How to Write and Think and Meditate Yourself Into Being Happier: The HAPPINESS CLASS!

ERDG 491Z -- University at Albany, SUNY

Professor Claudia Ricci, Ph.D.


Reading and writing transform the way we think, and how we see ourselves in the world. Neurological research now shows that changing the way we think can produce positive physiological changes in the brain. At a time when an epidemic of mental health issues plagues our nation, and threatens to paralyze students in the academy, this class presents a set of cognitive tools and practical skills that will help students refine and enhance their educational goals while examining a broad range of life issues. Beginning with philosophical ideas set forth by Aristotle, the class will rely on texts from psychology, neuroscience, literature and narrative theory, to open up discussions about the patterns of human behavior and thinking that tend to produce lasting fulfillment and deep reward. In keeping with research by psychologist James Pennebaker and others who have demonstrated the value of expressive writing, students will engage in extensive journaling and other self-reflective writing assignments as they seek to define what it means, and what it takes, to find happiness. Part of the work in the classroom will be to help students identify their individual “signature strengths” that can produce what positive psychologist Martin Seligman defines as “authentic happiness and abundant gratification.” In addition to classroom work, a special two-hour laboratory session, with attendant readings and writing exercises, will be required each week; students will work with experts in mindfulness, meditation, yoga, spirituality and stress reduction, and will document how these techniques can help the student better cope with the inherently stressful nature of University life.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mindfulness and Contemplative Practices: SUNY Educators Building a Network

By Claudia Ricci

If you had been driving the perimeter road around the University at Albany shortly after lunch on Saturday, April 21st, you might have wondered what exactly was going on in the lovely wooded area behind the campus’ Chapel House.

Three dozen or more people were slowly wandering in different directions through the thick forest, stopping periodically to listen to birds, to gaze at the blue sky, or to examine budding maple leaves, tree bark, plants and spring flowers.

The half-hour event was in fact a walking meditation led by Dr. Terry Murray, Assistant Professor of Humanistic/Multicultural Education Program at SUNY New Paltz, part of a day-long conference held at the University at Albany on “Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices.” The goal of the conference was to begin building a SUNY network to promote contemplative pedagogy and practices within the 64-campus SUNY system.

A total of 42 people attended this debut event, with eight SUNY campuses represented. Among the attendees were faculty from a multitude of disciplines, as well as doctoral students, undergraduates, mental health practitioners, yoga and mindfulness and meditation teachers and interested community members. Joining me as a co-chair to organize this event was Dr. Hedva Lewittes, Professor of Psychology at SUNY Old Westbury. 

A very special guest was SUNY Trustee Joseph Belluck, a Manhattan attorney who has a strong interest in promoting contemplative practices and pedagogy within the SUNY system. Mr. Belluck praised the group for taking the initiative to strengthen a wholistic approach to education within SUNY.

The morning was devoted to introductions, in which all of the participants shared with the larger group why they were drawn to contemplative practices, what kind of work they were doing, and how they hoped their work in mindfulness and contemplative practices could be enhanced or encouraged as we work together to build an alliance of likeminded individuals within the SUNY system. Faculty and students shared the experiences they have had using meditation, mindfulness exercises or contemplative approaches to teaching.

Dr. Lisa Dulgar-Tulloch, a psychologist at UAlbany’s counseling center, spoke about her experience introducing a brand new series of mindfulness classes to interested students through the counseling center. Undergraduates from my new upper division, writing intensive “Happiness” class at UAlbany shared their enthusiasm for mindfulness and contemplative practices as part of the curriculum. Robert Moysey, Area Coordinator of Residential Life at SUNY New Paltz, talked about his interest in offering mindfulness-based programming to students through the college’s dormitory system. Dr. Heinz-Dieter Meyer, Associate Professor of Education at UAlbany, shared an entry from a reflective teaching journal that helps enhance his classes and strengthen his connection to college students. SUNY Old Westbury’s Dr. Lewittes was joined by others emphasizing the relevance of contemplative practices to SUNY's diverse students who often face economic, family and educational challenges.

Many participants talked about the fact that with this daylong event, they felt they could now “come out of the closet” to talk about their deep interest in cultivating a contemplative approach to education, one that incorporates the whole student.

