Happiness, cultivating compassion and daily meditation

In September, I felt quite stressed and overwhelmed.  In looking for ways to relieve my stress, I found an 8 week secular meditation class, “Cultivating Compassion Training” on Meetup.  Yes, I saw that compassion was in the title, and yes it was part of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine. Compassion has never been something about which I’ve given much thought. I’d convinced myself it was primarily a meditation class and compassion was just the wrapping. The class was actually all about compassion. I actually took the class twice; the first time to focus on my initial intent of starting a daily meditation practice and the second time to focus on the actual intent of the course, compassion.

I’m so grateful for that stress in September, as it helped bring me to a place of feeling the happiest I have since my accident in 2002.  Sure there’s definitely other factors, but the current 30 minute mediation practice I have each morning has been the major component in me finally being able to say  I’m happy again.  I’m talking about happiness as a state, not an emotion.  Happiness as a state resides deep within; it’s peace, contentment, acceptance, an inner smile. It’s unaffected by the typical ups and downs of life.  Fifteen years is a long time not to have felt this good, so I’m especially grateful for its return.  People tell me I’m glowing, even if I say I’m tired or not feeling well.

It’s been a process getting here. At the beginning, I was meditating about 3-5 times per week, primarily using guided meditations provided by the instructor.  By the end of the first round of classes, I’d started using the Insight Timer app and was meditating daily.  As of today, I have 90 consecutive days of meditation.  By the end of the second round of classes, I was moving from guided to silent meditation.  At first I didn’t know how to spend the 30 minutes, but I’ve since found a formula that works for me.  I suspect it will change and evolve (I’m thinking of adding some tonglen to it), but I wanted to record my beginning here for a couple of reasons:  I had a difficult time finding specifics on how people spend their time in meditation, so I wanted to document mine.  I also want to see how my practice evolves.

So here’s my 30 minute daily practice in a nutshell.  Occasionally I do something totally different (there are many forms of meditation), but this is what I’ve found works for me.  As I said, I use Insight Timer.  It’s set for 30 minutes with a starting bell, one interval bell at 5 minutes and three closing bells.

  • 3 deep breaths, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth
  • Quick body scan, relaxing my jaw, face, neck, shoulders, arms, back, legs, feet
  • 5 minutes of breath focused meditation
    • As I inhale I feel the cool breath enter my nose. I feel the warm breath leave my nose as I exhale.  I count each breath on the exhalation until I’ve reached five breaths, then I begin again.  I’ve found if I count to ten, my mind tries to keep track of how many total breaths I’ve taken in the five minutes, so I’ve reduced it to 5 (sometimes I pick a random number and count to that instead).
  • About 15 minutes of loving kindness meditation (also known as metta and the focus of the classes I took).  My version of metta progresses through several stages, each with three parts, including a mantra.
    • The stages are:
      • Self-compassion
      • Compassion for people in my life who are difficult
      • Compassion for friends, family and loved ones
      • Compassion for people in my building
      • Compassion for everyone in Greater Boston
      • Compassion for everyone in the United States
      • Compassion for everyone in the world.
    • Each of these stages include three parts:
      • Gathering and focusing the group at hand in my mind
      • Just like me… statements (aka focus on common humanity)
      • Mantra
  • The remaining time, usually about 5-10 minutes, I focus on identifying the many things for which I’m grateful.  5-10 minutes seems long, but once I get going, it’s pretty easy.  I start by focusing on yesterday and the people, places and things for which I’m grateful, then I look forward to today and then I just go wherever my mind takes me.

Now for the nitty-gritty, because that’s where it’s at for me.  I think most people who do metta focus on a particular difficult person and loved one as they go through the stages.  I did so at first, but I found I prefer focusing on groups of people.  If I have some strong feelings and want to spend time focused on an individual I’ll do so, but groups generally work better for me.

Mantra.   The mantra I use at the end of each stage is:

  • May you be happy.
  • May you be free from suffering.
  • May you be free from fear, anger and anxiety.
  • May you know peace and joy.
  • May you be well.
  • May I be gracious and vulnerable with you.
  • May I show you respect, kindness and compassion.

