Best-selling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg/Photo Courtesy of Sharon Salzberg

Sometimes in the crazy swirl of life, it feels like there’s no time to stop. But that’s just what Sharon Salzberg teaches people to do. Salzberg is a New York Times best selling author, a teacher of meditation and mindfulness and one of the co-founders of the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts. She explains how best to practice mindfulness here:

Q: OK, mindfulness seems to be all the rage right now, but why do it? Why meditate? Why be mindful? What does that do for us?

Salzberg: Mindfulness has a lot of benefits. One is simply connecting with our lives as we live them. If you drink your coffee while reading your paper, and checking your emails, with the TV on, that can lead to you feeling perpetually disconnected and unfulfilled. You may think, you need to get different coffee, or grind it differently, and that would make you feel more satisfied, instead of realizing, ‘Maybe the first step is really actually inhabiting our life and really connecting to it every once in awhile.’ Sometimes, just drink the cup of coffee and experience it fully.

Mindfulness is simply the perception of what’s fully happening in the moment not distorted by bias, playing old stories, usually that have something to do with regret, over and over and over, or anticipating future events that most likely will never happen.

Mindfulness helps relieve anxiety and can give us a real sense of connection and fulfillment, as well as insight and understanding. The idea is, by developing a different relationship with our experience, we get to see it differently. If an emotion comes up, and we start fighting it, there’s not a lot of learning going on. If we fall into it and become overwhelmed, there’s not a lot of learning going on. Mindfulness helps us develop a different, kinder relationship with ourselves, to see much more deeply into all of our experience.

Q: How does practicing mindfulness change people?

Look at how you speak to yourself when you make a mistake. Do you pile on endlessly, or do you have more resilience? When you talk to a stranger, are you just lost in all the emails you need to write, or can you actually listen more? Do you sometimes just drink that cup of coffee and feel fulfillment in the smaller things that come your way? Can you be less swayed by others’ impressions of somebody, and be more determined to see things for yourself? And figure things out, and how you feel about them, or whether you want to pursue them?

You’re just much more aware of when you’re there and when you’re not there, and how to bring yourself back to paying attention.

One guy came up to me and said, ‘I was going to stop meditating because I thought I wasn’t changing or benefiting from it. Then my kids told me, Please don’t stop. You’re not so angry, you really listen.’ Sometimes other people see changes in us before we see it in ourselves.

Q: Many people say they’ve tried and failed at meditating or being mindful. Studies have found some people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts. Why is hard to be where we are?

Salzberg: It’s actually not hard to do for a moment. It’s hard for more than a moment or two. That’s the work. But it’s not such an awesome skill that it’s unimaginable. It’s right here. The whole practice is – Don’t worry where your mind wandered. It’s coming back that’s most important.

People say they feel like failures. But you can’t fail. When we realize our mind has wandered off like a monkey, it’s in that moment we have a chance to be really different, instead of reinforcing old habits. Instead of lambasting ourselves that we didn’t meditate perfectly, we let go and start over. And if your mind wanders in the next ten seconds, you let go and start over. And let go and start over. That’s strength training. We’re practicing resilience.

Mindfulness is not about what’s happening. It’s how you relate to what’s happening. If you sit and think, ‘I’m sleepy. I’m restless. I’m angry. I’m bored. My knee hurts. Then something itched.’ That could be an excellent meditation, depending on how you were with each of those experiences. Or it could be a terrible meditation if you fall into old habits, if anger rises and you think, ‘I’m going to be angry the rest of my life.’ Or sadness arises and you think, ‘I spent $10,000 in therapy just last year, I shouldn’t feel this way anymore.’ We pile on judgment on what’s already a painful or uncomfortable feeling. That’s the ordinary habit of mind. We’re just so unfair to ourselves.

Q: Why is that our ordinary habit of mind, to always go to the negative?

Salzberg: Evolutionary psychologists tell me we have a negativity bias. We are always looking out for the threat in the jungle, the animal about to leap on us and eat us, even if that’s not at all realistic to our current state. It takes training to also look on the other side of things.

Q: When people are just starting out, what do you recommend they do?

Salzberg: The most important thing, as far as I can tell, is consistency. It’s much better to have a smaller, realistic commitment that you will actually fulfill, than thinking, ‘I’m going to sit and meditate for eight hours on Saturday.’ Usually, when someone’s starting out, I’ll say, try 10 minutes a day. I saw research that found meditating for 10 minutes a day for two months establishes new brain patterns. I have friends who suggest five minutes a day, but I respond by saying the first five minutes are the hardest. That’s when you think, ‘I’ve got to call this person, I forgot to call that person, what’s that sound?’ If you sit through that, there’s a big discharge of stress, which is a good thing. But after those five minutes, you have a chance to go deeper. Common sense says 10 to 20 minutes a day, if you can do it. But I think it’s the everydayness that is going to prove to be more important.

What you’re looking for, over time, is to measure what is changing in your life, not what happens in the 10 or 20 minute session. That may not feel so glorious. But you’ll find over time that you’re different in life, and that’s what counts. That’s why we practice – to have a better life.

Sharon Salzberg is the author of Real Happiness, and Real Happiness at Work. Learn more about her work and her teaching schedule here

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