I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to be alone with their thoughts. Actually, it may be the opposite. Because I’m so obsessed with avoiding my negative thoughts that I must always be thinking of something else. Thinking to avoid thinking. Because of this, I’ve never let myself disengage. I can’t turn off. I truly believe it’s why I’ve also never been good at yoga. I’m too self aware. I can’t turn my brain off and just focus on my body.
For these reasons, meditation has always been something I admired from afar but refused to attempt. The idea of making my mind blank seemed impossible. There was no way I’d be able to do it.
It was one of those awful catch-22s. Meditation was supposed to help those who are stressed and stuck in their minds but only if you’re able to get out of the mind. How could someone like me ever be able to do that?
Then, I discovered Sharon Salzberg.
Sharon Salzberg is a New York Times Best selling author and teacher of Buddhist meditation practices in the West. In 1974, she co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Her emphasis is on vipassanā (insight) and mettā (loving-kindness) methods, and has been leading meditation retreats around the world for over three decades. All of these methods have their origins in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
It’s safe to say Sharon knows a thing or two about the art of meditation. While it’s a very in-depth subject with lots of different facts and techniques, I’m just going to lay out the gems of instruction and wisdom that stuck out to me. These are quotes from her four books, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, A Heart as Wide as the World, Real Happiness – The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program which was on The New York Times Best Seller list in 2011, and the follow-up Real Happiness at Work .
I’d like to start, however, with an excerpt from on Sharon’s view on meditation. The key takeaway of it is, “we don’t want to stop our thoughts, but to change our relationship with them.”
This is an important thing to remember when you are learning to meditate. Most beginners think the goal is to sit for a half an hour and have absolutely no thoughts during that time. Over time, you may get better at suspending thinking during meditation, but what is more important, especially when you are first learning, is to begin to recognize your thoughts as merely thoughts. Your thoughts are not you; they do not define who you are. They are not necessarily important or interesting or true. Thoughts are just these things your mind emits all day.
So rather than try to repress them, instead get curious about them when you realize that you’re lost in thought rather than watching your breath during meditation. Are you remembering the past? Worrying about the future? Planning? Ruminating? Fantasizing? In time, you will begin to see the thought patterns that reappear again and again, the same old stories you continually tell yourself. Many of your thoughts will start to seem a bit boring. And then you can begin to not take them so seriously and simply let them go more easily. This is what Sharon means by changing your relationship with your thoughts. This is the practice of meditation.
Some more quotes to understand mediation:
Buddha first taught metta meditation as an antidote: as a way of surmounting terrible fear when it arises.
People turn to meditation because they want to make good decisions, break bad habits & bounce back better from disappointments.
Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively.
The art of concentration is a continual letting go. We let go of what is inessential or distracting. We let go of a thought or a feeling, not because we are afraid of it or because we can’t bear to acknowledge it as a part of our experience; but, because it is UNNECESSARY.
Lastly, one of the core meditations is breathing. Below, Sharon teaches you show to truly focus on your breathing. Read and follow along right now. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, take a moment and realize it’s not difficult to start focusing on your breathing: This classic meditation can deepen concentration by teaching us to focus on the “in breath” and the “out breath.”
Sit comfortably on a cushion or chair and keep your back upright, without straining or overarching. If you can’t sit, then lie on your back on a yoga mat or folded blanket with your arms at your sides. Just be at ease and close your eyes, or gaze gently a few feet in front of you and aim for a state of alert relaxation.
Take three or four deep breaths, feeling the air as it enters your nostrils, fills your chest and abdomen, and flows out again. Then let your breathing settle into a natural rhythm, and just feel the breath as it happens, without trying to change it or improve it—all you have to do is feel it. Notice where you sense your breath most intensely. Perhaps it’s at the nostrils, or at the chest or abdomen.
Then rest your attention as lightly as a butterfly rests on a flower—only on that area—and become aware of the sensations there. For example, if you’re focusing on the breath at the nostrils, you may experience tingling, vibration, or pulsing, or you may observe that the breath is cooler when it comes in and warmer when it goes out. If you’re focusing on the breath at the abdomen, you may feel movement, pressure, stretching, or release.
You don’t need to name these feelings—simply let your attention rest on them, one breath at a time. (Notice how often the word rest comes up in this instruction. This is a very restful practice). You don’t need to make the inhalation deeper or longer or different from the way it is. Just be aware of it, one breath at a time.
Whenever you notice your attention has wandered and your mind has jumped to the past or the future, to judgment or speculation, don’t worry about it. Seeing your attention has wandered is the signal to gently let go of whatever has distracted you and return your attention to the feeling of the breath. If you have to let go over and over again, that’s fine—being able to more gracefully start over when we’ve become distracted or disconnected is one of the biggest benefits of meditation.