Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation

A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Sharon Salzberg

From the introduction of Real Happiness:

For thirty-six years, I’ve taught meditation to thousands of people, at the Insight Meditation Society retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, which I cofounded in 1975, and at schools, corporations, government agencies, and community centers all over the world. I’ve introduced the techniques you’re about to encounter to groups of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, police officers, athletes, teenagers, army chaplains and medics, doctors, nurses, burn patients, prisoners, frontline workers in domestic violence shelters, new moms and dads. My students come from every walk of life, ethnic background, and belief tradition.

And they’re part of a national trend: A 2007 survey (the most recent data available) by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that more than twenty million Americans had practiced meditation in the previous twelve months. They did so, they told researchers, to improve their overall wellness; for help with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, or insomnia; and
to deal with the symptoms and emotional strain of chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer.

People also turn to meditation, I’ve found, because they want to make good decisions, break bad habits, and bounce back better from disappointments. They want to feel closer to their families and friends; more at home and at ease in their own bodies and minds; or part of something larger than themselves. They turn to meditation because human lives are full of real, potential, and imagined hazards, and they want to feel safer, more confident, calmer, wiser. Beneath these varied motivations lie the essential truths that we’re all alike in wanting to be happy and in our vulnerability to pain and unpredictable, continual change.

Again and again I’ve seen novice meditators begin to transform their lives—even if they were initially resistant or skeptical. As I’ve learned through my own experience, meditation helps us to find greater tranquility, connect to our feelings, find a sense of wholeness, strengthen our relationships, and face our fears. That’s what happened to me.

Because of meditation, I’ve undergone profound and subtle shifts in the way I think and how I see myself in the world. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be limited to who I thought I was when I was a child or what I thought I was capable of yesterday, or even an hour ago. My meditation practice has freed me from the old, conditioned definition of myself as someone unworthy of love. Despite my initial fantasies whenI began meditating as a college student, I haven’t entered a steady state of glorious bliss. Meditation has made me happy, loving, and peaceful—but not every single moment of the day. I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow. Now I can accept setbacks more easily, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because meditation has taught me how to cope with the profound truth that everything changes all the time.


Sharon Salzberg cofounded the Insight Meditation Society with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. She has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West. The ancient Buddhist practices of vipassana (mindfulness) and metta (lovingkindness) are the foundations of her work. Sharon is blogging throughout the 28-day challenge at her website—here. Many others are blogging on her site along with her!

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silcarry's picture

Hello Sharon and Thank you. While not new to meditation, I never seemed to get it right. No matter how good the teachers, there I was struggling though it .
Then you came along with your magic little book, and the amazingly compassionate 28 day program and made it all so simple that it feels like opening the windows and letting the air sweep clean all the "stuff" that polluted the mind
You made it so easy to "let go", to "accept" ...And now I can easily sit 7 days a week and look forward to it every time.
I could never thank you enough.
Hope to see you at Tibet House in the coming weeks

BrownBrown's picture

Day 29: Meditating in Madison - Mindful Protest

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/02/28/us/LAND-3.html

Danzen's picture

Ms Salzberg, Thanks for the easy to understand, and the great instructions on how to meditate.Your 28 day program was a great jump start on getting alot of people meditating.I enjoyed Real Happiness and also ordered Insight Meditation, A step-by-step course on How to Meditate with you and Joseph Goldstein. And I also came across a on line course you have on meditation for anyone out there with no centers close by. Thanks again.

SharonSalzberg's picture

I'll be available to read comments and questions all week, and to respond. I really like your description, Jen, of meditation practice as showing up with openness and compassion. Then we can meet anything! It's quite revolutionary to realize how much creativity and power we can have in relating differently to whatever has come up.

trijen's picture

Bows and thanks to everyone here for sharing your experiences and insights. And to Sharon and Tricycle for making this space and time happen in the first place. The timing of this 28-day challenge was perfect for me in helping get me back to the cushion (and its benefits) with more regularity. I'd been feeling resistance in my practice, arising mostly from wanting a reprieve from certain very difficult feelings. After this shared experience with you all and with Sharon's book, I'm feeling more willing, spacious, and equipped, freshly reminded of what's possible if I just show up with compassion and openness! I too feel some sadness as this time and our temporary cyber-"sangha" come to an end. Now a new challenge begins (for me)...I intend to keep sitting about 5 days a week. Thanks again. May you all be well and happy!

