You Can’t Fail at Meditation

This article was originally published on Lion’s Roar, October 11, 2014

Dan Harris gets the inside story on mindfulness and compassion from Buddhist teachers Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Mark Epstein.

It was a pretty sweet opportunity, really. The poobahs from the Shambhala Sun Foundation came to me and said: pick your favorite Buddhist teachers, and we’ll set up a public speaking event for you in New York City. Also, they promised to promote my new book (10% Happier—available in fine bookstores everywhere) in the process. A no-brainer.

So I invited three teachers: 1. Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, who is a bestselling author and perhaps America’s premier proponent of loving-kindness meditation; 2. Joseph Goldstein, also a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, author, one of the most respected and revered meditation instructors in the US, and my own personal teacher; and 3. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who writes brilliant books about the overlap and interplay between psychology and Buddhism.

To be honest, I was a bit nervous, sitting out there alongside three of my beloved teachers in front of a big crowd at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center. It wasn’t until I read this text that I fully realized what a wonderful evening it was. We discussed everything from the Jewish affinity for Buddhism to the controversy over mindfulness in business to the most skillful ways to handle problems in beginning meditation. Even my wife got roped, involuntarily, into the chat. Please enjoy.—Dan Harris

Dan Harris: Let me start by asking you, Mark, why there are so many Jews in the American Buddhist world?

Mark Epstein: Jews have always had to move between cultures. It’s not just Jews in Buddhism. There’s a long legacy of Jews taking the ideas of Islam and the Greeks and moving all through Europe, translating and retranslating.

I was raised much like you, Dan, in a Jewish academic environment with no spirituality. I was grudgingly Bar mitzvah’d because it was important to my father’s mother. In high school, I was attracted to Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd—that sort of existential despair verging on humor that I now know can be read in a Buddhist way. When I first read Buddhist texts, and met Joseph and Sharon, I knew that here was something I’d been longing for that I couldn’t have named.

Dan Harris: Sharon, you’ve written two bestselling books on happiness. So what is real happiness?

Sharon Salzberg: I define happiness as a kind of resourcefulness. It’s a sense of resiliency and the ability to meet things without being defined by them. It’s a source of profound strength inside ourselves, which we don’t always realize we have. Also, happiness is our connection to one another, so we don’t feel so cut off and alone.

Joseph Goldstein: The Buddha said that the highest happiness is peace. Different things may make us happy at different times in our lives. But in the long haul, the things Sharon talked about actually manifest when the mind is peaceful. The feeling, the taste of peace, is very sweet.

Dan Harris: People say, “I know meditation is probably good for me, but my mind is too crazy. I could never do it.” How do you respond to that?

Sharon Salzberg: Those are my people, the ones who say they can’t do it. Or, people who say “I tried it once, but failed.” I really love those people, because you can’t fail at it. Meditation isn’t about what’s happening; it’s about how you relate to what’s happening. You can have a torrent of thoughts and difficult emotions, but that’s okay. You can be with them not only with mindfulness, but with compassion.

Usually when people start sitting, we say that five minutes is enough. You don’t have to think, “I’ve got to sit here for six hours.” You don’t have to get into some pretzel-like posture and suffer! Just choose an object of awareness—maybe the breath—and rest your mind there. You know that it’s not going to be 9,000 breaths before your mind wanders. It’ll likely be one. Maybe three, maybe just a half a breath!

The most important moment in the whole process is the moment after you’ve been distracted, after you’ve been lost or fallen asleep or whatever. That’s when you have the chance to be truly different. Instead of judging and berating yourself, you can practice letting go and beginning again. That’s the core teaching.

Mark Epstein: If meditation is hard, you’re probably doing it right.

Joseph Goldstein: One of the things we learn in meditation is how untrained our minds are. To me, one of the great beauties of the practice is to see the commonality of the experience. While the content, the stories may be a little different, the way we get caught up in our minds—and the way we let go—is exactly the same. So the more we understand ourselves, the more we understand each other.

When I started meditating, I didn’t have some amazing degree of concentration or anything. My mind just thought all the time, and it was fun! I was entertaining myself with thinking. So if I could come to some understanding of my mind and taste a little bit of peace, anybody can. And the more you practice the better you get at it.

Mark Epstein: One of the things that I’m grateful for is getting to know my teachers as friends. I have no illusions about their meditation practice or who they were. I can see that they were just like me, and that is so encouraging.

