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Sharon Salzberg on Meditation
Sharon Salzberg is one of America’s leading spiritual teachers and authors. As co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, MA, she has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West. The ancient Buddhist practices of Vipassana (mindfulness) and Metta (loving-kindness) are the foundations of her work. She is currently a contributing editor at O, The Oprah Magazine and has appeared in Time, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Real Simple, Body & Soul and at Msnbc.com. Here, Salzberg invites people to embrace the challenges of beginning meditation slowly and simply.
How did you come to meditation?
I took a course in Asian philosophy and there were two things about the Buddha’s teaching that I found riveting. One was the Buddha’s unafraid, unashamed acknowledgment of suffering in life. Like many people, I’d had a lot of suffering in my life. Like many people I came from a family system where this wasn’t spoken about. I didn’t know what to do with all of those feelings. I found myself quite isolated and here was the Buddha saying out loud, “hey, there’s suffering in life.”
Second was his open invitation to do something about that suffering. He didn’t say it was only the special people, or the lucky people, or the talented people, it was anybody who used the tools. I had a very strong feeling I wanted to learn how to do that.
Can you explain the types of meditation you practice?
Vipassana means insight. In the course of meditation practice insights emerge about the relationship of the mind and body, about our emotional landscape and about what brings us genuine happiness and what causes us pain. The primary tool that we cultivate to deepen insight is mindfulness, which is the ability to be aware of our experience in the present moment without grasping onto it, pushing it away or disconnecting from it. [In Vipassana,] there are many methods one can use to strengthen mindfulness. Some emphasize awareness of breath and the physical sensations in the body. Some emphasize awareness of emotional and mental states and some incorporate both. All of these techniques place a premium on developing a greater continuity of awareness in our lives.
Metta means loving-kindness or friendship. Metta meditation is the art of developing friendship towards ourselves and ultimately developing the art of friendship towards all beings. It is not to be mistaken with being complacent or foolishly sentimental. From the point of view of Metta, we may not like someone, but we can erode the rigid, divisive sense of “us and them” that keeps us feeling so alone or afraid. Metta is practice through developing concentration, using a silent repetition of certain phrases wishing well for ourselves and others.
How do the concepts of compassion and kindness relate to meditation?
We actually begin in a place where the idea of compassion or kindness might never be spoken, but it’s implicitly being developed. Let me give you an example. To begin with, you undertake a technique where you are settling your attention on the feeling of your breath. It’s not too long before your mind is somewhere else, thinking about the past or the future or you are lost in judgment, fantasy or speculation.
Then, comes the magic moment when you realize you’ve been distracted. And, in that moment you have the opportunity to be different. Instead of berating yourself for having become distracted, you have the chance gently to let go with kindness toward yourself and to begin again. I often say that the basic principle of practice is developing the ability to begin again. That’s the moment when we really start evoking the qualities of love and compassion.
Why would someone want to make time to meditate?
Because we lead very hectic, busy lives. We can use meditation to open more completely to our own experience. I see it also as a skills training, developing the skill of greater concentration and awareness and compassion. These are all good things.
What can someone expect from the first 30 days of meditation?
They can expect to meet the unknown. A lot depends on one’s ideas of what should be happening. If you think you should be able to wipe out all your thinking or experience only great bliss and joy, then those expectations will be thwarted and you’ll be very frustrated.
In terms of mindfulness practice we often say that what comes up in meditation is much less important to how we relate to what comes up. If we can meet what’s happening with greater awareness and compassion then that’s considered very good meditation. Even if what’s coming up is sleepiness, restlessness, doubt or pain. Making that switch from thinking, “we’re only doing well if things that feel great are happening,” to understanding what the practice is actually about, is very important.
If someone wants to start meditating today, what should he or she do?
Find a place in your home—a chair, couch or by sitting on cushions on the floor. Dedicate a period of time to practice. Dedication is very important, and it could be for just 15 to 20 minutes. See if you can minimize distractions. Maybe turn off the phone. Feel the sensations of your in-and-out breath. That’s a beginning.
What are the main pieces of advice you’d give to people who are new to meditation?
Try to understand what might be untrue expectations. People often have some very intense ideas, like “I’m only good at this if I stop all my thinking.” The intensity of those ideas turns into self-judgment.
Be patient. If you think of meditation as skills training, the evolution of those skills takes time. We live in a very impatient culture. Don’t expect perfection after five minutes. Slow down and allow things to unfold.
Be persistent. Set aside some time everyday, even if it’s a very short amount of time. Five minutes is definitely better than nothing. This allows you to unplug and connect to more of yourself.
If someone is a Christian, Muslim or Jew, or does not adhere to any faith, how can meditation fit in with this way of life?
One of the first things my first meditation teacher said to me in 1971 was "The Buddha did not teach Buddhism—he taught a way of life." It is a way of life forged by ethical concern, compassion, breaking free of habitual reactions and underlying all of that, awareness.
These values aren't limited to any religious tradition or even having a religious tradition. The tools of meditation are very pragmatic, and can be utilized by people who want to understand their lives. Many people of many different faith traditions, or of no faith tradition, have come to the center I co-founded, the Insight Meditation Society, and have taken part in the retreats there. Doing so has nothing to do with being a Buddhist, or rejecting anything else. It doesn't at all have to do with adopting a belief system, but rather with enhancing one's own authentic experience of oneself. While the language, metaphors and imagery I might tend to use come from the Buddha's teachings, because I have been studying them for over 35 years, they are really universal truths that can be expressed many different ways.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
That everything changes. Take it one moment at a time. Often we take the present moment’s experience of uncertainty or transition and we project it onto an unchanging future as if it is something that is going to last forever.
The best thing about change is...
…it opens up possibility.
What is the best change you have ever made?
Going to India and learning meditation.
For more information on Sharon Salzberg, visit www.sharonsalzberg.com.