By the end of the day, participants had had a chance to learn about research projects already underway at SUNY schools: among them: Nicholas Van Dam, a doctoral student in psychology at UAlbany, discussed his research (supported by the Mind and Life Institute) evaluating the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions in reducing anxiety and depression; Dr. Matthew Immergut, a sociologist at SUNY Purchase, discussed his studies showing that meditation enhanced students’ cognitive abilities. Graduate student Lisa Napora, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at SUNY Buffalo, shared with the group her plans to study the impact of meditation on academic performance in the classroom.

Going forward, the group agreed on a number of steps that should be undertaken to build a SUNY Network. Among them: 1) apply for a SUNY “Conversations in the Disciplines” grant in March of 2013 to bring prominent researchers in the field of mindfulness and contemplative practices to a SUNY-wide conference; 2) establish a SUNY blog on mindfulness to which all conference participants could exchange information about mindfulness and contemplative practices, 3) encourage individual SUNY campus members to form small meditation groups or faculty support groups to discuss mindfulness practices in the classroom; and 4) encourage SUNY faculty to become members of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.

One thing was clear at day’s end: there are already numerous connections among the many diverse participants, and there is a groundswell of interest in forging a SUNY network of educators devoted to contemplative practices.  As one participant noted, and she spoke for many, “leaving this conference, I wasn’t drained, the way I am so often by conferences. I was energized and excited.”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Finally, Meeting Mother

By Ryan Small

It was the day I had been waiting for my whole life. It was my high school graduation ceremony. There I was sitting in front of a class of 250 students and I was blessed enough to graduate with honors. I had never been so happy in my entire life. I walked outside at the end of the ceremony to see my family. Oddly enough, there was a strange woman with them.

Before the woman could speak my father gave me the biggest hug and said “I am so proud of you son.”

I smiled reluctantly as I stared at the strange woman. She had a vaguely familiar look to her.

Slowly she began to approach me. “Congratulations Ryan," she said, "I knew the day you were born that you were destined for greatness.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.”

“I am your mother, Ryan.”

At that point I was at a loss for words. My mother had run out on my sister and me when I was five. She had a drug addiction that she chose over her family. Every night until I was nine years old I slept with a picture of her under my pillow wishing she would come back. After a while I stopped praying and gave up hope. I always thought that the day I saw her would be the best day of my life but it wasn’t. I let out all of my built up frustration I had towards her.

“You bitch,” I said with tears building up in my eyes. My father had never heard me curse before.

“I’m sorry for walking out on you and your sister, I just was not ready to take on the role of a mother.”

“Are you serious? It took two kids for you to realize that? Do you know how many nights I stayed up crying because of you? Or how many Mother’s Days I had to endure without a mother? I can’t believe the best you could say to me is you’re sorry!”

“I know I made my mistakes in the past but I am clean now and I want to make it up to you.”

“You must think I am that five-year old you walked out on. I am 18 and I am on my way to college so save your shit for someone who cares. I made it this far without you so you can go back to the crack house you came from, because my mother died 13 years ago.”

My father placed his right hand on my shoulder and said “remember when your sister broke your favorite toy so you scratched her favorite CD?”

I nodded my head yes trying to figure out how on earth this was relevant to the situation.

“I told you that two wrongs in a situation don’t make a right. I told you that forgiveness was the answer in the first place.”

“How on earth do you expect me to forgive this woman for what she did?”

“Because you’re old enough to understand that she made a huge mistake and forgive her.”

At that moment I looked at her. I stared in her eyes. I couldn’t forgive her for leaving me but looking into her eyes I knew that as much as I hated her, I still loved her. Somewhere inside me was that little boy who wanted his mommy to come home.

I said to her “I would be lying to you if I was to sit here and tell you I forgive you. Maybe one day in my heart I will find it to do so but I just can’t now, it hurts too much.”

I embraced her and hugged her tightly and for no reason at all I said “thank you.”

I started to walk home and I didn’t turn around. I lived an hour away but that walk was much needed. Of all the things to say to her I could not understand why I had said thank you. Maybe it was because seeing her again had made me feel free and had allowed me to see how much I had grown up.

