Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Final Writing Project: A Day of Mindfulness



Note to readers: For their final writing projects this semester, students in the Happiness class were required to spend a day being mindful, keeping journal entries all day, and then later reflecting on the day and how it made them realize or appreciate what they have learned from the class. Several of the final papers were just wonderful; I am publishing Meghan Madden's today. 

By Meghan Madden          
             I woke up this morning with a boyfriend. He makes smiling this morning easier than it has been in awhile. I feel warm and cozy as I wake up in my bed. I am not groggy or irritated as usual, but refreshed and happy. It is a Sunday, a good day to live mindfully: A day that I usually just want to lay in bed and recover from my weekend but am too swamped with work. I will not mind going to my fraternity meeting today or spending hours in the library. I am going to try and enjoy these twenty-four hours in the company of my friends, brothers, and boyfriend. 
            Showers are usually not my ideal start to a day. However, today is the day I will enjoy my shower; to be thankful for my warm water, dry towels, and soft robe. I turn the water on hot and let it rush down my neck, back, and legs. I let the steam swallow me up as I breathe in deeply. I enjoy the massage from my fingers as I work the shampoo and conditioner in my hair. The beating of the water on my head and back, the scent of my pomegranate body wash, and the calming whirring sound from the fan relaxes me. I am able to focus on my breathing and the rushing sound of the water as I do part of my daily routine.
            I usually listen to my headphones when I take the bus up to campus, but today I decided to ride the bus in silence. Staring out the window, I watched the trees and the cars and the people rush by me. Watching all of the busy activity from inside the bus brings me relief that I can be still for these twenty minutes. I am starting to think about how swamped I am with work lately and how much I still need to get done; but I push it out of my head. I just want to focus on my bus ride. I know that right now, there is no work I can be doing. These twenty minutes are my moments of sanity before a hectic day. I look up and watch the clouds go by and I am grateful for this moment of calmness. I am grateful that I am able to find moments of peace where I least expect them and when I most need them.
            I bought my coffee and a muffin from Outtakes in the Campus Center and went to the library. I am happy for my usual spot, the comfortable, cushiony chairs in the basement. Not only is it quiet and secluded, but I am not burdened by a hard desk and equally uncomfortable chair. I can sit in the soothing chairs, eat my food, and study peacefully. I am trying to eat my food mindfully. I am not very good at the mindful eating, but it is an experience worth attempting.
            The coffee is hot on my throat. Not scolding, burning hot, but a nice, welcoming warmth. It tastes bitter, the way that I like it. Pure black, no swirls of milk or specs of sugar; just a hot, dark cup. I think of the grinds that were used for this coffee; the beans, the water, the chocolate raspberry flavoring. As I sip it, it warms my body and I feel it sliding down my throat, past my chest, and into my stomach. I imagine it running through my arms, legs, fingers and toes as it gives me my energy.
            My muffin is surprisingly still warm from the heated glass case it was sitting in before I bought it. I look at the purple dots of scattered blueberries in my muffin and think of a large blueberry field that they were picked from. Throughout the scattered blueberries lay the crystallized sugar that gives it the delicious sweet taste. I anticipate the satisfying crunch I know will be present when I bite into the top. I break off a piece, and bits of crumbs flake off into the open wrapper. I put the small piece in my mouth and I can taste the bread, the blueberry, and the sugar all at once. I try to separate the three flavors in my mouth with my tongue. I try and chew it slowly, letting it settle on my tongue and feeling it fall apart in my mouth. Swallowing it, I feel it go down my throat and fill the hunger in my stomach.
            I am taking a break from my studying in order to journal. It is hard to be mindful while I am trying to study over 1,000 years of European Civilization. I am grateful for the ability to read; to immerse myself in a story and enhance my creativity. I am grateful for paper, pencil, and my ability to write. Just the sound of the pencil scratching against the paper is the reassurance that I am learning something new. I know that learning is a blessing and not everyone is lucky enough to have the opportunities for education that I have. I am finding it hard, though, to be grateful for all of this homework when I can see outside into this beautiful day.
            I can sit outside and smoke a cigarette. I know if I think too mindfully about my cigarette I will not want it; so I decide instead to dwell on the people. I like watching people go by and guessing where they are going or who they are going to see. It makes me appreciate the diversity not only in the world but right here on my own campus. Everyone has their own lives, their own problems, their own ideas of what makes them happy. It makes me think about what makes me happy. Not why it makes me happy, just happy that I have the ability to be happy: The simple taste of coffee and muffin that lingers in my mouth. The warm sun I can feel on my arm right now as I sit on the cool cement of this campus that usually depresses me. I am beginning to realize that even in the saddest of places I can find some speck of happiness if I am willing to look for it.
            It has come to the least favorite part of my day, even though I am with some of my favorite people. I love my fraternity, I love doing community service and helping out people that are in need. Alpha Phi Omega has helped me to become a more well-rounded person and I am grateful for that. My meetings every Sunday, however, sometimes make me lose faith in our three cardinal principles: leadership, friendship, and service. I see people wanting to be leaders so badly they would take advantage of community service and squash their friendships. In the spirit of being mindful, in a setting that makes me doubt my compassion, I feel that I should channel Sharon Salzberg and extend some lovingkindness of my own.
