Main Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program  

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program  

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“We’ve seen a few attempts at such a complete teaching of the Buddhist meditation practice and way of life, but none has accomplished the high skillfulness of Sharon Salzberg’s remarkably clear transmission of the adventure of awakening. A 28-day plan for catching up with yourself by one of our most heartfull teachers, a presence partially responsible for bringing Buddhism to the West. A thoroughly modern gift from 2,500 years ago by one of our favorite teachers.”



MEDITATION HELPS US defuse stress, experience greater tranquility, find a sense of wholeness, strengthen our relationships, and face our fears. Meditation helps sharpen focus, lower blood pressure, and reduce chronic pain. Meditation helps protect the brain against aging and improves our capacity for learning new things. And it’s as easy as sitting down and taking a breath.

Beginning with the simplest breathing and sitting techniques, Sharon Salzberg, distilling thirty years of experience teaching, shows how to start and maintain an effective meditation practice. Based on three key skills—concentration, mindfulness, and lovingkindness—it’s a practice anyone can do for twenty minutes a day, and it has the potential to transform lives. It’s not religious. It’s not navel-gazing—if anything, meditation promises a greater engagement with the world.

There is hearing meditation. Walking meditation. Seeing the good within meditation. Drinking tea meditation—even a mini meditation that can be done between the time the phone rings and the time you answer it. Dozens of frequently asked questions from students are answered—”Is meditation selfish?” “Can meditation help with depression?”—and problem areas addressed, such as how to manage pain in one’s legs and trouble falling asleep.

The result: more resiliency, creativity, peace, clarity, and balance.

“Sharon Salzberg has offered a gift of peace to the world.”


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Sharon Salzberg cofounded the Insight Me; ditation Society with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, and is the author of eight books, including the bestselling Lovingkindness and Faith. A teacher for more than thirty years, she has been a contributing editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, and has been featured in Time, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shambhala Sun, More, and others.



“Drawing on more than 30 years of experience teaching meditation, and as a participant in many dialogues with scientists on meditation research, Sharon Salzberg covers all the basics of meditation in a simple, compelling, and highly readable way. People frequently ask me where they should begin if they are interested in learning more about meditation. Now I know where to send them: Real Happiness is the perfect beginning.”

William James and Vilas Research
Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry
Director, Center for Investigating Healthy Minds
University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Reading Real Happiness, I feel as if I have made a new friend, or been reunited with an old one. Sharon Salzberg brings meditation to life and, through her grace, shows us how we can come alive, as well. This is a masterful work: deep, warm and engaging. I want to give it to everyone I know.”

—MARK EPSTEIN, M.D. author of
Thoughts without a Thinker and
Going to Pieces without Falling Apart

“In a voice that is wise and witty, personal, contemporary and engagingly friendly, Sharon Salzberg has written this wonderful book that will be accessible and encouraging to novice meditators as well as inspiring to committed practitioners.”

author of Happiness Is an Inside Job

“Wonderfully clear, remarkably accessible, warmhearted and wise. All you need to transform your life!”

—JACK KORNFIELD, author of
A Path with Heart and After the
 Ecstasy, the Laundry

“This book is a veritable treasure box of meditations. Lucid and wise, Real Happiness is rich with Sharon Salzberg’s lifetime of teaching meditation to thousands of people. Her voice is filled with humor, kindness and wisdom, and her meditation instructions are practical and accessible. This is one of the great books on why and how to meditate.”

Founding Abbot Upaya Zen Center

“Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation is a highly accessible primer for anyone interested in exploring and undertaking the practice of meditation. Sharon Salzberg writes with love and clarity to give readers a week by week approach to living with mindfulness and compassion, both important to navigating busy lives in a world in need of healing from the inside out.”

Founder and CEO of Acumen Fund,
 author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap
between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World,
 speaker at TED conferences

“Simply put, this is an awesome book from a truly excellent teacher. Students constantly ask for recommendations on good books to start and maintain a regular practice, and it’s startling how few really complete “nuts and bolts” practice manuals there are. This book—complete with the whys, hows, and FAQs of practice—is perfect for really accessing the power of meditation. I’ll be telling many students about it.”

author of One City:
A Declaration of Interdependence

“In Real Happiness, Sharon Salzberg brings her astounding grace, humor, and glitteringly prose to the very basics of insight meditation. Friendly, comprehensive, and deadly serious, Salzberg grounds this 28-day beginner course in the gifts that meditation has given her in tough life situations. Since every mind is a beginner’s mind, Salzberg outlines a path wide enough for everyone from today’s wounded veterans; to ADD school kids; to distractable (and irritable) stay-at-home parents and CEOs. Meditation, she writes, unveils the “bright vein of goodness” available to all of us, all the time.”

author of The Tenth Parallel:
 Dispatches from the Fault Line
 between Christianity and Islam

“I have been waiting for this book! People ask me all the time to recommend a book that will introduce them to the practice of meditation. And while there are many books written on the subject, none have brought together the purpose, technique, inspiration, and science in such an integrated, intelligent, and personal way. I will be suggesting and giving this jewel of a book to everyone I know who wants to bring steadiness, grace, peace, and happiness into their life through the practice of meditation.”

Cofounder of Omega Institute and
 author of Broken Open: How Difficult
 Times Can Help Us Grow

“In Real Happiness Sharon Salzberg introduces us with a gentle but firm hand to the meditation experience. To those who have taken her courses (like me) this book contains all of the jewels of Sharon’s teachings plus more.”

author of Be Here Now

‘I often suggest to my stressed-out patients that they meditate, but most don’t know where to begin. Real Happiness is the perfect meditation prescription, with everything a first-timer could need.”

author of Revive

“In these pages, Sharon Salzberg lays out a step-by-step program for developing mindfulness, insight, and lovingkindness in just 28 days—and for taking these practices into the rest of your life. A simple, straightforward way to learn the most essential practices of Buddhist meditation, from one of the most renowned meditation teachers in the West today.”

author of Rebel Buddha:
 On the Road to Freedom

“Very few books will actually make you a better person. This is one of them.”

author of New York Times bestseller,
Heartsick and Sweetheart

“Based upon ancient timeless contemplative tradition as well as modern neuroscientific research and experiential neuroDharma experiments, Salzberg’s four-week program for developing insight meditation, mindfulness, and her specialty of loving-kindness clearly instructs and awakens us, leading step by step to the discovery of who we are, why we are here, and how to realize a more fulfilling life and more harmonious world. I heartily recommend this to anyone seeking self-realization and inner peace, well being and enlightenment.”


