Discussed: Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, by Sharon Salzberg. Workman Publishing. 208 pages. 2011.
Real Happiness has had a home on our bookshelf for several years now, and it’s a book we often reach for when we’re struggling to put into words the how’s and why’s of meditation. In this well-loved guide, Sharon Salzberg lays out the murky art of meditation with such simple clarity, beginners and advanced practitioners alike can find their footing again and again.
Meditation for All
One of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, Salzberg uses her warm and wise voice to speak to anyone with interest in meditation. Real Happiness is equally welcoming to those who see meditation as part of a religious practice and those with purely secular leanings.
Salzberg shares her personal journey, letting readers in on how meditation has led to personal transformation over the decades since she first tried it out, as a young person seeking relief from a painful childhood. She also delves into the science, grounding readers in the quantitative benefits of meditation on health and behavior.
Real Happiness is technically a month-long guide to beginning meditation (though plenty can be gained from reading the book in one sitting, and reading and referencing it again and again). Salzberg opens the door through exercises on concentration, and progresses to the concepts of mindfulness and lovingkindness.
The simple-yet-profound entry point through which meditation can begin changing your life is through concentration. Salzberg writes:
Imagine reclaiming all the energy that could be available to use but isn’t because we scatter it, squandering it on endlessly regretting the past, worrying about the future, berating ourselves, blaming others, checking Facebook yet again, throwing ourselves into serial snacking, workaholism, recreational shopping, recreational drugs.
Meditation reclaims the lost art of paying attention. Concentration is a skill we all learned in grade school yet often gets lost in adult lives where multitasking is an ordinary strategy for getting through the day.
In this way, meditation runs counter to the ways we typically use our energy, and sitting down and focusing on the breath can seem haltingly difficult. But fear not, in Salzberg’s hands, we’re reminded that the effort shouldn’t be so effortful.
“When the mind is at ease, when our hearts are calm and open and confident, we can more comfortably, naturally concentrate.” Salzberg explains that it’s not about subjecting yourself to a painful struggle. Rather, Real Happiness urges us to treat ourselves gently through each step, to skip the harsh judgments, and to simply persevere.
What to do with the difficult emotions that come up during meditation, and in daily life? Mindfulness is a way of facing our emotions—noticing them and figuring out what do with them—from a place of calm acceptance. Salzberg has a great metaphor:
Meditation is like going into an old attic room and turning on the light. In that light we see everything—the beautiful treasures we’re grateful to have unearthed; the dusty, neglected corners that inspire us to say, “I’d better clean that up”; the unfortunate relics of the past that we thought we had gotten rid of long ago. We acknowledge them all, with an open, spacious, and loving awareness…It’s never too late to turn on the light.
Mindfulness breaks through our conditioning to push aside the painful feelings and cling to the pleasant ones, and rather to face them all for what they are, as fleeting as they are, and as subject to change.
One section of the book you can read just to open your heart in the morning is the section on lovingkindness. This section is full of meditations that guide us to pay attention to ourselves and others with a sense of care. There’s a meditation for times of emotional and physical pain, and one especially for caregivers. There’s one for dealing with difficult persons, and one for quieting the inner critic.
In the Meditation on Seeing the Good, Salzberg reminds us that sitting down to meditate is an act of lovingkindness we perform unto ourselves.
“It’s a way of befriending ourselves, of being willing to expand our awareness, of being willing to step out of some ruts and try something new.”
Real Happiness isn’t a self-help manual on how to reach enlightenment. It’s a clear, practical guide to meditation written from a place of deep experience. This is a book you’ll want to give to your mother, your best friend, your partner, and especially yourself.