Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

books: The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin February 26, 2013

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:24 pm
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The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More FunI recently reread The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Winter, and February in particular, is a hard time of year for me, so I wanted to remind myself of little things I can do to improve how happy I am in my every day life.

Rubin conceives of a “happiness project”: paying attention to all the elements of her life and experimenting to find ways to increase her daily level of happiness in small ways. While Rubin admires writers like Thoreau and Elizabeth Gilbert, who change their entire lives to explore a happiness project, Rubin wants to see if it’s possible to improve her happiness without leaving home. She spends a year exhaustively researching happiness – what famous people have written about it, what conventional wisdom says will make us happy, what studies show is important, and more – and works to distill “happiness” down to what it means for her specifically to be happy. Every month she focuses on a different aspect of happiness (energy, marriage, work, parenthood, fun, spirituality, etc.) and identifies key areas to focus on, things she can improve right now in her own life.

Rubin is what could be described as a Type A personality: having decided to tackle happiness, she examines the subject from all angles, researches it exhaustively, and comes up with charts, journals, and other benchmarks to track her progress accurately, and she starts a blog, where she both inspires others and receives inspiration from around the world. Those who don’t enjoy the book find Rubin to be obsessive and annoying, but personally, I think she’s charming, and I found her journey to be fascinating, fun, and endearing. With all her little foibles, Rubin seems very real. The book is well written, and Rubin choose the right details, stories, and quotations to make her points clearly and make the text resonate for the reader.

Over the course of the book, Rubin tries out a lot of methods, techniques, tips, tactics, and theories, and by the end, she’s discovered the ones that work well for her and her family. The operative phrase here is “for her” – Rubin openly acknowledges that many of her resolutions won’t work for someone else. She urges readers to embark on their own happiness project and find out what will work for them. This is really the best takeaway from The Happiness Project: in writing the story of her own experimental year, Rubin has become a happiness coach, full of inspirational examples and information that readers can apply in their own lives. Rubin also quotes liberally from reader comments on her blog; these comments are often as interesting and thought-provoking as Rubin’s own prose, and provide even more examples and food for thought. Overall, The Happiness Project succeeds as a memoir, a research book, and a self-help guide for anyone wanting to be happier.

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Meditation: It’s Good for Your Brain February 7, 2013

Filed under: yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 8:23 pm
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A while back (okay, a LONG while back) my husband F sent me a link to this article on ScienceDaily: Is Meditation the Push-Up for the Brain? The article discusses the work of researchers at UCLA, who found that the brains of long-term meditators had stronger connections between brain regions than non-meditators, and their brains showed less age-related atrophy. Stronger connections means that the brain can more quickly and efficiently relay signals from one region to another. Our brains shrink and become less efficient as we age, so meditation could help people to stay sharper longer.

But if you’re not a long-term meditator yet, take heart: another study shows positive effects on brain function for beginning meditators too. This article, Meditation’s Positive Residual Effects, reports research showing that after completing an eight-week meditation class, study participants demonstrated improved emotional regulation, even when not actively meditating. Tested before and after the class, the partcipants’ brains showed a reduction in response to emotional stimuli – perhaps this could translate to an increased ability to stay calm in frustrating situations?

The study also had another finding: participants who studied compassion meditation, as opposed to mindfulness meditation, and who practiced frequently outside of class, showed the decreased response to emotional stimuli overall, but they also showed an increased response to images depicting human suffering. By meditating, these people increased their own capacity to feel compassion for others. And the study showed that those who demonstrated increased compassion also had lower depression scores. It’s scientific evidence supporting what many meditation teachers and spiritual leaders have said all along: that compassion for others makes you happier too.

 

books: The Magicians January 24, 2013

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 1:03 pm
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The Magicians, by Lev GrossmanLast week I read a book called The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. We meet the main character, Quentin Coldwater, during his senior year in high school. He’s a brilliantly gifted but awkward kid, dreaming of his best friend’s girl and trying to get into Princeton because that’s what seems to be expected of him. Instead, he receives an invitation to attend a secret college for magicians. Quentin had practiced card tricks and sleight of hand, but apparently he has a gift for the real kind of magic also.