Dan Harris: What’s your advice for getting started?

Joseph Goldstein: Something quite extraordinary can happen in even five minutes. The first time I sat, I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand and going to these Buddhist discussion groups. I was the guy who was asking a million questions and wouldn’t shut up. People literally stopped attending because I was there. [Laughter.] Finally, one of the monks said, “Why don’t you try meditating?”

So I got all my paraphernalia and I set my alarm clock so I wouldn’t over-sit. Even though it was just five minutes, something extraordinary happened. It’s not that I achieved any great state, but I discovered that there was a way to look into the mind as well as look out through it. It was a revelation to see that there was a methodology for looking inward, regardless of what one found. Up until that point I’d always been looking outward. It set me on the path.

Sharon Salzberg: Practicing meditation is a powerful tool. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to go from sweetness to delight to joy to bliss to ecstasy to peace in a straight shot. It’s not like that.

I’m somewhat famous for having marched up to my first meditation teacher, looking him in the eye, and saying, “I never used to be an angry person before I started meditating” [laughter]. I was laying the blame exactly where I felt it belonged—on him!

Of course, I’d been hugely angry before, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to it. So it’s perfectly natural when you start meditating to see a huge array of thoughts and feelings you may have been ignoring. This is one of the reasons why it’s very reassuring to work with a teacher or have a class, a guide, or a community. They can remind you that it’s about being aware of what’s going on, not trying to fight it. Not getting caught up in it. Being able to move your attention somewhere else so you get some relief. Having some compassion for yourself instead of judgment. It’s really useful to be able to tap into that kind of counsel.

Dan Harris: Mindfulness is starting to take off in many parts of society, especially in corporate settings. Is this a good thing?

Mark Epstein: Over the past thirty or forty years, I’ve watched mindfulness meditation take root in the West, first in mental hospitals and the psychiatric profession and now in the corporate world. I think it’s basically a great thing. Whatever helps anybody is wonderful, and it’s bringing all kinds of people into themselves in a good way. Obviously, there’s danger in diluting the profundity of the teachings and I think it’s a shame that mindfulness without progressing to insight is the only exposure that many people are going to get. But so be it.

Dan Harris: What do you mean by “mindfulness without progressing to insight”?

Mark Epstein: Mindfulness is like a technology that you apply to the mind so that you begin to generate insight into yourself and your place in the world. That brings about compassion. Insights into the nature, or non-nature, of the self are very important in Buddhist thought.

Joseph Goldstein: I don’t have a problem with it at all. As Mark said, if it helps people, then it’s a good thing. I trust that those people who want to take it further will find a path to go deeper. And those many people who might not have that desire? They’ve gotten something.

For me, the main concern is that the opportunity to practice the teachings in depth continues to be available for those who want it. But aside from that, the more people who practice any level of mindfulness the better.

Dan Harris: But if one becomes as peaceful as a Joseph Goldstein, is one going to become ineffective in the world? [Laughter.]

Sharon Salzberg: Of course Joseph is quite effective in the world. But it’s true that being ineffective is what people fear about mindfulness. We tell them, “You’re going to learn how to accept things the way that they are,” and “You’re going to be with things without reacting.” Well, that sounds dull and moronic! I remember starting a sitting once by asking people to listen to the sounds in the room. Somebody raised their hand right away and said, “Well, if it’s the sound of the smoke alarm, should I sit here mindfully knowing that the smoke alarm is going off or should I get up?” I said, “Well, I’d get up.” But the words can make it sound like you’re just going to be inert and not care.

The truth is that if you’re drinking a cup of tea and you’re really feeling the warmth of the cup and really smelling and tasting the tea, it will be a much better cup of tea. But that is secondary to insight—to understanding your life, to understanding the nature of the world. We realize that we are actually all connected, that we should help one another. It’s a completely different way to live. That’s what mindfulness is actually for.

Joseph Goldstein: Just look at the Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi. They’re people who are dealing with complexity and a tremendous amount of suffering, and you can see how the practice of mindfulness and compassion empowers everything they do. You can’t meet the Dalai Lama and think that he’s flat. He’s so engaged and full of life! These people are models for us.

Sharon Salzberg: Dan, I’m interested in your relationship to loving-kindness meditation. You’ve used the word “annoying” to describe it.

