The Happiness Experiment
O, The Oprah Magazine | From the March 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
By Michelle Burford
I have tried to meditate. It didn't work. So when I took the assignment to test a form of meditation called mindfulness—and let the record reflect that I only agreed because there's now proof the practice can send one's happiness quotient screaming toward Pluto—I'd already resolved that I would once again walk away markedly unchanged. I was wrong.
The science is the study by Richard Davidson, PhD, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, in which mindfulness meditation caused the brains of biotech workers to light up where the happiness regions are. Kabat-Zinn led me to Polly Wheat, MD, an internist who founded the mindfulness program at Barnard College in New York.
Minute one: My abdomen aches. I bet these people are faking it. Why am I doing this? Minute 15: Did I TiVo Survivor? Why is my jaw tight? Thank God, she's finally ringing the bell! Zilch happened to me during our time of silence. I got nowhere. It was like browsing through Bloomingdale's with no ka-ching.
"There's nowhere to get!" she says with a smile. "The paradox of living mindfully is that the best way to get there is to fully be here."
I finally translated her meditation-speak. Mindfulness is basically this: Open your eyeballs to life. Clear your eardrums of interference. Give every single joy and annoyance in your day—be it a scrumptious Belgian waffle sliding down your esophagus or spam spilling over the sides of your e-mail in-box—your maximum attention. Stay out of the bike lanes marked "yesterday" and "tomorrow" and pop your wheelies in the present. Then hang this sign on the front porch of your brain: "No blaming, judging, and belittling allowed here." Life is happening in every breath. Wake up and notice it.
A day later, I tried one of her homework assignments. Sitting on my couch, I uttered a litany of thank-yous for the gazillion people in my world who lend me light and even for a few who don't. This is supposed to take 15 minutes, but I finished in only one minute and 17 seconds. Instead of galloping back to work, though, I sat it out to see what other thoughts showed up. After six minutes, a familiar tide of anxiety rolled in: What if I'm more terrified of what I can accomplish during my lifetime than of what I can't? What if my big plans fizzle into big flops?
The next time I saw Wheat, I pressed for answers: What does all this sitting have to do with mindful living? And will my brain light up if I don't meditate formally? "Everything can be a meditation when it's done with our full attention," she says. "In our society, we're constantly being pulled into the next moment. Sitting helps you practice mindfulness in a protected area. When I mentioned my episode of meditation angst, she explained that mindfulness isn't about zapping unpleasant thoughts. It's about getting still long enough to notice that you're having them. And in that space between pain and acknowledgment lives a choice. To let the anxiety grip you or to consciously dismiss it. To pout about where you could be or to accept where you are. To live in a state of constant cardiac arrest or simply to breathe your way through every second.
You don't have to Windex your big mess the moment that you splatter it. Just get up and step to the right. Stand there. Notice how your feet feel on the ground. Notice that you're still above ground. Take that news in. Or resist it and settle into your misery, then notice that's what you're doing. Decide you won't judge yourself for judging yourself. Judge yourself some more, then cut it out again. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Hold on to your bra straps for this: I've actually been meditating every morning for 20 minutes.
I don't need a brain scan to know that the feel of my favorite silk-mohair sweater now counts as a big enough reason to celebrate. When stressful thoughts flood my head these days, I stop, thank them for passing through, then keep stepping. And in the front right bedroom of my brain where constant judgment once resided, the newly freed space is a welcome spot for joy.