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.
Why is meditation so challenging?
Delicious Living: Meditation is as simple as following the breath. Why is it that that tiny act is so challenging?
Sharon Salzberg: It’s very challenging! The personal part is really our own conditioning. For example, in India the breath technique was the first thing I was taught, and I was very disappointed, thinking, “I came all the way to India; where’s the magical, esoteric fantastic technique that’s going to clear my mind of all suffering?” And then with the breath technique, I thought, “How hard can this be?” And it wasn’t that easy!
I saw with reflection that one of the reasons it was difficult for me was that as soon as this breath would begin, I would start mentally leaning forward to get ready for the next fifteen. And that was a mental posture that I carried around in my life, not just sitting on the floor in India. I was very frightened, guarded, wary, a lot had already happened in my life and I felt I had to be hyper vigilant. For me balance in those days looked like “settle back, let the breath come to you.” We might also be too far back, bored or disinterested, and need to come forward. So that’s the personal part of the challenge.
The habit of distraction is very strong. We’re not trained to have a steady attention on anything, our minds just jump from one thing to the next, jump to the past, the future, and back and forth. And so it’s a training process, and the essential part of that training is the ability to let go and beginning again. It’s not about today I was with three breaths before being distracted, and tomorrow I’ll no doubt be with five, and after that with 20. It’s realizing that every time our attention wanders and we’ve been lost, we’ve fallen asleep or spun out into fantasy … with that moment of awareness, “Oh, it’s been quite some time since I’ve felt a breath,” we have the opportunity to practice letting go and very gently coming back, no haranguing ourselves, just saying “OK, start over.” And that has huge transformative potential.
Delicious Living: So you can’t go off to a cave, maybe it seems impossible to carve out even 30 minutes in your day …. How much do you need to practice to see the benefits?
Sharon Salzberg: Well, if you can’t do 30 minutes, maybe you could do 20; and if you can’t do 20, then try to do 5. For most people practicing at home, the first five minutes is just a torrent of thinking: “I forgot to call so-and-so, and I have to call so-and-so, and I need to send this email, and … that refrigerator is making a funny sound. I wonder if the refrigerator is broken. What am I going to do about that …?” So there’s this discharge of tension, which is good, but without more time you don’t have a chance to go deeper.
Also it’s helpful to do it every day. Then your day will be affected because you remember. If you’re in a contentious meeting at work, you just think, “I’m going to breathe for a moment,” and you regroup. If you’re in traffic, or waiting at the doctor’s office, or at the grocery store, you just remember more often because you’ve practiced.
The hardest thing is to actually do it—not just to admire it! People ask me all the time: Should I practice in the morning or in the evening? Alone or with others? And my answer is always the same: Whatever works best for you, because the hardest thing of all is to make it real.
For almost any of us, if someone said, “Here’s something you can do for 20 minutes a day and it will really help your friend,” we’d do it. But the thought of doing it for ourselves is very difficult. We think it’s a waste, it’s selfish, we’ve got so much else to do … but of course we need to spend some time.
Delicious Living: What are some mindfulness tools people can use during busy/stressful times?
Pick one activity where you can just do it—not multitasking—like drinking tea. Just feel the warmth of the tea cup, smell the tea, taste the tea. I like to use breath and body because they are always there, and it can be very private. You can be at that meeting feeling your feet on the ground, breathing, and no one will know you are doing it.
My goal is for people to have confidence in a technique they can take anywhere. So that if you are in a contentious meeting, or anywhere that you can’t just run away … you can be breathing. And so that makes meditation very different resource for us in our lives. It’s something that can accompany you wherever you go.