Jen

LindaG's picture

I appreciate sharing the 28 day journey with those of you who signed up.

I appreciate how the practice of sitting, helps me cultivate the capacity to show up for the emotional ebbs and flows of life - skillfully.

Take care and be well,
Linda G

mirrordrum's picture

this has been a wonderful journey with all of you. i'm grateful to be sitting again after so long away and for all the wisdom i've received from those who've posted. i've been thinking a lot about this poem from one of my favorite contemporary poets, Mary Oliver. she reminds me as this retreat has reminded me, i have nothing better to do than be mindfully present in the moment. _/\_

Mockingbirds

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this
seriously.

In Greece,
a long time ago,
an old couple
opened their door

to two strangers
who were,
it soon appeared,
not men at all,

but gods.
It is my favorite story--
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give

but their willingness
to be attentive--
but for this alone
the gods loved them

and blessed them--
when they rose
out of their mortal bodies,
like a million particles of water

from a fountain,
the light
swept into all the corners
of the cottage,

and the old couple,
shaken with understanding,
bowed down--
but still they asked for nothing

but the difficult life
which they had already.
And the gods smiled, as they vanished,
clapping their great wings.

Wherever it was
I was supposed to be
this morning--
whatever it was I said

I would be doing--
I was standing
at the edge of the field--
I was hurrying

through my own soul,
opening its dark doors--
I was leaning out;
I was listening

- Mary Oliver

SharonSalzberg's picture

it is almost the end indeed. In one of the early radio interviews I did for the book, which of course is called Real happiness: The Power of Meditation, a 28 day program I was asked this question:" What happens on day 29?" I think it's the best question!! My hope (and conviction) is that after 28 days of experimenting, and actually putting meditation into practice (in contrast to just thinking it's a good idea, which is generally a lot easier for us) we will have enough confidence and clarity to keep going if we wish to. So many times we are hampered by unreasonable expectations, like we should stop all thinking, or quite merciless self judgments. I know from my own experience and the experience of so many that I've taught that if we can put those things aside, and set realistic goals for expectations and length of practice etc, we can really bring meditation to our lives and see the benefits. May you all continue to enjoy the benefits of concentration, mindfulness and compassion!

lotusrainfive's picture

Final day, these 28 days went by fast, i meditated every day and will continue to do so, its sad when something ends, but its also the opening for something new, thanks again everybody.

phoenix47's picture

Could it be just this easy? I can feel myself resist it. However, I find the author's style and words a balm for my current times so I am intrigued and interested. Thank you.

SharonSalzberg's picture

Putting it into practice does tend to be challenging, and commonly we can experience resistance. That's why having realistic goals (like 20 minutes of practice a day, rather than 5 hours) can help. And keeping an eye on our motivation also helps. It can seem weird or selfish to do something for ourselves sometimes, but building a resource within of presence, and balance, and clarity is all to the good, for others as well as ourselves.

LindaG's picture

Yesterday, day 26 I did not meditate. The only day of the 27, thus far. I was aware several times throughout a rather full day, that I had not meditated. Came a time at days end, when I realized I would not. It is ok. There is a part of me that competes for first place; letting go last night somehow seemed to help liberate the competitor in me. I found the cushion quite easily today, and showed up for some intimate moments with myself. Impatience, relaxation, JEALOUSY, encouragement, soreness, all showed up - and were welcomed.

-LindaG

SharonSalzberg's picture

Letting go is such a great release, isn't it. And knowing we haven't failed when we don't meditate, or it feels crummy -- that we always have the renewing power of beginning again. And I like the idea of meditation being like showing up for intimate time with ourselves. We don't know what will emerge, but we can greet it all with interest and kindness.

lotusrainfive's picture

almost the end of our 28 days, hope everyone had a good learning experience, Thank you sharron, and thank you everyone.

drgayle's picture

It seems that everytime I sit, lately, I end up teary or crying. Is this common?

