Shambhala Sun | November 2014
You Can't Fail at Meditation
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
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
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.
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?
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”?
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
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
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
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
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.
Harris: Well said. I gave her those lines! [Laughter.]
Bianca: 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!