Meditation Myths #1: Zen is Supposed to be a Blissful Escape

I’ve got some bad news for you: meditation isn’t always fun.
 
After all these years I still succumb to this one at times. Generally, my meditation is calm, focused and serene. I finish and have a sense of centeredness and wellbeing.
 
But this isn’t always the case.
 
I can’t control what kind of meditation I’ll have much like I can’t control what will happen on any given day.
 
If I’m stressed out at work, worried about a relationship or struggling with depression, that usually colors my meditation. Some days my head hurts and I’m irritated. What kind of meditation do I have that day? Headachey and irritated meditation.
 
Our Zen meditation practice is about showing up for our life and experiencing it fully. Good or bad, wanted or unwanted, we don’t judge. Deepening acceptance is an indicator that our practice is maturing. 
 
I love that we call this a meditation practice. It begs the question, “what are we practicing for?” For me,  I am practicing for how I want to live my day-to-day life; authentically, fully and completely present. 
 
Our time on the cushion is not an escape from reality.  If we don’t look to meditation to be a destination away from our daily life, we open up the possibility that meditation will change the way we see everything. 
 
May your practice go well.
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com

I'm Depressed

This happens episodically. Objectively, my life is amazing. But, because of my chronic depression I go through periods several times a year when it doesn’t feel that way.
 
It has gotten bad at times in the past but thanks to my anti-depressants, therapist, loving friends and family, healthy living and a regular meditation practice it is pretty manageable most days.
 
And yet here I am feeling full of despair, dread and struggling with a crippling low level of energy.
 
Research in the field of psychology has come to understand there are three elements required for an individual to experience sustained contentment and a sense of wellbeing. Meaning, purpose and hope. We touch on these themes a lot here at the Zen Happiness Project and I’ve learned these aren’t easy topics to work on, especially when you’re in the middle of a depression, life crisis or tragedy.
 
Fortunately for me there is a short cut, a never-lets-me-down 100% fool proof way to instantly inject meaning, purpose and hope into my life: Doing something good for someone else. 
 
It is through service that I find real happiness.
 
I’ve done the big stuff; hospice volunteering, international and domestic service trips, soup kitchens and the like. But it works with the small stuff too. Being kind to the woman behind the register, holding the door open for someone or donating $20 to charity.
 
It doesn’t seem to matter if the good action is big or small. When I’m doing something that is in service to others I get out of the bottomless pit of despair, wanting and selfishness. “Create no evil, practice good and actualize good for others.” (The Three Pure Zen Precepts.)
 
So because I need help I’m getting my friends together and we’re doing a “7 Days of Service Challenge.” I hope you’ll join us.
 
Every day for the next 7 days in the Zen Happiness Project Discussion Group I’ll be posting a prompt and ask you to chime in and share what you did for someone else today.
 
We’ll have fun, get to know each other a little bit, feel better about ourselves and, most importantly, put some good out there into the world.
 
May your practice go well!
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com
 
 
P.S. If you aren’t a member of the discussion group you can find our conversation here at www.facebook.com/groups/zenhappinessproject

How Long Should I Meditate?

One of the questions I most frequently get is “how long should I meditate?”
 
In short: very little. 
 
After years of meditating and introducing the practice to thousands of beginners I can tell you this: If you meditate for 30 minutes right now, you’ll likely feel great when you finish but after a few hours the positive effects will wear off.
 
If you meditate for 3 minutes a day, every day, for the next 30 days your life will change dramatically.
 
Meditating daily is better than occasionally meditating for long periods. 
 
New habits are hard and it takes a long time to build a daily practice into our life. The best research in habit formation tells us it takes an average of 66 days to form a new daily routine.
 
If we set a daily goal that is attainable we will be more likely to sit consistently. I strongly advise for the first two months you limit your daily meditation to 3 or 5 minutes.

Don't dismiss the benefits of sitting for 5 minutes. Meditation has diminishing returns. You become more calm, focused and centered in the first 5 minutes of sitting then you will in the next 5. 
 
After two months, if you are firmly entrenched in your daily discipline consider adding a minute or two a week until you find the right balance for your life. Remember the goal is consistency over duration. There is nothing to attain here, no gold medals for accumulating time.
 
The best practice is a practice that works for you. Let your experience be your guide. Experiment and trust your gut. I believe in you.
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com

Emotional Resiliency for Sensitive People

I'm a sensitive person. Things that other people seem to just shrug off impact and disrupt my day significantly.

For a long time I thought I needed to “toughen up.” I thought being resilient meant having a thick exterior that wouldn’t let any hurtful experiences come in. I'm glad I’ve changed my opinion about what resiliency means. 

I've come to see my sensitivity as one of my greatest strengths. It allows me to connect deeply with the people around me and to experience my life fully. I don’t want a life that is insensitive and cut off from the connections that give meaning to my existence.

So if resiliency isn't a thick wall between life and me, what is it then?

I’ve come to believe resiliency isn't having no emotional reaction, but rather is about bouncing back quickly. Here is my current working definition for resiliency: having a well-rehearsed system for getting to a stable and balanced place after the inevitable ups and downs that come our way.

So this leads to the question; how can I become more resilient?

Five Steps for Emotional Resiliency

Stop: So many times I’ve made situations worse by overreacting on the spot. “Restraint of pen and tongue” was a hard earned skill for me. I had to burn myself several times by sending an email too soon or making a phone call when I should have taken a deep breath first. Rarely have I been in a situation where reacting while I’m emotional is helpful. Meditating regularly sets me up to be calmer and more self-aware when stressful situations inevitably appear.

Label the Feeling: For the same reason that we shouldn't label people, we should label anxious, worried, or disruptive emotions. Putting a label on something limits and constricts it. Labeling a person is dehumanizing by restricting the range of their human potential. Labeling a negative emotion puts a tight little box on it as well. I strive to label emotions and not people. When I label an emotion I have started a process of separating myself from it. Example, “Oh! This is that fear of disappointing authority figures that I tend to have where I overreact to a boss’s criticism.”

