In this interview, one of Buddhism’s most respected teachers in the West, shares her initial experiences with lovingkindness meditation, and the value of beginner’s mind. Sharon’s belief in the power of meditation as a conduit to happiness is the subject of her book, Real Happiness. Her latest book, Real Change is also now available.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): One of your main teachers was Sayadaw U Pandita. How did you meet him and would you share some experiences with him?
Sharon Salzberg (SS): I first met Sayadaw U Pandita when he came to our center in Barre, Massachusetts to teach a three-month retreat. We met with him six days a week to describe our practice. The idea was that you would tell him something very direct about your practice—like, “I fell asleep,” for example—and he’d give you feedback. His teaching style was such that he’d say the same thing again and again until something shifted in you, and then he’d go onto something else.
Each day, I would go in to see him and describe my practice. He’d look at me and say, “In the beginning it can be like that.” That would be his whole comment. Now, remember, I’d been practicing meditation for 14 years. I would come in the next day and describe something different. He’d say the same thing and I’d think, “But, I’m not a beginner.” At one point I felt I had this giant neon sign flashing, “I’m not a beginner!” This went on for a long time.
Finally, something shifted and I remembered that it was good to be a beginner and that this state was desirable. To have openness, to be present with what was going on—regardless of what I thought about it—was actually the goal. The day I got it, he stopped saying it.
IYM: At one point you changed meditation techniques. Why?
SS: In 1985, after 14 years of insight meditation (Vipassana)—and an entire practice primarily focused on awareness—I decided to journey to Burma to take a very structured intensive in lovingkindness meditation. This afforded me the opportunity to have some guidance from my teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita.
While we benefit from going very deeply into one lineage or tradition, I think we can learn a lot about the craft of meditation by embarking on a new technique. I didn’t know what to expect when I began my lovingkindness practice. I didn’t know what was routine or what anything meant. In Burma, I faced the uncertainty of really being a beginner. I began to see not only different challenges but also many openings.
In our interviews, I’d describe an experience and tell my teacher, “I’m not sure this is really happening.” He’d say: “I believe this is happening, why don’t you?” It was a fantastic return to what it meant to be a beginner, to really enter the unknown and have a fresh experience. I realized that I needed to let my practice evolve, let go of the pressure to feel something, let go of the striving.
IYM: Would you tell us more about beginner’s mind?
SS: Beginner’s mind has a lot to do with recognizing when we are off and then being able to gently and without judgment, let go. If we can catch ourselves—being impatient, in thought, not being present, or comparing what is happening in our meditation to what we think should be happening—and let go, we can return to the actual experience we are having.
Sometimes, when we make these small shifts in technique, begin a course of study or experiment in our approach to meditation, it will enliven things for the good. We seem to forget that the method is a set of skillful means to make the precepts and principles of our spiritual paths real. A new technique can remind us of the essence of the practice.
IYM: How can we maintain beginner’s mind?
SS: I don’t think it’s helpful to try to maintain beginner’s mind. I actually don’t think we maintain the state. Rather we renew or return to it. We come back to it with kindness and non-judgment toward ourselves. That’s how practice evolves. This is an essential teaching.
Getting unstuck or returning to beginner’s mind has a lot to do with balance, too. In my tradition we talk about the balance between energy and calm, tranquility and alertness. There are so many times in sitting meditation when we might get really sleepy and sluggish. It feels so peaceful we don’t think of being out of balance. But, we can have all that peace, with much greater clarity and energy. So the skill is being able to recognize when we are off balance, and adjust.
IYM: How are meditation and happiness connected?
SS: We all want peace and happiness. Meditation helps bring us back in touch with our urge to be happy. The urge toward happiness is very healthy and important. When we can combine the urge for happiness with wisdom, rather than ignorance, we can cut through many obstacles.
One big obstacle to happiness that I’ve seen in myself, as well as others, is not feeling okay about wanting happiness. Is it okay to want happiness? It’s perfect! Buddha said that all beings want to be happy. The problem isn’t that we want to be happy, but our ignorance about where happiness is to be found.
Meditation brings us to real happiness. When we are not judging, clinging or condemning, we can be much more present with our experience, which will feel much more fulfilling. And, then, we will feel more happiness.
About the Author:
Sharon Salzberg has been a student of Buddhism since 1971 and has led meditation classes and retreats, worldwide, since 1974. She teaches both intensive awareness practice (insight meditation) and the profound cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion in a non-sectarian, inclusive framework. She is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. She is the author of eleven books including Lovingkindness, the NY Times best seller Real Happiness, and Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. Her latest book, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World, just came out in September of 2020 from Flatiron Books. For more information: www.sharonsalzberg.com.