Sharon Salzberg is one of the handful of people central to the mindfulness revolution in America. It’s hard to remember, in a world where it’s now the norm for first graders to practice deep breathing and for Fortune 500 companies to offer mindfulness trainings, but meditation was largely unknown in the United States 60 years ago. That’s when young Sharon sat in her grandmother’s Manhattan apartment, bereft.
Her mother died when she was 9 and her father, who suffered from mental-health issues, was largely absent, so Salzberg ended up living with her grandmother. Together, they muddled along. “Her English wasn’t great; I didn’t speak Polish,” she recalls. “I was isolated, depressed. But there was just something in me that felt there was another way of being, that happiness was possible.”
She enrolled in college at 16 and discovered a whole new world when she joined an independent-study program in India her junior year. “It was the era of hippie buses going from Europe to India, and I thought: I want to learn to meditate. It was the era of the Beatles and Ram Dass, so I wasn’t the only Westerner by far, but because it was before the internet or cellphones, everything was word of mouth and therefore sort of magical.”
Salzberg returned home in 1974, and, in 1976, with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, opened the Insight Meditation Society, which became one of the wellsprings of American mindfulness. Eleven books later, including the latest, Real Change, she has had a quiet-yet-powerful impact on changing the world.
How does she live now? More convinced than ever that happiness is possible, because she’s experienced it in her own heart.
Zoom — the Blessing, the Curse
“I was constantly teaching before the pandemic, flying around the country. Since then, I’ve been busier than ever, staying home. I teach on Zoom, and it’s provided such a profound connection to people. But it also saddens me: I see what people are going through, and my ability to connect with them is both constant and never enough. The anxiety, grief, and anger — they really get you. And then the class ends, and it feels like you didn’t do enough. At the same time, I have some regular Zoom meetings with friends, and I’m seeing them more than I have in years.”
All Things Must Pass
“A lot of the people I met in India in the 1970s are still a huge part of my life. One thing having such long friendships makes you realize — when certain events unfold [and there are different points of view] — is, Ah, this too shall pass. So, let’s look at what we can do and grow from, and what we can contribute because I’ve seen us get through a lot.”
Feeling Better Is Possible
“After all these years, I think that insight when I was a teenager [about happiness being possible] was right: There is a way to feel better. My teacher Dipa Ma said to me, ‘You really understand suffering: That’s why you should teach.’
All these years later, I think we can say she was right!”
Reflection of the Moment
“It’s such a cultural premise: If we acquire more, have more, experience more, read more, we’ll be better off. Is it really true? I’m thinking about that.”
This article originally appeared as “Real Happiness” in the March 2022 issue of Experience Life.