This article details my approach in developing a curriculum aimed at introducing basic Buddhist teachings and practices to my community without using Buddhist nomenclature. The course – ‘Happier and Calmer: How to Embrace Life More Fully’ – is based on Stephen Batchelor’s notion of the four tasks (a reinterpretation of the Four Noble Truths) and is meant to improve the life experience of the learners by fostering greater ease, peace, and happiness.
The key to teaching such a course to senior citizens in my community in Canada (rural, conservative, and ethnically homogenous) is about transforming the high voltage words and concepts of Buddhism to what my participants can more readily accept, understand, and digest. Sound pedagogical principles were fundamental to my course design.
The historical Buddha, Gotama, himself did not teach Buddhism, but rather showed a way of life aimed at easing one’s and other’s suffering. Another example is former ABC News anchor Dan Harris: his ‘Ten Percent Happier’ podcasts are dharma in simple everyday language (his catchy title did inspire the name of my program).
My course, taught at community centers for ‘55+ Active Adults’, consists of six weekly workshops. The educational material for each class is divided into two components: didactic and experiential. To reinforce learning and practice, my participants are also given take-home readings and exercises. All my materials have all been sourced from authors, therapists and researchers who are dharma-based – Kristen Neff, Rick Hanson, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and many more. The participants are made aware that these materials are a blend of cutting-edge neuroscience, Eastern wisdom tradition (wink wink) and Western psychology.
The course is based on Stephen Batchelor’s ELSA acronym for the four tasks or four-fold task: Embrace life. Let reactivity be. See reactivity stop. Actualize the path. Translated for my students: Life is challenging. We make it worse. We don’t have to. Here’s how…
The first class teaches how to apply mindful self-compassion to ease the inevitable suffering that we encounter. We discuss the concepts, benefits and practice of mindfulness and compassion, and integrate this with a Compassionate Pause meditation developed by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Acknowledging that ‘Yes, this hurts’ is truly knowing dukkha.
In Week 2 we learn to nourish resilience, control stress and savour positive experiences; in other words, to Let Reactivity Be. Viktor Frankl’s famous quote about the space between stimulus and response1 brings home the concept of pausing in order to choose a wise, kind, and generous response instead of a habitual reaction based on grasping, fear, and deluded thinking. The practice of embodied awareness and mindful attention of the breath helps participants become aware of the Red Zone of reactivity (fight/flight/freeze) in contrast to the Green Zone of non-reactivity (rest and digest). The discourse on The Two Arrows also nicely explains how getting tangled in the stories and narrative worsens our suffering. Students learn to hardwire calm strength and resilience with a ‘HEAL’ practice developed by Rick Hanson2,. The Three Breaths meditation, also by Hanson, closes the session.
My participants are introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication (NVC) approach at Week 3. In that moment of non-reactivity, of pausing mindfully, they are taught to label their feelings, see how they are connected to needs, and develop skillful request strategies to meet those needs. In-class exercises showcase how wise words and actions deepen connection with others instead of driving disconnection. We close with a body scan meditation.
The remaining weeks involve recognizing that life is not a road we walk alone, but with others. We start actualizing the Path by developing interpersonal skills that produce healthier relationships. As such, Week Four is focused on finding strength from relationships through compassionate speech, generous listening, and healthy boundaries. The meditation practice used for this session is Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation .
Developing a spacious and curious relationship with our thoughts, cultivating wholesome states of mind, and opening up qualities of heart, such as gratitude and kindness, are the topics for the fifth lesson. A loving-kindness meditation from Sharon Salzberg (and yes, I let the word metta slip out on purpose) is this week’s practice.
The sixth and last session aims to deepen the overall integration of practice by training the mind in meditation. Seeing thoughts with detachment helps students cultivate wholesome thoughts and intentions with greater clarity: watering the flowers, not the weeds, ultimately shapes our destiny. We end the session with a Shamatha meditation, ‘Staying in the Moment’, by J. Johnson.
Students are encouraged to continue exploring and deepening their practice from a comprehensive list of resources – books, websites, online courses, meditation apps and free webinars.
The workshops have fostered meaningful connections between participants, and many continue to meet on a regular basis to support each other. I recently attended such a group meeting and was thrilled to hear that a few are developing a regular meditation practice. One participant even formed a book club to specifically study and discuss Tara Brach’s book Trusting the Gold.
The course has been very well received, with a request for a follow-up 2.0 version. Maybe that’s when I start bringing my little Buddha statue to class…?
1 ‘Between the stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our responses. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
2 Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness, p. 60.