Day 16 Meditation
In order to have the resiliency to face difficulties, we need to find and nurture the positive parts of ourselves, and make a point of paying attention to experiences that give us pleasure. Too often we focus on what’s wrong with us or unpleasant experiences. We need to make a conscious effort to include the positive in our field of awareness.
This doesn’t have to be a phony effort, or one that denies real problems. We just want to pay attention to aspects of our day that we might otherwise overlook or ignore.
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A few years ago, in the heart of winter, I was on the island of Maui leading a retreat alongside my old friends Ram Dass and Krishna Das. I found myself feeling bad when I told people where I was going. The weather there was glorious, and it felt almost too good to be true. When friends would write and ask how it was, something funny happened again: I would tell them how humid it was, implying that it wasn’t as nice as I anticipated — disowning the deep pleasure of my experience. I spent a great deal of time in Maui preventing myself from connecting directly to the pleasurable experience, and instead distracted myself with feelings like guilt and self-deprecation.
I wasn’t totally conscious at the time that I was doing this, but it’s pretty common when you stop and think about it. How often do you get a compliment, or hear someone else get a compliment, and find that the most automatic response is to say “no, no!”? We have an infinite number of ways that we distort our experiences through habits of the mind. These responses distract us from the feeling itself, and distort our relationship to the direct feeling, thought, or experience. Through mindfulness practice, we can become aware of these distortions and decide for ourselves if they are forward-leading or not – and if not, how we would like to do things differently.
Question & Answer
Q: Sometimes it’s recommended that we just stay with whatever feeling arises, and other times I hear that we can change those feelings by walking in nature or relaxation exercises, etc. It’s confusing.
A: The primary approach of mindfulness is to pay attention to what’s happening and to develop a different relationship to our experience so that we’re not rejecting it or hating it, and that we’re also not overwhelmed by it. So mindfulness has an inherent sense of balance within it. But the reality is that there are times when mindfulness is not that easy. We may be exhausted, or we may not be able to find balance through coming back to the breath, or mental noting, or other techniques we employ, or our mindfulness may be too intermittent. So there are a whole host of approaches to help us come back into balance and once again be mindful. It’s fine to explore these methods instead of following a traditional mindfulness practice. Sometimes people think, “Oh, I blew it, I can’t do the real thing.” But it’s not like that at all. Get up and take a walk, go out into nature, do some stretches, or whatever it might be, if it brings you enough calm or perspective to reenter a place where you can relate differently to what arises in your experience.
Welcome back. In order to have the resiliency to face difficulties, for example, friends who can’t be helped, or a day full of sudden changes outside of our control, we need to find and nurture the positive parts of ourselves, and make a point of paying attention to experiences that give us pleasure. Too often we focus on what’s wrong with us, or only on negative, unpleasant experiences. We need to make a conscious effort to include the positive. This doesn’t have to be a phony effort, or one that denies real problems. We just want to pay attention to aspects of our day that we might overlook or ignore.
If we stop to notice moments of pleasure, a flower poking up through the sidewalk, a puppy experiencing snow for the first time, a child’s hug, we have a resource for more joy. This capacity to notice the positive might be somewhat untrained, but that’s okay. We practice meditation for just this kind of training. Sit or lie down in a relaxed, comfortable posture.
Your eyes can be open or closed. Now bring to mind a pleasurable experience you had recently, one that carries a positive emotion such as happiness, joy, comfort, contentment or gratitude. Maybe it was a wonderful meal, or a reviving cup of coffee, or time spent with your kids. Perhaps it’s something in your life you feel especially grateful for. A friend who’s always there for you. A pet excited to see you. A gorgeous sunset, a moment of quiet. If you can’t think of a positive experience, be aware of giving yourself the gift of time, to do this practice now.
Take a moment to cherish whatever image comes to mind with a recollection of the pleasurable experience. See what it feels like to sit with this recollection. Where in your body do you feel sensations arising? What are they? How do they change? Focus your attention on the part of your body where those sensations are the strongest. Stay with the awareness of your bodily sensations, and your relationship to them, opening up to them, and accepting them.
Now notice what emotions come up as you bring this experience to mind. You may feel moments of excitement, moments of hope, moments of fear, moments of wanting more. Just watch these emotions arise and pass away. All of these states are changing and shifting. Perhaps you feel some uneasiness about letting yourself feel too good, because you fear bad luck might follow. Perhaps you feel some guilt about not deserving to feel this happiness. In such moments, practice inviting in the feelings of joy or delight, and allowing yourself to make space for them. Acknowledge and fully experience such emotions.
Notice what thoughts may be present as you bring to mind the positive. Do you have a sense of being less confined, or less stuck in habits. Or perhaps you find yourself falling back into thoughts about what went wrong in your day, what disappointed you. These thoughts can be more comfortable because they’re so familiar. If so, take note of this. Does your mind try to build stories around the positive or pleasurable experience? Do you tell yourself, for example, I don’t deserve this pleasure until I give up my bad habits, or, I must find a way to make this last forever. Try to become aware of such add-on thoughts, and see if you can let them go, and simply be with the feeling of the moment.
No matter what story or add-on arises, come back to your direct experience. Ask yourself, what sensations are present in my body? What am I feeling right now? What’s happening? You can end the meditation by simply sitting and being with the breath. You can be with the breath gently, as though you were cradling it.
When you’re ready, you can open your eyes. Bring this skill of gentle interest, curiosity and attention to your encounters throughout the day. Notice pleasurable or positive moments, even those that may be seemingly small.