Real Happiness

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The Power of Meditation


By Sharon Salzberg


Copyright © 2011 by Sharon Salzberg

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced—mechanically, electronically, or by any other means, including photocopying—without written permission of the publisher. Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.

Excerpt from “Escapist—Never” from the book, The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 1962 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Excerpt from Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. Bantam, 2010. Reprinted by permission of Random House.

Excerpts from “Keeping quiet” from Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid. Translation copyright © 1974 by Alastair Reid. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
ISBN-10: 0-7611-6403-0
ISBN-13: 978-0-7611-6403-6

Design by Yin Ling Wong
Author photo: Liza Matthews
Illustrations: Phil Conigliaro
Illustration (page 41): Judy Francis Zankel
Mandala art: Clare Goodwin

Workman books are available at special discounts when purchased in bulk for premiums and sales promotions as well as for fund-raising or educational use. Special editions or book excerpts also can be created to specification. For details, contact the Special Sales Director at the address below or send an e-mail to

Workman Publishing Company, Inc.
225 Varick Street
New York, NY 10014-4381

To my teachers, who have

deeply realized the power of meditation,

and have always believed that I

(and all of us) could too.


There are several people who supported the evolution of this book to whom I am very grateful. Amy Gross has always wanted a book like this and has long encouraged me to write one; Nancy Murray brought me to Workman and reminded me both of why I wanted to be a writer and came up with the approach that got me going; Suzie Bolotin kept the faith for a long time.

Rachel Mann collated research; Joan Oliver brought clarity out of the tangle of questions and answers I had recorded; Joy Harris has always guided me superbly, and Ambika Cooper offered help in a thousand different ways.

Judith Stone, whose work was invaluable, has been an essential part of this project, and Ruth Sullivan has been a wonderful and extremely patient editor.

May this book bring benefit and happiness to many.




What Is Meditation?
(or, If You Can Breathe, You Can Meditate)





Why Meditate?
The Benefits and Science of Meditation





Breathing and the Art of Starting Over












The CD icon indicates that this meditation is also on the accompanying CD.


Mindfulness and the Body
Letting Go of Burdens











Mindfulness and Emotions
Dealing with Thoughts and Feelings













Cultivating Compassion and True Happiness














Keeping the Practice Going 
“Just Put Your Body There”







Resource Guide






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BEN STARTED MEDITATING when he was an army reservist on active duty in Iraq. I became his teacher via e-mail. He told me that he felt meditation would help him deal with the stress and trauma that he faced every day and stay true to his deepest values.

Sarah wanted to be a good stepmother. She thought learning to meditate would help her listen more patiently and better negotiate the complex relationships in her newly blended family.

Diane took a meditation class I taught at the large media company where she’s a division manager. She was seeking more balance between her work life and her home life, she said, and a way to communicate with colleagues clearly and calmly no matter how crazy things got at the office.

Jerry is a firefighter dealing with the aftermath of being a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Elena needed to concentrate on studying for her real estate licensing exam. Rosie hoped to cope better with chronic back pain. Lisa, the owner of a small catering company, told me that she wanted to stop feeling as if she were sleepwalking most of the time. “I’m on automatic pilot, disconnected from myself,” she said. “I’m so worried about the things on my to-do list, or about the future, that I’m totally missing my present. I feel as if I’m living my life behind my own back.”

I’ve changed the names of some of my students and some identifying details, but their motivations are real, and so are the many ways that the practice of meditation has improved their lives.

For thirty-six years, I’ve taught meditation to thousands of people, at the Insight Meditation Society retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, which I cofounded in 1975, and at schools, corporations, government agencies, and community centers all over the world. I’ve introduced the techniques you’re about to encounter to groups of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, police officers, athletes, teenagers, army chaplains and medics, doctors, nurses, burn patients, prisoners, frontline workers in domestic violence shelters, new moms and dads. My students come from every walk of life, ethnic background, and belief tradition.

And they’re part of a national trend: A 2007 survey (the most recent data available) by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that more than twenty million Americans had practiced meditation in the previous twelve months. They did so, they told researchers, to improve their overall wellness; for help with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, or insomnia; and to deal with the symptoms and emotional strain of chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer.

People also turn to meditation, I’ve found, because they want to make good decisions, break bad habits, and bounce back better from disappointments. They want to feel closer to their families and friends; more at home and at ease in their own bodies and minds; or part of something larger than themselves. They turn to meditation because human lives are full of real, potential, and imagined hazards, and they want to feel safer, more confident, calmer, wiser. Beneath these varied motivations lie the essential truths that we’re all alike in wanting to be happy and in our vulnerability to pain and unpredictable, continual change.

Again and again I’ve seen novice meditators begin to transform their lives—even if they were initially resistant or skeptical. As I’ve learned through my own experience, meditation helps us to find greater tranquility, connect to our feelings, find a sense of wholeness, strengthen our relationships, and face our fears. That’s what happened to me.

I started meditating in 1971, as an eighteen-year-old college student spending my junior year studying in India. I was looking for practical tools to ease the misery and confusion that I felt every day, the residue of a painful and chaotic childhood. My father left when I was four; my mother died when I was nine, and I went to live with my grandparents. When I was eleven, my grandfather died and my father briefly returned, until a suicide attempt spun him away into the mental health system, from which he never emerged.

By the time I left for college, I’d lived in five different household configurations, each change precipitated by loss. I felt abandoned over and over again. The people who raised me were caring, but they were unable to speak openly about the things that had happened to me. I came to feel that I didn’t deserve much in life. I held my immense grief, anger, and confusion inside, fortifying my deep conviction that I was unworthy of love. I wanted with all my heart to find a sense of belonging, a steady source of love and comfort.

At sixteen, I entered the State University of New York at Buffalo. During my second year I learned about Buddhism in a course on Asian philosophy. I was attracted to its unashamed, unafraid acknowledgment of the suffering in life. That eased my sense of isolation: I wasn’t the only one in pain! The Buddha, a prince turned spiritual teacher born in India about 563 B.C., wrote: “You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” Not only did the Buddha say that love for oneself is possible, but he also described this capacity as something we must nurture, since it’s the foundation for being able to love and care for others. This philosophy offered me a way to ease the suffering caused by my feelings of confusion and despair. Despite some doubts, the chance of a move from self-hatred to self-love drew me like a magnet. I wasn’t interested in acquiring a new religion; I just wanted relief from so much unhappiness.

