Read an Excerpt
Introduction Ben started meditating when he was an army reservist on active duty in Iraq. I became his teacher via e-mail. He told me that he felt meditation would help him deal with the stress and trauma that he faced every day and stay true to his deepest values. Sarah wanted to be a good stepmother. She thought learning to meditate would help her listen more patiently and better negotiate the complex relationships in her newly blended family. Diane took a meditation class I taught at the large media company where she’s a division manager. She was seeking more balance between her work life and her home life, she said, and a way to communicate with colleagues clearly and calmly no matter how crazy things got at the office. Jerry is a firefighter dealing with the aftermath of being a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Elena needed to concentrate on studying for her real estate licensing exam. Rosie hoped to cope better with chronic back pain. Lisa, the owner of a small catering company, told me that she wanted to stop feeling as if she were sleepwalking most of the time. “I’m on automatic pilot, disconnected from myself,” she said. “I’m so worried about the things on my to-do list, or about the future, that I’m totally missing my present. I feel as if I’m living my life behind my own back.” I’ve changed the names of some of my students and some identifying details, but their motivations are real, and so are the many ways that the practice of meditation has improved their lives. For thirty-six years, I’ve taught meditation to thousands of people, at the Insight Meditation Society retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, which I cofounded in 1975, and at schools, corporations, government agencies, and community centers all over the world. I’ve introduced the techniques you’re about to encounter to groups of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, police officers, athletes, teenagers, army chaplains and medics, doctors, nurses, burn patients, prisoners, frontline workers in domestic violence shelters, new moms and dads. My students come from every walk of life, ethnic background, and belief tradition. And they’re part of a national trend: A 2007 survey (the most recent data available) by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that more than twenty million Americans had practiced meditation in the previous twelve months. They did so, they told researchers, to improve their overall wellness; for help with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, or insomnia; and to deal with the symptoms and emotional strain of chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer. People also turn to meditation, I’ve found, because they want to make good decisions, break bad habits, and bounce back better from disappointments. They want to feel closer to their families and friends; more at home and at ease in their own bodies and minds; or part of something larger than themselves. They turn to meditation because human lives are full of real, potential, and imagined hazards, and they want to feel safer, more confident, calmer, wiser. Beneath these varied motivations lie the essential truths that we’re all alike in wanting to be happy and in our vulnerability to pain and unpredictable, continual change. Again and again I’ve seen novice meditators begin to transform their lives—even if they were initially resistant or skeptical. As I’ve learned through my own experience, meditation helps us to find greater tranquility, connect to our feelings, find a sense of wholeness, strengthen our relationships, and face our fears. That’s what happened to me. I started meditating in 1971, as an eighteen-year-old college student spending my junior year studying in India. I was looking for practical tools to ease the misery and confusion that I felt every day, the residue of a painful and chaotic childhood. My father left when I was four; my mother died when I was nine, and I went to live with my grandparents. When I was eleven, my grandfather died and my father briefly returned, until a suicide attempt spun him away into the mental health system, from which he never emerged. By the time I left for college, I’d lived in five different household configurations, each change precipitated by loss. I felt abandoned over and over again. The people who raised me were caring, but they were unable to speak openly about the things that had happened to me. I came to feel that I didn’t deserve much in life. I held my immense grief, anger, and confusion inside, fortifying my deep conviction that I was unworthy of love. I wanted with all my heart to find a sense of belonging, a steady source of love and comfort. At sixteen, I entered the State University of New York at Buffalo. During my second year I learned about Buddhism in a course on Asian philosophy. I was attracted to its unashamed, unafraid acknowledgment of the suffering in life. That eased my sense of isolation: I wasn’t the only one in pain! The Buddha, a prince turned spiritual teacher born in India about 563 b.c., wrote: “You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” Not only did the Buddha say that love for oneself is possible, but he also described this capacity as something we must nurture, since it’s the foundation for being able to love and care for others. This philosophy offered me a way to ease the suffering caused by my feelings of confusion and despair. Despite some doubts, the chance of a move from self-hatred to selflove drew me like a magnet. I wasn’t interested in acquiring a new religion; I just wanted relief from so much unhappiness. And so I went to India for an independent study program. When I got there, I heard about a respected teacher who was leading a meditation retreat for beginners and others. I was a bit disappointed to discover that meditation wasn’t as exotic as I’d expected—there were no mystical instructions delivered in a darkened chamber with a supernatural aura. Instead that first instructor launched my practice with the words, “Sit comfortably, and feel your breath.” Feel my breath? I thought in protest. I could have stayed in Buffalo to feel my breath! But I soon found out just how life-changing it would be simply to focus my attention on inhaling and exhaling in order to connect fully with my experience in a whole new way, one that allowed me to be kinder to myself and more open to others. Once I learned how to look deep within, I found the bright vein of goodness that exists in everyone, including me—the goodness that may be hidden and hard to trust but is never entirely destroyed. I came to believe wholeheartedly that I deserve to be happy, and so does everyone else. Now when I meet a stranger, I feel more connected, knowing how much we share. And when I meet myself in meditation, I no longer feel I’m encountering a stranger. Because of meditation, I’ve undergone profound and subtle shifts in the way I think and how I see myself in the world. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be limited to who I thought I was when I was a child or what I thought I was capable of yesterday, or even an hour ago. My meditation practice has freed me from the old, conditioned definition of myself as someone unworthy of love. Despite my initial fantasies when I began meditating as a college student, I haven’t entered a steady state of glorious bliss. Meditation has made me happy, loving, and peaceful—but not every single moment of the day. I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow. Now I can accept setbacks more easily, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because meditation has taught me how to cope with the profound truth that everything changes all the time.
