Take a minute and breathe. Pay attention to it. Rest your shoulders, unclench your hands, and relax your jaw. Breathe. Feel that air coming in and out of your nose. Notice how it’s cooler going in than it is coming out. Repeat this a few times or even more if you want. Close your eyes and focus your attention at the air coming in and out of your nostrils. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Done? Congratulations, you’ve just meditated! Yup, that’s it. That’s what all the hubbub is about. The longer you do it it gets a bit more difficult as your brain doesn’t want to just think about the breath. It wants to think about the things you need to do, about the drama in your life, the money you should be making, the itch on your leg, or if you’ve fed the cat lately. All that is completely normal. The practice of meditation isn’t the ability to think about nothing, it’s the ability to consciously recognize that your mind has wandered, to not get frustrated, and to bring your focus back to your breath. The air coming in and out of your nose. Every meditation guru in the world including the Dalai Lama is doing the same thing. They just have a lot more practice. Patience, specially with yourself, is a seldom used muscle that we need to work out. We do this like any other ability, with practice. If you do this every day even for five minutes you will reduce your stress and all the baggage that comes with it. It will make you just a little bit happier and help you in your everyday interactions with others. You may not notice it at first, but others will. Below are a few related practices that can help boost your joy muscles.
There is a ton of research on the benefits of a gratitude practice. There’s a great journal that I use every morning called the Five Minute Journal, but you don’t need one. I like it because it’s a beautifully bound book that I gift to friends and family. In it, every morning I write three things I am grateful for. I sometimes categorize it by one person who’s relationship I am grateful to have, an opportunity that’s presented itself, and something small like how great a sleep I had or how nice the weather is. This focuses the mind. The practice of physically writing helps you put your gratitude into words and consider these things more. This process takes a few minutes and is a great way to start the day with a shake or coffee in hand. When I gifted this to one of my friends he also made it his own. At breakfast, with his son and wife they all discuss what they are grateful for and why. This becomes a fun and thought provoking discourse as they try not to discuss the same things every day, and encourages them to consider more positive things in their lives.
On a very personal note, gratitude is a go-to for me when I suddenly get worried about losing what I have. I have an incredible wife, a beautiful daughter, and an amazing family all with whom I get to spend a lot of time. At times I worry about something catastrophic happening which could take these people away and when this happens I immediately think of how grateful I am to I have them in the first place. I also know to accept life as it comes and that, good or bad, “this too shall pass”. This strategy sustains my joy in daily life.
LovingKindness is a form of meditation practice that has profoundly changed the way I deal with people. At first, I found this to be very frou-frou, but when I tried it I slowly realized how powerful this can be. And it’s not easy. Like most meditation changes happen gradually. When I was in an environment with challenging people and situations this helped me take those milliseconds to consider and respond rather than react and counter. The practice itself can be challenging as you’ll see.
There is no set time but for the purpose of example, I’ll use a set of ten repetitions. Sitting in any position with your eyes shut. Start with yourself. Think of you as the human you are and wish yourself happiness by repeating a few phrases. I use phrases I learned from Sharon Salzberg. “May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.” I don’t say it out loud, but you could if you like and I do it with a long pause between each wish. “May you be safe….. be happy….. be healthy…… live with ease.” Repeat these ten times with deliberate intention wishing them on yourself. Next, think of someone who makes you smile simply by thinking of them. This can be a person or an animal if you like. Wish them happiness with the same phrases. Ten times. Next, think of someone you think may need help or is facing their own difficulty. Repeat ten times. Follow that with thinking about someone you don’t really know very well like a server, a neighbor or someone you have crossed paths with at work. Wish them the same thing ten times. And here comes the challenge. Think of someone you have difficulty with or even dislike. Someone that deep down you know is human but you don’t see eye to eye. Send them the message “May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.” Ten times. You can do this without completely meaning it the first few times knowing that this will help you more than it will help them but gradually, over time try to mean it more. If you have trouble doing this go back to wishing happiness on yourself. In this case you are still hurting so you may need it more. I have done this with people that I have worked with and people in my past whom I never thought I would forgive, and once I did I was a little bit freer. I was a little bit happier. Lastly, think of all beings and wish them well, “May all beings be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.”
I practice this mediation when I am feeling anxiety about an interaction with someone or when there is someone I feel needs help. It focused my mind and led to finding a way to help them in a more practical sense.
We live in a culture of comparison. If our parents haven’t taught us what to aspire to or how to define success we turn to our culture, social media and traditional media all of which teach us that wealth, superficial beauty, fame, and having expensive things equal happiness. Sadly, measuring what we have compared to others is a way we define whether we are winning or losing. We feel envy towards those who have more or appear happier than us. We relish attaining the newer car, the bigger house, the bigger diamond which lasts for a split second until we find someone who is beating us in any of these areas. I do believe that these values are shifting in our culture, but not quickly enough. Those who have achieved these things quickly find out that happiness isn’t found there. A wide spectrum of individuals from Alan Watts to Jim Carrey (and every philosopher ever) have a lot to say on the matter.
What if we could flip these tendencies upside down? What if we could achieve joy from others’ happiness? What if we wished them more even? What if we could truly, sincerely feel happy for others’ triumphs? How happy would we be? As the Dalai Lama, puts it, there are so many people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their happiness a source of our own. Then our chances of experiencing joy “are enhanced six billion to one,” he says. “Those are very good odds.”
“Learn to rejoice in the good fortune of others and your own happiness multiplies — it’s the best cure for envy.”
This can happen in meditation when you think of the people you may envy. You can think about their joys and think about how happy they must be. Alternatively, this can be fluid. When something wonderful happens to someone that may trigger feelings of comparison or envy practice turning those feelings around. This does take practice, but over time their happiness becomes your joy.
A point to consider is that we define ourselves throughout our lives and then we resign ourselves to these definitions. “I’m so impatient,” “I’m too competitive to be happy about others’ success,” “I just don’t think that way.” These are limits that we set for ourselves and it’s incredibly empowering to know that since we set them we can reset them. These aren’t necessarily a part of who we are. More often than not we can break the habits of comparison and envy that our culture has infused into our character. And any other habit we would like to break. Because we are in charge. We can change that character through replacing old negative habits with new positive ones. It just takes practice. That’s why these things are called “practices.” If we practice meditation, gratitude, sympathetic joy and empathy for just a few minutes a day it can have a profound impact on our lives. The next time you are in line for a coffee or at the bank or in traffic, instead of pulling out your phone, practice one of these. You’ll thank yourself.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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