Practicing Real Happiness: An Interview With Sharon Salzberg

The renowned meditation teacher talks about the path of freedom

Posted Oct 29, 2014

Sharon Salzberg is a New York Times best selling author and teacher who co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein in 1974. Emphasizing vipassanā (insight) and mettā (loving-kindness) meditation practices, Salzberg has been leading retreats around the world for over three decades. Her books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995), A Heart as Wide as the World (1999) and Real Happiness - The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program (2010). I talked to my longtime friend and colleague about practice, compassion, and why happiness is more than what we think. 

Mark Matousek: Your last two books have been focused on what you call ‘real happiness’. Yet this state of well being has little to do with smiley-faced, New Age, rah-rah sunniness. Can you talk about the difference?

Sharon Salzberg: Of course. I remember meeting with the editor of my recent book, Real Happiness at Work, for the first time and she said, “What do you want the chapter headings to be about?” And I said, “Oh, burnout, meaninglessness, moral injury.” She looked completely aghast and asked, “How about resiliency, meaning, and integrity?” (laughs) So both my natural inclination and training in meditation are to start with admitting what’s hard. That’s actually the place we start. Let’s pay attention to what hurts, to suffering, and then we make our way to integrate it in some way that’s healthy. The whole point about suffering is that it’s not just the experience that’s significant but how we’re relating to the experience. So many times, on top of what’s difficult or challenging, we add shame and dread and anger and all of that, rather than compassion. That’s really a lot of the work.

MM: So you could call it a more mindful kind of happiness?

SS: Certainly. When I toured with the first book, Real Happiness, a few years back, many people said they thought about happiness as something superficial, self-preoccupied, and selfish, kind of like being giddy. Even with this one, people have pushed back, saying things like “We don’t call it play. We call it work! You’re not supposed to be happy. How do you expect to have fun all the time when you’re working, as though happiness meant having fun all the time! So part of what’s exciting is really re-defining happiness and expanding our definition because I don’t see it as something selfish or superficial at all. I see it as a deep reservoir of wholeness, or a peace out of which we can be generous and interested in others and try to help and be connected, because without it, we’re just depleted and exhausted.

MM: I know that you had a lot of early loss and trauma in your life. How did that lead your becoming a seeker and discovering Buddhism?

SS: I think the two were intrinsically connected. I went to India when I was eighteen and I can’t imagine that I would have gone without really feeling the need to go. Back in the day, it required tremendous motivation to want to undertake meditation or explore these things, because they weren’t so easy to find. I went to India before I’d ever gone to California, having grown up in New York City, and it was very big.

I went to college at the age of sixteen and in my sophomore year did an Asian philosophy course which, as far as I can tell looking back, was kind of happenstance honestly. I had a philosophy requirement. I thought, I’ll just take that. And it completely changed my life. The first section of the course was about Buddhism – the Buddha’s unafraid, unashamed acknowledgement of the suffering in life. Because I did have a very difficult and traumatic childhood (like many people do), and it was a family system where nothing was ever spoken about so I didn’t know what to do with all of that pain within me. I felt very isolated, and here was the Buddha saying right out loud, this is a part of life, this is inevitable, this is natural.

Then what I heard was, One can do something about that pain. Not in the sense of wiping it out or denying it. One can relate differently so that you don’t feel so isolated. It made me feel the power of connection and being a part of the human community. You didn’t feel so angry. You felt compassion for yourself instead. There seemed to be a lot of possibility. What I heard was that there were these tools, actual techniques, which one could undertake. They weren’t religious, they weren’t demanding of a belief system or anything like that’ they were actual, practical tools and if you did this thing called meditation, that it would change your life. It would change your relationship to everything. Not only suffering but also pleasure.

I realized that there was a chance to really have a different life. The school I was going to had an independent study program and if you created a project that they approved of, you could go anywhere for a year, theoretically, study something, and then come back for your final year. So I created a project and said I want to go to India and study meditation. The school said okay. So I took my student loans and my scholarship and went off to India.

MM: When you began your meditation practice, did you come up against a lot of old darkness that you hadn’t been able to look at before?

