Happiness? from outside or in?

You’ve got to hand it to the editors at The Guardian/Observer, they have provided argument and counterargument to debate this weekend: about whether happiness comes from external things or from inside us.

Firstly, the Guardian’s Saturday section Weekend provided “If you want to have a good time, ask a Buddhist“, in which the Buddhist they asked (or quoted), Ayya Khema, said: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

Secondly, the Observer Magazine gave us “Reasons to be cheerful: why we should look outside ourselves to find joy” and the author, Ingrid Fetell Lee, spent some time showing us how things, like colours, could give us joy, thereby refuting her statement that “The teachings of Buddha advise that happiness comes only from letting go of our attachments to worldly things.”

Ms Lee is a designer and founded The Aesthetics of Joy as a website “to shed light on the relationship between our environment and our emotions”, being “devoted to a simple, powerful idea: that our greatest source of joy is the world around us”.  There is a book coming out in September 2018. The Guardian columnist also has a book out on the topic but doesn’t advertise it in the column.

My conclusion is that they are both right!  Good design, well executed, and the external environment, be it man-made or natural, do give us moments of joy and support our overall wellbeing.  However, I find Ms Lee’s dismissal of Buddhist teaching too simplistic, her stance undermining her main argument.  As the Saturday article explains, the idea is to recognise moments of joy or happiness, however fleeting and wherever they arise, and to focus on the feeling.  Focusing on the feeling helps us remain happier longer and will increase our wellbeing more than focusing only on the specific thing that created the emotion in the first place.

So, bring on the joy-bringing design, Ms Lee, and then let’s focus on the joy and create a joyful life!

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Learning to meditate – February 2013

A few weeks back I completed an old idea of blogging about meditation apps.  That turned out to be a spur to try on the habit of meditation.  These are the experiences I had in February.

I used the Mindfulness II app by MindApps.  I wrote about it before.  You can see that blog here.

The app suggested using one meditation for a week to get used to it.  In the first week, I used the Lake meditation.  You can read about my experiences here 

You may remember that I had intended to try the Mountain meditation.  At the beginning of the second week, I corrected the mistake I made in selecting Lake and tried the Mountain meditation.

And, you’ve guessed it; I didn’t really like it too much.  It calls for you to be constant and firm.  When I tried it, I felt like I was in a state of change and flux so it didn’t suit my mood.  Perhaps I’ll try it again one day.

In the meantime, I tried the Lovingkindness meditation. The meditation tells us that the sense of Lovingkindness is integral to the whole idea of mindfulness and meditation.  This particular guided session develops Lovingkindness so it can be applied in other meditations and in every day life.

The session asks us to picture various people or beings and to say aloud these phrases, wishing that the being may:

  • Be peaceful and happy
  • Be safe from harm
  • Be as healthy and strong as is possible
  • Live with the ease of wellbeing

You start with a child, a pet or someone else for whom it is easy to feel Lovingkindness.  Then you think of yourself, of people close to you, of people for whom it is harder to feel this emotion and finally of the whole world.

The first few times I did this meditation, it made me cry and I felt a sense of relief and gratitude.  All in all, I did it about seven times over the course of three weeks. I got to the point where I could wish Lovingkindness even to those who have caused me a lot of grief recently.  Every time I did it, I felt better at the end of the 10 minutes or so than I did at the beginning.  I’m not sure you can say any better than that.

During the three weeks, I also tried a few other meditations.

I tried the Walking meditation again.  This time I did it at home.  It felt very odd to be focusing on the mechanics of walking when I normally use walking as a way of freeing my mind to imagine and think.

I also tried the Standing meditation.  This was very relaxing and uplifting even though my left leg started aching while I was doing it.

I did the Body Scan meditation.  This was one of the occasions when I was very tired.  In general I’ve discovered that it is not the best idea to meditate when I am very tired.  In those conditions, I find it very hard to concentrate and to remain still – I become very restless.

I managed to meditate several times a week, not every day.  I like to meditate late in the day, after I’ve done most of the work of the day.  The risk of that strategy is that the day gets away from me and I don’t meditate at all – or I try to do it at the very end of the day, when I’m too tired.  This is something to work on in the coming months.

Learning to meditate – week 1

A few weeks back I completed an old idea of blogging about meditation apps.  That turned out to be a spur to try on the habit of meditation.  These are the experiences of the first week.

I used the Mindfulness II app by MindApps.  I wrote about it before.  You can see that blog here.

The app suggested using one meditation for a week to get used to it.  I was going to try the Mountain meditation and I hit Lake, by mistake.  Having started it, I thought I’d finish and I’m glad I did. I did it 5 times in 7 days.  I can see how doing one meditation several times can really enhance my practice.

I liked the visualisation the Lake meditation provides.  You visualise a lake and then bring the lake inside yourself becoming a lake.  I wouldn’t have thought this was my kind of thing.  However, I gave it a go and I found it powerful analogy.