SharonSalzberg's picture

It is common that one goes through phases of getting teary or crying. Sometimes there is a story or memory connected to the feeling, sometimes just a feeling. There are even times when there isn't much of a feeling, just an energetic release. if you can observe your experience with balance and also kindness towards yourself, it is all onward leading.

mirrordrum's picture

hey drgayle.

like Linda, i don't know if it's common. i only know my own experience and what i read. there are so many books written on emotions and practice by western practitioners, i think you could safely say you're one among the multitude. :) emotions arise like thoughts. we can't stop them and, although i often do, we don't need to cling to them, push them away, turn them into stories, look for their causes or change them.

i wish you may touch your tears gently and with compassion as you return again and again to the breath.

may your tears water the seeds of compassion in your life.

with metta,

ellie _/\_

drgayle's picture

thanks, Ellie. It helps to hear your thoughts and encouragement on the matter...thanks so much!

LindaG's picture

While I'm not an expert on what's common, I can say that when I first began to practice teary tenderness often emerged. I just felt it was historical pain that never got the full feeling attention needed when the injury first occurred.

It still comes forward in my sitting, from time to time. I just label: oh yes this: tenderness. And, of course - breathe.

Be well,
Linda G

drgayle's picture

thanks, Linda. That is what I have been trying to do...just accept it, and assume it is something old that I cannot fully understand. But sometimes it is a bit overwhelming.....

Monty McKeever's picture

I just got caught up reading the comments here and I don't even know what to say....so many incredible people in this thread! Wonderful to see.

Thank you everybody! Thank you Sharon!

mirrordrum's picture

Monty--it's good to see your name.

may you be happy
may you know peace

ellie _/\_

m.denesha's picture

There are times when I experience "monkey mind" for days on end. What helps me is to meditate with a group or any guided session (CD's etc...) I find it is easier to stay focused/centered for weeks after while practicing alone.

SharonSalzberg's picture

Sometimes low energy makes for more monkey mind! that might be why you feel more concentrated sitting with others or hearing a voice guiding. I have had the same experience in a way, where walking meditation has been more concentrated than sitting, simply because it raises my energy. the other side though is that these patterns tend to shift over time, and you may well find that a non guided session alone feels quite different in a while.

mirrordrum's picture

i'm looking for some wisdom, dear fellow and sister travelers. i've hesitated to write this but i thought perhaps there might be some ideas for skillful practice in a situation in which i choose to be that's very difficult and this retreat is nearing an end. please bear with me.

several years ago, i began a correspondence with, and support of, the sister of a dear friend from childhood when i learned she was a lifer at California institute for women in corona. she was my friend's kid sister and i knew her for years when we were growing up.

before i started writing her, she had surgery for oral cancer. that was maybe 5 years ago or so. shortly afterward, about 4 years ago, she discovered a lump in her neck under her chin. she was afraid it was a recurrence of the cancer and tried for 4 years to get someone to take her seriously and check it out. when she told me about it this winter, i sent her a plan to use to address the doctors including what to say, questions to ask, what tests to request and a suggestion for what to do if they refused. my partner and i are both old social workers. :)

she did what i suggested, got a needle biopsy that came back positive and in succeeding months has learned that the cancer she feared has spread widely through her lymphatic system. in all likelihood, it will be terminal.

although she was due for parole 15 years ago and is in her 60s, in all likelihood she won't be released. if she has surgery and chemo or radiation, if she's sick, if she's dying, she won't be allowed visitors. the stories from the institute where she's imprisoned about mistreatment of elderly patients, and especially dying patients, are horrifying.

if i am to be of any support to her i know i must abandon my desire to fix things. i can't fix anything.

i must learn, and learn quickly, how to sit with both anger and grief for her so that when i write her, i don't increase her suffering. it's also important that i get my 'secondary' suffering in proper perspective. i've personally seen enough death from cancer that i let myself tell stories about her suffering and then i get nutty. i cared for both parents--my mother who died when i was 19 and my father when i was 42--so i know about what people go through even when they have family support, can die at home and have palliative care.

