscape of my mind.

At ease, I listened to Sharon’s words about how to break down an emotion like anger into its components, and I marveled that there was nothing left from today’s terror to disassemble. Only exhaustion remained. In the spirit of the practice, I noticed that the exhaustion included relief and tiredness, and was experienced physically as a release in some areas of my body and renewed tightness in others. I also safe, and at one point my loudest thought was:

“I just want to go to sleep.”

This exhaustion made meditation, which, although literally longer than most of the others in the series, also felt much longer as I yearned to lay my head on pillow.

(Cue Toni Tony Toné.)

With her selection of anger (a preferred emotion of exploration for Sharon), it was one of the few meditations that didn’t exactly match my mood, but the lesson Sharon offered was apropos of following the sensations of the body: in the same way that she explained last week how a physical pain may actually be comprised of burning, tingling, and stabbing sensations in turn, an emotion can also be a composite of myriad emotions. Today’s anxiety about my missing partner was certainly comprised of many emotions, many thoughts, and many previous experiences inscribed upon one palimpsestuously. And in this realization, I found something to celebrate - beyond simply worth noting: in the absence of such layering, there is freedom. 

May it be so.

Ashé.

Day 20: Meditation on Changing Emotions

Formal sitting Wednesday, March 13th at dawn, and written immediately thereafter. 

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 20: Meditation on Changing Emotions

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 20: Meditation on Changing Emotions

In a lovely contrast to Days 17-19, this meditation began with the request to conjure a joyful thought, memory, or plan - and since planning is my love language, I was all in!

Any invitation to relish in joyful thoughts includes visions my sweetheart, and since Sharon included the option to reflect on a plan that brings me joy, I realized that at this moment next week, I will be experiencing Paris for the first time, and alongside my beloved! A physical burst of delight began in right side of my lower abdomen, and felt as though it were spreading like a Holi festival burst of color, or the deep green {fourth chakra} gush of chlorophyl throughout my morning glass of water. I watched my thoughts as the hilarious and ironic question “Did that happiness just start in my right ovary?!” arose, and I watched as the sensation of warmth bloomed across my lower torso, with tingles of excitement skittering across my skin in its wake.

The bliss was so delicious that I felt extreme resistance when Sharon asked next for us to think, instead, of an experience of anger. As I sat upon my zafu in the second-to-last room hotel room of my work travel season, and I was embarrassed to think of how disappointed I was in the room itself - a space that I know is nothing short of a privilege that so many people may never experience. I had been frustrated about an entire list of things that I am ashamed to admit, and as I tried to locate the sensations in my body without trying to psychoanalyze the absurdity of the source of my anger, I felt a constriction deep inside my solar plexus. Whereas the joy felt like it was skimming the surface of my body, the anger felt like it was not only much deeper than the surface, but was also pulling me increasingly inward. When Sharon suggested we consider the mood of the feeling (and only now do I realize how “mood,” “emotion,” and “feeling” seemed in no way synonymous, despite how we initially learn these words), I realized that it felt hidden, heavy, and like an absence of light. As I tried to justify my anger, I felt a sensation in the top and front of my head like a cold ooze melting around my skull.

Interestingly, from a starting place of anger, when my thoughts drifted, they went towards FOMO - (“All the best yoga teachers play an instrument! You need to get singing bowls. How will you transport them? What if you break one? Will you have to buy a new set? What about that tongue drum instead? Also?! And the harmonium!”), and I began to feel my body leaning forward. I felt a gripping sensation in my throat, as thought I literally was being choked off from expressing myself. Then my attention came back down to a renewed tightness in solar plexus, right where the ‘V’ of my rib cage comes together, but it was distinct from anger in that the tightness was much closer to the surface.

Today’s session was fascinating because as I discovered the emotional geography of my body, I also found evidence of how the emotions I’m experiencing can colour* even the unconscious direction of my thoughts thereafter. It makes me want to put in the work to make sure that I don’t dwell in unhealthy (read: inaccurate) states for long, and to really admire those who practice equanimity.

