Meditation and Mindfulness for All of Us: Six Questions with Sharon Salzberg

by Kate Moos, managing producer

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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