How to Get Real Happiness: An Interview with Sharon Salzberg

I think we are basically looking for a happiness that isn't going to be vulnerable to changing conditions. So that's what I am calling real happiness. We get it, I think, from happy inner resources.
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For those of you who don't know Sharon Salzberg, she one of America's leading mindfulness teachers and authors and has played a significant role in bringing mindfulness and the practice of lovingkindness to all of us in the Western world. She is co-founder of one of America's premier meditation centers, Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre Massachusetts and is the author of many books and CDs, including her classic "Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness," "The Kindness Handbook," and her newest release "Real Happiness."

If you're in Los Angeles, don't miss Sharon at InsightLA on Saturday, Feb. 26th from 10am - 1pm. Hope to see you there.

Today Sharon talks to us about what Real Happiness is, how she integrates compassion practices into her life, and how an everyday totally stressed out person can start moving to real happiness.

Elisha: The first question that I have is what is real happiness and how do we all get it?

Sharon: (Laughing) Well, actually I think the word "real" stands for something like "durable" or "sustained" or "sustaining" happiness. I think, certainly we get real happiness out of pleasure, and I think that's a pleasant meal, a pleasant bath with hot water (laughing), you know, and I think we should be quite grateful for opportunities we have to experience pleasure so I don't want to denigrate those, but clearly they are so fleeting and based on conditions coming together just so, and so what I think we are basically looking for as human beings is a happiness that isn't going to be so vulnerable to changing conditions. So that's what I am calling real happiness. We get it, I think, from happy inner resources.

Elisha: Say more about that "happy inner resources."

Sharon: Well, I describe meditation as one path toward that real happiness as being a kind of skills training, and I think each of those skills helps us access a capacity and nurture a capacity within to be more present and to shape our attention so that it has more clarity and presence and openness and that is a kind of happiness. I talk about it as being a course of skills training in concentration so that we can take what might be our very scattered, distracted, disbursed attention energy and bring it together so that it becomes steadier and more steadfast. We can have skills training in mindfulness so that we are using our attention to perceive something in the present moment. This perception is not so latent by fears or projections into the future, or old habits, and then I can actually stir loving-kindness or compassion in skills training too, which can be sort of provocative, I found.

Elisha: Speaking of lovingkindness, you're a pioneer in actually bringing loving-kindness practice to the West. Can you tell us about it and what are the benefits of doing it and perhaps how you weave it into your personal practice?

Sharon: Well, I think we get it through the mindfulness practice as we are experiencing much more connection and loving-kindness and compassion. But the loving-kindness meditation is like a series of methods, particularly dedicated to deepening loving-kindness and compassion, and it is done by, I sometimes call it "playing with our attention," or being willing to take some risks and step out of some our habits. So for example, if thinking about ourselves, we are pretty much only fixated on what's wrong, and so much so that our whole sense of who we are or all that we will ever be collapses around some stupid comment said at lunch or in a meeting, and so the practice of loving-kindness would be not to deny that, because maybe it was a really stupid comment (laughing), but to remember that that's not all that we are, and so to stretch beyond that tendency of that collapse, that over-identification with those negative thoughts and beliefs. For example, there are so many people we tend to ignore because we don't understand them. We can bring the practice of loving-kindness to the person at the supermarket, instead of looking right through them. The kinds of changes that come from loving-kindness meditation come from allowing our attention to be much more malleable in those ways.

Elisha: There has been a huge surge, at least in the world that I know, of interest in compassion practices, loving-kindness practices, with people individually, but also culturally right now. Just to list a few:

  • In 2008 Dr. Richie Davidson received a $2.5 million grant from the Fetzer Institute to look into the neuroscience of compassion. One study has already shown that experienced meditators show more activity in the Insula in response to stimuli that were meant to generate compassion. The Insula is part of the brain that is responsible for the awareness of our embodied emotions. This suggests that we can take advantage of the brain's plasticity and by generating compassion, we can change our brain.
  • Tan Chade-Meng, one of the earliest engineers at Google, also known as "the Jolly Good Fellow" (which nobody can deny), has cofounded the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) at Stanford University. This group has a number of research projects under way.
  • The Compassionate Action Network (CAN) is a large site of self-organizing groups meant to spread compassion around the world.
  • Self-Compassion -- Kristin Neff is coming out with the book "Self-Compassion" in 2011 and Christopher Germer has already published "The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion." Kristin and Christopher both lead workshops around the world spreading practical ways to cultivate compassion.
  • Karen Armstrong gives a talk on TED about compassion which inspired a Charter of Compassion.

What do you think is happening right now and where do you see this work going in Western culture?

Sharon: Well I think, of course, this is very exciting having watched so much research being based on mindfulness practice that I think in many ways that it opened the door, and you know in a time where we are experiencing so much division and anger and separation and you know that I think that the renewed interest in compassion as a path is very vital for our survival.

I don't know if this is scientifically valid, but just anecdotally, I would draw a distinction between empathy and compassion. Whereas clearly there is a connection, but sometimes the way that I describe it is the faculty of empathy which is of course essential, and quite beautiful, allows us to feel into the situation of another, but if what we are feeling into is a state of suffering, we might have any number of responses to that, even once having that bond of empathy, we might feel into someone's suffering and be frightened by that or feel overwhelmed by that or feel kind of mad, compulsion to fix it by tomorrow night, or one possible response to that felt sense of suffering is what we would call compassion.

Elisha: Here's your final question: what do you tell a totally stressed-out everyday person today if they were asking you what they could do to help them start moving toward real happiness?

Sharon: I would say a few things. One, I think that it is really hard, but essential to think about taking some time for oneself. People often think it's selfish and self-centered and a waste of time when there is so much to do, but as for me that time might be well spent exploring the power of meditation, and so sitting down doesn't mean wasting time, and to understand that perhaps it is actually a kind of adventure with its challenges of highs and lows and that it can change our relationship, not only to ourselves, but to our work, our families and our communities, and so I think it's starting, if one is interested, in some realistic ways.

If you are wildly stressed out, the practice of sitting down for an hour and being quiet is probably not that appealing. But it might be walking meditation, or it might be sitting for 10 minutes, something like that, and realize that you are not trying to do battle with your experience, and you are not trying to squeeze that stress out, or something like that, but being able to deal with it differently so that it is not so overpowering.

Elisha: Can you tell us a bit about this 28-day challenge that is happening right now.

Sharon: One thing that is really making me very happy (laughing) this month is that we are doing this 28-day challenge. There are a bunch of people blogging on my website about their experience in meditation, mostly beginners, although not completely. And everyone is welcome to join in and comment. And the bloggers are such a wide variety of people and it's so amazing to me to read their accounts; a schoolteacher in the Bronx, a guidance counselor, two firefighters, two cops. This one firefighter talks about doing his meditation sitting in a manhole because he is stuck there for three hours. It has been this amazing experience for me, it just started, it's like two weeks old, to see this wide variety of application of meditation, it has been very inspiring.

Elisha: Thank you so much Sharon for your inspiration to us all.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

***This interview was transcribed by Ann Porter. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is co-author of
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