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Donna Rockwell: You were just a college kid when you started meditating. What happened on the cushion?

Sharon Salzberg: 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.

Donna Rockwell: Can you describe any moments of breakthrough?

Sharon Salzberg: 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.

Donna Rockwell: How does sitting meditation short-circuit that sense of defeat?

Sharon Salzberg: Basically, it reveals it.

Donna Rockwell: Could you elaborate on your experience of self-discovery through meditation?

Sharon Salzberg: 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.

Donna Rockwell: Could you define meditation and self-discovery for me?

Sharon Salzberg: 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.

Donna Rockwell: “The experience of meditation is…”

Sharon Salzberg: “The experience of meditation is one of the most healing things we can do.”

Donna Rockwell: “The one thing that meditation has taught me that I would like to share with all people is that…”

Sharon Salzberg: “…we have greater capacities than we can imagine.”

Donna Rockwell: “The most profound way in which meditation has changed my life is…”

Sharon Salzberg: “…it has changed my view of who I am.”

Donna Rockwell: Can you say from what to what? 

Sharon Salzberg: From confusion to clarity.

Donna Rockwell is a psychotherapist and meditation teacher living in Detroit.

Originally published in the March 2003 Shambhala Sun magazine.

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