And so I went to India for an independent study program. When I got there, I heard about a respected teacher who was leading a meditation retreat for beginners and others. I was a bit disappointed to discover that meditation wasn’t as exotic as I’d expected—there were no mystical instructions delivered in a darkened chamber with a supernatural aura. Instead that first instructor launched my practice with the words, “Sit comfortably, and feel your breath.” Feel my breath? I thought in protest. I could have stayed in Buffalo to feel my breath! But I soon found out just how life-changing it would be simply to focus my attention on inhaling and exhaling in order to connect fully with my experience in a whole new way, one that allowed me to be kinder to myself and more open to others.

Once I learned how to look deep within, I found the bright vein of goodness that exists in everyone, including me—the goodness that may be hidden and hard to trust but is never entirely destroyed. I came to believe wholeheartedly that I deserve to be happy, and so does everyone else. Now when I meet a stranger, I feel more connected, knowing how much we share. And when I meet myself in meditation, I no longer feel I’m encountering a stranger.

Because of meditation, I’ve undergone profound and subtle shifts in the way I think and how I see myself in the world. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be limited to who I thought I was when I was a child or what I thought I was capable of yesterday, or even an hour ago. My meditation practice has freed me from the old, conditioned definition of myself as someone unworthy of love. Despite my initial fantasies when I began meditating as a college student, I haven’t entered a steady state of glorious bliss. Meditation has made me happy, loving, and peaceful—but not every single moment of the day. I still have good times and bad, joy and sorrow. Now I can accept setbacks more easily, with less sense of disappointment and personal failure, because meditation has taught me how to cope with the profound truth that everything changes all the time.


What Is Meditation?


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STRAIGHTFORWARD AND SIMPLE (but not easy), meditation is essentially training our attention so that we can be more aware—not only of our own inner workings but also of what’s happening around us in the here and now. Once we see clearly what’s going on in the moment, we can then choose whether and how to act on what we’re seeing.

For the next four weeks, we’ll be exploring the principles of insight meditation, the simple and direct practice of moment-to-moment awareness. We first train our attention by focusing on a single chosen object (most often our breath) and repeatedly letting go of distractions in order to return our attention to that object. Later we broaden the focus to include whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise in the moment.

People have been transforming their minds through meditation for thousands of years. Every major world religion includes some form of contemplative exercise, though today meditation is often practiced apart from any belief system. Depending on the type, meditation may be done in silence and stillness, by using voice and sound, or by engaging the body in movement. All forms emphasize the training of attention.


“My experience is what I agree to attend to,” the pioneering psychologist William James wrote at the turn of the twentieth century. “Only those items I notice shape my mind.” At its most basic level, attention—what we allow ourselves to notice—literally determines how we experience and navigate the world. The ability to summon and sustain attention is what allows us to job hunt, juggle, learn math, make pancakes, aim a cue and pocket the eight ball, protect our kids, and perform surgery. It lets us be discerning in our dealings with the world, responsive in our intimate relationships, and honest when we examine our own feelings and motives. Attention determines our degree of intimacy with our ordinary experiences and contours our entire sense of connection to life.

The content and quality of our lives depend on our level of awareness—a fact we are often not aware of. You may have heard the old story, usually attributed to a Native American elder, meant to illuminate the power of attention. A grandfather (occasionally it’s a grandmother) imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.” The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight. The grandfather answers, “The one I feed.”

But that’s only part of the picture. True, whatever gets our attention flourishes, so if we lavish attention on the negative and inconsequential, they can overwhelm the positive and the meaningful. But if we do the opposite, refusing to deal with or acknowledge what’s difficult and painful, pretending it doesn’t exist, then our world is out of whack. Whatever doesn’t get our attention withers—or retreats below conscious awareness, where it may still affect our lives. In a perverse way, ignoring the painful and the difficult is just another way of feeding the wolf. Meditation teaches us to open our attention to all of human experience and all parts of ourselves.

I’m sure you know the feeling of having your attention fractured by job and family, the enticement of electronic diversions, or the chatter of your mind—that morning’s spat with your mate replaying in your head, a litany of worries about the future or regrets about the past, a nervous endless-loop recitation of the day’s to-do list. Parts of that mental soundtrack may be old tapes that were instilled in childhood and have been playing so long we’ve nearly tuned them out of conscious awareness. These might be unkind pronouncements about the kind of person we are or preconceptions and assumptions about how the world works (for example: Good girls don’t act like that, men/women can’t be trusted, you’ve got to look out for number one).

We may no longer even notice the messages we’re sending ourselves, just the anxiety that lingers in their wake. These habitual responses are often the result of a lifetime’s conditioning—the earliest lessons from our parents and our culture, both explicit teaching and nonverbal cues.

This diffusion of attention can be mildly discomfiting, creating a vague sense of being uncentered or never quite there. It can be disheartening, leaving you exhausted from being dragged around by your jumpy, scattered thoughts; it can be downright dangerous (think of what can happen to distracted drivers). We can be lethally asleep at the wheel in other ways, too, neglecting relationships or failing to notice and act on what’s really important to us. We miss a great deal because our attention is distracted or because we’re so sure that we already know what’s going on that we don’t even look for new, important information.

Meditation teaches us to focus and to pay clear attention to our experiences and responses as they arise, and to observe them without judging them. That allows us to detect harmful habits of mind that were previously invisible to us. For example, we may sometimes base our actions on unexamined ideas (I don’t deserve love, you just can’t reason with people, I’m not capable of dealing with tough situations) that keep us stuck in unproductive patterns. Once we notice these reflexive responses and how they undermine our ability to pay attention to the present moment, then we can make better, more informed choices. And we can respond to others more compassionately and authentically, in a more creative way.


All forms of meditation strengthen and direct our attention through the cultivation of three key skills—concentration, mindfulness, and compassion or lovingkindness.

Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of distractions. Distractions waste our energy; concentration restores it to us. The introductory meditation technique you’ll learn is uncomplicated and yet powerful: You’ll improve your concentration by focusing on something you’ve known how to do all your life—breathing. The practice entails paying attention to each in-and-out breath, and when your mind wanders (it will, that’s natural), noticing whatever has captured your attention, then letting go of the thought or feeling without berating yourself for it. You then return to focusing on your breathing. In this way meditation trains us to stay in the moment before us instead of reliving the past or worrying about the future. And it teaches us how to be gentle with ourselves and others, to forgive our lapses and move on. You’ll learn more about concentration in Week One.

Mindfulness refines our attention so that we can connect fully and directly with whatever life brings. Mindfulness meditation moves our focus from a single object, the breath, to anything that’s happening inside or outside of us at a given moment. We practice observing thoughts, feelings, sights, smells, sounds, without clinging to what’s pleasant, pushing away what’s painful, or ignoring what’s neutral. And we become adept at catching ourselves in the act of substituting our habitual knee-jerk responses for a more accurate assessment of what’s really going on in the present.

What might such a knee-jerk response look and feel like? Suppose, for instance, that someone says something that really riles us, and we feel a surge of anger. Maybe our automatic reaction to anger is to lash out before thinking at all. Or we might have a habit of judging (if I feel anger, it means I’m a bad person) that makes us deny the emotion churning inside; unexamined, it festers or grows in power. Or perhaps we’re in the habit of projecting every emotion into an eternally unchanging future: I’m an angry person, and I’ll always be an angry person; I’m doomed! None of these responses is likely to yield a happy outcome.

But if we apply mindfulness to the experience of anger, we can safely draw close to the emotion instead of fleeing, and investigate it instead of stonewalling. We notice it without judging it. We can gather more information about what happens when we get mad—what sets off the anger, where it lodges in the body, and what else it also contains, like sadness, fear, or regret.

This pause for nonjudgmental acknowledgment creates a bit of peaceful space within which we can make new, different choices about how to respond to something like anger. In this way we break old habits. We might decide to have a calm conversation with the person who’s annoyed us instead of stewing or spewing; we might choose to leave the room until we cool down; or we might spend a few moments focusing on our breath in order to restore balance and perspective. Later, after our meditation session, we can think about the situations that tend to trigger our anger.

Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, stories that get in the way of direct experience. Often such stories treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self. One of my favorite examples of this kind of globalizing came from a student who’d had an intensely stressful day. When she went to the gym later and was changing in the locker room, she tore a hole in her panty hose. Frustrated, she said to a stranger standing nearby, “I need a new life!”

“No you don’t,” the other woman replied. “You need a new pair of panty hose.”

You’ll learn more about mindfulness in Weeks Two and Three. In Week Two, we’ll look at mindfulness and the body, and in Week Three, we’ll work on dealing mindfully with our emotions.


Many people have misconceptions about what meditation means. Before we begin, let me clear up a few of them.

It isn’t a religion. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or Hindu; you can meditate and still practice your own religion or no religion at all. Ben, the soldier who meditated while he was serving in Iraq, told me he thought the practice would help him stay in touch with his Christian values. The techniques you’ll learn in this book can be done within any faith tradition. They can also be done in an entirely secular way.

It doesn’t require special skills or background. Meditation isn’t only for certain talented or already serene people. You don’t have to be an ace at sitting still; you don’t have to wait until you’re uncrazed and decaffeinated. You don’t need to study anything before you begin. You can start right now. If you can breathe, you can meditate.

It doesn’t demand a huge chunk of your time every day. We’re going to aim for twenty-minute sessions. If you like, you can start with five minutes and work your way up. (You’ll find a more detailed discussion of the number and timing of meditation sessions on page 40 and in the “Nuts and Bolts” section of each chapter.) You’ll probably want to lengthen your practice sessions, because you’re going to like the sense of well-being they generate. But you don’t have to. Establishing a regular practice, whatever the length of the session, is more important than striving to devote hours to it each day.

It doesn’t eliminate sadness or rough patches from your life. You’re still going to have ups and downs, happiness and sadness. But you’ll be able to roll with the punches more and feel less defeated, because meditation teaches us new ways of coping with difficulties.

It isn’t an attempt to stop thinking or insist on only positive thoughts. That’s not humanly possible. Meditation is a way to recognize our thoughts, to observe and understand them, and to relate to them more skillfully. (I like the Buddhist tradition of replacing the modifiers “good” and “bad” to describe human behavior with “skillful” and “unskillful.” Unskillful actions are those that lead to pain and suffering; skillful actions are those that lead to insight and balance.)

You don’t have to renounce your opinions, goals, or passions; you don’t have to shun fun. “If I start meditating,” a woman once asked me, “do I have to give up wanting things?” “No,” I told her. “You just have to relate differently to the wanting—pay attention to it, investigate it, understand what’s behind it.” Adding meditation to our lives doesn’t mean withdrawing from the real world of relationships, responsibilities, careers, politics, hobbies, celebrations. In fact, it frees us to be more engaged with the things that interest us, often in a healthier way.

It’s not navel gazing. Meditation isn’t self-indulgent or self-centered. Yes, you’ll learn about yourself—but it’s knowledge that will help you better understand and connect with people in your life. Tuning in to yourself is the first step toward tuning in to others.


Lovingkindness is compassionate awareness that opens our attention and makes it more inclusive. It transforms the way we treat ourselves, our family, and our friends. Spending time paying careful attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions (positive and negative) and understanding them opens our hearts to loving ourselves genuinely for who we are, with all our imperfections. And that’s the gateway to loving others. We’re better able to see people clearly and to appreciate them in all their complexity if we’ve learned to care for and appreciate ourselves. We might then be more inclined to wish them well instead of becoming irritated, to let go of past hurts and deepen a connection to a relative—to offer a friendly gesture to someone we might previously have ignored, or find a better way to deal with a difficult person. In Week Four you’ll learn specific techniques for increasing your compassion toward yourself and others.

During the 28-day program you’re about to embark upon, you’ll be systematically honing these skills. Each week’s instruction will be divided into sections: The Practice Preview, which lets you know what to expect; the Meditations themselves; FAQs (real questions I hear again and again from my students); Reflections on the deeper lessons of the week; and The Takeaway, suggestions for incorporating the practice into everyday life.

Never have I seen a greater need for the gifts of meditation. Traveling the country, I constantly hear from the people I meet that they feel more and more fragmented by the demands and distractions of a complicated world, and anxious about its potential terrors. Meditation can give us a sense of wholeness and the security of a deep, confident calm that’s self-generated.

People tell me they’re saddened by the ugly, uncivil polarization they see in public life, and the isolation and loneliness they feel in private. They hunger for cooperation, connection, and community. Meditation, which teaches kindness, compassion, and patience, is a clear, straightforward method for improving relationships with family, friends, and everyone else we meet.

They tell me they’re disheartened to discover that their accomplishments haven’t increased their peace of mind and their possessions have brought only temporary satisfaction. Glory and gadgets have their place, but the only real app for happiness is a practice that creates a sense of ease within and can help us withstand sorrow and loss.


Why Meditate?


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IF YOU’D LIKE TO GET STARTED on your meditation program right away, you can turn to Week One (page 35). Or you can take a moment and learn more about the benefits of meditation in everyday life, and what scientists are discovering in the lab about the power of meditation, which is, in a nutshell, that meditation may be as important to your well-being as physical exercise.

Meditation is pragmatic, the psychological and emotional equivalent of a physical training program: If you exercise regularly, you get certain results—stronger muscles, denser bones, increased stamina. If you meditate regularly, you also get certain results. I’ve already mentioned some of them, including greater calm, and improved concentration and more connection to others. But there are other rewards. I’ll discuss each of them at greater length in later chapters, and I’ll explain how we get from here to there—from beginning to train our attention to living a transformed life.

You’ll begin to spot the unexamined assumptions that get in the way of happiness. These assumptions we make about who we are and the way the world works—what we deserve, how much we can handle, where happiness is to be found, whether or not positive change is possible—all greatly influence how and to what we pay attention.

I was reminded of how assumptions can get in our way when I visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., to view a work of art by a sculptor friend. Eagerly I checked every room, peered at every display case and pedestal—no sculpture. Finally I gave up. As I headed for the exit, I glanced up—and there was her beautiful piece. It was a bas-relief hanging on the wall, not the free-standing statue I’d expected; my assumptions had put blinders on me and almost robbed me of the experience of seeing what was really there—her amazing work. In the same way, our assumptions keep us from appreciating what’s right in front of us—a stranger who’s a potential friend, a perceived adversary who might actually be a source of help. Assumptions block direct experience and prevent us from gathering information that could bring us comfort and relief, or information that, though saddening and painful, will allow us to make better decisions.

Here are some familiar assumptions you might recognize: We have nothing in common. I won’t be able to do it. You can’t reason with a person like that. Tomorrow will be exactly like today. If I just try hard enough, I’ll manage to control him/her/it/them. Only big risks can make me feel alive. I’ve blown it; I should just give up. I know just what she’s going to say, so I don’t really need to listen to her. Happiness is for other people, not me. Statements like these are motivated by fear, desire, boredom, or ignorance. Assumptions bind us to the past, obscure the present, limit our sense of what’s possible, and elbow out joy. Until we detect and examine our assumptions, they short-circuit our ability to observe objectively; we think we already know what’s what.

You’ll stop limiting yourself. When we practice meditation, we often begin to recognize a specific sort of conditioned response—previously undetected restrictions we’ve imposed on our lives. We spot the ways we sabotage our own growth and success because we’ve been conditioned to be content with meager results. Meditation allows us to see that these limits aren’t inherent or immutable; they were learned and they can be unlearned—but not until we recognize them. (Some common limiting ideas: She’s the smart one, you’re the pretty one. People like us don’t stand a chance. Kids from this neighborhood don’t become doctors.) Training attention through meditation opens our eyes. Then we can assess these conditioned responses—and if parts of them contain some truth, we can see it clearly and put it to good use; if parts of them just don’t hold up under scrutiny, we can let them go.

You’ll weather hard times better. Meditation teaches us safe ways to open ourselves to the full range of experience—painful, pleasurable, and neutral—so we can learn how to be a friend to ourselves in good times and bad. During meditation sessions we practice being with difficult emotions and thoughts, even frightening or intense ones, in an open and accepting way, without adding self-criticism to something that already hurts. Especially in times of uncertainty or pain, meditation broadens our perspective and deepens our sense of courage and capacity for adventure. Here’s how you get braver: little by little. In small, manageable, bearable increments, we make friends with the feelings that once terrified us. Then we can say to ourselves, I’ve managed to sit down, face some of my most despairing thoughts and my most exuberantly hopeful ones without judging them. That took strength; what else can I tackle with that same strength? Meditation lets us see that we can accomplish things we didn’t think ourselves capable of.

You’ll rediscover a deeper sense of what’s really important to you. Once you look beneath distractions and conditioned reactions, you’ll have a clearer view of your deepest, most enduring dreams, goals, and values.

You’ll have a portable emergency resource. Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively. You’re likely to find yourself in situations—having a heated argument at work, say, or chauffering a crowd of rambunctious kids to a soccer game—when you can’t blow off steam by walking around the block, hitting the gym, or taking a time-out in the tub. But you can always follow your breath. In Week One, you’ll learn ways of practicing meditation wherever you are.

You’ll be in closer touch with the best parts of yourself. Meditation practice cultivates qualities such as kindness, trust, and wisdom that you may think are missing from your makeup but are actually just undeveloped or obscured by stress and distractions. You’ll have the chance to access these qualities more easily and frequently.

You’ll recapture the energy you’ve been wasting trying to control the uncontrollable. I once led a retreat in California during a monsoonlike rainstorm. It’s so soggy and unpleasant that people aren’t going to have a good retreat, I thought. I felt badly for the participants; in fact, I felt responsible. For a few days I wanted to apologize to everybody for the rain until a thought flickered: Wait a minute. I’m not even from California; I’m from Massachusetts. This isn’t my weather. This is their weather. Maybe they should apologize to me! And then the voice of deeper wisdom arose: Weather is weather. This is what happens.

We’ve all had weather moments—times when we’ve felt responsible for everyone’s good time or well-being. It’s our job, we think, to fix the temperature and humidity, or the people around us (if we could only get our partner to quit smoking, consult a map, stick to a diet!). We even think we’re capable of totally controlling our own emotions—I shouldn’t ever feel envious, or resentful, or spiteful! That’s awful! I’m going to stop. You might as well say, “I’m never going to catch a cold again!” Though we can affect our physical and emotional experiences, we can’t ultimately determine them; we can’t decree what emotions will arise within us. But we can learn through meditation to change our responses to them. That way we’re spared a trip down a path of suffering we’ve traveled many times before. Recognizing what we can’t control (the feelings that arise within us; other people; the weather) helps us have healthier boundaries at work and at home—no more trying to reform everyone all the time. It helps us to stop beating up on ourselves for having perfectly human emotions. It frees energy we expend on trying to control the uncontrollable.

You’ll understand how to relate to change better—to accept that it’s inevitable and believe that it’s possible. Most of us have a mixed, often paradoxical attitude toward change. Some of us don’t think change is possible at all; we believe we’re stuck forever doing things the way we’ve always done them. Some of us simultaneously hope for change and fear it. We want to believe that change is possible, because that means that our lives can get better. But we also have trouble accepting change, because we want to hold on permanently to what’s pleasurable and positive. We’d like difficulties to be fleeting and comfort to stick around.

Trying to avoid change is exhausting and stressful. Everything is impermanent: happiness, sorrow, a great meal, a powerful empire, what we’re feeling, the people around us, ourselves. Meditation helps us comprehend this fact—perhaps the basic truth of human existence, and the one we humans are most likely to balk at or be oblivious to, especially when it comes to the biggest change of all: Mortality happens, whether we like it or not. We grow old and die. (In the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata, a wise king is asked to name the most wondrous thing in the universe. “The most wondrous thing in the entire universe,” he says, “is that all around us people are dying and we don’t believe it will happen to us.”) Meditation is a tool for helping us accept the profound fact that everything changes all the time.

You’ll soon discover that meditating offers a chance to see change in microcosm. Following our breath while observing how thoughts continually ebb and flow can help us realize that all elements of our experience are in constant flux. During a meditation session, you’ll find it’s natural to go through many ups and downs, to encounter both new delights and newly awakened conflicts that have bubbled up from the unconscious mind. Sometimes you’ll tap into a wellspring of peace. Other times you might feel waves of sleepiness, boredom, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Snatches of old songs may play in your head; long-buried memories can surface. You may feel wonderful or awful. Daily meditation will remind us that if we look closely at a painful emotion or difficult situation, it’s bound to change; it’s not as solid and unmanageable as it might have seemed. The fear we feel in the morning may be gone by the afternoon. Hopelessness may be replaced by a glimmer of optimism. Even while a challenging situation is unfolding, it is shifting from moment to moment, varied, alive. What happens during meditation shows us that we’re not trapped, that we have options. Then, even if we’re afraid, we can find a way to go on, to keep trying.

This is not a Pollyanna-ish sentiment that everything will be just fine, according to our wishes or our timetable. Rather it is an awakened understanding that gives us the courage to go into the unknown and the wisdom to remember that as long as we are alive, possibility is alive. We can’t control what thoughts and emotions arise within us, nor can we control the universal truth that everything changes. But we can learn to step back and rest in the awareness of what’s happening. That awareness can be our refuge.

And science has now proven that change is possible on a cellular level as well.


When I was in high school, we were taught as irrefutable truth that the size and circuitry of the brain are fixed before adulthood. But in the last decade and a half, neuroscientists and psychologists have demonstrated again and again that the adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity—that is, forming new cells and pathways. Throughout life, the brain rewires and reshapes itself in response to environment, experience, and training. And meditation is one of those brain-changing experiences. A number of recent studies confirm that meditation can bring about significant physiological changes in the brain that create welcome changes in health, mood, and behavior.

Advances in brain monitoring and imaging, such as functional MRI, have made it possible to watch the brain in action during meditation. The amazing news coming from researchers all over the world is that the practice of meditation seems to prime brain cells to fire together in patterns that strengthen key brain structures—those, for example, important in tasks such as decision-making, memory, and emotional flexibility. And it may also improve communication among different parts of the brain in ways that further improve physical and emotional health.

In 2005, a pioneering study led by neuroscientist Sara Lazar of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital showed that practitioners of insight meditation had measurably thicker tissue in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being. And the subjects of her study weren’t Tibetan monks who’d spent years contemplating in caves, but ordinary Boston-area professionals, most of whom meditated about 40 minutes a day. Brain scans of the older participants suggest that meditation may also counteract the thinning of the cortex that occurs naturally with aging, and thus may protect against memory loss and cognitive deficits.

Several other brain-scan studies have extended Lazar’s work, showing that meditation strengthens areas of the brain involved in memory, learning, and emotional flexibility. In 2009, for example, neuroscientist Eileen Luders of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging reported that when she and her team compared the brains of experienced practitioners of insight meditation with those of a control group of non-meditators, they found that the brains of the meditators contained more gray matter—the brain tissue responsible for high-level information processing—than did those of the non-meditators, especially in the areas of the brain associated with attention, body awareness, and the ability to modulate emotional responses. “We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior,” says Luders. “The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities.”

And in a study published in 2010, Lazar and her team scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received eight weeks of training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a popular combination of meditation and yoga designed to alleviate stress in patients with health problems. The new meditators showed measurable changes in two important brain areas—growth in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and learning, and shrinkage in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that initiates the body’s response to stress. The decrease in the size of the amygdala correlated with lowered stress levels reported by the group that learned meditation—and the more they reduced their stress through meditation, the smaller the amygdala got. A control group that received no MBSR training showed no such brain changes on scans done eight weeks apart.

More and more studies like these are finding measureable evidence of what meditators have known empirically for centuries: Meditation strengthens the brain circuits associated not only with concentration and problem solving, but with our feelings of well-being. In other words, science has shown that meditation just plain makes people happier.

“We now know that the brain is the one organ in our body built to change in response to experience and training,” says Richard Davidson, Ph.D., an expert in the study of neuroplasticity. “It’s a learning machine.” A professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Davidson is the founding director of the school’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM), launched in 2010 to further the new discipline of contemplative neuroscience, the study of how meditative practices affect brain function and structure, and how those changes affect physical and emotional health.

What’s most heartening about the new research, says Davidson, is the way meditation can remodel the brain to strengthen the qualities that psychologists say are crucial components of happiness: resilience, equanimity, calm, and a sense of compassionate connection to others. “We don’t take this revolutionary idea as seriously as we should,” says Davidson. “Emotions—and happiness in particular—should be thought of in the same way as a motor skill. They can be trained.” In one of Davidson’s own experiments, which we include in Week Four, he found that lovingkindness meditation actually changes the way the brain works so that we become more compassionate (see page 176). “One thing all these studies show,” says Harvard’s Sara Lazar, “is that, as with physical exercise, the more you practice meditation, the greater the benefit. It’s really clear that the more you do, the more you get.”

Scientists have also looked at the way meditation improves attention. An fMRI study at Emory University showed that experienced meditators were much more efficient than a non-meditating control group at dropping extraneous thoughts and focusing on the matter at hand when they were bombarded by stimuli while performing a computer task. The researchers conjecture that the simple practice of focusing attention through meditation may help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions characterized by excessive rumination.

In 2007, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania trained a group of non-meditators in MBSR, then compared this group with longtime meditators taking part in a month-long meditation retreat, and with a control group who had no experience with meditation. After eight weeks of training, the new meditators improved their scores for orienting, or turning one’s attention to a specific thing, and for sustaining attention. The veteran meditators showed greater skill at conflict-monitoring—choosing what to focus on among competing stimuli—than did either of the other two groups, and they were better able to filter distracting stimuli in order to remain focused. These findings suggest that meditation may be useful in treating people suffering from ADHD, and for improving cognition and other attention-based functions that slow as we age.

Training attention through meditation also improves our capacity to process rapidly arriving incoming information. When we’re presented with two new pieces of visual information in very quick succession, we have trouble detecting the second stimulus because the brain’s limited attentional resources are still busy processing the first one, a phenomenon called the “attentional blink.” But the fact that we can detect the second stimulus at least some of the time shows that the attentional blink is subject to training. Curious about our ability to improve cognitive functioning, neurobiologist Heleen Slagter and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin recruited participants in a three-month meditation retreat and evaluated their attentional blink rates before and after. They found that newly trained meditators were able to reduce the attentional blink substantially by the end of the retreat. The study offers compelling proof that attention can be trained and improved.

Perhaps this is one reason meditation works so well for athletes. Famed basketball coach Phil Jackson, a meditator himself, arranged to have his players—first the Chicago Bulls, and then the L.A. Lakers—learn meditation as a way to improve their focus and teamwork. Jackson finds that mindfulness assists players in paying attention to what’s happening on the court moment by moment. Such precise training in attention has paid off during tense playoffs; Jackson has led more teams to championships than any coach in NBA history.

Meditation seems to improve not just our cognitive abilities, but also our immune system. In one study, for example, Davidson and colleagues teamed with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and the developer of MBSR. The scientists studied the brains of participants before and after they received eight weeks of MBSR training and compared them with those of a group of nonmeditators. At the end of the training, the subjects received flu shots and their antibody activity was tested. Not only did the meditators show elevated activity in the area of the brain associated with lowered anxiety, a decrease in negative emotions, and an increase in positive ones, but their immune systems produced more antibodies in response to the vaccine than did the nonmeditators’. In other words, there may be a strong link among meditation, positive emotions, and a healthier immune system.

Because of these studies, some doctors are recommending meditation to patients with chronic pain, insomnia, and immune deficiencies. Public and private schools in at least twelve states offer mindfulness training to students. And a pilot study at UCLA has shown that mindfulness meditation helps both adults and adolescents with ADHD. Finally, according to a New York Times article, psychiatrists are using mindfulness meditation as part of therapy, especially with clients who have anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Therapists have come to realize that meditation can alter reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach. “It’s a shift from having our mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” says psychologist Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content—and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing, and becoming disentangled from our definition of ourselves.”

Among the institutions that have embraced meditation as a legitimate area of scientific study is the U.S. government. In the last ten years the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) increased the number of meditation studies it sponsored from seven in 2000 to forty-seven in 2010. Its current projects include investigations of how well meditation lowers stress in caregivers for elderly patients with dementia, reduces chronic back pain, alleviates asthma symptoms, and lowers blood pressure.

And in 2008, the Department of Defense conducted rigorous clinical studies on using alternative approaches, including meditation, to treat the estimated 17 percent of U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as the more than 3,300 who have sustained traumatic brain injuries.

For many people science provides a way of understanding the world that allows them to approach subjects they might otherwise have dismissed. One of the most wonderful things about these findings, beyond the personal improvements they promise, is that a large, new group of people may now feel more comfortable about taking advantage of meditation’s many benefits.

These benefits accrue not simply from reading about and admiring the effects of meditation, but from actually practicing it.


At Bob Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen described hearing Dylan’s music for the very first time. Springsteen was fifteen, he said, riding in the car with his mother, idly listening to the radio, when “Like a Rolling Stone” came on. It was as though, Springsteen recalled, “somebody took his boot and kicked open the door to your mind.” His mother’s verdict: “That man can’t sing.” Mrs. Springsteen’s response reminds us that we don’t all react the same way to the same experience—and her son’s reminds us that life holds moments when our perspective dramatically shifts, when our assumptions are deeply challenged, when we see new possibilities or sense for the first time that whatever has been holding us back from freedom or creativity or new ventures might actually be overcome.

There are moments when we sense that tomorrow doesn’t have to look like today—that the feeling of defeat that’s been flattening us for what seems like forever can lift, that our anxiety needn’t define us, that the delight we’ve been postponing and the love we long for could be nearer at hand than we’d thought.

Sometimes a flash of inspiration kicks open that door: We hear a piece of music, see a work of art, read just the right poem. Or we meet someone who has a big vision of life, someone we admire who embodies values we cherish. Life seems to hold more possibilities.

Sometimes pain kicks open that door: We lose our job, or lose a friend; feel betrayed or deeply misunderstood. In our distress, we suddenly feel an urgent need to look more deeply for understanding and an abiding sense of well-being.

If you’re reading these words, perhaps it’s because something has kicked open the door for you, and you’re ready to embrace change. It isn’t enough to appreciate change from afar, or only in the abstract, or as something that can happen to other people but not to you. We need to create change for ourselves, in a workable way, as part of our everyday lives. That’s what the next four weeks of learning to meditate will do.

The door of possibility has been opened—the door to authentic and accessible happiness. Welcome. Come in and sit.




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IMAGINE RECLAIMING ALL THE ENERGY that could be available to us 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.

Concentration is a steadying and focusing of attention that allows us to let go of distractions. When our attention is stabilized in this way energy is restored to us—and we feel restored to our lives. This week you’re going to learn techniques for deepening concentration through focusing on the breath.