Quentin is no Harry Potter. Frequently depressed, Quentin’s life is characterized by disappointment that all the things that were supposed to make him happy never do. This makes some sense when he’s younger – what smart awkward kid is ever happy in high school? – but his disillusionment returns again and again. A magical school is what he’d hoped for his whole life, but after the wonder wears off and the hard work sets in, Quentin isn’t happy there. And later on, with graduation looming and afterward, Quentin still isn’t happy, despite the fact that with his powers he could do, literally, anything he wants.

Quentin keeps expecting the circumstances of his life to bring him happiness. He thinks that if he works hard and does what he’s supposed to do, happiness will happen to him, like a reward. What he doesn’t realize is that he’ll never be happy if he doesn’t change his attitude. Alice, the girl Quentin loves, sees his problem and tells him he needs to recognize just how lucky he is. “You can’t just decide to be happy,” Quentin says, to which Alice responds, “Yes, but you can decide to be miserable.”

Although our problems are less magical, most of us are a lot like Quentin. We work hard and then expect happiness to come to us, always looking ahead to something else that, like magic, will make us happy. We expect happiness to be a country we can inhabit where, if we can just get there, we’ll never be sad again. But happiness has to come from within. It’s an attitude, a state of mind. If we can let go of our expectations about what it means to be happy and open ourselves to the possibility of being happy right here, right now, then we can experience what happiness truly can be.

 

Quote of the Day: Yearning for the Full Moon of Autumn May 1, 2012

Filed under: yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 2:05 pm
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Here’s a quote for today:

“Those whom summer’s heat tortures yearn for the full moon of autumn without even fearing the idea that a hundred days of their life will then have passed forever.”

– Buddha Shakyamuni, quoted in Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness, page 227

I love this quote because it’s so relatable: we all have a favorite season and a least favorite. Personally, I don’t like winter. I’m the kind of person who’s always cold, so in winter I have to wear layers and layers of clothes. My skin gets dry and itchy, especially with scratchy sweaters piled on, and I feel very uncomfortable most of the time. In winter we also get a lot less daylight, and that strongly affects my mood. I much prefer summer, when my skin can be out and about, unrestricted in the warm air, and there’s plenty of daylight to go around! But this quote reminds me to appreciate every day of my life, even in the winter; the seasons will come and go, but my life is finite, and I only have so many winters to enjoy. I don’t want to spend a whole season feeling grumpy and sad – it’s just not a good use of my time. So in winter I try to find the things that I do enjoy and appreciate: hot chocolate, freshly made soup, fuzzy socks, curling up with a blanket and a good book. I love the holidays, too, and in the region where I live, it’s not possible to get to Christmas without having some winter along the way.

On the surface, this quote is just about seasons and weather, but really it can be about anything that “tortures” you, making you yearn for something else. An illness, a job you don’t like, or a bad living situation can all represent seasons in a person’s life, difficult to get through. It can be tempting to think, Once this is over, then I’ll really be happy! Then we regain our health, find a new job, move to a new home, and something else becomes our challenge, and we defer our happiness again. This quote reminds me that the time to be happy is right now, regardless of what else may be happening. When we’re ill, there are still many joys we can appreciate even if we don’t feel well enough to do what we used to do. When we’re stuck in a crappy job, there are always plenty of things happening away from the office that fulfill us. Finding ways to enjoy where we are right now, even if it’s not ideal, will make us happier in our day-to-day lives, and when we feel more fulfilled in ourselves, we have more to give to the people around us as well. Don’t let a hundred days or even one day of your one precious life slip past you!

 

Books: Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard March 15, 2012

As a book on meditation, Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is the best of both worlds, presenting both a spiritual and a scientific perspective. Ricard left a promising career in biology and genetics to become a Buddhist monk, so he uniquely understands both perspectives and is fascinated by the scientific study of the brain and how meditation affects, on a biological level, the way we think. Happiness is at once a guide to how meditation can improve our lives and help us to become happier and a thorough description of why it works, written in language accessible to any reader.