{*That ‘u’ was a shoutout to the U.K.; I’ll see you soon, London!}

Day 21: Landscape of Experience Meditation

Formal sitting Thursday, March 14th before the last work day of my winter travel season, and

Written immediately thereafter. 

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 21: Landscape of Experience Meditation

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 21: Landscape of Experience Meditation

Follow the breath as if your whole body is breathing.
— Sharon Salzberg, 2019 Real Happiness Challenge, Day 21

As I was getting to know the gentleman who drove me to Barranquilla from Cartagena yesterday morning, I had the privilege of answering the question:

“What is yoga?”

Wow. Where to begin?!

I dropped into the present moment, armed with all the knowledge of eighteen years of practice and two years of intensive study, and - most importantly - armed with the knowledge inherent in the present moment, I watched my breath. As we conversed, I savored the moments of relative silence in which his inner wheels churned in rhythm with those of his automobile before he’d ask each clarifying question:

“How old is yoga?”

“How does it help you?”

“Forgive this question, but can it help with one’s sexual performance?”

I welcomed each question (although this last one definitely threatened to put me on edge given the fact that I was a woman alone in a car with a stranger in an unknown place, but I chose to stay the course both literally and didactically), and tried to be open both with my own knowledge and in the sense of offering responses that were both answers and invitations for self-exploration. However, there was one moment during our conversation, which spanned the gamut from asana and pranayama and meditation to veganism and buddhism, in which I was became vehemently opinionated. He hold a story about a client who identified as a yogini, had sat in has backseat, apparently in some form of Lotus, moving her hands and arms in ways that seemed nothing short of bizarre to my driver’s eyes, and made demand after demand to alter the space to her liking so that she could “meditate”. I was appalled by the ways that she treated this man - in his own space - as though he were merely an instrument of her own control. As he reflected on this experience, he suggested that she was probably not a real yogi, and asked me if there are really only very few. I told him that, in my opinion, there are many of us, but that today’s yogis and yoginis have the challenge of figuring out how take the lessons we learn in our home practice, performed under bespoke conditions, into the "real world” of the streets and the strangers and the stressors of life. I told him that if our practice doesn’t make us better at life, then we should reexamine how we’re practicing. Before I roll my eyes at myself so hard that they fall out of my head, given the panic I experienced this week (as made evident in the reflections on meditations 17-19), I also made a point to share with him that yogis - that I - absolutely still experience the whole range of emotions - even rage - but that our practice is about creating space between our thoughts, our sense of self, and our actions. Together we considered how creating more space between each of these can help us when interacting with other people.


During our conversation I offered a very simple breath meditation for him to begin his own practice, but if I could have given him one of Sharon’s recordings (en español), it would have been today’s. Today’s practice was exactly the kind of session I would recommend to anyone who is just beginning this craft. In just a few minutes, Sharon touches on each of the most useful points of focus: the breath, the body, and thoughts. My favorite part, though, was when she suggested we “follow the breath as if your whole body is breathing,” which spoke to me for two reasons. First, because envisioning my breath in this way is how I am able to experience the present moment in its multidimensional glory. Second, I love the idea that our whole body is breathing because it actually is. Remember in biology class what we learned about cellular respiration? Well, we should, in fact, follow the breath as if our whole body is breathing because it literally is:

every

single

cell. 

May this knowledge bring you focus.

May this knowledge bring you back to center.

May this knowledge bring you peace.

Namaste. 

Ashé.

WEEK FOUR: LOVINGKINDNESS

The following was written THURSDAY, March 14th, in BARRANQUILLA, Colombia, after SITTING FOR DAY 22’S MEDITATION, AND BEFORE WRITING ITS REFLECTION.

Bring on the good stuff! After a week of extreme stress and frustrating discoveries while watching my thoughts and emotions, I am delighted to be moving on to one of Sharon’s specialties: the beautiful practice of lovingkindness. Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Day 22: Seeing the Good

Formal practice the evening of Thursday, March 14th. Reflection written immediately thereafter.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 22: Seeing the Good

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 22: Seeing the Good

Sharon kicked off our final week of the Real Happiness Challenge by asking that we conjure a memory of something good we did yesterday. Since my favorite memory from the last day was the experience I shared in Day 21’s sitting, it was both easy and delightful to come back to the thought. However, after naming the action and perhaps a few of the more nuanced moments, a question arose: 

“Now what?"