That was the last time I saw my biological mother before she died two months later. I did not go to the funeral because the way I saw her on graduation day is the way I wanted to remember her for the rest of my life

Ryan Small is a freshman at the University at Albany, SUNY. He wrote this piece as part of a Flip Your Script exercise, which offers participants a means of finding forgiveness through storytelling. In a separate post, which will run on Friday, April 13th in MyStoryLives, Ryan writes very powerfully about how difficult it was to write this piece, but how incredibly healing it was to finally confront the feelings he expressed here. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In honor of Dr. Horace F. Martin, a much-belated THANK YOU

Sometimes we say thank you right away. But sometimes it takes us a long, long time to realize how grateful we are for someone's act of kindness. Sometimes, we wait a little too long to say thanks.

This is a letter of gratitude that I probably should have written in 1972, or shortly thereafter. That was the year I was a sophomore in college. It was the end of March when I broke up with my high school sweetheart. We'd been together for three years and had an amazing relationship. Considering how old we were, it was quite something.

Which made it all the harder when we mutually decided that it was time we experienced college separately. We sat together in Harvard Square (where he was going to school) and he sang me songs on his guitar all night. And then, as the light of day made its way onto the city streets, we parted. I can vaguely remember that I walked away. And waved.

That was the romantic part. What came after was tumultuous. I was devastated. I had lost my best friend. I had lost my anchor. I was back at Brown, completely unhinged.

I couldn't study. I couldn't focus. I can remember walking the streets of Providence in a blur, mourning my lost love. I was sinking quickly into my first bout of depression. I tried going to the counseling center. It didn't seem to help.

And then came a kind of guardian angel in the form of a lab instructor.

Dr. Horace Martin, who was a practicing physician in the Providence area, was my lab teacher. At the time he seemed older, as in, he was balding and a bit heavy set in a middle-aged kind of way. Looking back, he was probably about 40.

He was a kind man, and as luck would have it, he was very very intuitive. I hadn't given him any direct indication that I was in trouble. I was shuffling through the lectures on base pairs and DNA structure. I'm not sure how, but somehow this man figured out that I was deeply depressed.

I don't even remember the particulars of how he approached me. All I recall looking back is that he made it clear he knew I needed someone to talk to. Someone to lean on.

He told me about his family. He told me he had seven children, and they all lived near Providence. He asked me if I would like to come to dinner with his family.

I went. I remember nothing in particular except that his wife made a big family dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. I remember the warmth of the family. The kind of family I'd grown up with.

After dinner, he and his wife insisted I stay over for the night. I did and the next morning, Dr. Martin drove me back to campus.

That morning, he gave me the best advice perhaps that anybody, certainly any teacher, ever gave me. He told me to be very very good to myself. He told me that every single day of my life I had to treat myself to something special. Even if it was a very little treat. Buy yourself a candy bar, he told me. Looking back, I think I see why this man reached out to me. I think he saw a kindred spirit. Here in his classroom he recognized the danger signals, the signs that a student was suffering, or at least having a very rough time. I suspect he'd had his rough moments, and here he was, paying back.

So why am I writing this now, almost 40 years later?

I am teaching a new class called Reading and Writing the Happier Self at my university. We are reading all kinds of books about happiness -- texts from neuroscience, psychology, narrative theory, literature, as well as readings in contemplative pedagogy and spiritual practice. The lab for this class is a series of classes in mindfulness-based stress reduction.

One of the best books we are reading -- a student favorite -- is Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness, a book I've written about before. A book that has changed my life. A book that basically says we have to love ourselves and everyone else in the world. Not in a sentimental or passionate way, but in a way that brings out our deepest compassion. Even our enemies deserve our compassion, our "metta" (which can be translated from the Indian Pali language as "love" or "lovingkindness.") Much of Salzberg's book is devoted to the metta practices, the meditations that are designed to help us learn to love ourselves and others, including the most difficult people in our lives.

At one point Salzberg writes: "Great fullness of being, which we experience as happiness, can also be described as love. to be undivided and unfragmented, to be completely present, is to love. To pay attention is to love."

Dr. Martin paid attention to me, in a way that teachers frequently do not. He recognized my suffering and tried to be present for me.