            I am a leader and a friend. I enjoy doing service with my friends. I do not do it for a selfish self-satisfaction but because the happiness of others truly makes me happy. I deserve to be free of suffering and to find my own happiness. I am a loving person that is loved back and wants to continue the cycle. I think of one of my brothers. A friend. I want the best for her. I want her free of suffering and immersed in happiness. I love her, care for her, and I know she feels the same for me. I consider another of my brothers. I do not know her well, but I see her being a leader and caring for the fraternity. I want her free from suffering and for her to find happiness. I hope that she enjoys being a brother as much, if not more than I do and hope that she will be successful in whatever she chooses to do in her future. There is a third brother who tends to interrupt people and sometimes has inappropriate ways of confronting other brothers in the fraternity. I would never wish suffering on anyone, so I hope that she is free from suffering. I hope she finds happiness, but I hope she seeks it in ways that do not bring others down. I hope her strong personality brings her success and she is able to form strong bonds with people that understand her.
            Back at home there is so much housework, not to be confused with homework, which needs to be done. I have a hamster to feed and to clean her cage, dishes that have piled up for a week because no one has a spare minute to wash them, and laundry- loads and loads of laundry and no quarters.  I choose one chore, only one, because sometimes there is only so much you can do in a day. My room has been messy for weeks, maybe even a month, but I guess it is finally time to tackle that hurricane. I attempt to do this mindfully, but I know situations in the day will eventually cloud my thoughts and take over my mind. Using my breathing, I will try to push those thoughts out and return to focusing on my cleaning. Hopefully, writing intermittently will keep me focused on my mindful room cleaning.
            I start with my vanity. I throw away old contact cases, put my make-up back in its drawer, and organize my lotions, perfumes, and deodorants so they are easily available. I am so used to living in clutter that it makes me second guess my organizing. Am I happier in disarray or organization? I guess I will find out what I am more comfortable in if my vanity returns to chaos or stays put in its place.
            I move to my floor; that is where my clothes are usually kept. I feel them before I put them in the designated dirty or clean pile. I enjoy the usual rough texture of my jeans, the softness of the inside of my hoodies, the silky mesh feeling of my gym shorts. The different feelings they have and the different feelings they give me when they are on make me appreciate all of the different sensations I am able to feel. It also makes me feel a bit guilty that I am able to have all of these clothes when some people have so little. I try to push the guilt out of my mind and focus on my cleaning.
            As I hang up one of my rompers, I realize that it was one that my best friend Sarah gave me that no longer fit her any more. I think of her, how much I miss her, and how much she does for me. I start doing this with every article of clothing I pick up. The sweatshirt my mom brought home for me one day after work, the Jimi Hendrix shirt my sister sent me for my birthday last year, my first set of APO letters my brother bought me for Christmas. Even the clothes that were not gifts, the clothes I bought myself in the store, I think of the work that was put into them: The women that sewed the fabric, the truck-driver that delivered it to the store, the buyer that bought that shirt for the store that I would eventually wander in and purchase. I realize how many people have contributed to such a large aspect of my identity; an identity that I have come to love. I am grateful for all of these people and the unnoticeably large impact they have had on my life.
            The day is finally over and it is a little bittersweet. The 24 hours that I had in the morning have dwindled down to minutes. I run my tongue over my freshly brushed teeth. I enjoy the feeling of their smoothness and knowing they are clean after a day full of activity. I do a short, mini body scan on my living room carpet before I go to bed. I let go of everything I have to do tomorrow and the little mistakes I made during the day. I sense my toes, my knees, my hips, my stomach, and upwards until I reach my head. It relaxes me and clears my head so I can sleep easier.
            I lay in my bed with my new boyfriend. All of the happiness I felt when I woke up is still there. The kiss goodnight on the cheek makes me feel secure, and knowing that I am loved calms me. I realized today that I can control my feelings if I focus on the good that is right now: All of the love surrounding me, everything that I am blessed with, all of the good things I want to do in my future. I know that when I wake up tomorrow, I will be blessed with another 24 hours. I am grateful for my day and my opportunity to experience life with an open mind and without judgment.
REFLECTION
            I am surprised at how rewarding this experience was for me. At the start of this class, I thought I would simply be learning a way to happiness. I thought we would be learning generic clich├ęs like “money doesn’t make you happy” or “you can’t love others until you love yourself.” While these proverbs have all held some meaning, this class has proved to teach me more about what happiness is. I learned that I can “train my mind” and open my heart in order to find happiness in everything around me.
            I chose this Sunday to be mindful because I knew I was already happy. I’ve always been the person that doesn’t need someone to make her happy. I lived by the words of singer Rilo Kiley, “You are flawed if you’re not free.” I am not flawed because I have someone, I am happy that I have someone that accepts me and takes me for every little quirk. With my new, changed mindset, I knew I wanted to live my day openly without judging my experiences and learning even more new ways to be happy.