Dan Harris: I stand by that. It’s really annoying. Basically, the shtick is that you picture a series of people and systematically send them good vibes like, May you be happy, May you live with ease, May you be safe and protected. It’s like a Hallmark card with a machete to your throat.

It’s tough stuff, especially when it’s first proposed to you. What I find revolutionary about meditation—straight up mindfulness meditation—is that we assume, consciously or subconsciously, that our happiness is contingent upon external factors: the circumstance of our birth, the quality of our marriage, the quality of our career; whether we’ve hit the lottery, and so on. What has allowed a skeptic like me to embrace meditation is that it’s a skill you can develop. You can practice it just like you can practice building your bicep in a gym. And I find that really exciting.

Compassion is a skill we can learn too. As corny as loving-kindness meditation may seem, it’s not going to make you become some dopey, endlessly, mindlessly loving person in the world. It’s that not seeing everything through a veil of suspicion and hatred actually improves your life. It can make you more popular and is a great manipulation tool around the office. [Laughter.]

Question from the audience: Dan, has there been a change since you “came out” as a mindfulness practitioner at work? Has there been any impact in your relations with folks at ABC?

Dan Harris: I came out—to use your phrase—in 2010 after I used my summer vacation to go on a ten-day meditation death march with Goldstein. [Laughter.] People kept asking, “Why would you do that?”

That’s how I eventually came up with this whole “10% happier” thing. At first, I’d either clam up and not know what to say, or I’d get overly emphatic and give long lectures about the benefits of meditation. Neither was a successful strategy. Finally, one day I was talking to a close friend of mine at work. She asked me about the ten-day retreat, and I said, “Well, I’m doing this because it makes me about 10% happier.” When the look on her face went from scorn to interest, I knew I had my angle! The people I talk to now range from apathetic to mildly interested! [Laughter.]

I’m not a meditation teacher, but I do like my role as cheerleader. I’m still doing my job the way I’ve always done it. There’s not some huge change where I’m now handing out flowers or meditation tracts around the office. I still swear a lot and my wife Bianca can give you the “90% still a moron” speech. [Laughter] Wait, she has a mike? Oh, this will be great. Bianca, are you meditating?

Bianca Harris: I do not meditate but I certainly support it. It’s on my list of things to do. It has certainly changed Dan in ways that are not entirely measureable but I think we’re much more peaceful than we were, both individually and as a couple.

Dan Harris: Well said. I gave her those lines! [Laughter.]

Bianca Harris: He hasn’t changed that much.

Mark Epstein: At the beginning of your book, Dan, you talk a lot about Peter Jennings. Is there some relationship between the way Peter Jennings influenced you to perfect your journalistic work, and your relationship with your Buddhist teachers?

Dan Harris: What’s different dealing with Joseph and Sharon as teachers, as opposed to dealing with Peter, is that I’m not deathly afraid of them. It’s surreal when somebody who’s world famous is yelling at you! Peter was also extraordinarily nice to me at really key moments too, but it wasn’t something I could count on. I can count on that with these guys, even when they’re pointing out that I’m being a moron.

Question from the audience: I find that when I meditate thoughts pop into my head and a lot of them are very anxiety provoking. Often they elicit a physical response. Should I embrace this or just be aware of it?

Joseph Goldstein: What you’re describing is not unusual at all. See if you can relax into the sensations of the anxiety, knowing that it’s okay to feel them.

When I started meditating the major difficult emotion that was deeply conditioned in my mind was fear. I worked with it for a long time, thinking I was being mindful of it. But finally I realized that even as I was recognizing my fear, I wanted it to go away. Then there was a moment when I was doing walking meditation and something shifted. I thought, “If this fear is here for the rest of my life, it’s okay.”

That was my first moment of genuinely accepting my fear. Acceptance doesn’t mean that fear doesn’t arise anymore, but acceptance does change the relationship. It’s the same with anxiety: It’s okay to feel it.

So acceptance is the first step. Once you’re okay with the feeling, then you don’t need to be afraid of the thoughts. You see the thoughts come and go.

Normally, our thoughts have tremendous power in our lives. They are the dictators of our mind: Go here, go there, do this, do that. We’re the slaves of our thoughts. And yet when we are aware of them, when we are mindful that we’re thinking, we see that a thought as a phenomenon is completely empty and fleeting. It’s little more than nothing! It’s tremendously interesting to learn this about one’s mind. It’s very freeing!


May all beings be happy ♡