Simply sitting with the memory of listening and sharing was not enough to hold my attention. Worse? I started thinking of a list of things I could have done better during the rest of my day. Luckily, at that moment Sharon’s instructions were to switch gears, and bring to mind a difficult person, and challenged us to consider the good things that person may have done.

What an incredible exercise in empathy! It made me want to go out of my way to be patient with the person that came to mind, and it was easy to consider the possibility that it just so happened that the moment they interacted with me in such frustrating ways was the outlier in their day or week. What if that person had been the one who had been patient with others, yet when they needed patience most, I denied it to them? But then I thought about what giving more energy to that specific person would mean, and I decided that I had given all that I could up to where the line of self-care would allow. So I thought of another challenging person, and by the time I had her clear in my mind, Sharon’s suggestion was to remember that this person, too - like all of us - just wants to be happy. I felt my heart soften ever so slightly, and before I knew it, the sitting came to a close. 

I strongly encourage anyone reading these words to try this exercise, if not in formal meditation, then the next time you find yourself frustrated in public transportation, in line at the grocery store, or when working with a client. Play the “What if” game, and imagine: what if this person had spent all day yesterday sacrificing their time/energy/resources to help someone else? What if the recipient of their patience were someone I cared about? How would that impact the way I think about and interact with them in this moment? Allow your “what if”s to work their magic, and let’s see if we can co-create a little more empathy and patience out there, shall we?

May it be so!

Ashé!

Day 23: Walking Lovingkindness

Formal practice Friday, March 15th, between deboarding my plane from Cartagena and awaiting my luggage at JFK

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 23: Walking Lovingkindness

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 23: Walking Lovingkindness

I’d planned to partake in this practice while awaiting my flight to JFK, but I couldn’t get my Internet to work. Then it dawned on me that I could just read the transcript and follow the instructions, so I gave it a shot. However, after reading Sharon’s words, then beginning my stroll around the waiting room, I was very quickly distracted not by people or animals whom I could send well wishes, but instead by a jewelry shop and a snack bar. Needless to say, I decided to try again upon my arrival. Besides: when better to conjure a little extra patience than while waiting in the U.S. Customs & Immigration line? 

Perhaps I decided to start the meditation a few minutes too late, because as I stood in the narrow aisle, my laptop roller board in front of me, and the person behind me standing so close that her bag pressed against my right calf, even premeditated pre-meditation patience was not easily summoned. I looked  over my shoulder three or four (...ok: maybe five or six) times before deciding it would be much more effective to hit “play” on the Meditation than to continue my futile passive aggressive efforts. I chose “May I be peaceful” as my metta phrase, and once walking down and away from the jet bridge, I counted the footfalls between repetitions. It absolutely did help me find additional patience when people stopped ahead of me in the corridors, and the act of staying calm came in handy when I arrived at the baggage claim and was able to remember that I wouldn’t have to struggle with my luggage (whenever it would arrive), but could use the company card for a cart instead.

Around that time the brief mediation ended (yes: I made it from airplane through U.S. Customs and Immigration in 5 minutes!), and I realized “May I be peaceful” worked exceedingly well to keep me to be the more pleasant change I hoped to see in the world. I’m intrigued by how dramatically this practice impacted my way of being in the world while I was doing it (almost as soon as I finished I was full of frustrated eye rolls once more), and would love to integrate this habit into my spring sadhana once I’m back to strolling (or, more precisely “zooming down”) the Midtown Manhattan streets again.

Day 24: Opening the Heart

Formal practice Thursday, march 14th, the last night of my winter work travel season.

Written and uploaded friday, march 15th at dawn.

IMG_1972.JPG

For this practice Sharon asked us to conjure a circle of the most loving beings we have ever known, heard of, or believed in, and to place ourselves at the center of the circle. As she gave the instruction to envision these loving beings sending all of their love our way, she acknowledged that some practitioners may feel the desire to duck down and allow those beings to give love to one another instead. For those who experience such a thought, perhaps this is an invitation to explore whether there are other areas in our lives in which we feel unworthy of love.