SS: Definitely. There were a lot of painful emotional experiences. There were certainly periods of turmoil and confusion. The saving grace was that I felt a kind of confidence in my teachers and in the process – not in myself particularly – but I felt like I was ‘held’ in a very strong way.

I learned that everything is a process and not a straight shot. That’s one of the things I say these days wherever I’m speaking – that nothing is a straight shot. The reality of life is such that we move forward, fall down, and start again. That’s the nature of everything. Part of what resiliency is, is actually knowing how to start again and not feeling so discouraged or defeated because due to unrealistic expectations. Every kind of healing, every endeavor, is really going to be marked by that.

MM: Years ago, you said something beautiful that I’ve never forgotten. You said that every time we realize we’re lost in thought – in meditation practice, for example – that is a moment of enlightenment.

SS: It’s true. So much opens up for us in that moment. You’re just lost in thought, and then comes that magic moment when you realize, “It’s been quite some time since I last felt a breath.” In that moment, we have the chance to change, to behave differently instead of judging ourselves or feeling like a failure. We realize, Oh, I have a chance right now to let go and to start over. To begin again. That principle writ large in our lives is to say, “Listen, we have to do it over and over again and that’s fabulous that we have that chance. It’s not the end of the story when we’ve made a mistake or we’ve strayed from our chosen course. It is remembering that we have the capacity to start again.

MM: So we lapse, forget, and lose our way – but that is not a sign of failure. Because we respond differently?

SS: Right. The quality of response can change. We’re not locked into destructive habits. I’m angry, therefore I’m going to lash out. Or I’m grieving, therefore I’m going to hide. Hurting someone else, hurting ourselves -- that can end. We can develop the capacity to feel something without getting lost in it and without having it drive us into action. The same things continue to arise but it is certainly not the way it once was.

MM: Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to give up?

SS: Oh, yeah! (laughs)

MM: On practice?

SS: Sure. But I never did. It wasn’t because I thought the practice wasn’t not worth doing. I thought I couldn’t do it. I thought, “Okay, it’s worked for 2,500 years but it’s not gonna work for me. I can’t do it, I can’t get it right. I’ve hit a wall.”

MM: And how many years was it before you felt comfortable teaching meditation?

SS: I started teaching when I was twenty-one, not because I thought I should but because one of my teachers told me to. When I was finally leaving India in 1974, I was absolutely convinced that I was coming back to the U.S. for a very brief visit and then I was going to turn around and spend the entire rest of my life in there. I went to see one of my teachers who lived in Calcutta, Deepa Ma, just to say goodbye. She was an extraordinary model for me because she had had a very hard life. I told her, “Oh, I’ll be back very soon,” and she said, “When you go back to the States, you’ll be teaching with Joseph. My friend Joseph Goldstein had just gone back six months before. And I said, “No, I won’t!” Deepa Ma said two things that were really essential for me. One was, “You really understand suffering. That’s why you should teach.”

It was an enormous gift because I never thought of it – you know, my life -- as a credential for anything. And then she said, “You can do anything you want to do. It’s your thinking that you can’t do it that is going to stop you.” I came back to the States and sure enough, started teaching with Joseph.

MM: How does it feel to be called one of the pioneers of American Buddhism? When you hear that, how do you respond?

SS: I was thinking about that the other day. It actually feels fine because it’s true. It would be crazy to deny it. It’s a complicated question because I don’t think of what I teach as Buddhism so much as a meditation practice with a set of values. My approach isn’t particularly Buddhist in that way. Like Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield and I didn’t sit around in the mid-70s and say, Let’s start a worldwide movement. You know? It wasn’t like that. It was simply that these practices have been of enormous benefit, which we’ve each been told by our own teachers to teach, so let’s see if we can make it work here for a little bit. When we started the Insight Meditation Society, our mantra for the first year was, we can always close in a year. We can always close in a year. That was 38 years ago.

MM: And now mindfulness has become a mainstream word. How does it feel not to be so avant garde?

SS: There’s a vast interest in mindfulness and compassion, which I think is fabulous. I can remember when five people in the whole country used the word mindfulness and I knew all of them. Those days are long gone.