Get Creative: When we’re in fear, worry, anger or sadness the “lizard” brain has taken over. These emotions (sometimes referred to as amygdala hijackers) shut off our prefrontal cortex which is the section of the brain we can use to get rational and positive about our situation. Using our imagination is a great way of changing which part of the brain is active. Try getting creative to activate the prefrontal cortex by asking yourself a question like this; “What would it look like if I were unphased by this situation? How would I react if I were cool under pressure, loving and compassionate or taking an action I would be proud of?”

Don’t Do It Alone: I always bring my heartache, stress and worries to a friend or other member of my support group. We're very lucky in the Zen Happiness Project because one of the things I see often is our friends bringing their difficulties to the discussion group and getting positive support from each other. We don't have to do this alone. I'm stronger when I reach out and gain the strength of those who support me.

Meditate: One might be surprised that this is the last step and not the first. In many ways it is both. I meditate daily almost as a preemptive or prophylactic measure. Tough stuff always shows up unannounced and I want to be prepared when it does come. So, I meditate every morning to “suit up” for the day. In the face of a stressful situation I find meditating immediately doesn’t help much. I need to take some practical steps to calm down enough to be ready to meditate. After stopping, labeling, getting creative and reaching out for support, I’m ready for the soothing reset button of a meditation session.

May your practice go well!

Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com

P.S. Next Wednesday will be the start of a new 10 Day Meditation Challenge. If you haven't participated before, this is a short burst of intro and daily encouragement that will help you get a practice started. This challenge's theme is Emotional Resiliency and Intro to Zen Meditation. Sign up here

Remember These 4 "R"s to Aid Your Meditation

Learning to meditate can be hard. Maintaining our posture, being still and keeping the mind focused on the breath can feel a bit like learning how to drive a stick shift; lots of simple tasks that, when performed at once, can feel overwhelming.
 
Remembering these four "R"s can help keep your Zen Meditation on track:
 
Recognize when you are distracted: One of the benefits of a meditation practice is an increase in self-awareness, which is generally regarded as the foundation for emotional intelligence and emotional wellbeing. When we’re meditating we need to, without judgment or self-criticism, recognize when our brain has started to run away from being present. Adopting a watchful, vigilant or curious attitude will help us recognize when our mind wonders.
 
Release the thought: I challenge you to try and release a thought midsentence. Don’t wait and try to think it through to a conclusion. The brain has an endless supply of chatter it can generate. When we set our timer for 3, 5 or 10 minutes to practice Zazen for the day, we commit to be fully and completely present to our breath. Our nagging thoughts of to-do lists, fears about the future, daydreaming and regrets from the past can be dealt with later. If it is important, we’ll remember another time. This short period is for letting go of this kind of distraction as soon as we notice it.   
 
Return to your breath: How do we release a thought? Nature abhors a vacuum and when we are first learning to let go of thoughts we need to do so by replacing them with something else. By returning our attention to the sensation of the breath we use up our “mental bandwidth” with the richness of the experience of being rooted in our body. This is a valuable skill for when we’re stressed out in everyday situations. Knowing we can instantly drop our worries and return to the experience of our breath gives us a safe place to retreat to whenever needed. 
 
Repeat, repeat, repeat: The brain thinks. In the same way that our eyes see and our ears hear, brains think. When we sit for 3, 5 or 10 minutes a day it is unrealistic to expect our mind to stop thinking. Our Zen Meditation practice is the mental equivalent of going to the gym and strength training. We are going to encounter thoughts over and over again which we commit to recognize and release, allowing us to return to our calming breath. With each repeated effort we get a little bit stiller, a little bit calmer and a little bit happier. Eventually we become grateful for the waves in our mind because they give us something to practice with.
 
Bonus Tip – Relax: Our body and mind are deeply interconnected. When I think something is sad, I cry. When I’m hungry I get irritable. A deep tissue massage puts me in a good mood. If we want our mind to relax, we need to relax our body. If we want to let go of stressful thoughts, letting go of physical tension in the body is important too. If your mind is busy, check in with your body and notice if your jaw is clenched or your shoulders are up around your ears. Where there is a muscle, there is the opportunity to let go of tension. Meditation is a great chance to just take it easy for a little while. 
 
I have enjoyed chewing on these “R”s this week. It has helped focus and strengthen my practice. It is easy to over complicate meditation. Let’s reminder ourselves that is in fact a simple process: recognize, release, return and repeat. The self-awareness and the self-control I develop through this kind of training gives me a mental fortitude that I benefit from throughout my day.
 
May your practice go well!
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com
 

3 Ways to Practice Mindfulness at Work

Our Zen meditation practice isn’t about escaping life to go and sit on the meditation cushion. Rather, our time practicing is about learning how we want to live in the world. 

Training our mind to be focused and fully present in the moment is easiest when we dim the lights, set a timer and practice counting our breath. However, there are lots of opportunities to practice throughout our day and an office job provides a slew of great chances to be mindful. 

Three Ways to Practice at Work: 

Simple Tasks: I had a fundraising role for a few years where I signed about a hundred form letters every day, stuffed envelopes or left voicemails on people’s phones with reminders about a pledge. I struggled with these tedious tasks until I realized these were perfect mindful moments. Clearing off my desk, taking a deep centering breath, I placed my attention fully on the pen, envelop or phone. When a distracting thought came in, I let it go and returned to the task at hand. 

Just like in our formal seated meditation, I made an agreement with myself. For this short period of time I would be still and let go of distracting thoughts. Instead of using my breath as my anchor to the present moment, the simple work task was the object of concentration. 

Almost like magic, being mindful of these simple tasks made even the most mundane activity interesting. I find short and repetitive tasks that don’t require a lot of cognitive processing to be best suited for an “at work mindfulness” practice. 

Long Meetings: Some work meetings are engaging and productive. The other 99% are mind numbingly boring and test our ability to stay awake in public. When I am in a tedious meeting I treat it as meditation period. I look right at the speaker, sit up right, bring my focus to my breath and count inhale one, exhale two, inhale three… to ten. When my mind starts to wander, I let go of the thought mid-sentence and return my attention to the breath. Seemingly disinteresting meetings suddenly become a refreshing respite in the middle of my day. 

Office Gossip: The Sixth Zen Precept is “see the perfection, do not speak of others' errors and faults.” In short: don’t gossip. Engaging in work place gossip is like eating potato chips. It is easy, hard to resist and addictive. Setting an intention every morning when I start my day to use my language to create compassion and a better world helps me be more mindful of the things I’m saying. 

At first when I tried to break my habit of gossiping at the office I gave a self-righteous speech to my coworkers. “I try not to say anything that I wouldn’t say if the person was in the room.” Eventually, I realized this tact made me feel superior and my coworkers feel criticized. When I find myself caught in a conversation that is turning towards gossip or negativity I strive to find gentle ways to introduce understanding and compassion.

Bonus Tip: Mindful Lunch – When I have time to do more than eat at my desk I love to get out of the office for a bit. I meditate for 5 or 10 minutes and then try to eat my lunch mindfully. A mindful meal is a great way to enhance our spirits by helping us slow down, nourish ourselves and get in touch with the gratitude for having a job and food in front of us. 

What are some ways that you can imagine being mindful at work? Please email me and let me know! 

May your practice go well. 

Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed. 
ZenHappinessProject.com

P.S. My friend Sofia and I will be running a free workshop on Sunday, October 18th at 8pm EDT called, “Mindful Stress Reduction.” Sign up here

Lessons Learned from a Broken Heart

In 2013 I got divorced. Gratefully we went through that process as friends but it was sudden, disruptive and heart breaking. I thought for the longest time that I would die married to her.
 
I recently marked the end of another relationship. It was sad but a very different experience than my divorce. I entered into this relationship knowing something that I didn't know when I got married at age 25. 
 
All relationships end.
 
Think of a few typical scenarios: We go on some dates and call it off. We start a relationship and break up. We get married and then divorced. The “best case” scenario is we get married to someone who completes us, live an amazing life together and then that person dies and we are alone, suffering a terrible loss.
 
One of the reasons I’m grateful for having been married and then divorced is I have entered into my new relationships with my eyes open. Love is irrevocably linked to loss and that’s okay.
 
I didn’t know this when I got married. I thought I was in for “happily ever after.”

Through the years of ups and downs in relationships I’ve also learned love is worth it. We’re going to get hurt, one way or another. But, that doesn’t mean I will close myself off to loving again. I’m coming to appreciate the wisdom in Alferd Tennyson’s famous lines:
 
“I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”


Today, I don't have to run away from sadness and loss. Because I have a meditation practice I can sit and experience these emotions with non-reactivity. This gives me a safe place to process my emotions and start to heal. 

For me, I enter into relationships more authentically and fully now because I know they will end. If I judge my life and my relationships by the way they end, then everything would be meaningless. Today, I choose to cherish the day and live in the moment. It isn’t the destination that matters, it is the journey.
 
Yes, I’m sad my recent relationship ended. But, I really experienced the good days and there were a lot more good days than not.
 
Meditation teaches me how to be present and to experience my life fully. I don’t want to miss a minute of it.

May your practice go well.

Warmly,
Anthony Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com

Free Classes and Join the Conversation

I try to include meditation related content when I'm blogging but there are so many great things happening with the Zen Happiness Project this month that I wanted to update you as soon as possible. 

My life is better today because I take positive actions. If you don't meditate yet, consider these two upcoming classes. They are very beginner friendly or a good place to brush up if you are out of a daily practice. 

A Beginner's Crash Course: 90 Minute Introduction to Zen Meditation
Wednesday, September 30th at 8pm EDT - Free
If you are new to Zen Practice and want to learn how to meditate this is a great format. I host the session by conference call so you can join from the privacy of your own home and can ask questions on the spot. I do an intro, guided meditation and close with suggestion on how to move forward. Sign up here

Mindful Stress Management with Sofia Reddy, LICSW 
Sunday, October 18th at 5pm EDT - Free
I'm so excited to host this free workshop with my instructor friend Sofia. She's a great teacher and put together an awesome 75 workshop that is perfect for beginner and intermediate mindfulness practioneers. Don't miss this if you are stressed out! We will be streaming live on YouTube. Details and Sign Up Here.

New ZHP Discussion Groups
Ongoing on Facebook - Free 

We have some awesome conversations going on in Facebook and this past week announced two new groups. Thousands of our community members benefit from the good dialogue and positive stuff happening here.

  • ZHP Open Discussion Group - Nearly 4,000 of us share articles, ask questions and support each other in this Open Discussion group. Anything meditation and wellness related happens here. 
  • Mindful Parenting, Mindful Families - A support group for nearly 2,000 practitioners who are trying to navigate family life in an intentional and positive way. 
  • Art as Spiritual Practice - This NEW group is already sharing some amazing art. My hope is we cultivate creativity with a focus on how art can enrich and deepen our spiritual life. An art practice is central to my Zen practice and is a unique way for "expressing the ineffable." 
  • 5th Precept Recovery Group - This NEW group anyone who is struggle with addiction or thriving in recovery of any kind. We explore the unique perspective that Buddha had as to why we are hardwired to cling and how we can learn to let go.

The discussion groups are where the vibrancy of our community comes out. The brand new groups need your voice to come to life. I hope they will be warm and nourishing places like the first two groups have been for me.

Most importantly, how are you doing? Drop me a note and say hello! I'd love to hear how your meditation is going. 