For me the circle was comprised of my favorite dharma teacher; my late Gramma; anonymous figures; and (only in hindsight) the Divine itself. It was a space to feel and become filled. Sharon suggested we add a classic metta mantra such as “May I be happy” to the experience, and I felt called toward “May I be filled with lovingkindness.” If surrounded by the most loving of all beings, what I would hope to receive from them would be this ability to love without question. I envisioned the pores of my skin capable of absorbing their light and love through osmosis, then taking my place among the circle of the love-filled. There is something so powerful to me about the ability to love unconditionally. Lovingkindness provides us all with the opportunity to be filled with well wishes for all. To me, this is epitome of wisdom, and a goal worthy of becoming my life’s work.

Over the last several years, I have developed the practice of indulging in/celebrating/recalibrating one chakra each day of the week, and, fittingly, Thursdays I dedicate to anahata, the heart chakra. At this stage on my journey, my poem-mantra for the fourth chakra is:

I am loving and beloved.
The essence of my Being
never has been -
nor ever will be -
selfish,
for the essence of my Being
is Divine love itself.
My heart is a generous green leaf
inhaling the Diving light I need to thrive,
exhaling lovingkindness
with which I nourish the world.
May it be so.
Namaste.
Ashé.
— Selena Brown

Day 25: LovingKindness Toward Others

Formal practice: early on Friday, March 15th, after posting Day 25’s sitting. 

Reflection written immediately thereafter.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 25: Lovingkindness Toward Others

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 25: Lovingkindness Toward Others

Before hitting ‘play’ I saw that the meditation would last just over ten minutes, and the thought crossed my mind that I hadn’t sat that long in awhile, and wondered, "Will ten minutes feel like forever?” As usual, my worries were unfounded, and by the time Sharon invited us to open our eyes, I couldn’t believe ten minutes had passed so quickly. 


This practice began with a benefactor, a being to whom it is easy to send love and light because our feelings are uncomplicated towards them. For my first few years of metta (lovingkindness) practice, my Gramma Marie was alway my go-to easy person. But this time, as I conjured her image about a month shy of the first anniversary of her passing, I envisioned her saying, “I’m fine, Sweetie. Pass that love along to someone else who could really use it!” And although it is not typical for this part of metta practice, I chose my partner. Are you ready for her name? I formally call into this space Yasmine Bedward, who has given me unconditional love. Over this intense travel season she has been gentle, kind, and patient from afar, despite the roller coaster of libra- vacillations of thought and decision that characterized so much of my early approach to our partnership. And so today her smile came to mind, and I realized I could love her in this expanse of time without any complications at all. 


“May you be safe. 

May you have mental happiness. 

May you have physical happiness. 

May you live with ease.” 


When Sharon invited us to consider a friend, someone for whom things have been going well, Nafissa Thompson-Spires came to mind. In the weeks after the loss of Gramma Marie last year - before I’d even had a chance to write my Gramma’s eulogy - Nafissa’s much-anticipated Heads of The Colored People premiered, and amidst all my grief, I was blessed with the opportunity to celebrate my friend, and 2018 became, in part, the Year of Nafissa for me. Loving and celebrating her successes brought me more joy than I could have ever imagined. 


“May you be safe. 

May you have mental happiness. 

May you have physical happiness. 

May you live with ease.” 


As Sharon’s invitation continued, expanding our metta practice to include a friend going through challenging times, I conjured the image of a friend who has decided to face the challenges of her past in order to overcome them, while setting - and working towards - monumental goals of community building and art making. 


“May you be safe. 

May you have mental happiness. 

May you have physical happiness. 

May you live with ease.” 


As I next considered which “neutral person” to bring to mind (a person toward whom we feel neither affinity nor aversion, or simply barely know), a trio of people I’d met over the last 36 hours came to mind: a librarian, a driver, and a hotel manager. {And as I write this the list continues: a waitress, a student, a counselor…}


“May you be safe. 