A lake can have so many different aspects.  In particular, the metaphor for the meditation is that you can have a ruffled surface, troubled by thoughts but you can find the calm beneath the surface.

I do wonder if it is quite the best way for me to create a deep meditation.  It made me think too much.  I conjured up a complex image of the lake and surrounding hills.  And, beneath the surface of my lake were abandoned ruins and fish and swaying weeds!

During the week, a reader recommended another app to me.  I tried it out and realised how personal taste is for meditations.  This soundtrack includes lots of affirmations like “You are unique”.  I know the person who recommended it likes this soundtrack.  I found the affirmations distracting.  I find the idea of simple mindfulness, just being aware of what is going on without seeking to change it in any way, much more satisfying.

I also tried the Walking meditation on Mindfulness II.  A tip: don’t try this for the first time when you are walking somewhere.  The meditation is more of an exercise or drill.  You walk only a few paces backwards and forwards.  The idea is to increase your mindfulness of the mechanics of walking and, once you’ve done that, you can use it when you are actually walking out and about.

In summary, I enjoyed my first week of building a habit of meditation.

iPhone meditation apps

Interested in Mindfulness? Well, there has to be an app for that!

I read an article about meditation nearly two years ago – (guess who’s just rediscovered this idea for a blog topic?).  It was in the UK newspaper, the Observer. It reported that a study at a US Buddhist retreat found that eastern relaxation techniques can protect our chromosomes from degenerating.  You can read it here.

That gave me an interest in Mindfulness.  I’ve written elsewhere how I love my iPhone so you can imagine that one of my first thoughts was: there has to be “an app for that”. And so there was.

Actually, there are lots and lots of apps for Mindfulness and for meditation.  I am going to list here only the ones I’ve used.  Have a look in your app store and you’ll find more.

I’ve used three suppliers really: Meditation Oasis, MindApps and Mental Workout Inc.

Meditation Oasis produces “Simply Being”.  This bills itself as “guided meditation for relaxation and presence”.  It is easy to use, has guided meditations of four different lengths, from 5 to 20 minutes.  It uses a woman’s voice and you can listen to the voice alone or have it accompanied by either music or nature sounds of ocean, rain or stream. A recent update (2012) gives you control on how long the music or nature sounds will continue after the guided meditation.

I’ve actually used one of Meditation Oasis’s other apps, “Relax & Rest”, more often.  This has the same sort of functionality.  It has three meditations and the one I’ve used most is “deep rest”.  This is a 13-minute meditation, which is really great at lulling me to sleep.

Both these apps cost 69p on the UK iTunes store and $0.99 on the Australian one.  The same app can be loaded on the iPad as well and has got the same functionality but the displays reformat themselves for the iPad, which is nice.

Meditation Oasis has lots of other apps if you look at their web site, here.  The newest, “iSleep Easy” is AUD 5.49 so a bit more expensive but no doubt worth it if you are finding it difficult to sleep.  They have also recently released “Take a break!”, which is free and provides two meditations – a seven-minute and a thirteen-minute option – to help with stress management.

MindApps is a Swedish organisation and you can buy their apps in Swedish as well as in English, if you find that helpful.  You can find details on the website in Swedish here and in English here.  I first used “Mindfulness” and there is now “Mindfulness 2”.  They both use women’s voices.  When you run them, they present you with a screen that tells you: “Take a deep breath”, which is a good start.  They also use a lovely gong or bell sound, which you can turn off if you like.

Mindfulness provides a series of guided meditations of different lengths from 3 to 30 minutes and silent meditations, punctuated with bells, of the same lengths.  Mindfulness 2 provides a series of guided meditations of different characters: mountain, lake, lovingkindness, standing, walking meditations and body scan and silent meditations of between 10 and 60 minutes.

Both apps allow you to create personalised meditations, to set meditation reminders and to record or log the meditations that you do using the app.  There is a great deal to explore.

The apps cost £1.49 on the UK store and $1.99 on the Australian one.  They will run on the iPad but only using the iPhone interface.

Mental Workout Inc is an organisation under development, as you can read on their website here.  I have their app, “Mindfulness Meditation”.

Unlike the other apps mentioned here, it has a man’s voice.  It has a 10-minute relaxation option as well as guided meditations of 5 to 40 minutes.  It contains a section with tips on how to meditate – delivered mostly by voice recordings. The main message seems to be: don’t worry about it, whatever you do is fine.  You can also give a meditation to someone else, sharing it using email, Facebook or Twitter, which is rather neat.

Mindfulness Meditation costs £1.49 on the UK store and $1.99 on the Australian store.

These are the apps I’ve tried.  Let me know if you’ve found any other good ones.  In the meantime, take a deep breath and be mindful in all you do!