by April Thompson
New York City-born Sharon Salzberg experienced a childhood full of loss and upheaval, losing her parents and living in five different household configurations. In college, she discovered the power of meditation to transform suffering and cope with life’s never-ending changes.
Born into a Jewish family, Salzberg first encountered Buddhism in 1969 in an Asian philosophy class, inspiring her to undertake an independent study program in India, where she was initiated into the practice via an intense 10-day retreat. “It was very difficult and painful. I sometimes doubted that I’d succeed, yet I never doubted that there was truth there,” she says.
Upon her return home, Salzburg dedicated herself to the path of vipassana- (insight) meditation, becoming a renowned teacher and co-founding the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Today she teaches and speaks to diverse audiences worldwide about the power of mindfulness. Salzberg has authored nine books, including the New York Times bestseller Real Happiness, Real Happiness at Work and Loving Kindness.
How do you define mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the quality of awareness. When we are mindful, our perception of the present moment isn’t so distorted by bias, adding our own storyline to reality and pushing away what’s happening.
Is it possible to be mindful without having an established meditation practice?
Yes, theoretically, but I suspect it’s hard. I honor my own meditation practice for making mindfulness highly accessible for me. It doesn’t take many hours of prep work and is open to everyone. It’s really a practice, like strength training—you have to exercise the mindfulness muscle to reap the benefits.
What’s the best way to arrange time for meditation, and what can motivate us to practice regularly?
Having a sense of structure has helped me the most. I believe strongly in the value of a daily practice, however simple or short. We can ritualize certain practices to help remember to pause and be mindful. For example, every time the phone rings, let it ring three times and use that as a trigger to breathe. When you’ve finished writing an email, take a few conscious moments before sending it. There are lots of ways to cut through the momentum of the busyness and craziness of our lives to return to mindfulness.
Make a commitment to practice for a certain period of daily time for a month or two, and then reassess. Look for changes during the active course of daily life and query: How am I speaking to myself or to others? Am I more present? Am I more at ease in letting go? It’s important to look for these subtle changes rather than to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves such as being mindful all day.
Do you have other enabling practices for people new to the state of living mindfully?
Movement meditation is a good place to start; if you’re walking somewhere, try to be more present and feel your feet against the ground. Also, just focus on one thing at a time; instead of multitasking, just drink the cup of tea.
We can also use breath to focus concentration. The breath is a tremendous tool, it’s always with us. If you’re in a contentious meeting and tempers flare, you don’t have to pull out a meditation cushion and sit in a funny position; you can work with your breath right where you are.
How can meditation help to ease suffering?
Sometimes, we think we can ease suffering by only having pleasant feelings and beautiful thoughts. Rather, we can ease suffering by changing the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings. If something unpleasant is happening, most of us flip into an internal monologue about how, “Bad things always happen to me,” or “This is my fault,” or “I shouldn’t feel this.”
We compound our suffering by adding judgment and by pushing away discomfort. Instead, we can learn to observe our reactions and release them. We also tend not to feel pleasure fully or think that something else or more should be happening instead of simply enjoying the moment. We wait for some sense of intensity in order to feel alive, rather than experiencing the ordinary to the utmost. Meditation trains us to be present with pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences and stay connected, no matter what’s going on.
Reach freelance writer April Thompson, of Washington, D.C., at AprilWrites.com.