Rutland Herald: Noted Buddhist Sharon Salzberg Visits Vt.

This article was originally published in the Rutland Herald, November 24, 2014
Written By Kevin O’Connor

BRATTLEBORO — As a nationally known meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author, Sharon Salzberg has spent decades seeding inner peace. Yet a flurry of worry filled her mind when, visiting Vermont over the weekend, she checked her cellphone for the Thanksgiving travel forecast.

“I saw two snowflakes on my app,” she said. “What if there’s a major blizzard?”

Salzberg explained her concern was conditioned — but no, it wasn’t because she went to college in stormy Buffalo, N.Y. Most humans fret about yesterday or tomorrow, she said. That’s why a crowd of nearly 300 gathered in Brattleboro on Saturday to hear the 62-year-old Buddhist pioneer offer ways to focus and find strength in the present.

“Our minds jump to the past — we’re going over it and over it and over it and over it — or our minds jump to the future, and we’re filled with anxiety,” she said. “If we could only use that energy, we could feel much more empowered. We can learn to relate to suffering as well as joy. We can be with whatever is happening right now.”

Salzberg has authored nine books, including “Real Happiness,” has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Oprah Magazine, and, together with fellow teachers Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society, one of the Western world’s oldest and most-respected retreat centers an hour south of the state line in Massachusetts.

The associated Vermont Insight Meditation Center of Brattleboro has spent five years trying to lure Salzberg to speak. When leaders secured a date, they had to rent their downtown’s largest church, Centre Congregational, to host a capacity crowd from numerous spiritual traditions.

“Her work has influenced so many of us in the United States,” Claire Stanley, Vermont Insight’s guiding teacher, said in her introduction.

Salzberg recalled first learning about Buddhism in 1969 in an Asian philosophy course at State University of New York. That led her to Bodh Gaya, India — where the Buddha is said to have become enlightened — to learn meditation.

“The first lesson I got was sit down and feel your breath,” she recalled. “Feel my breath? I thought I could have stayed in Buffalo to feel my breath.”

Then Salzberg realized sitting still without her mind wandering wasn’t so easy. After practicing for several years, she returned to America and began to teach others.

“Mindfulness” is a popular idea in current culture, she said, although many don’t know what it actually means.

“It’s not about what’s going on, it’s about how we’re relating to what’s going on. The main benefit of mindfulness is insight. We can pay attention to anything in such a way that it deepens our understanding of life itself.”

Salzberg knows that can be challenging. She recalled one student telling her: “I feel filled with loving-kindness for all beings everywhere — as long as I’m alone.”

But people can learn to deal with whatever the moment brings, the teacher said. Her instructions for doing so: Pause and pay attention to your inhale and exhale. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

“The most important moment in the process is the one after you’ve been distracted,” she said. “It’s coming back to the breath with compassion for yourself, even if you have to do that billions of times. This is resilience training. To let go gently and to start over with wholeheartedness — that’s radical.”

This Thanksgiving week, Salzberg advised people to also give thanks.

“We’re so fixated on what we don’t have that we don’t appreciate what we do have.”

It’s just one way of being mindful, the teacher said. She told the story of sitting down to a cup of tea alongside several electronic devices and a television news crawl, only to forget to actually taste the moment.

“We’re so unsettled and cut off from our experience,” she said. “Sometimes, just drink the cup of tea.”

Image from Flickr by Shannon. Creative Commons License.