Your Brain on Happiness

By Gross, Amy | Newsweek, January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Your Brain on Happiness


Gross, Amy, Newsweek


Byline: Amy Gross

Mindfulness meditation is being rediscovered as a very modern--and medical--path to personal nirvana.

in July 2008, I retired from my job as editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine , a move that mystified a lot of people. Editors tend not to exit willingly. They're usually ripped out of their magazines, like pages. Their sales go south, and so do they. A media reporter wasn't buying my "retired" line. He called to get the real story. "You can tell me," he said. "Are you being pushed out?" The truth, I told him, was that I'd been doing Buddhist meditation for years and ached to dive into practice. My job was getting in the way of my life.

That answer didn't explain anything to a business friend. "What is so compelling," she asked, "that you would leave all this?"

"All this" encompassed powers and perks universally acknowledged to be worth killing yourself for. The magazine was a big hit. We were putting good ideas and good writing into the culture. We respected each other, we won awards, and we were paid well enough. I couldn't have been happier.

And then things changed, as things do.

After decades of the monthly magazine cycle, the thrill of spotting a fresh idea, shaping it for our audience, commissioning the right writer.?.?.?that thrill had subsided to a small tickle. Instead I was finding challenge, purpose, and meaning offsite, in mindfulness meditation, the Buddha's prescription to end suffering. He discovered that if you pay attention to what's going on, moment to moment--without trying to hold onto what feels good or push away what feels bad--your relationship to pain changes.

The key shift is in turning toward pain, when all your life you've turned away from it. You give it your full attention--you yield to it--and, paradoxically, its hold on you diminishes. (The majority of chronic-pain patients in an eight-week meditation course are able to reduce their medications and become more active.) You open to emotional pain as well. As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.

The formal structure for intense practice is a silent retreat, which can last anywhere from one morning to three years. No talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact. You're stranded on the island of your mind. You're sitting peacefully, or impatiently, or hungrily, when a thought suddenly jerks through your head and your inner world breaks into a riot--heart racing, muscles gripping, adrenaline pouring, breath speeding.

You bring your attention to the explosion: what is this? Ah, this time it's anger--and it feels lousy. You notice that it's causing you pain--you, not X, the object of your anger. Focusing on the sensations of the emotion, you stop telling yourself the story of how X did you wrong. Without the story, the anger runs out of fuel. Relief. Non-anger feels so good. You come to be less and less afraid of your own interior storms.

These treks through the mind became my idea of adventure travel, and I'd take off for a week a few times a year. But after a while, my return to "all this" no longer felt satisfying. In fact, it was dissatisfying. "All this" whips up your appetites. As much as you have, others have more--or less. That one-down feeling is a bitch, but so is that one-up feeling--you just don't see how it isolates you, leaves you constantly, if subliminally, threatened. …

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