Sharon Salzberg - In Her Own Words
How did you first get involved in meditation?
I went to college at SUNY Buffalo and in my sophomore year took an Asian philosophy course. That course was the first time I understood the potential of meditation to ease someone’s emotional turmoil and confusion (and I had a lot of emotional turmoil and confusion.) The school also had an independent study program where you could submit a project, and if they approved it, you could go anywhere in the world for a year and then come back and do a cross-cultural study. I wrote out an application saying I wanted to go to India to study meditation, they accepted it, and off I went!
What were some of your favorite memories of your time in India?
I loved the generosity of the Indian people. Some were really poor but all were happier if they could feed you, or offer you tea. And every train ride with strangers had the possibility of ending in an intense philosophical discussion.
I met some of my best friends at my very first meditation retreat in January 1971, in Bodhgaya India. I met my first meditation teachers there, who opened the door for me to have a completely different, far happier life.
What are some challenges in turning your in-person training into book form?
There’s reciprocity of communication in a face-to-face teacher-student relationship, with non-verbal clues, tone of voice, and the ability to question all part of the mix. It’s not always easy to transfer that nuance to the written page. I also feel a strong personal commitment to people feeling they belong, so am determined to avoid jargon, inside jokes etc. With a book there won’t be the normal feedback loop of seeing a person look uncomfortable or uncomprehending and being able to adjust language and expression. So I try to be extra diligent.
Do you ever encounter “writer’s block”? What suggestions do you have for writers who struggle with that?
The hardest time I’ve had writing was with my book Faith; Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. It was my most personal book as well. I asked advice of Susan Griffin, whom I admire so much as a writer (and person). Amongst the helpful things she told me was, “You should stop thinking of yourself as the person who is writing this book, and start thinking of yourself as the first person who gets to read this book.”
She was so correct. I had been struggling with feeling this responsibility for doing justice to the topic. With that, I got self-conscious, and my writing got over-embellished and somewhat unreal. When I saw myself more as the lucky person who first got to see what was on the screen, my ego got out of the way and everything got simpler and more direct.
You undoubtedly have a lot of demands on your time. What tips do you have for incorporating meditation into a busy lifestyle?
I am the kind of person who does well with structure. I am served by the commitment to practice meditation every day. My usual goal is 40 minutes a day, but I know that if I only seem to have 5 minutes to devote to practice, I’ll do the 5 minutes rather than postponing until tomorrow, thinking 5 minutes is not enough. I think the everydayness is the most important thing for anyone, even if it is for just 1 minute. So I have that resolve- not to let a day go by- and it works for me. If one’s resolve is unrealistic or punitive (e.g., I’ll sit 6 hours every day and if I don’t, I won’t go to sleep) of course it won’t work. It can and should be very loving. 1 minute is something we can all do, and hopefully we can do more.
What are tips for meditating when one’s mind simply will not settle down?
If your mind won’t settle down you can incorporate the restless energy in your body and even the wild stirrings of your thoughts and feelings into your meditation. Instead of trying to repress them all, we pay attention to them with as much balance and compassion as possible. And you can always experiment with walking meditation to help move the restless energy through your body,
For our readers who have always dreamt of writing a book, what advice would you give them?
Write and write. Just tell the truth as you see it. Don’t worry about flourishes or vast readership or a Nobel in literature (or peace). Just get it on the page or on the screen.