I’m not really a meditation kind of gal. After literally falling asleep in a yoga class I tried, I’ve always just assumed it’s maybe a little too slow for my borderline-A-type-personality.
That said, after talking with Sharon Salzberg, I could be convinced otherwise. Salzberg, the Massachusetts-based author of Real Happiness The Power of Meditation makes the case that there’s a strong link between meditation practises and happiness.
Q: What is the connection between meditation and happiness?
A: There are a few links. One is the ordinary pleasure we experience in life that we might miss because we’re not very present or aware. So there’s available happiness in simple ways such as feeling the sun on our face, or sensation of holding a warm teacup, that we just miss because we’re not paying attention. And then there are qualities of happiness inside where we feel more at peace, more relaxed, that we can access if we learn how to meditate. That kind of happiness isn’t dependent on there being sunshine on our face or in our lives at a particular moment, but something we can take with us anywhere.
Q: Do people connect meditation with happiness?
A: People don’t realize meditation opens the door to some very positive states coming in. All the rooms in our mind are often being taken up by anxious thinking about the future, creating scenarios that have not happened and may never happen, ruminating about ourselves, or being very critical of ourselves. Those are just habits of the mind that take up our energy. And when we clear them away through meditation, much more positive feelings can come in.
Q: Any common misconceptions about meditation?
A: People have a lot of misconceptions about meditation. People say to me I can’t stop my thinking to meditate. I tell them you don’t have to stop thinking to meditate—it’s about developing a different relationship to your thoughts so you don’t take them so to heart all the time or struggle against them. But you have a calmer relationship to them.
Q: Any advice for people who are new to meditation?
A: Mostly it’s jumping on in and trying it, but it is good to have a bit of understanding about it. Just understand what to expect and what not to expect—right away you can expect your mind to wander all over the place and quite a lot. That’s normal. But the key of meditation practise is not trying to restrain or stop that, but knowing how to begin again.
So you have an object of meditation—let’s say it’s the feeling of your breath going in and out. It’s usually not 700 breaths before your mind wanders. It’s usually like two and then you’re lost in thought for awhile and then comes a moment when you think, oh, it’s been quite some time since I last felt a breath. That’s the important moment where instead of judging yourself, you can begin again and let go and bring your attention back to the feeling of breathing.
Also, start slow—if 20 minutes feels really daunting, start with five. Set an alarm so you don’t have to wonder about the time. Sit comfortably in whatever posture you want, close your eyes, focus on the breath and see what happens.