Sharon Salzberg, the 28-day Meditation Challenge, and Seeing Clearly
“Why do you meditate?” is a question I sometimes get when people learn I’m into Buddhism and meditation. While I often say something like, “to deal with stress,” what I mean is, “to learn to see clearly and respond wisely.” I’ve been practicing meditation for about four and a half years and while it has helped me and changed me in so many ways, I’m still learning how to do this. Mindfulness meditation is so mainstream these days that it hardly needs explaining. And this is the “seeing clearly” aspect of my practice. Sitting quietly and paying attention to my breath and body, I often get instant relief and do, in fact, have less stress. So when I heard about Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness Meditation Challenge, I was immediately interested because I knew of her as the “responding wisely” teacher.
From Nashville to New York–Dharma City
I moved to New York City last summer from Nashville, Tennessee where there’s not a lot of dharma to choose from. Luckily I had found the Nashville Against the Stream group, but that was about the extent of Buddhist centers that appealed to me there. So I was grateful when I got to New York because there’s such a wealth of Buddhism here. And I was so excited to learn about a weekend class with Sharon Salzberg offered at New York Insight. I recognized Sharon as the heart practice, loving-kindness teacher, and it was such an honor to sit with one of the original teachers to bring Buddhism to the West. She is so down to earth and I really appreciate how approachable she makes the teachings of the Buddha.
“I was immediately interested because I knew of her as the ‘responding wisely’ teacher.”
At this event, Sharon was promoting a 28-day challenge, to meditate every day for the month of February, and it sounded like a great way to learn more about and from this remarkable teacher. Thousands of people participated in the seventh year of this free challenge. It was wonderful to wake up each day to an email with a guided meditation by Sharon, which was usually only five to ten minutes long, and I often found myself thinking how great this would be for people new to meditation. While I usually sit for thirty or more minutes a day, I was busy with a new job during this time and it would have been easy to tell myself I didn’t have time to meditate. Sharon suggests if you can only sit for two minutes a day, that’s better than not sitting at all. So it was really helpful to have the guided meditations, because I might not have practiced as much without them. I really love the accountability that comes with a commitment to sit for a given amount of time and the support and camaraderie of doing it with others.
The first week of guided meditations was focused on concentration, which was really helpful to establish at the outset of the challenge. One technique Sharon offered that I found useful was gently noting, “breath” and “not breath,” the invitation being to quietly say, “breath” as I noticed my breathing, and “not breath” to everything else that arose. This was especially helpful when my mind was really overactive.
The second week of the challenge centered on mindfulness of the body. I really enjoyed a particular walking meditation instruction that suggested dropping my awareness all the way down into my feet. This was valuable for me as I usually live in my head, disconnected from my body. Even when I’m meditating, I often tend to experience my body by looking down at it, not actually feeling it. Another lesson on physical pain was extremely effective, with Sharon proposing that pain is not a seemingly monolithic entity of PAIN, but that it’s just changing sensation and we can actually view it as an alive system, arising and passing like everything else.
One of my favorite parts of the challenge was the mindful eating meditation. I spend so much time doing other things while I eat, that when I actually slow down and just pay attention during a meal, it is really powerful. I also enjoyed the drinking tea meditation, which reminded me that I can bring mindfulness to everything. Washing dishes, riding the subway, and brushing my teeth are all opportunities to practice.
Week three involved mindfulness of thoughts and emotions. I got a lot out of a teaching that recommended just trying to feel sensations instead of having to name them. I tend to have a very active mind so I really appreciated the advice to step out of the world of concepts and into the world of direct sensation, which Sharon described as, “intimate, immediate, alive, and ever-changing.” Another really important teaching for me was to pay attention to where I feel emotions in my body. This has proven to be a really great tool for understanding my thoughts and emotions and to begin to learn how to relate to them.
“I had the realization during this challenge that this is such a radical act, to wish loving kindness to strangers and even so-called enemies. And I believe we can actually transform the world this way, with our loving kindness.”
The final week was the part I was most looking forward to- loving kindness meditation. This type of meditation is a bit different from mindfulness, the purpose being to develop qualities of heart like friendliness and compassion. It is a more active process where one silently repeats phrases to oneself, sort of like a mantra or an affirmation. When I first started doing this type of meditation years ago, it simultaneously felt a little silly and cheesy but also soothing and peaceful. I now know it as the practice of responding wisely. I really enjoyed Sharon’s teachings and the freedom of being able to cultivate my own practice and phrases that work for me. Sometimes for this practice I use the traditional phrases like, “May I be at ease. May I be safe. May I be happy.” But I really benefit from using my own phrases, especially in response to difficult emotions, telling myself things like, “It’s okay. I love you. I will take care of you.”
28 Days Later
The most important thing I learned during that last week was that I could change my relationship to painful feelings. Instead of calling them bad, I could label them as painful. This has created a profound shift in my relationship to my emotions, which for me is at the core of the path to freedom from suffering.
A wonderful part of this practice is the act turning our attention outward and wishing loving kindness to others. We can start with our loved ones and people we know, and then move on to people we don’t know, and ultimately even people we may not like, or difficult people. I had the realization during this challenge that this is such a radical act, to wish loving kindness to strangers and even so-called enemies. And I believe we can actually transform the world this way, with our loving kindness.