Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg explores the myriad benefits of
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Originally published in Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation—A 28-Day Program by Sharon
Salzberg. © Sharon Salzberg, 2011. Used by permission of Workman
Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved.