Meditation stress test: exercise for mind, body and heart

Meditation can teach focus and compassion for self that is a resilience skill

US meditation expert, Sharon Salzberg.

US meditation expert, Sharon Salzberg.

 

People are drawn to meditation courses as a skills training for the mind that is not tied to a belief system. That’s according to Sharon Salzberg, who is coming to Ireland this week to lead a residential meditation retreat in the Dzogchen Beara retreat centre in west Cork.

“I teach three skills of meditation: focus/concentration; being present in and having perspective on your experience; and being compassionate towards yourself and others,” explains Salzberg, who is one of the best-known meditation teachers in the US.

“I have a friend who said that from a young age, he was elevated by the Christian message ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, but didn’t know how to do it. These methods help with the ‘how’ without joining a sect or [taking on] a Christian belief and value system. Just as you go to the gym for your body, these are exercises for the mind, spirit and heart.”

Salzberg became interested in Buddhism while at university. “I was a college student in the late 1960s/early 1970s and chose Asian philosophy as a module in my sophomore year. I was extremely unhappy at the time, and saw this as a way to become happier.”

She travelled to India to study meditation and spent three and a half years in Bodh Gaya, studying with teachers from India, Burma and Tibet. “It was a real life-changing experience for me,” she says.

When she returned to the US to finish her degree, she began teaching meditation. In 1976, she founded the Insight Meditation Society with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield in Barre, Massachusetts. Insight meditation centres and practice groups are now established across the US.

“At the start, people were very suspicious of a group of westerners creating a retreat centre. But scientific research showing the benefits of meditation has since caught up.”

Salzberg is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and was a contributing editor to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine for many years. Her books include Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be A Whole Lot Happier with Robert Thurman (Hay House, 2013).

She says many people come to meditation courses and workshops to deal with stress. “The largest group come because they want to deal with stress, unhappiness, loneliness and social isolation. They are seeking some way of dealing with stress that is personal. The fact that you can find inner resources to deal with it is tremendously attractive.”

As well as running retreats around the world, she has, with Goldstein, created a correspondence course on insight meditation. She also took part in the Peacemakers Conference as part of the State of the World Forum and the Sacred Circles: Women’s interfaith conference at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Even when travelling, Salzberg practises meditation for at least 20 minutes every day. “If I don’t do it, I slip back into not listening carefully to the person in front of me, being distracted by an email or by somewhere else I’d like to be. When you let go of the distraction and return your full attention to the person you’re talking to, you can realise the joy or vulnerability or frustration that is being shared with you,” she says.

“Even in meditation, the mind wanders but what we’re learning is to let go of distraction. If you blame yourself for not doing this, that holds you back. Having compassion for ourselves is a resilience skill that we can bring into our lives. We can’t choose what comes into our minds but we can be mindful enough not to let it lead to action and this skill of not reacting with, say, anger or violence is a form of empowerment in itself.”

A greater sense of our interconnectedness is another reason for the interest in meditation, according to Salzberg. “If we look at the nature of things, we live in an interconnected universe. I sometimes ask people, ‘how many other people need to do their job well for you to do your job well?’ The less we admit that, the more isolated or wrong-thinking we are. Although we have to make our way as individuals, we are interconnected and everything from economics to epidemiology to environmental consciousness shows us that.”

Sharon Salzberg will lead a seven-day retreat in the Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre in west Cork from May 1st to 8th (€470/€420). There is also the option to partake from Friday, May 1st to Monday, May 4th (€270/ €240). See dzogchenbeara.org; sharonsalzberg.com; dharmaseed.org

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