For today’s modern life, filled with challenges and distractions, meditation can be a powerful tool to manage stress and anxiety. It can also help us focus on the positive, increase clarity and make the most of our opportunities. We spoke to meditation expert, world-renowned teacher and author Sharon Salzberg, to help us learn more about its benefits and how to get started.
An interview with Sharon Salzberg,
NY Times bestselling author and Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society,
Barre, MA, USA
Teenagers experience more stress now than ever before and consequently suffer from anxiety. Recent studies show that meditation, increased self-awareness and self-compassion can help with anxiety disorders, as well as depression and substance abuse. How would you explain what meditation is, and the benefits, to a skeptical teenager?
It’s important to develop certain tools so that we can cope with what’s coming up emotionally or physically. It’s a little bit like physical exercise to train certain muscles, but we’re training our mind. When we practice, it becomes more natural. Many of us are conditioned to be incredibly judgmental, unfair and unkind to ourselves. It takes intentionality and tools to turn that around. Meditation is one way of training for that.
What would be an easy starting point for someone who wants to meditate but the word meditate seems too scary? What are the common mistakes and frustrations to be aware of at the beginning?
If you don’t want to use the word meditation you could use a word like mindfulness – one of the skills of meditation.
- Start with feeling your breath. Sometimes when we get anxious and we freeze, we’re not breathing enough
- Find the place in your body where your breath is the strongest, like your nostrils, your chest, or your abdomen, and bring your attention there and feel a few breaths. This is the key when your mind wanders to the past or to the future
- When you realize you’ve been distracted, that’s considered the key moment in meditation, because that’s when instead of judging ourselves and feeling like we’re a failure, we actually practice just letting go and bringing our attention back to the breath
- Then let go and we begin again. It’s what one of my teachers called, “exercising the ‘letting go’ muscle.” It’s about learning how to let go more freely and then coming back because nothing has been ruined in a way that can’t be fixed. Just let go and begin again, and that’s what we’re actually practicing
Possible frustrations to be prepared for:
Meditating is not exactly just quiet time, because that could be reflecting or obsessing about something.
Yes, your mind will wander. You’ll have many thoughts. A lot of people think the goal of meditation is to wipe out all thinking. Don’t worry if you have a lot of thoughts, or if sleepiness or anxiety comes up, because we’re looking carefully at ourselves and a lot of things should come up. We’re going to learn everything is workable.
One of my teachers once said, “It’s not the thoughts that are the problem, it’s the glue.” Some thoughts come up and they’re just passing through. We decide what we’re going to believe when we’re mindful – we decide what sticks.
Can you explain what ‘mantra’ means and provide a few examples?
Mantra is a word or a phrase that you repeat over and over again. You can do it with feeling your breath, or just focusing on the mantra. You could use mantras like “peace” or “may I be peaceful.” When your attention wanders, always try to come back to your mantra and/or your breath.
Girls are vulnerable to defining themselves in comparison to others and experiencing the feeling of being left out or constantly judged. Many believe that they’re the only ones feeling that way and this contributes to feeling lonely and detached. How can you switch or soothe your mind while experiencing some of these feelings while in school or other social situations?
The key for self-soothing is our breathing. If your “out”’ breath is longer than your “in” breath, you lower your adrenaline level. Breathe through your belly – put your hand on your stomach and breathe in and out – it will ground you and calm you down. Remind yourself it’s not just you. Everyone goes through similar situations. Meditation reminds you of who you really are apart from the stories others tell about you.
Also, try to find a community where people can check-in with one another honestly, it’s okay to say what we feel and what we want. It’s hard not only for young girls, but also for women.
Young women put so much pressure on themselves to over-achieve and be “perfect” and that leads to an extreme fear of failure, anger and feeling that they’re not “good enough.” What is the key to self-acceptance, love and kindness to yourself?
Perfection is unreal. If you have a persistent negative voice inside – an inner critic – then give it a name, maybe give it a wardrobe. Give it a “persona” and then see how you relate to it because there’s a way of relating where you’re still very calm and you actually see this voice.
I’ll give you an example. I named my inner critic “Lucy,” after the character in the Peanuts comic strip. I saw this cartoon once where she said to Charlie Brown, “You know what your problem is? The problem with you, is that you’re you.” And he said, “What in the world can I do about that?” And she said, “I don’t pretend to be able to give advice, I merely point out the problem.” Now I respond to inner criticism with, “Hi Lucy. Chill out Lucy.” I wasn’t afraid of Lucy, but I also didn’t say, “You’re right Lucy, you’re always right.” It was like, “Have a seat Lucy, I see you. I know you’ve got a problem, just have a cup of tea or whatever.”
Because again, what comes up is not so much our concern but rather how we’re handling and relating to it.
It takes a lot of conditioning. We all want to be happy, that’s a fundamental truth. Most of us are not taught, or don’t believe in, intelligent ways to be happy. So we need to step away from the conditioning, we have to see it in our own minds and take a look at it and say, “Is that really true?” And the other side of that is that love and kindness to yourself is often equated with laziness and not having a sense in excellence or wanting to do something well, but is that really true? Self-observation and how you really feel is important. You get a chance to see for yourself.
Which is better, judging myself for four weeks for something I did or having some compassion towards myself and saying, “Let me figure out how to do this better.” It’s through our own observation that we see self-compassion. Love for yourself doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong, and all that endless judgment takes so much time. And you’re so exhausted by it that you don’t have any resilience.