What People are saying about this
“To those who have taken her courses (like me), [Real Happiness] contains all of the jewels of Sharon’s teachings plus more.”
—Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now
From the Publisher
"Real Happiness is a real treasure. Salzberg gives us simple, practical, effective methods to have a real shot at it! She helps us to stop our running madly in the wrong direction, to see the real thing right there, waiting for our tender, mindful awareness to enjoy its free reality. I love it and highly recommend it!"
- Robert Thurman, PhD, author of Inner Revolution and Infinite Life: Awakening the Bliss Within
?"Reading Real Happiness, I feel as if I have made a new friend, or been reunited with an old one. Sharon Salzberg brings meditation to life and, through her grace, shows us how we can come alive, as well. This is a masterful work: deep, warm and engaging. I want to give it to everyone I know."
- Mark Epstein, MD author of Thoughts without a Thinker and Going to Pieces without Falling Apart
"We’ve seen a few attempts at such a complete teaching of the Buddhist meditation practice and way of life but none has accomplished the high skillfulness of Sharon Salzberg’s remarkably clear transmission of the adventure of awakening. A 28-Day Plan for catching up with yourself by one of our most heartfull teachers, a presence partially responsible for bringing Buddhism to the West. A thoroughly modern gift from 2500 years ago by one of our favorite teachers.”
---Stephen Levine, author of Who Dies, and A Gradual Awakening
"In a voice that is wise and witty, personal, contemporary and engagingly friendly, Sharon Salzberg has written this wonderful book that will be accessible and encouraging to novice meditators as well as inspiring to committed practitioners."
- Sylvia Boorstein, author of Happiness Is an Inside Job
"I often suggest to my stressed-out patients that they meditate, but most don't know where to begin. Real Happiness is the perfect meditation prescription, with everything a first-timer could need.
- Frank Lipman, M.D., author of Revive
"This book is a veritable treasure box of meditations. Lucid and wise, Real Happiness is rich with Sharon Salzberg's lifetime of teaching meditation to thousands of people. Her voice is filled with humor, kindness and wisdom, and her meditation instructions are practical and accessible. This is one of the great books on why and how to meditate."
- Roshi Joan Halifax, Founding Abbot Upaya Zen Center
"In these pages, Sharon Salzberg lays out a step-by-step program for developing mindfulness, insight, and loving kindness in just 28 days—and for taking these practices into the rest of your life. A simple, straightforward way to learn the most essential practices of Buddhist meditation, from one of the most renowned meditation teachers in the West today.”
- Dzogchen Ponlop, author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom
"Real happiness and joy through the power of meditative awareness is precisely what beloved Buddhist teacher and pioneer Sharon Salzberg delivers to us in this welcome new contribution to the important emerging field of conscious evolution through attention training and wisdom development. Based upon and backed by ancient timeless contemplative tradition as well as modern neuroscientific research and experiential neuroDharma experiments, Sharon's four week program for developing insight meditation, mindfulness, and her specialty of loving-kindness clearly instructs and awakens us, leading step by step to the discovery of who we are, why we are here, and how to realize a more fulfilling life and more harmonious world. I heartily recommend this to anyone seeking self-realization and inner peace, well being and enlightenment."
- Lama Surya Das
“Salzberg speaks from experience…an extraordinary teacher.”
- O, The Oprah Magazine
“Sharon Salzberg has offered a gift of peace to the world.”