Real Happiness

Renowned Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg explores the myriad benefits of meditation.

Sharon Salzberg
21 March 2011
Photo by Kosal Ley

Meditation is essentially a way to train our attention so we can be more aware of both our inner workings and what’s happening around us. It’s straightforward and simple, but it isn’t easy.

People have been transforming their minds through meditation for thousands of years. Every major world religion includes some form of contemplative exercise, though today meditation is often practiced apart from any belief system. Meditation may be done in silence and stillness, by using voice and sound, or by engaging the body in movement. All forms emphasize the training of attention.

“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” the pioneering psychologist William James wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. “Only those items I notice shape my mind.” At its most basic level, attention—what we allow ourselves to notice—literally determines how we experience and navigate the world. The ability to summon and sustain attention is what allows us to job hunt, juggle, learn math, make pancakes, aim a cue and pocket the eight ball, protect our kids, and perform surgery. It lets us be discerning in our dealings with the world, responsive in our intimate relationships, and honest when we examine our own feelings and motives. Attention determines our degree of intimacy with our ordinary experiences and contours our entire sense of connection to life.

The content and quality of our lives depend on our level of awareness—a fact we are often not aware of. There’s an old story, usually attributed to a Native American elder, that’s meant to illuminate the power of attention. A grandfather imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.” The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight. The grandfather answers, “The one I feed.”

But that’s only part of the picture. True, whatever gets our attention flourishes, so if we lavish attention on the negative and inconsequential, they can overwhelm the positive and the meaningful. But if we do the opposite, refusing to deal with or acknowledge what’s difficult and painful, pretending it doesn’t exist, then our world is out of whack. Whatever doesn’t get our attention withers—or retreats below conscious awareness, where it may still affect our lives. In a perverse way, ignoring the painful and the difficult is just another way of feeding the wolf. Meditation teaches us to open our attention to all of human experience and all parts of ourselves.

Meditation is pragmatic, the psychological and emotional equivalent of a physical training program: If you exercise regularly, you get certain results—stronger muscles, denser bones, increased stamina. If you meditate regularly, you also get certain results, including greater calm, and improved concentration and more connection to others. But there are other rewards.

You’ll begin to spot the unexamined assumptions that get in the way of happiness.

These assumptions we make about who we are and the way the world works—what we deserve, how much we can handle, where happiness is to be found, whether or not positive change is possible—all greatly influence how and to what we pay attention.

I was reminded of how assumptions can get in our way when I visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., to view a work of art by a sculptor friend. Eagerly I checked every room, peered at every display case and pedestal—no sculpture. Finally I gave up. As I headed for the exit, I glanced up—and there was her beautiful piece. It was a bas-relief hanging on the wall, not the freestanding statue I’d expected; my assumptions had put blinders on me and almost robbed me of the experience of seeing what was really there—her amazing work. In the same way, our assumptions keep us from appreciating what’s right in front of us—a stranger who’s a potential friend, a perceived adversary who might actually be a source of help. Assumptions block direct experience and prevent us from gathering information that could bring us comfort and relief, or information that, though saddening and painful, will allow us to make better decisions.

Here are some familiar assumptions you might recognize: We have nothing in common. I won’t be able to do it. You can’t reason with a person like that. Tomorrow will be exactly like today. If I just try hard enough, I’ll manage to control him/her/it/them. Only big risks can make me feel alive. I’ve blown it; I should just give up. I know just what she’s going to say, so I don’t really need to listen to her. Happiness is for other people, not me. Statements like these are motivated by fear, desire, boredom, or ignorance. Assumptions bind us to the past, obscure the present, limit our sense of what’s possible, and elbow out joy. Until we detect and examine our assumptions, they short-circuit our ability to observe objectively; we think we already know what’s what.

You’ll stop limiting yourself. When we practice meditation, we often begin to recognize a specific sort of conditioned response—previously undetected restrictions we’ve imposed on our lives. We spot the ways we sabotage our own growth and success because we’ve been conditioned to be content with meager results. Meditation allows us to see that these limits aren’t inherent or immutable; they were learned and they can be unlearned—but not until we recognize them. (Some common limiting ideas: She’s the smart one, you’re the pretty one. People like us don’t stand a chance. Kids from this neighborhood don’t become doctors.) Training attention through meditation opens our eyes. Then we can assess these conditioned responses— and if parts of them contain some truth, we can see it clearly and put it to good use; if parts of them just don’t hold up under scrutiny, we can let them go.

You’ll weather hard times better. Meditation teaches us safe ways to open ourselves to the full range of experience—painful, pleasurable, and neutral—so we can learn how to be a friend to ourselves in good times and bad. During meditation sessions we practice being with difficult emotions and thoughts, even frightening or intense ones, in an open and accepting way, without adding self-criticism to something that already hurts. Especially in times of uncertainty or pain, meditation broadens our perspective and deepens our sense of courage and capacity for adventure. Here’s how you get braver: little by little. In small, manageable, bearable increments, we make friends with the feelings that once terrified us. Then we can say to ourselves, I’ve managed to sit down, face some of my most despairing thoughts and my most exuberantly hopeful ones without judging them. That took strength; what else can I tackle with that same strength? Meditation lets us see that we can accomplish things we didn’t think ourselves capable of.