i'm trying to write her a letter right now and got so stuck i decided to write here and see if anything came to me. i keep feeling guilty because of all i have and can do that she can't. i go to sleep thinking about what it must be like to try sleeping in that place feeling powerless, alone, afraid.

it seems like too much to handle skillfully in so short a time. i assume she'll be having treatment, correspondence between us has a turn around time of almost a month, i can't talk to her by phone, i'm not allowed to send her anything except for a care package once every 3 months.

okay, i'm rambling and you get the gist.

i'm overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness for her and for myself with regard to her. i also suffer from the delusion that coming back to the breath, staying in the comfort of my present moment is somehow abandoning her. i recognize this as a long-standing delusion: if others are suffering, i should be suffering too. i think since i was a kid, i've practiced the belief that somehow i should suffer more, if possible--as though that would, what, get me off the hook? what hook?

so, first step. return to the breath. when i do that, i want to do one of two things: run or smash a wall. well, that would certainly be a skillful way to help my friend. good grief!

back to the letter. maybe having written this, i'll see a bit more clearly. or not.

may all beings be happy.
may they be free from physical suffering.
may they be free from mental suffering.
may they live always in peace and harmony.

ellie

LindaG's picture

Wow! Big, deep, and wide stuff! As I read your experience I couldn't help hear Larry Rosenberg's message from Living in the Light of Death. When we are up against aging, suffering, and death, the practice of dharma is the only thing that can help. We are in the depth of our experience of these things truly alone. Each breath we are WITH is the answer to powerlessness, fear, and the suffering of alone. While you cannot fix her situation, you can help her find relief in finding her breath - no matter the grimness of her situation. Open hearted loving kindness for yourself, and for her. I will hold that for you both, as well.

SharonSalzberg's picture

Very well said. In Burma there is a saying, sadhu sadhu sadhu, which is kind of like a Buddhist amen...literally means, "well said."

trijen's picture

This all resonates with me. I definitely notice my frequent urge to DO SOMETHING -- no matter how unskillful -- when I'm in a lot of emotional pain, which if acted upon of course makes me suffer more than I already was, along with the object of my acting out. It can indeed be like a drug; there can be a temporary relief at having done something reactive, followed by a resurgence of the original trigger feelings plus remorse. Over time I'm learning to leave a lot...of...space when possible after highly-charged feelings arise before choosing a response, hopefully one more in line with my wisdom and values. Meditation is invaluable for me in practicing this patience and refraining.

Jen

mirrordrum's picture

yes! Sharon and Jen. thank you.

the awareness of feeling helpless has been a great gift of mindfulness over the years in my primary relationship and increasingly with others.

my partner was a NICU social worker for 25 years. it took me about 20 years of mindfulness practice before i realized that every time she came home in distress after an extended death or something else painful at work, i'd try to get her out of it or get impatient. it wasn't till i stopped trying to change and just started noticing and naming the emotion that i realized it was helplessness. from that would flow extreme discomfort and then behavior that would try to shut off her feelings.

now, even though i realize i still do it sometimes, i can become aware of it and let go. much focus and continued beginning again allow me to stay in a quiet place and let her feel what she feels; let others feel what they feel. i not only don't have to fix anything, i can't fix anything. not fixing things isn't awful. i think it's the essence of what i love about the concept of kuan yin: she has the strength to hear the cries of the world.

somewhere this week, thanks to you folk, i'm slowly moving back to the 5 remembrances, which i love, and the awareness that all beings suffer. sometimes, most times, the best thing i can do is bear witness with compassion.

as Sharon often asks, 'can you soften? can you open?' i ask myself that a lot. even if i can't, then i can be aware of being hard and closed and that, too, is practice.

may all beings be happy
may they be free from enmity and danger
may the be free from suffering
may they know peace

ellie _/\_

mirrordrum's picture

thanks for this, Linda. i ended up laughing at how the mind can make such difficulties. smiling at myself i say, as Christopher Robin said to Pooh, 'silly old bear.'

