People watch the men's Ski Jumping Individual LH at the Whistler Olympic Park during the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 20, 2010. (photo by: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)
(photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Sharon Salzberg is one of the pioneering teachers of Buddhist thought and meditation in this country. A co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, she has taught mindfulness for 30 years, and is the author of several books, including Loving-kindness, Faith, and most recently, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.

In our show with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Krista cites Sharon Salzberg’s work as an early conveyor of Buddhist and mindfulness practice in this country. We interviewed her in the very early days of this project for a show called “The Meaning of Faith” and in 2008, at the height of the worst economic downturn this country has seen since the Great Depression, to glean her insights into navigating a world of reduced expectations.

Sharon SalzbergSharon Salzberg graciously took my questions as a wanna-be mindfulness practitioner.

I’ve experimented with mindfulness meditation but never managed to develop a consistent practice. Most recently, my insight on this difficulty is that I want mindfulness practice to deliver me some emotional goods, or put me in a better mood, and when that doesn’t happen I get discouraged. What kind of expectations — if any — should I bring to this experience as a beginner?

Meditation is an experiment we are making, bringing us out of our normal habits of intense self-judgment, comparing, and impatience. Mindfulness isn’t about what is happening; it is about how we are relating to what is happening — how much awareness, balance and compassion are bringing to this moment’s experience, whatever it is.

For example, it is very likely you will find your attention wandering, not 45 minutes after you first begin, but probably within a few seconds. You get lost in a fantasy, or fall asleep. That is normal and not a sign of failure. What I emphasize is that the critical moment in your meditation is the moment you see you’ve been distracted; instead of falling into our usual habits of self-condemnation, that’s a time we can practice letting go while being kind to ourselves, and work with the renewing power of beginning again.

Practicing mindfulness sometimes just seems to make my mind race even more than usual. Are there any ways I can prepare for my practice that will help me slow down before I begin?

It can help to do some walking or movement meditation before sitting, to help settle your energy. These are simple techniques that, if walking, involve feeling sensations in our feet and legs — things like heaviness, lightness, hardness. Or if you are lifting your arms instead of walking, it’s the same effort. Simply feel what’s going on in your body.

And once you sit down to begin that part of meditation, you can set an intention that might help frame all the coming experiences in a bigger context, like “I am practicing to learn balance, neither fighting my thoughts or letting them overwhelm me.” That’s like putting the wide-angle lens on the camera, and you can feel some space from the racing thoughts. Also, remember it won’t last forever. That period of agitation is not revealing who you really are, what your life will now look like forever. This too will pass.

Real HappinessThere is almost undeniable evidence that regular meditation brings predictable medical, psychological, and cognitive benefits. Really, it almost appears it makes us smarter and better-looking and it costs nothing. Why do I resist it? Why do I prefer to watch embarrassing television as a way to relax? It seems perverse!

I often say to people, “Isn’t it ironic that if someone said to us, ‘Here is this thing you can do 20 minutes a day, and it will really help your friend,’ we’d probably do it. But to put in that 20 minutes for ourselves is much more difficult.”

It is difficult, but if we really consider the reported benefits, we also see that doing something like meditation isn’t selfish or self-centered. If we become depleted, overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives, perpetually irritable, or disconnected, we are not going to be able to give much to others.

The common difficulty is why I think it is good to be both reasonable and realistic. Try to make a commitment you can keep — even five minutes a day is a good beginning, and a way to cut through the momentum of our busyness and lack of connection to our inner lives.

We have been creating new shows as part of a series called “The Civil Conversations Project,” exploring how we can create healthy engagement and deeper listening across some of the deepest and most entrenched divides in American public life. We live in a world of very real conflict — conflict that doesn’t evaporate when we decide to be polite or civil to each other. Does mindfulness have a place in helping us navigate real-world conflicts?

I think mindfulness could have a significant place in that navigation. Clearly it helps us have more self-awareness, including helping us be in closer touch with our intentions and motivations: “What do I actually want out of this encounter? Resolution? Revenge? Vindication? Understanding?” We can see our motives and decide if we want to pursue that stance or not.

One of the functions of mindfulness is to give us options. We can see our reactions building early, and not just after we have already pressed “send” on that nasty, hostile email or closed a door we actually hope could remain open. We see what is happening within, without panic or getting lost in the reaction. We know we can follow it out or let it go. And because mindfulness helps us be in touch with a big range of feelings, thoughts, and reactions, we know from experience that we can take a strong, principled stand on something while not demonizing someone else for their views or even their actions. We learn that we can be fierce without hating.

You are one of the early interpreters of Buddhism in this country and have been meditating and teaching for decades. You’re also fairly wired; I first reached out to you about this interview on Twitter, for example. Some people predict that new technologies and mobile communication devices will just make us more anxious and distracted, but you seem to find them very useful. Do you experience a contradiction in this?

I think of myself as not particularly technologically savvy. My iPhone has few apps aside from The Weather Channel and a flashlight (though I think I am on a meditation app myself), and there are probably a thousand things my computer can do to make my life easier that I haven’t yet learned. But from the first time I did a tele-teaching, and heard that someone was calling in from Moscow, I loved the idea of our being able to connect to each other so easily.