May your practice go well. 

Warmly,
Anthony Cernera, M.Ed. 
ZenHappinessProject.com

P.S. If your new to meditation you don't want to miss this phone call instruction on Wednesday, September 20th. Sign up now!

Managing the Anxiety of Waiting | Developing Patience

Last month was difficult. I was struggling with the practice of patience.
 
I’m in the midst of a professional change that I’m very excited about, but the last few weeks have been challenging. For someone who sits in meditation for hours at a time, I’ve been surprised at how difficult waiting to finalize my new job was.
 
Logically, I knew everything was fine and moving along at a good pace. Emotionally, each passing hour without news felt like water torture.
 
I value the ease that has come into my life from meditating daily and realize that I’ve grown unaccustomed to feeling this kind of agitation.
 
Before I started practicing Zazen regularly I would get irritated simply waiting at a red light. Today, I see these little pauses as a mini oasis in the hustle of a busy day - a chance to be mindful and enjoy the moment.
 
I want to share some of the strategies I employed to ease my emotional discomfort during these past few weeks:
 
Five Tips for Managing the Anxiety of Waiting 
 
Dismantle with Mindfulness: When I sit in meditation I try to examine the emotion closely. Something amazing happens whenever I do this. I can’t really “find it.” Where are the roots? What does it feel like? What is the story I’m telling myself that is inspiring this emotion? Every time I work through this kind of examination, I find under close inspection the emotion tends to mitigate or disappear. The simple act of observing the emotion pulls me out of it and gives me a little relief.  
 
Adjusting Expectations: A big cause of my anxiety of waiting comes from an expectation that something should be happening. I didn’t know where the finish line was but my anxiety says I should have crossed it already. By recognizing and modifying my expectations I create some ease. Think the job offer might come tomorrow? I’ll start telling myself it comes in a week. Surprisingly, I seem to be able to trick myself even though I know what I’m up to.
 
Go With the Flow: When I was a little kid I remember watching CNN coverage of a flood in Mississippi. I saw a man clinging to a tree desperately trying to resist the flow of the river. I wondered why he didn’t just let go and let the river carry him. I find living to be like this: when I resist the tide of life I am struggling against something much larger than me. When I let go and go with the flow, I gain the strength of the whole river.  
 
Healthy Distraction: There is a challenge in the 5th Zen Precept, “Do not cloud the mind, proceed clearly.” Typically understood to be the precept recommending we abstain from intoxicants, this ethical teaching also calls us to not be distracted and miss our life. Keeping that in mind, there is such a thing as a healthy distraction. Reading a book, going for a walk with a friend, taking a yoga class and the like are healthy ways we can be present and help take our mind off our anxiety around waiting. 
 
Only Human: I can have a big ego and it expects me to be perfect. I’m not perfect, I’m just a human being. In my head a flaw like lack of patience is a massive failing. Why? Because I have an unrealistic expectation that I should be a robot who is devoid of human feelings. Of course I’m anxious to get news about my new job! It is only human to be a little uncomfortable during the transition. Sometimes I have to remind myself I’m not a superhuman, nor a subhuman, just a human-human.
 
During times like these I remind myself that this too will past. I try not to wish my life away. We’re always in some kind of transition or uncertainty. Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is one of the great challenges of my spiritual path today.
 
May your life and your practice go well!
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com
 
P.S. How is your practice going? Have you been finding the time to meditate? Drop me a note and let me know how you’re doing! 

Responding to Anger

My stomach sank the second I opened the email.
 
I’m sure you’ve gotten this kind of message: Yesterday’s was a long note from a colleague that explained my job to me like I was in first grade. Other people were on the email and I was hurt and embarrassed. Those feelings were quickly replaced with anger.  
 
I credit my meditation with what happened next.
 
Responding to Anger:
 
Stop: When I’m having a strong emotional reaction, my first response now is to not do anything. I take a deep breath and separate myself from the situation.
 
Observe: In that space I have created I have an opportunity to look at my emotional reaction very closely. Underneath the anger there is almost always hurt or fear. I ask myself what is driving the anger. If there are a lot of factors I take pen to paper that shows the cloud of causes to actually be just a few.
 
Share: One of my go to tools is reality checking with a friend. I’m lucky to have a number of people who know my life well. I called my friend John and I didn’t have to spend a lot of time bringing him up to speed because he knows about my work challenges. I got some useful feedback that helped remove me from my self-centered reaction and place me in a more neutral place.
 
Aspire: I start my days with morning meditation and a list of affirmations about how I want to live in the world. One of my affirmations is, “Today I will be kind whenever possible and it is always possible.” When I’m angry and working on my response I channel my better self by asking a simple question, “What would a kind and loving person say in response to this?”
 
Respond: The greatest gift of my meditation practice is the ability to slow down and respond instead of react. The difference for me is a reaction comes from a place of unpredictable emotions. A response honors my feelings but gives me a chance to incorporate my aspirational self.
 
Bonus Tip – Loving Kindness: Sometimes I need a little extra help in responding generously. I practice metta meditation (loving-kindness) when I am having strongly negative emotions of ill will toward someone.  The simple act of wishing for someone’s wellbeing helps shape and mold my feelings towards that person.
 
Meditating every morning helps me start my days from a positive place. I’m better equipped to absorb a critical remark, see the emotions clearly and choose how to respond. At any given moment I’m able to be generous because I’m only dealing with one issue at a time.
 
Emotions are real and worth honoring but they aren’t the only expression of my truth. My more thoughtful replies aren’t inauthentic or a repression of my feelings. Rather, slowing down incorporates both my ideals and my "in the moment" feelings.
 
I sent a pretty nice email back to my colleague and made an aggravating situation a little better.
 