            My shower, which if you ask my friends, is not my preferred choice of activity, surprisingly relaxed me. I took the time to massage my head with the shampoo, and allow the pounding hot water to massage my back and neck. I finally noticed the exotic scent of my body wash and the subtle empowerment that came from a fresh, clean me. I am hoping that my mindful shower experience will allow me to feel that pampering myself is not selfish.
            My bus ride felt a little awkward. I am a nervous person, and my music is a perfect defense mechanism against the crowds of people. It was hard for me to sit there and reflect on my ride without being “mindful” that people were looking at me or questioning me. I am glad I did it though. It is important for me to step out of my comfort zone and try to be more present in the world. It is easy to retreat into my headphones and my own little world. If I continue in my life of nervous seclusion, though, I may miss out on something that could make me happy.
            In every journal entry, I tried to mention at least one thing I was grateful for. This was easier than people would think. As I reflected on different parts of my day, I found more and more simple things I was grateful for. I even stopped my journaling for part of the day and started listing everything; the list turned out to be more than I could include in my paper. Actually, this paper is one thing I am thankful for because it helped me discover a lot about myself.
            My mindful observations became more in depth as I went through the day. I think this is because I became more comfortable with writing out my thoughts than I’m used to. As an English major and a lover of writing, I have always written and it has been therapeutic for me. Sharing my writing is another story. The thoughts in my head are always so jumbled that I am afraid people won’t understand me or think I am some sort of deviant. Throughout writing my journals I continuously told myself, “If I want to live without judgment, I should not judge my own thoughts.” As I continued to write I became less apprehensive about someone reading my observations and more focused on what I was seeing and feeling.
            I was really happy to finally do the mindful eating. I had never tried it before, not because I didn’t want to but because I never thought I had time. Words of wisdom from Lenore, however, have stuck with me and I do not think I will ever forget them. “The work will still be there an hour later.” My work is, unfortunately, going to wait for me to come back to it. So I chose a small meal that I wouldn’t worry about rushing. It was terribly difficult, though, if I am being honest. It takes patience and will power not to scarf down food. Doing my best though, I did feel myself gaining an appreciation for my warm coffee and simple blueberry muffin. I really think I should practice this exercise and continue writing about it because it forces me to slow down and relax.
            I know that many mindfulness teachers would rather deter students from using any substance that could alter their brain chemistry, even the simple caffeine in my coffee. But I have to admit that my cigarette break did relax me. It embarrasses me to admit that I am an occasional, and I stress occasional, smoker, especially to respected authority figures. Reading over that journal entry, I know that it is a bad and harmful habit that is hard to kick. But along with not judging my own writing, I learned I cannot judge my own behaviors; I must accept them for part of who I am. Actually, it soothed me to write my actions down. I know the calming powers of smoking, but I also see how writing can do the same without the harmful drawbacks, besides maybe a cramped hand. Watching the people during my cigarette though made me think that everyone has their own vices and that is what keeps us all connected, instead of perfect.
            The lovingkindness meditation I practiced during my fraternity meeting was probably the best experience of this project. I have been withdrawn from my brotherhood because I thought I was seeing everyone lose sight of our goal as a community service based BROTHERHOOD. Inflicting love on my brothers that I felt disconnected with, instead of the usual annoyance or almost hatred, I realized that I had not been being a good brother. Who am I to judge another brother or even another person? I should perform the best service and be the best leader and friend that I can be; and hopefully the law of attraction will manifest. While I found it hard to impose loving words on someone I still do not have much respect for, I was much more calm during the meeting and rational with my feelings. I tried to do this with as many brothers as I could, but with over 100 of us and a one hour meeting, it became a little distracting and too long of a list.
            My boyfriend found my whole mindfully cleaning my room and brushing my teeth and my meditation ritual unusual. He giggled at me as I rushed back to my notebook to write down an article of clothing and watched me strangely as I sat silently on my carpet while he waited to go to bed. At first this made me feel uncomfortable. After all, he is a new boyfriend and the last thing I want is for him to find me weird. When I explained it to him though, it made me feel less weird about it and more proud of myself. I lived a whole day with very little judgment, very little absent minded thought, and a lot of compassion for myself, my belongings, and others.
            He was mystified by my whole experience. As a business major and someone that knows exactly what he wants out of college, I think he saw this class as superfluous and an easy elective. Writing my journal articles and thinking about how I was going to end this paper helped me figure out how to explain it to him.
            It is not just about eating slow, listening to breathing, telling people you love them, or even just being happy. It is about a journey THROUGH yourself. It is about learning your capacity to love and avoiding the urge to judge. I told him that I learned there is no one way to be happy or see the world. There are millions of thoughts and views and perceptions that alter the course of every day. Living mindfully is just one way to stop and appreciate everything life has to offer, and everything you have to offer life.
            I have to disagree with the theory of a set point for happiness. I do not think we are doomed to one level of happiness and that is where we will live our life.  You can observe yourself through others, your property, and your thoughts and determine your own happiness. My day of mindfulness taught me it is a matter of opening up, accepting yourself, expressing yourself, and living without inhibitions that can help YOU decide YOUR happiness. This one day of living mindfully is just 24 hours of a whole lifetime to discover a truly happy identity.
Writer Meghan Madden is a student at the University at Albany.

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