Self-compassion.  I start with self-compassion.  I think about my friends and loved ones who love, support and wish me well. I think about the interconnectedness of us all and how it takes millions of people to support my life, from the farmers who grow my food to the workers who made my furniture to the delivery drivers, administrative staff, managers, service employees, medical staff, government employees and everyone along the way who’ve helped create the life (and the things) I have today. I think about the millions of others meditating, wishing me happiness and freedom from suffering.  Then I slightly tweak the mantra to make it work for me.

Compassion for people in my life who are difficult.  While doing guided meditation, I’d focus on a particular person. After a few weeks of doing so, that person no longer felt difficult to me.  Our interactions began to change, not because they’d changed, but because I had.  By the time I moved to silent meditation, I decided to focus on “difficult people” as a group, thinking about individuals with whom I struggle and types of people who might annoy me.  Then I’d focus on our common humanity; i.e. how they’re “just like me”

  • Just like me, you want to be happy.
  • Just like me, you struggle.
  • Just like me, you have baggage that can get in the way.
  • Just like me, you do your best.
  • Just like me…

I believe it’s been the focus on common humanity  that’s brought about the biggest changes for me.  During class, we only included a focus on common humanity in the beginning.  While I discovered self-compassion to be quite easy for me, common humanity required more effort (this seems to be the reverse for most).  What’s interesting is even though I say, “Just like me…,” what I mean is “I’m just like you in that we both….” Focusing on our commonalities rather than our differences  has been transformative, not just with “difficult people,” but across the board.  I no longer really feel that people are difficult.  I finish with the mantra.

Compassion for friends, family and loved ones.  Here I think of all the wonderful people who’ve graced my life, from childhood, undergrad, grad school, through the places I’ve lived and worked.  I am truly blessed to have known so many beautiful people.  I  focus on our common humanity, such as “Just like me, you have competing priorities that limit your available time.” then repeat the mantra.

Compassion for people in my building.  Since 2004, I’ve lived in the same high-rise.  Like friends and loved ones, this group is pretty simple and straightforward.

Compassion for everyone in Greater Boston.  Here I focus on the people with whom I interact most.  I think about MBTA workers and passengers, people on the streets and in the shops, people at my appointments, as well as people I’ve never encountered.  My common humanity statements tend to focus mostly around transportation and service, such as “Just like me, you lead a busy life and want to get where you’re going with as little disruption as possible.” and “Just like me, sometimes you make a mistake.”  I end with the mantra.

Compassion for everyone in the United States.  Typically I do a quick scan of the country, gathering up in my thoughts folks up New England, across the northern part of the country, including Alaska, down the west coast, eastward through the southern part of the country, back up to Massachusetts then across the heartland and over to Hawaii. My common humanity focus has brought me such peace in these trying political times, with statements like,

  • Just like me, you have strong personal and political values.
  • Just like me, you want to be heard and respected.
  • Just like me, you want to earn a living wage and have adequate health care.
  • Just like me, you want freedom from struggling to make ends meet.
  • Just like me…

Despite radically different ways of being in the world, focusing on our commonalities has helped me reduce the divide and be so much more understanding.  I don’t have to see those with whom my values may be antithetical as my enemy.

Compassion for everyone in the world. I begin by gathering people from large swaths of land, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, China, India, the rest of Asia, Australia, all the island nations, Canada, US, Mexico, Central America, South America.  As I do, I think about what’s going on in that part of the world.  My common humanity statements reflect the soul-crushing suffering of the world:

  • Just like me, you want to be free from war.
  • Just like me, you want to be free from poverty.
  • Just like me, you want to be free from hunger and have adequate safe drinking water.
  • Just like me, you want a safe and secure place to live.
  • Just like me, you want to be free from abuse and exploitation.
  • Just like me, you want to feel safe and secure physically, emotionally, sexually, financially.
  • Just like me, you want to be free from hypervigilance.
  • Just like me…

Sometimes I spend a very long time on this list.  Doing so has really brought me significantly closer to the devastating conditions under which far too many live every day of their lives. I end with the mantra.

Ending with a focus on gratitude really sets my mind in the right direction for the day.  A focus on gratitude has been shown to have significant wellness benefits, although it takes a bit longer than meditation for them to appear.  Positive effects from meditation tend to be seen within 30 days, while the benefits from a gratitude practice tend to take 120 days to manifest.

I must meditate first thing after I wake, else I’ll never find the time for it.  What I’m doing has really been working for me.  I’m grateful to Renee, the CCT instructor, and to all I’ve taken the class with for their insight and inspiration.



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