Get Happy – Join a Group!

Recently, I’ve been following a series called “100 Days of Lovingkindness” from Wildmind’s Meditation Newsletter .  Every day for the duration of the series an e-mail is sent out with a description of ideas and practices that the reader can try and, hopefully, incorporate into their lives.  Here is an excerpt from Day 66 – Appreciation is Contagious:

When. . .you become happier, . . . your friends become measurably happier because you’re happy. (This has been scientifically verified).

And your friends’ friends become measurably happier.

And your friends’ friends’ friends become measurably happier.

Happiness spreads outward into the world through your social network like a virus — although a rather beneficial one.

This may all seem rather incredible, but . . .the evidence for this [from a British Medical Journal article wonderfully titled “Dynamic Spread of Happiness”] . . . is based on a huge study carried out by Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego.

Professor of Medical Genetics James H. Fowler and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, have been studying social networks for years, using data from the ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the health, behaviors, and attitudes of tens of thousands of people since 1948.

The study measures many aspects of health, including happiness. Participants have been asked how likely they are to agree with questions like “I feel hopeful about the future” and “I feel happy.” And the study also tracks social networks, allowing the researchers to see how attitudes and behaviors spread.

Fowler and Christakis have found that if you have overweight friends, you’re more likely to be overweight yourself. If you have friends who don’t smoke, you’ll find it easier to give up smoking. If your friends are unhappy, you’re more likely to be unhappy yourself. And, crucially, if you’re happy your friends are more likely to be happy, and if your friends are happy you’re more likely to be happy.

In fact, if you’re happy you increase the chances of an immediate social contact becoming happy by 15%. And this effect ripples out into your friend’s friend’s relationships.

So it pays to surround yourself with healthy, happy people.  One way you can do that is by coming to a class!  (Yup – you knew I’d find a way to bring you back to that.)  Classes are full of people striving to improve their health and general outlook on life.  Be a part of that effort!  It’s contagious!  According to this study, just by showing up and being part of the group you have at least a 15% chance of becoming happier and healthier yourself.  And if your own well-being is not enough incentive, your association with healthy people may enable you to spread that health to everyone around you.  The more of us who participate, the more this spreads.  Just think what we can all accomplish!

The study also implies that if you’re not feeling particularly happy or healthy, you’re likely to pass those feelings on as well. So maybe these ideas will help you to just try rubbing elbows with a group that’s trying to improve their lives.  It can’t hurt and it just might help you feel better.  You don’t have to perform in any prescribed or specified way.  Just be there and be a part of the group.  If you keep it up, pretty soon all those you associate with might start feeling better, too.  What a concept!

Hope to see you all in a class soon!


Finding the Time to Practice

Sometimes we think we don’t have time to practice.  A better time will come when this finishes or that happens.

Here are some brief words of wisdom from Pema Chodron, an ordained Buddhist nun, prolific author and teacher:

The key instruction is to stay in the present. Don’t get caught up in hopes of what you’ll achieve and how good your situation will be some day in the future. What you do right now is what matters.

Another well-known teacher, Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, puts this into a slightly different context.  In a recent article in Tricycle Magazine, she talked about her early days of finding a personal practice and how she went through a dilemma over which practice path to follow.  She writes:

In order to practice, we have to surrender, we have to take a risk. . . .Often the obstacle is fear: we don’t think we’ll ever succeed.

One of the strongest experiences that I had of this happened somewhat early in my practice when I was living in India. . . . Unable to decide between the two traditions, I would sit . . .and mostly I would just think, “Should I do this or should I do that?”

I wasn’t really learning a lot from my practice since I wasn’t really practicing much. I was mostly just thinking about which practice to do. Finally I said to myself, “Just do something. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, just do something for the sake of the doing, for the engagement, for the involvement.”

After much vacillation, I concluded, “Well, I’ll just do one form of practice for six months,” and that’s what got me into actually practicing. It’s not that one needs to do only one practice forever,  and I certainly haven’t.”

Years ago I recall speaking with a friend who claimed to want to quit smoking cigarettes, but always found some reason why now was not a good time.  For example, when we spoke her father was coping with advanced cancer and she was helping her mother attend to him.  She said, “Once this crisis passes, then I’ll quit”.  My response was, “There is never going to be a ‘right time’.  You just have to make up your mind and do it.”  This was no revelation of great wisdom on my part.  I was speaking from my own experience.  I, too, had been a smoker.  During a great crisis in my life, I came to recognize how important it is to take control of the things you can control while you can control them.  Many of us operate under an illusion that we are in charge of our lives, but there is so little we can truly control in this life.  Although smoking is an addiction, it was still a choice I was making.  One of the few things I really did have the power to control.  It took a decision and a daily commitment, but I did it – despite the emotional turmoil in my life at the time.

Another friend of mine who was a collector of rare books and ephemera used to speak longingly of spending more time exploring his passion.  Instead he continued to work at a job he disliked intensely because he thought it was something he needed to do.  Then one day he was afflicted with an aneurism and died suddenly.  He never got to do the things he wanted to do most while still on this planet.  This, too, was a lesson to me.  Life is uncertain, but death is inevitable.  We know it will happen to all of us, but we don’t when or how.  All we have is this moment, right now.  Sounds so simple, yet so hard to truly accept.

And, of course, all of this comes back to my passion for practicing yoga and Pilates.  Many of you have heard me say that we all need to move while we can move since we never know when we won’t be able to move anymore.  So rather than wait until _____________ (fill in the blank – you lose some weight, or the kids go to college, or whatever life issue is keeping you from doing what you know you need to do), as the commercial says “just do it!”  You will need to make a decision and re-commit each day.  But if you make that decision, you will find a way.  Start small.  A few minutes a day is better than nothing.  Consistency is the most important ingredient.  Just keep at it.  People often tell me that they wish they could do some of the things I do in class the way that I do them.  Here is a revelation:  I was not born knowing how to do these things. I don’t even have any particular talent or skill.   I could not do these things when I first started either.  But with regular practice I have learned that I am able to do much more than I thought I could.  Practice itself is an amazing teacher.

Notice I mentioned “decision”.  For me, this is the most important requirement for making it happen.  This was recently echoed in an interview on Sounds True with Snatam Kaur, an American singer who was raised in the kundalini yoga tradition.  She is the lead singer for the Celebrate Peace tours and has released eight records.  As a travelling musician with an international performance schedule who also recently became a new mother, she talked about how she maintains her practice despite an overwhelmingly busy and demanding life.  She said:

. . . after I had experienced having a baby and being on the road as a touring musician and my daily practice just kind of, you know, evaporated. . . . But then . . . I figured out my bottom line. And it was, I’ve got to have a half hour of yoga every day. And it was amazing. I made the choice in my mind, and then I was able to do it. I have to have a half hour. And then it was like time and space moved for me.

Just in case you are unable to relate to any of these situations and you are still feeling like your particular circumstances are unique, here are a few more words of encouragement and inspiration from and article in Tricycle by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an abbot of Metta Forest Monastery and the translator of numerous Thai meditation guides:

In times of crisis, we often feel we don’t have the time or energy to practice, but those are precisely the times when the practice is most necessary. This is what we’ve been practicing for: the situations where the practice doesn’t come easily. When the winds of change reach hurricane force, our inner refuge of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment is the only thing that will keep us from getting blown away. . . . And we needn’t be afraid that this is an escapist shelter.  When the basis of our well-being is firm within, we can act with true courage and compassion for others, for we’re coming from a solid position of calmness and strength.

We may be powerless to change the past, but we do have the power to shape the present and the future by what we do, moment to moment, right now.

Amen to that!