I've thought about Dr. Martin's kindness many times through the years. About two years ago, I decide to try to find him. I tried finding him through the Rhode Island Medical Society. I tried finding him through the internet's White Pages. I found a few listings, including two for Horace Martins who were in their 80s. I didn't do anything further.

But now I regret that I didn't keep trying.

I wrote to a very nice editor at the Brown Alumni Monthly today and asked her if she could help me locate him.

It didn't take but a few minutes for her to respond, sadly, with his obituary. Dr. Martin died in April, 2010 of lung cancer, at the age of 79. He left his wife and seven children behind. In this obituary I learned that he had several degrees and so many professional accomplishments.

I am sad to think that had I done this two years ago, I might have sent him a thank you letter, one he richly deserved.

I think perhaps I should send this now to his family.

I think of him so often, especially as I am teaching this new class. I think of the lessons he taught me: the one about being good to myself. But the other one too: to attend to students. He showed me by example how important it is to pay close attention to not only the minds of your students, but to their hearts as well. He taught me to keep my eye out for those students whose faces make it apparent that they are really suffering. He taught me not to be afraid to reach out to a student to show her or him that you care, that you are there for them. That you are really present.

Lately, I've been getting more and more immersed in contemplative pedagogy -- a term that applies to the use of some rather ancient practices, like meditation, self reflection, in university classrooms. There are many benefits to these practices; they appear to help students both academically, by developing better focus and thinking skills, and also, emotionally, by promoting well-being. There is a growing movement among university educators to use contemplative practices to engage the whole student.

Last year, the first year I taught Happiness, I told my students that this new class was in part a tribute to a teacher, to Dr. Martin.

I now want to tell the world, and his family. I am eternally grateful for his simple act of kindness in 1972.

Had he not taken me home to dinner with his family, fed me spaghetti, I might have ended up dropping out of school.

Instead, I stayed. And today, as a teacher, I try as often as I can to pay back his kindness with my own kindness to other students, recalling always what he did.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ocean Refuge

Put down your pen, your pencil, your books and close your notebook.

Sit in a comfortable position, and close your eyes.

Take a long slow breath in, and let it out through your mouth.

Breathe normally. And now, with your eyes closed, see yourself sitting in the sun, on a soft blanket in the sand. You are staring out there onto the emerald green water, and the waves are cresting, and sparking and glinting in the rays of the sun.

You are there for the day, just to lay in the sun. Or to seek refuge in the shade of a palm or a pine tree or a cypress.

You breathe in the salty air and it clears out all the winter fog and congestion.

You feel the warmth of the sun on your face

and shoulders

and back

and chest,

You have to do nothing but sit there in the sand


and breathing and staring out at the green water.

With each breath in, maybe you want to name it.

Breathe in. Sun.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Ocean.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Sky.

Breathe out.

Breathe in. Earth,

Breathe out.

And keep going, repeating the names for each breath.





Over and over again. And when another thought enters your ocean refuge, just let it go sailing out over the waves, and return to your breathing,

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Movie Screen in Your Mind

Try this: close your eyes and slowly take in a long slow breath.

Release the breath from your nose, letting the air make a little puffing noise, quietly so only you can hear it.

Do it again. Slowly.

And when you release the air, let go of all the stress you're holding in your body.

Let your neck and shoulders go limp.

Let your head hang forward.

Let your jaw go slack.

Let your back soften.

Let the muscles soften in both arms.

Both legs.

Your feet.

Breathe in again. And again, let the air out with a quiet little puff. Think about your entire body going limp.

All the stress draining onto the floor and disappearing.

Keeping your eyes closed, now imagine a screen, a white screen, in the space right above your nose.

It's a screen like those you see in a movie theatre, or the one right here in the classroom.

This is your own private little movie screen. See it there in your mind right above your eyes, stretching to fill your forehead?

Stare at it for a moment. Let it stay white. Steady your inner gaze right on that screen.

Now shift your attention back to your breath.

Breathe in, normally. And then let the breath out, with a tiny puff. Feel the air coming out of your nose.

Maybe it feels warm. Maybe it feels cool. Maybe it wants to be a color.