and, 'breathe,' i say to myself. 'simply return to the breath.'

chop wood, carry water. breathe. that simple, that difficult.

so today, that's what i did as best i could. nothing changed yet so much weight fell away as i just kept laughing.

thanks again for reminding me. over and over and over, beginning again. silly old bear. :)

_/\_

SharonSalzberg's picture

I've noticed that feeling helpless is one of the most difficult feelings to bear. In Tibetan Buddhism they say that anger is what we pick up when we feel weak, so that we'll feel strong. It can feel better to have the energy of anger, rather than the depletion of helplessness...but not for long. We have to find other sources of strength, like in compassion, presence, wisdom. Your friend's situation sounds very sad. I will do lovingkindness for her, as well as for you.

mirrordrum's picture

thank you, Sharon. compassion, presence, wisdom. yes. it is easier now that i can envision holding her gently whatever happens. i have faith that i can do it now if i will keep practicing after the retreat ends.

LindaG's picture

Interesting, and helpful in my work as a psychotherapist. I also have read (and witnessed) that people turn to addictive behaviors when then feel helplessness. The sense of helplessness is so harmful to existence that to correct they make a CHOICE (no longer feeling helpless) to drink, gamble, have sex. The sense of relief kicks in from making a CHOICE, as opposed to the substance or action that is used. Keen awareness can help be an effective guide to choosing how to act. Obviously we can see how in unawareness, one chooses anger, addiction...unskillful actions.

mirrordrum's picture

yes, truly, LG, well-spoken indeed.

_/\_

trijen's picture

The thought that jumped to my mind is: Don't forget to offer lovingkindess towards yourself...It looks to me like you're helping your friend's sister to the best of your ability, in a voluntary and difficult situation. That can probably feel traumatic, given the circumstances and history you've described. Include yourself in your loving circle of concern...

Jen

SharonSalzberg's picture

Always good to remember lovingkindness towards oneself...and often hard to feel it is ok! But lovingkindness for ourselves isn't selfish or self-absorbed -- it is a way to build the inner abundance we need in order to take care of others!

mirrordrum's picture

it's apparently easier when i can put a sense of humor with it. smiling, or laughing, affectionately at myself, seeing the 'silly old bear,' opens a door for me.

i remember your story about getting ready to go on a trip or something a spilling stuff or dropping something and saying to yourself something to the effect that 'you're klutz but i love you anyway.' i've always liked that story though couldn't do it myself. funny the things that stick with me from your writings and those of others. good stuff.

mirrordrum's picture

thanks, Jen, for the reminder.

interestingly enough, i took a picture of myself for a card for my partner's b'day. as i can't set up a tripod, i just did it in the tatty old hall mirror and 'shopped in a background. shot from below, i can see my aging face, baggy eyes, wattles and all and for the first time ever, really, i thought, 'i love you.' and then up came the 'silly old bear' line. what a difference it's made in the last 2 days.

i'm able to write my friend now with greater ease. coming back to the breath. taking breaks. focusing on the present moment spent with her in reaching out as best i can with compassion.

and you, in Berkeley, where the freesias on north side should be blooming along rose street now, perfuming the evening air. i confess i do envy you.

thank you for being here.

with much lovingkindness,

ellie

trijen's picture

Thanks for sharing this, Ellie. That's a precious shift. And I'm glad you're feeling more at ease.
It's 46 degrees at mid-afternoon and I'm grateful. :-)

Jen

trijen's picture

Just following up on yesterday...I proved to myself once again that I can't always predict the future (huhn?! BIG smile face here...): as I sat w/Sharon's guided meditation on emotions from Week 3, the predominant emotion that came up for me was not any of the "difficult" ones but gratitude. A welcome visitor.

Mirrordrum, loved your succint "resistance is an opportunity to strengthen my practice." Thanks for sharing your positive take.