I do spend quite a bit of time on Twitter (I confess), have done a tweet chat and have more coming. I do find these things quite useful. What’s sad is sitting in a hotel lobby somewhere and seeing every single person in there constantly on a cell phone or PDA, seemingly not noticing where they actually are. And since I do it myself, I try to remember to bring my attention back to my breath and the present moment.

Any final words for someone starting out?

The proof of the benefit of meditation comes in your life. You might not have a great breakthrough experience sitting this Thursday morning, though of course we would like that. It might show itself in your greater ability to begin again once you’ve made a mistake, or really listening to someone rather than mostly contemplating all the other things you need to do as they converse.

There needs to be a critical look at whether meditation is worth your pursuing, but we need to practice it for a while before evaluating, and then evaluate on the basis of your life. After all, we don’t practice mindfulness meditation to become a great meditator; we practice to have a more balanced, aware, and connected life.

Photo of the author by Liz Matthews.


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17Reflections

Reflections

Oh the convergence! These 6 questions, the interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the research study that was just published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191(1) a few days ago, the New York TImes article on How Meditation May Change the Brain by Sindya N. Bhanoo last week. OnBeing is in the Universal Flow, and by reading and listening along, the rest of us get to share the stoke of a blessed ride~ Thank you!

The convergence, indeed! Thanks Sara.

Couldn't have said it better myself, Sara! It is so fantastic that mindfulness and meditation are being revealed in this moment from multiple media outlets. Peace to you and to everyone seeking to explore the path!

Thank you for sharing this conversation with Sharon Salzberg. As a mindfulness teacher, I echo Sharon's thoughts that mindfulness helps give us options in our life -- allowing us to navigate our journey with a bit more responsiveness and a bit less reactivity.
Pamela Ressler, RN, BSN, HN-BC
http://StressResources.com
@stressresources
@pamressler

Terrific interview. People ask me all the time about my meditation practice, but never seem to believe me when I tell them that it isn't about my ability to empty my mind, but about my willingness just to sit with whatever insanity is going on in my head, without judging, with acceptance and awareness. I'll share this practical and real-world mindset with all of them. Thank you!

The practical benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it increses intuitive intelligence which is required for solving of practical problems both big and small. This is basically why the human species depends on spiritual development for survival.

Thank you for this. I am new to meditation. In fact, I should be in my scheduled class right now, but I've been feeling frustrated because after two classes, I'm not feeling anything different. Thanks for the encouragement, and I'll give it several more tries. I am eager to reap what I hear are the benefits of mindfulness training. I want it so very much.

Fantastic. I began meditating in my freshman year of college through my university's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 8-week course. Mindfulness has opened the world beyond my imagination, and I strive daily to rest in the solitude of awareness. Sharon Salzburg and Jon Kabat-Zinn are great inspirations for me. Thanks, Being Blog!

thank you for the wonderful interview. I have introduced mindful meditation into my psychotherapy practice and I am delighted to have another tool other than medication to help my clients deal with their anxiety. Personally, I have found meditation a way of being more present with the uncertainties of life as we age.
Warmly,
Bonnie

Bonniekatz.com

I am in my 4th week of a class based on the book The Artists Way, by Julie Cameron. Meditation is a very important part of finding your innerself. I need to find my innerself. I find mindfulness very difficult to grasp. I think after reading this article, I am going to look for Sharon's books and buy one. And read it! Thanks for this article and helping to open my eyes to this...

Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

Kate, the author of this interview, has mentioned Salzberg's book several times as a helpful primer for all, especially people who want to start meditating but are daunted by the task. Here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, there are quite a few classes — free and for a fee — that might be a good experiment.

Although I'm not a meditator, I do find stopping at several times a day simply to acknowledge an event that I often take for granted (e.g., the way my three-year-old son holds his pen or marveling that I'm sitting in the same room as Bobby McFerrin) helps me be thankful, and aware. Cheers!

The issue of resistance to practice is a deep one worth exploring further. From a purely practical meditational perspective, the advice is fine, but the problem is often an underlying psychological issue that if dug up, may make not only engagement with practice easier and more fluid, but aid a practitioner in accessing deeper levels of presence. Often mindfullness becomes a way of distorting our relationship with ourselves when, as the interviewer mentioned, we seek pleasent, emotional highs from the practice. In my humble experience, I'd suggest doing some sit down work with the issue of resistance either using a dialogue with the resistance itself or some other technique.

Thanks for the advice, Matthew. Many approaches to meditation and mindfulness can help those who struggle and may abandon the practice. Cheers.

I'm a middle-school teacher who has meditated off and on for twenty years.  What's astonishing to me is that education has largely ignored the research-validated benefits of mindfulness and meditation.  Billions have been spent on new technologies, but maybe what the kids I teach need most--to curb ADHD, to raise test scores, to allay anxiety, to LEARN--are five minutes of just sitting.

thank you so much. working with a daughter struggling with anorexia. Always hopeful there will be new work done, new information that brings PEACE OF MIND. This is encouraging and helpful.

Ah, when or where does Dr. Sharon Saltzberg give retreats and where if at all? I found her comments soul satisfisying and want more of her. Thank you.