Golden like the sun. Light blue like the sky. Pink and orange like a sunset.

Or white like the fluffy clouds and your movie screen.

Just let your breath be whatever it wants to be.

Try this for a few minutes.

Soon, something will pop up onto your movie screen.

A thought. A story of something you did. Something that's bothering you. A person you're angry at. Something you have to do. Somewhere you have to go. Somebody you miss dearly.

See it there on the movie screen.

And very slowly, breathe in. And when you release your breath with that little puff, imagine your breath magically wipes the movie screen clean.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Puff. The screen is clean.

The screen is clean.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Maybe you want to count your breaths.

Breathe in. Puff out. One.

Breathe in. Puff out. Two.

Breathe in. Puff out. Three,

Breathe in. Puff out. Four.

Keep going.

Maybe there is another movie there.

There will be.

More and more and more movies.

And every time one more movie appears. One more thought. One more person. One more story. One more troubling idea.

See it there on the screen.

And then, puff it away with your breath.

Feel the breath.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

And now, continue. As long as you can.

See the movie.

Let the breath puff the movie screen



Friday, January 20, 2012

Warm Up: Writing in a Sunny Waterfall

NOTE TO READERS: Something quite amazing happened in my happiness class yesterday. I decided to try something new; like so many of my best ideas, the exercise came to me while I was meditating in the morning before class. When the students arrived, I asked them to freewrite for a few minutes, as I usually do, so that they could vent their thoughts and clear their minds before class started. Then I asked them to close their eyes, and I led them in this exercise I called "Writing in a Sunny Waterfall."

Before I started reading the words out loud, I was worried that it wouldn't work. I was afraid that when I finished, the students would say, "why did you make us do this boring thing?"

Something quite different happened.

When I finished reading, and looked up, each and every student in the class was sitting there in perfect stillness. There wasn't a sound in the room. Not a single student opened his or her eyes for almost 25 minutes. I was shocked. I kept looking at my watch thinking, should I just let them sit there? I did. I was astonished at the power of these simple words to relax a group of young people.

Finally I decided it was time to bring them back to the classroom. When I did, several of the students said they felt refreshed. One young woman said that she had never been able to meditate before, but that this exercise had helped her sink into a deep meditative state. I asked the students to write about what they felt. After a discussion, we decided as a class that we would try this exercise again. My husband thinks I should record the words and include them on the Happiness class blogsite. Maybe I will, so that other people can try it if they want to relax in a sunny waterfall.

Suddenly, we are all sitting in the sun, below a gigantic waterfall.

The water showers each of us in the most blissfully perfect temperature,





You look up and see the tiny little prisms of color in the water droplets as the sun passes through them.

You just close your eyes and sit there, letting the gloriously warm water fall on your head....

feeling it slip down your forehead...

over your eyelids...

onto your eyelashes...

your nose...

your lips...

your chin...

the back of your neck...

your shoulders....

down your arms and legs...

your hands and fingers and toes.

You just sit there, letting the water flow down, carrying away all of your stress.

You don't have to go anywhere.

You don't have to do anything.

You just sit there and

go limp.

The water pools at your feet and disappears.

You feel so relaxed that you smile.

If you were to look up, you would see the water sparkling in the sun.

You can feel the water,

the warmth of it, the sun's rays gently hitting the top of your head,

You just let the water drain every bit of stress away.

You just sit there in your own perfect waterfall, and all around you are the most beautiful flowers and trees.

You stare at the most beautiful flowers and trees. You

would swear that you were

in some sort of Paradise.

When you're ready,

write about what it looks and feels like

to sit there.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Questions From Students and Discussion In First Day of Happiness Class

Will this class make me happier?
Is happiness the same for everybody?
Who determines happiness?
How important do people think happiness is?
Is making yourself happy more important than making others happy?
How important is it to surround yourself with happy people?
Do you have an obligation to make other people happy?
How does freewriting make us happy? What other daily routines and rituals make us happier?
Is there really a way to make yourself happy?
If you buy a new car, and it makes you happy, is that "synthetic" happiness?
Are older people generally happier than younger people? If so, why?
Are married people happier than unmarried people? If so, why?
Does religion make you happy? Why?