May you have mental happiness. 

May you have physical happiness. 

May you live with ease.” 


Then we arrived at the pinnacle of metta practice: conjuring a “challenging person”, and Sharon’s wisdom overflowed: 

What happens when instead of going over and over our old grievance, we pay attention to this person in a different way?Wishing they could be free? Could be free of some of the suffering that binds them?
— Sharon Salzberg, 2019 Real Happiness Challenge, Day 25

My shortlist of people whom it was easy to feel unconditional, uncomplicated love towards has always been small, and my godfather sat very near the peak of the pedestal capped by Gramma Marie. Both of them are among the most generous people I’ve ever known (the third person is actually a peer and friend of mine whose ability to give endlessly has been supported by the Universe, which continues to offer him blessings to share). A bit of background: my godfather is a proud ARMY veteran, and suffers the consequences of two tours of duty in Iraq. 


Just before coming to Colombia, my godfather and I had a very painful exchange that made it easier to conjure his image in the challenging part of my practice today. And so I heeded Sharon’s advice: 

Remember offering lovingkindness to someone who’s behaved badly doesn’t mean we condone their action or that we’re trying to pretend it doesn’t matter. It may matter very much but we can have the courage and the willingness to open. To remember the possibility of change. To realize that we ourselves are freed by wishing them well.
— Sharon Salzberg, 2019 Real Happiness Challenge, Day 25

And as my heart softened, it became easy to wish him well: 


“May you be safe. 

May you have mental happiness. 

May you have physical happiness. 

May you live with ease.” 


As I began this write up I found that I didn’t want to focus on the challenges that we have had, and instead felt reconnected to all the good he embodies. In the summer of 2015 when I decided to move back to the United States to start a new life, my godfather not only opened his home to me, but also cloaked me in blessings for nearly every material necessity, and even gave me the opportunity to earn money by taking care of his dog. 


I believe metta practice is powerful because it empowers us to follow the path we seek of cultivating more love in the world, beginning with our own hearts.

May it be so.

Namaste.

Ashé.



Day 26: LovingKindness Towards All Beings

Formal practice Sunday, March 17th, before dawn, and written immediately afterward.

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 26: Lovingkindness Towards All Beings

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 26: Lovingkindness Towards All Beings

I woke up this morning filled with joy and brimming with excitement because today is the grand finale of the period of the winter long-distance romance between my partner and me. After a morning of busily preparing, primping, packing, and a little pampering, I will be on a red eye flight to London! 

But first, meditation.

Today’s metta (lovingkindness) activity was one I had never tried before. As I created my pairs of opposites, it was almost like a word-association exercise, as “...those whose glass is half full, and those whose glass is half empty...” led to “...those who are experiencing happiness, and those who are going through a challenge...” followed by “...those who are partnered, and those who are single....” 

As I conjured images in my mind of each of the people I know who epitomized each extreme of these pairs, it was both a moment to see where I fell on the spectrum, and remember times when I was on either end. In other words, despite the fact that I was creating these groupings in a way that felt somewhat random, they were limited to the imagination of my subconscious and guided by my own experiences. Most importantly, however, the natural inclination toward envisioning each scenario led to an experience of empathy that I hadn’t anticipated. By the time Sharon called for us to consider “all beings everywhere without distinction,” I was ready to mean these words with more authenticity than I had ever before experienced. 

May it be so!

Ashé!

Day 27: Meditation on Compassion

Formal practice Sunday, March 17th en route from New York’s Penn Station to JFK, written immediately afterward, and edited Friday, March 22nd en route from Venice to Florence.

IMG_2558.jpeg

Despite butterflies of excitement as I made my way from lunch with my bestie toward the international airport to finally reunite with my beloved, I accepted Sharon’s challenge to conjure the visceral memory of a recent difficult emotion, such as anger, jealously or envy, and watch all that arises in its wake. 