May your practice go well!
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com 
 
P.S. My friend Dusty and I are leading a live streaming workshop on Sunday, June 14 at 5pm EDT on Metta (Loving-Kindness) Meditation. Email ZenHappinessProject@gmail.com to get on the list of interest. As always the workshop is free but space is limited. 
 

Recommended Reading: What to do when Anger Takes Hold - Harvard Business Review 

Quote of the Week: “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” ~ Ambrose Bierce

Getting Back on Track

My life is amazing today, because I started a daily meditation practice in 2009.
 
My morning practice starts my day off with calm, cool and collected focus. When I meditate regularly, my life is manageable and I feel at peace with the world. Thanks to my practice my relationships are better, I’m more productive at work and my general happiness has improved dramatically.
 
Yet, despite all the good that meditation has brought into my life, I’ve gotten off track these past three months.
 
Life got full. I’m back in school working on my doctorate, entered a new relationship and my professional career has taken off. These are all wonderful things but are also time consuming. As a result my daily practice has been inconsistent. 
 
I’ve been working to get back on track and would like to share what I’m doing about it:  

  1. Remember: I am great at doing the things I want to do and not as good about doing the things I need to do. When meditation becomes a chore or just another task on the checklist, it is easy to overlook. Reminding myself of the joy and benefits I want to experience as a result of my practice is a powerful motivator. 
  2. Recommit:  I talk a lot about the scientifically proven trick that improves our chances of sticking to new habits. When I commit to an effort I start by visualizing my actions and writing down that commitment. This month I will wake up, shower and immediately meditate every morning.
  3. Rally Support: I have many friends who help me stay committed. I’ve been reaching out to them for advice and help. Just last night during the Tuesday Night meditation group, my friends Sheila and Eric gave me some helpful encouragement for getting back on track. Getting a partner and staying accountable to them is incredibly valuable.
  4. Reward: Today I got up on time, meditated and checked in with my friends to let them know I was successful. I lived up to my commitment and rewarded myself with a little pat on the back. We get what we celebrate and today I’m celebrating accomplishing my goal.

As part of my commitment to renewing my daily meditation practice I’m going to participate in the “21 Day Zen Happiness Project: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, Stress Relief and Joy.” We’ll start as group this Sunday at 7pm EDT and you can join us by signing up here.

I’m living proof of the benefits of a daily meditation practice. Sometimes I need to remind myself that it only works if I show up and do the work.  
 
May your practice go well!
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com
 
P.S. Sign up today for the “21 Day Zen Happiness Project: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, Stress Relief and Joy.” We start on Sunday at 7pm EDT.

Some additional reading about getting back on track:

A Whole Bunch of Awesomeness in May

We have a bunch of cool ways to be involved in the Zen Happiness Project this month. I hope you'll join us for some of them. 

A Beginner’s Crash Course: 90 Minute Introduction to Zen Meditation
TONIGHT Wednesday, May 13 at 7:30pm EDT - Free
More details and sign up by clicking here

21 Day Zen Happiness Project: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation, Stress Relief and Joy
For people serious about starting a daily meditation habit. We meet on Sundayevenings starting May 24thMore details and sign up by clicking here

May Minimalism Challenge: Simple Life, Happy Life
This is the second annual minimalism challenge. Join hundreds of us for the this 10 Day Challenge where we will explore the joys of a simpler life. We start on Wednesday, May 20thJoin the challenge by click here.  

Weekly Meditation Groups: Meditate with Us From Anywhere by Phone
Sundays at 8:30pm EDT and Tuesdays at 8pm EDT - Free 
Find more details by clicking here. 
 
Save the Date for This Future Event: 

  • Metta Meditation - A Loving-Kindness Workshop: Sunday, June 14

May your practice be strong!

Best,
Anthony A. Cernera
ZenHappinessProject.com

P.S. We had an awesome 3 day silent retreat in Connecticut last weekend. If you would have knowledge of an affordable location that can host 6 to 10 people for our next retreat please let me know. Because of an affordable home and no profit motive we kept our last retreat to $135. Email me at ZenHappinessProject@gmail.com if you have any ideas!

Meditation Tip for a Clear Mind

Imagine this: You take a large glass of water, dump in a tablespoon of dirt and mix it up. How do you get the water to return to its natural, clear state?
 
The answer is simple. You leave the glass still and apply time.
 
Our minds are very much like this.
 
Our natural state of mind is clear and still. However, we dump in dirt (worry, anxiety, anger, greed) and we get all mixed up.
 
The solution for a clear and quiet mind is the same as it is for a glass of dirt filled water. We sit still and let it settle.
 
I want to focus on the importance of complete and total stillness.
 
A prerequisite for a still mind is a still body.
 
Many of us in the West have succumbed to the mind/body dualism that believes we have a “mind” which is “me” which drives around this machine of a body which is somehow separate from “mind/me.”
 
Yet, we know intuitively that our minds and bodies are deeply linked. When I am in physical pain, I get mentally agitated. When I think something is funny, my body laughs. When I worry about work my shoulders tighten up and I get a headache. When I have a massage, my body and mind are both relaxed.
 
After developing a daily meditation practice, I see this mind-body connection so clearly now that I am even uncomfortable with the phrase mind-body connection because it implies a possibility of separation. 
 
Back and forth, our mind and body inform and shape each other. They are one.
 
So in our practice if we want a quiet mind we need a quiet body.
 
When I sit in daily meditation I make a commitment to myself: For the period I have set aside for practice I will be completely still. In this stillness I am free from the distractions and disruptions of movement. 

Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself and see. Does sitting completely still help you settle into your meditation practice more quickly and fully?  Once your settled, try scratching your nose. Can you see the waves of disruption in your mind and how long it takes to get focused again? 

May your practice go well! 
 

Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com

 
Recommended Reading: Harvard Business Review:  We have a bias toward action

When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to do something, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action. Consider the case of professional soccer goalies who need to defend against penalty kicks. What is the most effective strategy for stopping the ball? It turns out, staying in the center is best. Research has found that goalkeepers who dive to the right stop the ball 12.6% of the time and those who dive to the left do only a little better: They stop the ball 14.2% of the time. But goalies who don’t move do the best of all: They have a 33.3% chance of stopping the ball.

Nonetheless, goalies stay in the center only 6.3% of the time. Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving (an action) in the wrong direction than to have the ignominy of watching the ball go sailing by and never to have moved. The action bias is usually an emotional reaction to the sense that you should do something, even if you don’t know what to do. By contrast, hanging back, observing, and exploring a situation is often the better choice. 

Making the Extraordinary Ordinary

You'll want to hear this touching story:
 
Someone close to me is in a Master’s of Social Work program. She recently related a story of working with a client who is experiencing homelessness. She had a rewarding day helping him buy the first pair of new shoes he had in years. Listening to her enthusiasm, I said, “I hope you never lose this excitement for your work.”
 
My friend responded beautifully: “I hope I put so many shoes on so many feet that it becomes incredibly ordinary and unremarkable.”
 
Wow! What a response. I admire someone who dedicates her whole life to being of service and doing it so humbly. I also was struck with the idea of making extraordinary things ordinary. 
 
I've been chewing on this for a few days and thinking about how it applies to my life and my practice.
 
We talk a lot in the Zen Happiness Project about establishing a daily habit of meditating. When I lead the monthly beginners instruction I emphasized time and time again the importance of sitting every day regardless of the period of time.

We know the science of habit formation: It takes 64 days to establish a new daily habit. [1] We should strive first to sit daily and worry about sitting for longer periods later on.
 
Today, I am striving to make this very special practice something ordinary. I hope my daily practice becomes such a part of my life that it doesn't feel like a remarkable occasion.
 
May your practice go well!
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com
 
P.S. There is 1 spot left for this weekend's silent retreat in Fairfield, Connecticut from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. Click here for more details. 

Quote of the Week: "In Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you're tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand." ~ Rinzai 

Sources: [1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.674/abstract

7 Tips for Meditating Early in the Morning

I am not a morning person but I’m up by 5am almost every day for my morning meditation.
 
I love a good night’s sleep. I find sleeping 7.5 hours a night followed by a good morning meditation to be the magic combination for emotional balance.
 
A few facts to get us started: A recent Duke study demonstrated that over 40% of the things we do are habits. [1] Further, we know a higher concentration of habituated actions are taken in the morning.
 
Research in habit formation has also repeatedly shown that to make a new habit stick, like meditating daily, linking it to an existing habit gives us the highest chance of success. [2]
 
In my experience, the morning is the only part of the day that I completely control. Once I walk out the door to go to work, all bets are off. I might think I have a sense of how the day will play out, but I’m rarely right.
 
So, if we want to meditate every day, establishing a morning meditation routine could be the best way to do it.
 
Here are a few tips for starting an early morning routine: 

  1. Go to Sleep Earlier: It might sound obvious, but it is an important first point. Getting up earlier is easier to do if we go to sleep earlier. We need to identify the actions that lead to late bedtimes. Do we mindlessly watch TV late into the evening? Do we drink coffee too late in the afternoon to fall asleep at a reasonable hour?
  2. Leverage the 90 Minute Sleep Cycle: We sleep in about 90 minute cycles. [3] We find it easiest to wake up after 6, 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep. Try to time your wake up alarm for one of those intervals to get out of bed more easily in the early morning. Read more about 90 minute sleep cycles here.
  3. Put Your Alarm Far Away: When I first started waking up early, having my alarm on the other side of the room was helpful for getting me out of bed. For me, an alarm right next to my bed could be snoozed 15 times before I get up, even after a good nights sleep. Literally getting out of bed is a good way to actually get out of bed.
  4. Dress Rehearsal: Visualizing the first actions of the morning as I’m drifting to sleep is a great way increase my success of getting out of bed in the morning. I picture walking across the room to turn off the alarm, stretching my arms high over my head and then walking to the bathroom to splash water on my face. Some habit researchers actually recommend doing a dry run or two the night before to help build the habit.
  5. Dial Back Slowly: Want to get up at 5am but you are currently get up at 7am? We frequently talk about tiny habits; rolling back your wake up time slowly will be easier than trying to make a dramatic change all at once. Try something manageable like 15 minutes earlier a week.  
  6. Try, Try and Try Again: We’re going to fail a whole bunch on our way to getting up earlier. That’s okay! Enter into this process knowing there are going to be bumps in the road. You’ll work late, there will be a family event that goes into the evening or your favorite book will keep you up to midnight. Don’t fret! Sleep in and recommit to getting to bed early the next day.
  7. Go Back to Sleep If You Need To: I try to get to my meditation cushion before I decide if I need to go back to sleep. Sometimes it is hard to tell if the snooze button is just an intoxicating mistress or a legitimate need. If I get up, shower and start to meditate I can usually tell more clearly if my body actually needs more rest or if I was just slow to wake up.

It takes work to make both a full night sleep and meditation a priority but it is worth it!
 
May your practice go well!
 
Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com
 
P.S. There are two slots left for the May 1-3 Silent Retreat. Click here for details.
 
 
[1] Habit, A Repeated Performance http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/15/4/198.abstract

[2] Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. Eur J Soc Psychol, 40: 998–1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674
 
[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-you-and-me/201307/your-sleep-cycle-revealed

Upcoming Retreats, Classes and Workshops

Our name, the Zen Happiness Project, implies there is work to do. Our life only gets better through the actions we take. I have a couple of great opportunities for us to learn and grow together as meditators these coming weeks. I hope you can join us for one or more of these sessions. 
 
A Beginner’s Crash Course: 90 Minute Introduction to Zen Meditation
Wednesday, April 15 at 7:30pm EDT - Free
More details and sign up by clicking here. 

