The Shmooze

Sharon Salzberg on Finding Meditation in Jewish Tradition

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

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Sharon Salzberg co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., and has taught spirituality and meditation for 35 years. By the time she was 16, she had lived in five different family configurations, and each had ended in trauma. Feeling alone led her to India when she was 18. There she discovered the Buddhist teachings that have shaped her life, though she still connects to her Jewish roots. Salzberg’s new book, “Real Happiness” (Workman), is a guide to meditation practice. A contingent of beginners (celebrities, journalists, finance types) is trying out this practice and blogging about it. Listen to the full interview with Sharon Salzberg here.

Allison Gaudet Yarrow: What kind of meditation do you practice?

Sharon Salzberg: One is an awareness practice that begins with feeling the sensations of your own breath as a way of paying attention to emotions and thoughts. I also practice loving-kindness meditation, which is having a greater sense of compassion for oneself and everyone else.

How does one sit quietly and not move?

You don’t have to sit in some pretzel-like posture on the floor; a chair or couch is totally fine. Set a reasonable length of time. Don’t feel constrained. It’s not the end of the world if you move a little.

Can one be Jewish and meditate?

Definitely. These styles of meditation don’t demand a belief system and would never ask that you let go of any other identity.

Why isn’t meditation a religious practice?

At the Insight Meditation Society I look out in the hall and there are rabbis and Trappist monks and people of all ages, races and ethnicities. The common purpose is greater understanding.

Many meditation gurus like yourself were raised Jewish. What do you make of that?

My generation of Jewish people often had quite secular upbringings, and there was a spiritual longing that wasn’t finding a form within Judaism. It wasn’t enough to be inspired by the examples of others; people wanted to put something into practice.

Now meditation practices have moved into the mainstream of science. People can adapt and re-language within their own tradition.

I’m sure you’re aware of the constantly evolving research supporting the benefits of meditation.

People have gone to the heart of different kinds of suffering — depression, ADHD, physical illnesses, social anxiety — and have tried to see if meditation could have some effect.

I’ve seen all kinds of people get tremendous benefit. So here’s the science. It’s really quite great.


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