Sharon Salzberg is one of most well-known and loved teachers of meditation. Her ability to break down often esoteric practice with simplicity and humor has endeared her to meditators of all levels. After a childhood filled with trauma and sadness, Sharon found her path while studying meditation in India. In 1976, she established, together with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, which now ranks as one of the most prominent and active meditation centers in the Western world.

Sharon has served as a panelist with the Dalai Lama. She is a regular contributor to the The Huffington Post, and was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine for several years. Her approachable style of teaching meditation has been highlighted in print and on radio programs around the world. Sharon’s books on meditation are essential guides to living a kinder and accepting existence. She is the author of Real Happiness The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program and Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Her latest book, Real Happiness at Work is expected in January of 2014.

Nancy Alder: If you had to say in one sentence why someone should begin and continue a meditation practice what would it be?

Sharon Salzberg: Meditation clarifies our minds and opens our hearts, and brings us to unusual depth and stability of happiness, whatever life brings.

NA: What is the most frequent question you get about meditating and what do you reply?

SS: One very familiar, very poignant comment goes something like: “I tried meditation once before. I failed at it.” Then follows a description of just what the person expected, which they failed to achieve. “I couldn’t make my mind blank.” “I couldn’t stop all thinking.” “ I couldn’t have only beautiful thoughts.”

I respond, as you might imagine, by saying “You cannot fail at meditation,” and describe the goals of meditation as none of the above, but rather as transforming our relationship to everything – thoughts, feelings, the body and the breath. We say all the time in teaching, “What comes up is not nearly as important as how you relate to what comes up.” So you might have extensive bouts of thinking exceedingly nasty thoughts, but because you are relating to those thoughts with mindfulness and compassion, that’s considered good meditation.

NA: You teach about the practice of Loving Kindness. Are there ever experiences where you struggle to practice loving kindness toward someone? What advice would you give to others about how to handle this struggle? How has loving kindness meditation changed your perspective on meditation and the world?

SS: There are many times when I have to remind myself that people who harm others are coming from a place of profound disconnection. It is not easy to recognize the pain such a person is in, especially because they may not be conscious of it themselves. They may present themselves to the world as just fine. If you believe human beings have a potential for deep connection, wisdom and love; the limitation in those peoples’ lives becomes clearer. As the Buddha said, “If you truly loved yourself, you would never harm another.”

I have seen that there are a number of people who benefit from doing loving kindness meditation, either prior to or along with mindfulness meditation. It varies from person to person of course, but for many, their practice of mindfulness will bring along old habits of self-judgment and ruthless criticism, so it is not actually mindfulness. The quality of mindfulness does not just know something is happening – e.g. there is an emotion, a sensation – but knows without clinging or condemning. It is because of that balanced relationship to the moment that mindfulness serves as the platform for insight…if we feel an emotion, for example, and struggle against it right away, there is not going to be a lot of learning going on. In the same way, if we are swamped by that emotion, overcome by it, there won’t be enough space for there to be learning or insight. So mindfulness needs to not be judgmental to really be mindfulness, which means it needs a basis of loving kindness.

NA: You are working on a new book. With so many books on Buddhism and meditation available, what fresh area are you addressing and when can we expect to read it?

SS: My new book is Real Happiness at Work. I write about the eight pillars of happiness: balance, concentration, compassion, communications, meaning, integrity, resilience and open awareness. I’m especially happy about the book because I consulted with a really wide variety of people: hedge fund managers, lawyers, police officers, hospice nurses and domestic violence shelter workers to writers and artists and CEOs and people who do manual labor…and many more. I heard about their experiences at work, their struggles, and the tools that have helped them take these values and bring them in a real way to their jobs, every day. The book comes out in January 2014.

NA: You travel and teach about meditation all over and write about it frequently. How does the reach of the practice in 2013 amaze you? What can you say about the evolution of the practice in the United States?

SS: Every day seems to reveal a new piece of research about meditation, or new clinical applications of mindfulness or compassion practice, or new corporations or foundations or non-profits bringing mindfulness to work.
I am totally amazed at the spread of interest in meditation. When I first came back from studying in India in 1974, I would be asked in social situations what I did. When I replied, “I teach meditation” they would frequently look at me as though to say “That is weird,” and sort of sidle away.

All these years later, the most common response I hear when I tell people I teach meditation is, “I’m so stressed out. I could use some of that!” A response I also sometimes hear, which amuses me a lot is, “My partner should really meet you!”

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