The Four Noble Truths as Actions: A Workshop on the Buddha's Prescription for Happiness 
Sunday, April 19 at 5pm EDT - Free 
More details and sign up by clicking here

Zen Meditation 201: An Intermediate Class on Zazen & "Life as Practice" 
Wednesday, April 29 at 8pm EDT - Free 
This class is only for "21 Day" alumni or people who have gone through the ZHP "Beginner's Crash Course." Email ZenHappinessProject@gmail.com for details and to sign up.  

Zen Happiness Project - Silent Retreat 
Friday, May 1 through Sunday, May 3
Fairfield, Connecticut 
For more details and to sign up click here.  

Weekly Meditation Groups: Meditate with Us From Anywhere by Phone
Sundays at 8:30pm EDT and Tuesdays at 8pm EDT - Free 
Find more details by clicking here. 
 
Save the Date for These Future Events: 

  • Habit Formation Workshop: Engineering a Happier Life, One Day at a Time - 5/10
  • Beginner's Crash Course: 90 Minute Introduction to Zen Meditation - 5/13 
  • May's Minimalism Challenge: Ten Days To Start Living with Less -  5/20 to 5/30

I look forward to practicing with you! 

Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed. 
ZenHappinessProject.com

P.S. We're always looking for new ways to support each other in our practice. If you have any ideas for classes, workshops or meditation groups please let me know or bring your ideas to the discussion group on Facebook. 

I Can't Touch My Toes

I have a bad back and my chiropractor has me doing daily stretches which I perform religiously. While I stretch every day, I can't touch my toes. 

Once a month I go to the chiropractor and she does deep stretches with me. She pushes my leg past a point that I imagine is possible. She leans into each stretch, over and over again, going a little deeper each time. We stretch longer together than I ever do by myself. 

The next day when I return to my solo stretching I discover something amazing: I can touch my toes. 

Our meditation practice is just like this. 

A daily meditation practice will fend off much of our suffering and bring with it great mental, emotional and physical benefits. We talk a lot in these emails about building and sustaining a daily meditation practice and that habit is our top priority. 

A meditation retreat deepens our daily practice in a way that we can't do by ourselves. We need longer periods of sitting and we need the support of a group to sustain the effort. I find that when I come back from a retreat that my daily practice is super charged. 

To this end, a small group of us are getting together for the next Zen Happiness Project Silent Retreat on May 1 - 3 in Fairfield, CT. You can find out more information here

Whether you join us or find a retreat in your local area, consider going on a retreat this spring to help deepen your daily practice. 

May your practice be strong!

Best,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed. 
ZenHappinessProject.com

P.S. We rented a small vacation house that can hold 8 to 10 people for the May 1-3 Silent Retreat. Space is limited. Sign up today

Recommended Reading: The science of gratitude - http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/expandinggratitude

Quote of the Week: "'Thank you' is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding." ~ Alice Walker

Guest Post: My Journey into (Mostly) Mindful Parenting

Friends - Today I'm pleased to share a blog post from my friend J. Ryan. She is an active member of our Mindful Parenting Discussion Group and her blog is awesome. You can check out more of her writing by visiting NavigatingThePath.com - Anthony

At about 6:30 a.m. in the morning I am ever so gently woken up by three of the most beautiful little creatures I’ve ever seen.

Their bright blue eyes and wide smiles greet me as I open the covers and allow them into my cozy, warm, blanketed world. It’s there that they tell me of their desires for the day and the sweet dreams they had. 

The oldest of my daughters (by one minute to her twin sister and fourteen months to that of her little brother) tells me that she dreamed of catching butterflies and having a picnic outside. Her sister tells me that she dreamed of giving me hugs and kisses, while their little brother says he didn’t get a good sleep at all. I ask why and he has the same answer every time: because I missed you. He’s three and speaks with a slight lisp, so everything he says is still pretty heart wrenchingly adorable to me.  

Even though I would have enjoyed another half hour of sleep, I now know these moments are more important than sleep. We never used to have these kinds of moments. Now we do, I know they are a large part of what will sustain me when chaos erupts. 

I can tell you with complete certainty – chaos always erupts. However, what I have really learned on this path to becoming a more mindful parent is that how you handle those moments. That really is what makes all the difference.

There was a point several years ago where I didn’t know how to handle moments of torrential chaos with any sort of grace or patience. I was a swirling mess of internal unrest, noise and a severe lack of confidence in my abilities as a new stay-at-home mom. I could tell my children were unhappy and it was a direct link to me being unhappy. 

I was trying to force schedules that didn’t work for them. Then I would be upset and angry when it would all meltdown and I couldn’t regain control of the situation. Too much pre-planning and over-thinking was beginning to create an environment that wasn’t good for any of us. Not knowing how to proceed, I asked my daughter what would make her happy. Her answer was so simple, yet devastating to hear. She said, “I want you to play with me.”

Those seven words sent me in a tail spin. I tried to think of the last time I had sat on the floor and played with any of them. I couldn’t remember. I tried to remember the last time I sat at the table with them while they were coloring, and I couldn’t remember. That’s when it hit me; I wasn’t being present at all. Sure, I was taking care of their physical needs while trying to find ways to bring in money, taking care of the house, and go back to school. However, what I wasn’t doing was the most important job I had: being present and engaging with my children. 

I wasn’t truly watching them grow and develop into the people they will become. I wasn’t helping them to find their way through childhood nor was I giving them good examples on how to handle the feelings of frustration, angry, sadness or disappointment. So, we started to make some changes. The television got turned off more often, and we began to have more meaningful interactions. I made sure that we had time together every day to just play, go to the park, plant flowers, have picnics, or go explore something somewhere.