In the first few chapters, Ricard opens the book with discussion of happiness in general: is happiness the purpose of life? What does it mean to be happy, and how do we recognize happiness when we have it? Can we actively cultivate happiness in our lives? Concluding that happiness is possible and that cultivating it is worthwhile, Ricard then considers the problem of suffering. How can we be happy when we suffer; further, how can compassionate beings be truly happy when faced with the suffering of others? Ricard tackles this question, presenting stories of those who have suffered true hardship and examining the root causes of suffering. While we cannot control the events that happen to us, we can always control our responses to those events, and here is the real key to being happy under any circumstance. Over several chapters, Ricard discusses how we can use meditation in order to overcome ego, negative thoughts, and disturbing emotions, the obstacles within ourselves that prevent us from being happy no matter what occurs.

Ricard speaks from his own and his teachers’ experience that when we can lessen the influence of the ego and negative thoughts and emotions, we feel more freedom and happiness in our lives. He then goes on to discuss happiness from the perspective of sociology, psychology, and psychiatry, citing laboratory studies of experienced meditators whose brains have been shown to function differently than ordinary people’s brains. Meditation over long periods literally changes brain chemistry, leading to great benefits in quality of life. Ricard as both a scientist and a talented writer, in these chapters and throughout the book, is able to describe a variety of scientific studies and their results in terms a layman can understand and appreciate.

In the later chapters, Ricard examines positive attributes like altruism, humility, and optimism, and describes how cultivating these attitudes can help us to be happier. He cites evidence that those who are kind, humble, and optimistic tend to be happier than those who are not. By modifying our behavior to act more altruistically in daily life, or by being aware of pessimistic thought patterns as they arise, we can begin to make progress toward increasing happiness.

In the book’s final chapters, Ricard addresses several difficult issues: appreciating versus wasting time, ethics and the dichotomy of good and evil, and how to be happy in the presence of death. Ricard’s wisdom truly shines in these chapters; his advice is inspirational, practical and uplifting. The concluding chapter rounds out the book by describing the challenges and great rewards of following a spiritual path. Ricard promises that with regular practice and dedication, we can each not only live happier lives but become kinder, wiser, and more compassionate. Developing these qualities can lead us, as it led Ricard, to a life of great meaning, freedom, and joy.

 

books: The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche December 20, 2011

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness is an excellent and informative book and a good practical manual for meditation. A wide variety of meditation techniques are discussed, in language that makes them accessible to even the most un-Buddhist of readers. Mingyur (Rinpoche is an honorific given to respected teachers) is a kind and encouraging teacher; his writing style is very natural and conversational, helping you feel as if he’s right there beside you to help along the way.

The book is divided into three main sections. Part One: The Ground begins by describing Mingyur’s early life and training in meditation and his journey toward overcoming anxiety. He’s an engaging storyteller, and it’s comforting to hear that even a monk who grew up meditating from childhood can still struggle with his mind. This section also discusses the connection between the ancient Buddhist practices of meditation and modern advances in neuroscience, physics, and biology. Raised in isolated monasteries, Mingyur is fascinated with Western science and has worked with many scientists to learn about the brain’s workings and the structure of the universe and compare them with the Buddhist understanding of the mind and reality. While interesting, this area was not as strong as other sections – these discussions could have benefited from a scientist coauthor to help refine and make specific Mingyur’s comparisons. However, Mingyur does make a good case for meditation as valuable and needed in the West, and his ideas here are well worth reading.

In Part Two: The Path and Part Three: The Fruit, Mingyur is at his best, carefully walking the reader through the basics of meditation. He provides a firm foundation for beginners, with examples from his own history as guidance. Beyond the basics, he details a variety of different meditation techniques that will appeal to new and experienced students alike. He asserts that it is the intention to meditate that is most important, not the actual time spent on it or whether your mind wanders off in the middle. Mingyur strives to make meditation available to everyone.

I began reading this book back in February 2011 and just finished it this month, but the long reading time is due to my own crazy schedule this year, not any failing of Mingyur’s. I’ve actually posted about this book on several other occasions because as I read I found his words so encouraging and insightful. I highly recommend this book to anyone hoping to begin or deepen a meditation practice.