Earlier this week, the Dalai Lama Center had the opportunity to speak with Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of the New York Times bestseller Real Happiness - The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program.
As one of the most influential teachers of Buddhist meditation in the West, Salzberg has been teaching and leading retreats for over three decades and is well known for her emphasis on lovingkindness (metta).
On July 18th and 19th, Salzberg will be hosting a lecture and dialogue, “The Power of Meditation” and a workshop, “Lovingkindness,” to help teach others how to cultivate their own “real happiness” through a metta based meditation practice.
Metta meditation involves actively cultivating positive emotional states towards others, such as forgiveness, love, and compassion.
Salzberg discussed with the DLC why she chose lovingkindness as her primary focus, and she shared some valuable insights for both novice and experienced meditators.
“The biggest problem is that we bring a lot of assumptions into the [meditation] process. Nowadays, the single most common response I hear is ‘I’m so stressed out.’ But also, what concerns me is that people say, ‘Oh, I tried [meditation] once and I failed at it, because I couldn’t stop thinking, I couldn’t have all of these beautiful thoughts. None of that really points to what meditation is or isn’t.”
“You can have the sleepiness or the distraction and relate to it with compassion and awareness -- that’s what is considered to be good meditation,” explains Salzberg. Whether or not you’re just beginning, “it’s important that you’re not adding any extra burden.”
The beauty of metta meditation is that it is essentially a “meta” practice. When we relate to the process in a non-judgmental, gentle way, we learn to treat ourselves with the same compassion and equanimity that we extend to others. As such, we begin to develop a sense of inner resilience.
According to Salzberg, this resilience has practical implications for those who suffer from “burn out,” a common phenomenon amongst those in caregiving positions. Drawing upon her experiences working with researchers such as Dr. Richard Davidson and Dr. Tania Singer, Salzberg discussed what she referred to as a “compassionate response”, which is a component of resilience that she believes to be distinct from empathy.
“We can feel someone’s pain genuinely, which is essential, but maybe we’re frightened by that or overwhelmed by that. Or, we can have a particular response that includes resilience and compassion.”
Salzberg explained that a “compassionate response” necessitates being kind to oneself, as well as those around us. Metta meditation can go a long way toward developing this skill.
Next week, Salzberg hopes to touch more on these issues, while offering guidance to those who are interested in both beginning or enriching their practice.
“I’d like people to come out of this having gained confidence, so if they wish to pursue a meditation practice then they’re quite capable of doing so, and clarity, so when they do pursue a practice they will be less confused by the inevitable thoughts and judgments that our mental habits produce.”