Just taking that time to be present and giving them my full attention was the break we needed to make bigger changes. It allowed me time to start meditating again, even if it was for a couple minutes to re-center myself. I was able to practice patience and understanding which in turned taught them how to do the same. That’s not to say there weren’t still moments of adverse behavior and fighting, but when they came up, I was able to be more mindful of how I reacted to them.

I taught them some very basic breathing techniques I learned through meditation and yoga. That seemed to really help in those moments when they were unable to talk through their sobbing or meltdowns. It gave them a space to calm their minds, open their hearts and speak with softer words. 

I also came to realize that even kids have bad days too. If one of the three seems to be particularly difficult that day, chances are maybe they didn’t know how to handle what they were feeling. They aren’t trying to be a handful or difficult on purpose. If I talk to them and find out more about how they are feeling, I can help them find their way through it. 

Before I knew it, there were two days in a row where there was no yelling. Then it was three… four… then ten days with a genuine peacefulness about the home. As I said earlier, chaos always erupts and this time when it found its way in again, it was a mere bump in the day as opposed to a complete derailment. 

Even now in the throes of winter, with the knee-deep snow on the mountain causing a rash of cabin fever, we are finding ways to enjoy each other’s company without meltdowns. Several mornings a week we’ve started to do yoga together, and find ways to stave off the irritability that is caused by being in the house for weeks at a time. 

My hopes are that my children take these simple ideas of being present, mindful of others feelings and the techniques for into adulthood. That they can continue to learn and grow (as I do myself), understanding that there is little we can control except our own actions and reactions. I hope that they continue to remember its ok to take a moment to walk away when they are angry. Knowing it will save them many more moments of regret later on. 

We’ve adapted the mantra, ‘Calm Mind, Calm Heart, Calm Mouth’. It’s our trigger to remember that in moments of frustration and stress, staying calm in our minds and hearts will allow us to pause, take a breath and have easy words for the one who wronged us.

Today’s lesson for our family was simple: when things are looking dire, and you feel smacked-down tired, shift your focus to something fun, and a change in vibration can be done.

J. Ryan is a stay at home mom to three kids, pursuing her life-long dream of being a published author. Through writing on her blog and other various projects, she's found a way to share on all the topics she loves - mindful living, raising her children, movies, televisions and books. Her blog can be found at http://navigatingthepath.com/

P.S. Last call for this month's “Beginner’s Crash Course: 90 Minute Introduction to Zen Meditation” on Wednesday, March 18th at 8pm EST. Sign Up Here.

Recommended Link: There are over 300 participants in the ZHP Mindful Parenting, Mindful Families Discussion Group. I hope you'd consider joining the conversation by visiting: Facebook.com/groups/ZHP.Mindful.Parenting/

Quote of the Week: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~ James Baldwin

Seven Tips For Starting a Daily Meditation Practice

This is an archived post. It is actually my very first email post from November of 2013. 

I'm officially starting my weekly email today. Thanks for the encouragement from those who pushed me along to do this. I'll probably get a mass mail program at some point and make this legit, but for the time being, I'll just email you! 

I was having a conversation this week with a meditation friend who is now working in South Korea. I asked him if he was still practicing. He admitted it had been difficult to practice by himself and asked, "how does one start a routine?" 

What a great question!

It might be the most important question for those of us who want a regular meditation practice. We benefit more from 3 minutes of meditation a day than we do from sitting for a long period once in a while. 

Seven Tips for Starting (and Maintaining) a Daily Meditation Practice: 

1. Remember you love it. I'm not so good at doing things I need to do but I'm really good at doing things I want to do. Try spending some time reminding yourself how much you enjoy meditating and the positive effects being calmer and happier have on your life. 

2. Trip over it. Try linking your meditation to something you do every day. Try putting your work shoes next to your meditation cushion or leave your wallet on your seat. A simple prompt like this can help you build a practice into your day. 

3. Say it out loud. Tell some friends and family that you are making a commitment to practice everyday. We're social creatures and we respond well to positive peer pressure. (Did you note that I opened this email saying I was starting a weekly email?) 

4. Find a partner. Nothing's better than having an exercise buddy for reminding us to get to the gym. It works for meditating too. Emailing or calling a friend who is also practicing daily to support each other is a great way to help each other. 

5. Schedule it. Building commitments into your week is a great way to make sure you practice at least one or two days a week. Two friends of mine started a "silent meeting" at work where they meditate with coworkers at lunch. Many of us join sitting groups that meet weekly. These kind of scheduled events can be helpful for getting us to sit. 

6. Make it attainable. I love meditating for long periods but its not always possible. Some days I'm just too tired when the alarm goes off at 5am or the thought of sitting for 2 hours before a work day seems like too much. Often I talk to beginners who decide after their first retreat they are going to meditate for 30 minutes or an hour every day. Too much, too fast! Let your practice grow into the fabric of your life. Find what works, what doesn't seem overwhelming and stick with that for a while. 5, 10 or 15 minutes a day is an amazing accomplishment if you can stick to that for a month or two without missing a day! 

7. Track it. Famous management expert Paul Drucker said, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." I use a meditation app for my phone called "Insight Timer." It does some cool things like mute your phone while your meditating and turning it back on when you're done, and connects you with meditators around the world. Most importantly for this conversation, it tracks your progress by giving handy stats to show your consistency. It even rewards you with badges for consecutive days of sitting.  

Bonus: Be Gentle! John Diado Loori, was fond of saying, "you are perfect and complete just as you are." Practice takes discipline and effort but we must couple that with non-judgmental awareness, love and acceptance. We're human; we miss days we wanted to sit, we get distracted, day dream and we get angry and agitated. Be gentle with yourself.     

I hope these suggestions are helpful. A daily meditation practice has been one of the greatest gifts in my life. I hope it works for you too. Please drop me a note and let me know how your practice has been evolving. May your practice be strong!

Warmly,
Anthony A. Cernera, M.Ed.
ZenHappinessProject.com 

Quote for the Day:
 
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi