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A Mindful Life

Sharon Salzberg changes how people see the world and themselves

Sharon Salzberg in Cambridge, Mass.

Sharon Salzberg in Cambridge, Mass. Photo: Jason Grow

By Jennifer Kitses

“I began contemplating this reality of loss and change being a part of life. And I wondered if that could bring us closer together instead of making us feel so alone.”
Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg (BA ’72), one of the leading teachers in the West of Buddhist thought and meditation, found her life path almost by chance. Back in 1969 she was a UB sophomore looking to fulfill a course requirement, and a class on Asian philosophy happened to fit her schedule. “I knew nothing about Asian philosophy, but it was sort of in the air,” she says. “Sitar music, the Beatles going to India—it was the ’60s.”

Yet Salzberg found herself connecting deeply to Buddhist ideas, particularly the belief that suffering is a natural part of human existence. She had experienced a difficult childhood. Her parents divorced, and her mother died, when she was very young; by the time she turned 16, she had lived in five different family configurations. “I felt normal suddenly,” she says of her first encounter with Buddhism, “not aberrant because my family didn’t look like the perfect picture of one. I began contemplating this reality of not always getting what we want, and of loss and change being a part of life. And I wondered if that could actually bring us closer together instead of making us feel so alone.”

Salzberg could hardly have guessed how far that one UB course would take her. She has devoted the last four decades to bringing her approach to Buddhism—modern, secular, method-based—to new audiences. She is the co-founder of three nonsectarian meditation centers and retreats in the U.S., a best-selling author of 10 books, and a sought-after speaker and teacher honored by the New York Open Center for her “outstanding contribution to the mindfulness of the West.” Though she feels at home within the philosophy’s traditional and scholarly contexts, the key to her appeal may be how accessible she makes Buddhist teachings to anyone seeking insight and inner peace. “One of the most attractive things to me about Buddhist teaching is the emphasis that everyone has the capacity to grow in understanding and compassion,” Salzberg says. “This capacity is never destroyed, no matter what we go through in life.”

The class Salzberg took as a sophomore also introduced her to the mental discipline of meditation; she was intrigued, and her journey was underway. “I learned that this was how people confronted their old habits of mind and changed their perceptions and reactions,” she says. “I wanted to learn to do it.”

So she created an independent study project and, at the age of 18, set off for India. (She started college at 16, having skipped two grades growing up in New York City.) It was her first time traveling outside of the United States. With a few fellow UB students, Salzberg took the then-popular overland route: flying to Europe, riding the Orient Express to Istanbul, then traveling by bus and train through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Once in India, she made her way to the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala. It was a time when anyone could apply to visit with him.

“I loved the Dalai Lama,” she says. “He was approachable, kind, interested in everything.” Yet this visit wasn’t the end of her search: she was seeking a simple, practical guide to meditation. “That’s easy to get these days, but it was very hard to find then,” Salzberg says. “I wanted to learn the direct, pragmatic instruction.”

Her explorations led her to a 10-day retreat conducted by the late S.N. Goenka, a renowned teacher of Vipassana, or insight, meditation. It took place in Bodh Gaya, a sacred pilgrimage spot for Buddhists; it’s where the Buddha found enlightenment while sitting under a tree. On the first night, Goenka explained that the Buddha did not teach Buddhism, but rather a way of living. “It was a transformative moment,” Salzberg says. “The rest of my life has spun out of my being there. I knew without a doubt there was something important for me in the practice of meditation, something very truthful, and I have never felt otherwise.”

Salzberg stayed in India for 16 months, then “came back and wrote a humongous paper,” she says. She graduated in 1972 and immediately went back to India to resume her studies. This time she met her mentor, Dipa Ma, an elderly Bengali woman from Burma who had endured considerable suffering in her life. “In the process of learning to meditate, she somehow metabolized all of that grief into compassion,” Salzberg says. “She was an incredible model for me.”

By 1974, when she returned to the United States, Salzberg was herself a teacher of meditation and mindfulness. More than 40 years later, she still is. “When I was younger, if someone asked me what I really wanted to do, I would say that I want to write a book like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” she says, “a book that would change the way people saw the world and themselves.” Her many students would say she has done exactly that.