A decade ago I found myself learning how to meditate. I took to meditation right away, and it transformed my relationship to life. I began to question all sorts of things, including my concept of self. Later, when I enrolled at the Center for Humanistic Studies in Detroit for a graduate degree in humanistic and clinical psychology, I knew the topic I would choose for my thesis: meditation. I read much of the popular dharma literature and felt I came to know many of the authors.
Yet I often wondered, what were their meditative journeys like? Had they squirmed in meditation halls like I did when I first began sitting? I decided to investigate by asking four Buddhist meditation teachers, the late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck and Insight Meditation Society teachers Joseph Goldstein, Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg my thesis question: “What is the experience of self-discovery through meditation?” — Donna Rockwell
How did you start meditating?
Sharon Salzberg: From the first time I heard about Buddhist practice, I had a very strong feeling that if I could learn how to meditate, I could really do something about my state of mind. I had a very strong conviction that the methods of Buddhist meditation could bring me peace of mind and clarity.
You were just a college kid when you started meditating. What happened on the cushion?
It was a struggle. I felt a tremendous amount of physical pain. Emotionally, it was my first real look at myself. I was eighteen-I didn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the workings of my mind. So it was quite tumultuous and at the same time I felt a great sense of homecoming.
Can you describe any moments of breakthrough?
There were lots of things that were exciting and important, though they weren’t always pleasant. I had a lot of physical pain but the teacher I was sitting with asked us not to move, not to change posture in the course of the meditation session. And I always moved. I began to see that I didn’t move when the pain was severe or overwhelming; I moved long before that. I moved with the first moment of discomfort. I moved because at the arising of that first discomfort, I was thinking, “What’s it going to feel like in half an hour? What’s it going to feel like in an hour?” So I was taking the present moment’s worth of discomfort and adding to it this projection of what was yet to come. I felt helpless and overcome, and I moved.
That was important to see because it was my habit that whenever there was any kind of painful experience in my life, I’d imagine how bad it could get, take all that pain on in my mind, and feel defeated by it. Being able to see that habit and relate to painful feelings in a different way was a big change in the quality of my life.
How does sitting meditation short-circuit that sense of defeat?
Basically, it reveals it.
Could you elaborate on your experience of self-discovery through meditation?
As I began to meditate, I saw my mental conditioning much more clearly. And because of that, other possibilities arose. I began to relate to painful experiences in a very different way and discovered capacities within myself that were stronger, more aware and more compassionate than I had imagined. Prior to that, when painful experiences came up, I was busy running from them.
Could you define meditation and self-discovery for me?
Meditation is the practice of concentration and mindfulness leading to insight. Self-discovery is seeing clearly who you are. It’s wisdom. From the meditative point of view, we want to see in a certain way. We want to see with open-mindedness, compassion and so on. So part of the discovery of meditation is not only recognizing the habits we already have but also these other capacities which might be deeper.
“The experience of meditation is…”
“The experience of meditation is one of the most healing things we can do.”
“The one thing that meditation has taught me that I would like to share with all people is that…”
“…we have greater capacities than we can imagine.”
“The most profound way in which meditation has changed my life is…”
“…it has changed my view of who I am.”
Can you say from what to what?
From confusion to clarity.
Donna Rockwell, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is a leading mindfulness meditation teacher, specialist in celebrity mental health, and an activist in contemporary humanistic psychology. Dr. Rockwell sits on the board of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, and is its Newsletter co-editor. She is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and The Humanistic Psychologist. Dr. Rockwell is an adjunct faculty member at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology and Saybrook University, School of Mind-Body Medicine, and School of Clinical Psychology. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post in her blog Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Her other published work includes journal articles and popular press publications on Mindfulness, the psychology of fame and celebrity, and humanistic foundations of psychology. Dr. Rockwell treats individuals, couples and adolescents in her private practice. www.donnarockwell.com
To read the entire interview please visit www.lionsroar.com.
Interview excerpt from Donna Rockwell’s True Stories About Sitting Meditation from Charlotte Joko Beck, Joseph Goldstein, Sylvia Boorstein, and Sharon Salzberg which originally appeared in Lion’s Roar, March 2009. Used with Author’s permission.