To perhaps poorly paraphrase one of my favorite of his dharma lessons, Gil Fronsdal urges us to avoid “shooting the second arrow”, which is the Buddhist equivalent to kicking ourselves while we’re down. He explains that although the original injury (in this case, experiencing the challenging emotion), or first arrow, is painful on its own, berating ourselves for experiencing anger, jealously, or envy would be as though shooting a second arrow into our wounds, unnecessarily inflicting additional pain. 

Although each of these emotions Sharon catalogued as possibilities for this exercise makes it challenging to summon patience and compassion for myself, anxiety is one that comes with its own set of shadow responses. Anxiety does little to help me manage the difficulty at hand, and instead tends to make me question my very ability to manage it:

“Meditator. Yogini. Teacher. Shouldn’t you be able to stay calm?” 

Judging myself harshly opens the floodgates to additional panic that makes it hard to remember that I already have all that I need to thrive. In moments of anxiety, it becomes easy to forget that I have equipped myself with several tools to help me throughout my journey, and that I have proven time and again that I am capable of wielding these tools as needed. Over the course of the Real Happiness Challenge I have revealed how attaching to various aspects of my identity can be like shooting additional arrows into my tender ego. The struggle to reduce the power I give to the landmarks along the journey of my identity-making project is a significant part of my ongoing practice, and one that I hope will help me to see myself/Self for who I/eye truly am. 

May it be so.

Namaste. 

Ashé. 

Day 28: Interconnectedness Meditation

Formal practice Thursday, March 21st, after a Paris to Venice flight, and settling in to our AirBnB in Venice. 

Written immediately thereafter in the still of my beloved’s post-flight siesta.

Edited March 22nd during our first night in Florence. 

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 28: Interconnectedness Meditation 

@SharonSalzberg #RealHappinessChallenge Day 28: Interconnectedness Meditation 

How many people, how many encounters, how many joys, how many sorrows have brought you to this moment in time? Who we are is not really separate from that.
— Sharon Salzberg, 2019 Real Happiness Challenge, Day 28

I can hardly believe that it has taken nearly double the days to complete the twenty-eight sessions of Sharon’s Real Happiness Challenge, the majority of which have been ten-minutes or less. During this winter’s work season, I learned so much about how quickly I can shift into unhealthy patterns that impact my mind, body, and spirit when I choose not to be dedicated to a travel sadhana. Equally importantly, I was reminded of how the negative effects can echo far beyond the confines of the time allotted for each task. Only today, on the fourth day of my reunion with my beloved, in the third city of our European Baecation, did I arise feeling as though the mechanistic way I moved through the last several work weeks has finally begun to release its hold on me. 

Today’s practice was beautiful in its message and its efficacy. I cannot estimate the number of times I’ve heard it said that we are all one, and inextricably interconnected. Arguably it is the most important of all lessons; to internalize this Truth can be profoundly clarifying and radical shift our worldview. Yet, for me, it’s almost like Groundhog Day: I have to be reminded again and again, each time experiencing the mind bending realization that no one is truly separate. 

As I bring this meditation challenge to a close, and prepare to dive into one of my favorite meditation experiences of all time (Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey’s Manifesting Grace Through Gratitude), I think about how, too, our healing journeys are interconnected with those we love. It would be wonderful if we could show up for our loved ones as the fully healed, Divinely embodied, most radiant versions of our Best Selves. After all: it is what they deserve. But we also each deserve the opportunity to love and be loved unconditionally, and only by allowing the seams to show are we able to know unconditional love. Through our ability to be loved in spite of - and because of - our imperfections, wounded and healing, we can receive grace in the form of each smile, each embrace, and each word of encouragement along our journey. These small acts of encouragement can also serve to remind us that interconnectedness is a blessing that offers us the chance to do our best given the tools we have at our disposal at any given point in time. 

I end this challenge with Sharon’s words:

Every step we take toward greater peace and understanding is affecting everyone around us.
— Sharon Salzberg, 2019 Real Happiness Challenge, Day 28

May it be so.

Ashé.

And so it is.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me. I would love to hear a little more about yours! Reach out via IG, Facebook or Gmail @pramanawellness:

IG: pramanawellness

Facebook: /pramanawellness

Email: pramanwellness@gmail.com

Selena Brown