Meditation not only has the power to calm you, but to rewire your brain for positive states such as compassion and well-being; it lowers the risk for heart disease and may even increase lifespan. Sounds great—right? But where to begin ….  Sharon Salzberg, author of eight books on meditation and mindfulness, stopped by the Delicoius Living offices to talk about her new book, Real Happiness (Workman, 2011), a practical guide to starting a daily meditation practice. Salzberg cofounded the Insight Meditation Society and has taught meditation for over 30 years.

 

Delicious Living: You’re the author of a number of books on mindfulness, including the classic Lovingkindness (Shambhala, 1995). What was the impetus for Real Happiness?

Sharon Salzberg: I wanted to create a book that would be very inclusive, for people who are interested in the practical methods of meditation that might benefit them, might benefit their minds. When I went to India at the age of eighteen, I wanted to learn to meditate. I didn’t want to become a Buddhist or adopt a belief system; I wanted to know what those practical tools were that might bring me greater happiness and change my life, and I wanted to know how to use them. Everyone has capacity to use these methods, not just certain people, or lucky people, or people with the right background or class. Really anyone can use them.

 

Delicious Living: The title of your book implies that there is “false” happiness…

Sharon Salzberg: Perhaps a better word, though not quite so poetic, is “durable” happiness or “sustainable” happiness, something that won’t leave us when conditions change, when things go away, when others disappoint us, or when we disappoint ourselves. There’s a quality of happiness that doesn’t have to be so fragile, that isn’t dependant on things being static—because of course things aren’t.

 

Delicious Living: So why is it that we tend to place so much emphasis on transitory things?

Sharon Salzberg: I think it’s confusion. It’s personal bias or cultural conditioning. I once was wandering in Jerusalem and heard a merchant call out, “I have what you need!” And I stopped and a kind of thrill went through my entire body and I thought, “Oh! He has what I need!” and I started going toward it and then I thought, “Wait a minute. First of all, I don’t need anything. And second of all, how would he know what I need?”

I think we hear that message all the time and we start following it and we get confused and disoriented and exhausted, and we internalize that message to mean that we don’t have enough and we’re not good enough. These transitory experiences of pleasure are wonderful—we should be very grateful when our lives afford us that—but if that’s what we’re counting on for our deepest, most enduring sense of happiness then clearly we’re in trouble, because we cannot count on or control the flow of events.

 

Delicious Living: Studies have shown that people whose moods fluctuate greatly are at four times greater risk for ischemia, a condition that reduces blood-flow to the heart. How might meditation benefit people physically, not just mentally?

Sharon Salzberg: There are two main facets [to mindfulness training]. One is attention training and the other is emotional regulation. Attention training is very valuable for us at any age; we can be much more aware of what’s going on, more connected, less scattered, divided, all over the place. With that kind of concentration, a lot of energy returns to you that might have been available but isn’t because it’s flying all over the place.

Meditation also clarifies our attention, so that when we see something, hear something, we feel something, the reaction that comes—often very quickly—doesn’t overshadow that experience. We can perceive, “OK, here’s what’s going on, and here’s the story I’m starting to tell about it.” It’s not that we don’t ever react, but we see the difference.

The other side is emotional regulation, which isn’t to dampen down emotions—the happiness/sadness, fear/joy that we go through—but changing how we relate to it so that we’re neither struggling against it or hating it, which is it’s own kind of being stuck, nor are we submerged in it or controlled by it.

A lot of the current studies look at either or both of those aspects and apply them to anything in which stress plays a role—in clinical conditions, depression, ADHD, social anxiety. There are so many being studied for how mindfulness might play a role. Then there’s neuroplasticity. At Emory they’re doing studies on foster care system kids. We’ve only just begun to look at the benefits.