You’ll rediscover a deeper sense of what’s really important to you. Once you look beneath distractions and conditioned reactions, you’ll have a clearer view of your deepest, most enduring dreams, goals, and values.

You’ll have a portable emergency resource. Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively. You’re likely to find yourself in situations—having a heated argument at work, say, or chauffeuring a crowd of rambunctious kids to a soccer game—when you can’t blow off steam by walking around the block, hitting the gym, or taking a time-out in the tub. But you can always follow your breath.

You’ll be in closer touch with the best parts of yourself. Meditation practice cultivates qualities such as kindness, trust, and wisdom that you may think are missing from your makeup but are actually undeveloped or obscured by stress and distractions. Meditation practice gives us the chance to locate these qualities so we can access them more easily and frequently.

You’ll recapture the energy you’ve been wasting trying to control the uncontrollable. I once led a retreat in California during a monsoonlike rainstorm. It’s so soggy and unpleasant that people aren’t going to have a good retreat, I thought. I felt bad for the participants; in fact, I felt responsible. For a few days I wanted to apologize to everybody for the rain until a thought flickered: Wait a minute. I’m not even from California; I’m from Massachusetts. This isn’t my weather. This is their weather. Maybe they should apologize to me! And then the voice of deeper wisdom arose: Weather is weather. This is what happens.

We’ve all had weather moments—times when we’ve felt responsible for everyone’s good time or well-being. It’s our job, we think, to fix the temperature and humidity, or the people around us (if we could only get our partner to quit smoking, consult a map, stick to a diet). We even think we’re capable of totally controlling our own emotions—I shouldn’t ever feel envious, or resentful, or spiteful! That’s awful! I’m going to stop. You might as well say, “I’m never going to catch a cold again!” Though we can affect our physical and emotional experiences, we can’t ultimately determine them; we can’t decree what emotions will arise within us. But we can learn through meditation to change our responses to them. That way we’re spared a trip down a path of suffering we’ve traveled many times before. Recognizing what we can’t control (the feelings that arise within us; other people; the weather) helps us have healthier boundaries at work and at home—no more trying to reform everyone all the time. It helps us to stop beating up on ourselves for having perfectly human emotions. It frees energy we expend on trying to control the uncontrollable.

You’ll understand how to relate to change better—to accept that it’s inevitable and believe that it’s possible. Most of us have a mixed, often paradoxical attitude toward change. Some of us don’t think change is possible at all; we believe we’re stuck forever doing things the way we’ve always done them. Some of us simultaneously hope for change and fear it. We want to believe that change is possible, because that means that our lives can get better. But we also have trouble accepting change, because we want to hold on permanently to what’s pleasurable and positive. We’d like difficulties to be fleeting and comfort to stick around.

Trying to avoid change is exhausting and stressful. Everything is impermanent: happiness, sorrow, a great meal, a powerful empire, what we’re feeling, the people around us, ourselves. Meditation helps us comprehend this fact—perhaps the basic truth of human existence, and the one we humans are most likely to balk at or be oblivious to, especially when it comes to the biggest change of all: Mortality happens, whether we like it or not. We grow old and die. (In the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, a wise king is asked to name the most wondrous thing in the universe. “The most wondrous thing in the entire universe,” he says, “is that all around us people are dying and we don’t believe it will happen to us.”) Meditation is a tool for helping us accept the profound fact that everything changes all the time.

Meditating offers a chance to see change in microcosm. Following our breath while observing how thoughts continually ebb and flow can help us realize that all elements of our experience are in constant flux. During a meditation session, it’s natural to go through many ups and downs, to encounter both new delights and newly awakened conflicts that have bubbled up from the unconscious mind. Sometimes you tap into a wellspring of peace. Other times you might feel waves of sleepiness, boredom, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Snatches of old songs may play in your head; long-buried memories can surface. You may feel wonderful or awful. Daily meditation will remind us that if we look closely at a painful emotion or difficult situation, it’s bound to change; it’s not as solid and unmanageable as it might have seemed. The fear we feel in the morning may be gone by the afternoon. Hopelessness may be replaced by a glimmer of optimism. Even while a challenging situation is unfolding, it is shifting from moment to moment, varied, alive. What happens during meditation shows us that we’re not trapped, that we have options. Then, even if we’re afraid, we can find a way to go on, to keep trying.

This is not a Pollyanna sentiment that everything will be just fine, according to our wishes or our timetable. Rather it is an awakened understanding that gives us the courage to go into the unknown and the wisdom to remember that as long as we are alive, possibility is alive. We can’t control what thoughts and emotions arise within us, nor can we control the universal truth that everything changes. But we can learn to step back and rest in the awareness of what’s happening. That awareness can be our refuge.

Excerpted from Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation—a 28-Day Program by Sharon Salzberg, with permission of Workman Publishing Co.


Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness; her seminal work, Lovingkindness; and her latest, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.