Jen

mirrordrum's picture

thanks, Jen. :)

SharonSalzberg's picture

I think that the neuroscience gives people a whole other orientation towards meditation, quite apart from "religion." It's also interesting to see that as neuroscience discovered neuroplasticity, the idea that brain circuitry and function could change depending on environment and training, our Western idea of mental training took on a whole other dimension with meditation. it really is a personal, private, independent means of doing mental training.

LindaG's picture

Helpful! I really am aware of the personal, private, and independent choice I'm engaged in as I sit, walk, lie - be with my practice. Sometimes, I have to quiet the "reporter" who shows up to spoil the intimacy :)

Haven't missed a day. Reminder to self: "I'm not better for my diligence, just more practiced. "

trijen's picture

Just showing up is 75% of it, for me...

LindaG's picture

Been confronting resistance to sitting each day, over this past weekend. Did do the walking meditation
Friday night. Saturday, decided to meditated during a 30 minute massage. I chose focusing on where the practioners hands were. So interesting to discover mind wanders away from such a pleasurable experience, too! Although comes back each time the focal point came into my awareness for centering.
Did the walking meditation today, again. Resistance presence, but commitment is too.

Anybody else dealing with resistance??

mirrordrum's picture

hey LG. i certainly am. the good news is, it's an old friend. i've been resistant to almost every discipline i've ever tried to practice and perhaps most of all to formal meditation. i have to just get myself in the room and in the chair and experience not wanting to be there. interestingly enough, some of my most focused meditations happen under those circumstances. "abandon all hope of fruition," i say to myself. that helps, i find.

i doubt that there's a meditator in the world who hasn't experienced at least some resistance. isn't that just part of the practice?

i love sharon's teaching to use things as opportunities to begin again. i've used her phrase, "over and over and over, we begin again" for many years, even when i wasn't meditating. it's one of the most helpful things i say to myself. now to add to that the idea that it's an opportunity, a possibility, a doorway, a fresh start is a fine thing. resistance is an opportunity, too, to strengthen my practice.

LindaG's picture

Yes, beginning again. Mind struggled with this thought yesterday: "You've been here before with religion, and you didn't like it." So, I struggle with the concept of commiting is better, means I'm better. You know, like going to church every Sunday, saying prayers, etc. Seems that turns into: "Just do it, and get that monkey off your back." I don't want that, and thankfully know to use breath to let thoughts fade. But I do wonder about that...

-LindaG

trijen's picture

Yeah, I'm dealing with some resistance, too. This time around it's from feeling flooded with difficult emotions regarding a significant relationship issue, and not wanting to formally sit with those feelings anymore. So here I go, predicting the future by assuming I'll have a "difficult" sit, and "adding" on to the feelings I'm having in THIS moment....

What I need (OK: want) is a mini-break from those feelings and the overwhelm, not yet more attention paid to them, in order to do self-care and stay sane. With the RAIN model -- I don't feel like any more Recognition or Acceptance is that helpful today, and I really need a break from the Investigation, so maybe I'll rest more in the Non-Identification, and cultivating faith that I won't always feel this way. And of course going back to the breath...

Seeing Sharon at the workshop in Berkeley, CA was a lovely and timely support to my practice. Love the synergy and synchronicity. Thanks, Sharon!

Thinking of everyone here sitting together as part of the 28-day challenge really helps. Thanks for our communal resolve! On that note, I'll go sit now...:-)

Jen

LindaG's picture

Haven't missed a day. But have noticed since getting back from my mini vacation more challenge to keep it up. I think it is related to the catch-up syndrome that often follows vacations. I sit with a lot of "to-do" energy in my mind. I found focusing on the the body touch points Sharon mentions in her book quite helpful with this.

LindaG

trijen's picture

Welcome home from your mini-vacation, LindaG. Thanks for the "to-do energy" phrase. I tend to sit with a lot of "to-do" energy in general. I'm a self-employed educator and practitioner in the arts, and it's often challenging for me to both "claim" time for my spiritual practice and to let go of the to-do energy while practicing. I once received some helpful advice: to schedule specific times for myself as if I were one of my own clients, and to honor myself and that scheduled time with the same respect and attention I would a client's. I hope your catching up is going smoothly! Namaste.

Jen