Sometimes distractions are internal—the continuous replaying of old mistakes and regrets (Why didn’t I listen to my dad? or If only I’d married Jeffrey) or the nursing of past injustices (How could she have accused me of disloyalty? I was the one who stuck up for her!). We focus on things we can’t undo. Or we throw our energy into obsessively fantasizing about a future that may never happen (What if I tell the committee my ideas and they put me down? Or what if they steal my ideas, and don’t give me credit? I’ll quit!) and then getting terribly agitated about it, as if the woes we’re imagining had already come to pass. “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened,” Mark Twain once said. Or we live in a state of perpetual postponement that blinds us to the potentially fulfilling moment in front of us: I’ll be happy when I graduate, we tell ourselves, when I lose ten pounds, when I get the car/the promotion/the proposal, when the kids move out.

And plenty of the distractions are external: the familiar competing tugs of home and work; the twenty-four-hour media matrix; our noisy consumer culture. We often try to buy our way out of pain, regarding material possessions as talismans against change, against loss and death. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet William Wordsworth wrote.

And not just getting and spending; also texting, Web surfing, tweeting, Skyping, digitally recording. A colleague recently led stress-reduction sessions for people who felt themselves to be suffering from an excess of distraction, an inability to settle and simply be. One man complained that he didn’t have enough time in the day, that he felt disconnected from his family and generally anxious. When my friend asked him how he typically spent his time, the man described reading an average of four newspapers and watching at least three TV news shows every day.

Relearning how to concentrate, says the writer Alain de Botton, is one of the great challenges of our time. “The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything,” he wrote in the 2010 essay “On Distraction.” “To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.”

Linda Stone, a former executive at both Apple and Microsoft, has coined the term Continuous Partial Attention to describe a pervasive and exhausting condition you’re likely to find familiar. Simple multitasking—it seems almost quaint—was, she says, motivated by the desire to be more productive and to create free time for friends, family, and fun. “But Continuous Partial Attention is motivated by a desire not to miss anything,” she writes. “We’re talking on the phone and driving; carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table.... Continuous Partial Attention involves an artificial sense of constant crisis, of living in a 24/7, always-on world. It contributes to feeling stressed, overwhelmed, overstimulated, and unfulfilled; it compromises our ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.”

Not that there isn’t a place for video games or shopping or watching the news avidly. It’s moderation and conscious deployment we’re after—knowing what we’re doing when we’re doing it, rather than being on automatic pilot and turning to these activities out of habit. The point is not to hate the stuff we’ve bought, or berate ourselves for being a news junkie, or withdraw from modern life, but to be willing to experiment with our time and attention, connecting more fully with our life as it happens. Concentration lets us put on the brakes and spend time just being with what is, rather than numbing out or spinning away into excess stimulation.

The larger effect of distraction is a disconcerting sense of fragmentation. We often feel uncentered; we don’t have a cohesive sense of who we are. We find ourselves compartmentalizing, so that the person we are at work is different from the one we are at home. We might be confident in the office and fragile at home, or vice versa; withdrawn with our spouse but the life of the party when we’re out with our friends. Our best self, the one who values patience and compassion, isn’t the same self who snaps at the kids. Or as a student said to me recently, “I’m filled with lovingkindness and compassion for all beings everywhere—as long as I’m alone. Once I’m with someone else, it’s really rough.” For some of us, it’s the other way around; we’re fine when we’re with others but ill at ease in our own company.

Each of us is, of course, a combination of many traits, states of mind, abilities, and drives; they’re all part of us. Some qualities are paired opposites, and we can spend a lifetime resolving and integrating competing characteristics and needs—for both intimacy and independence, for vulnerability and strength. When our attention is tuned in, when we’re aware of ourselves, these different parts of us work in concert and in balance; when we’re distracted, they don’t, and that’s when we feel fragmented and compartmentalized. Meditation—training our attention—allows us to find an essential cohesiveness.



Establish a meditation corner you can use every day. It could be in your bedroom or office; in the basement or on the porch. Wherever you practice, pick a place where you can be relatively undisturbed during your meditation sessions. Turn your cell phone, other mobile devices, and laptop off and leave them in another room.

Traditionally people sit on a cushion on the floor. If that doesn’t work for you, you may sit in a straight-backed dining room or kitchen chair, or on the couch. (If you’re unable to sit at all, you may lie down on your back with your arms at your sides.) If you’re sitting on the floor, a pillow or sofa cushion is fine; you can also buy a special cushion meant especially for meditating, or a meditation bench that lets you sit in a supported kneeling position. (You’ll find a list of sources for these items on page 204.) Some people decorate their meditation place with meaningful objects or images. Others bring an inspiring book from which they read a short passage before meditating.


“Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes,” Henry David Thoreau said. He’d have been pleased to learn that meditation calls for no special outfit. Comfortable clothes are best. But if you find yourself stuck in uncomfortable ones, don’t let that stop you.


Plan to meditate at about the same time every day. Some people find it best to sit first thing in the morning; others find it easier to practice at lunchtime, or before going to bed at night. Experiment to find the time that works best for you. Then make a commitment to yourself. Write it in your datebook.

I suggest you start by sitting for twenty minutes of meditation three times the first week—but if you’d rather start with a shorter time and gradually lengthen it, that’s fine. Decide before each session how long it’s going to be. (Set an alarm if you’re worried about knowing when the time is up.) The four guided meditations on the CD accompanying this book are between 15 and 20 minutes long. You’ll add one more day of meditation in Week Two, another in Week Three, and two in Week Four, so that by the end of the month you’ll have established a daily practice.

Formalizing a time to meditate will enhance your sense that this is a deeply important activity. But here’s the fundamental question: What will get you to sit down on that cushion or chair? Sometimes people think, If I don’t have an hour, I won’t do it. Even five minutes, though, if that’s all you have, can help you reconnect with yourself.


Spend some time at the beginning of each session settling into the posture; the first thing you need to do is really inhabit your body. The traditional components of meditation posture have been used for many centuries. At first they may feel odd and uncomfortable, but you’ll come to be at ease with them.

Legs: If you’re on a cushion, cross your legs loosely in front of you at the ankles or just above. (If your legs fall asleep during meditation, switch and cross them the other way around, or add another cushion for a higher seat.) Your knees should be lower than your hips. People who are unable to cross their legs can sit with one leg folded in front of the other without crossing them. You can also kneel by using a meditation bench or by placing a cushion behind you between your thighs and calves, as if you were sitting on a short bench. If you’re sitting on a chair, keep your feet flat on the floor. That will help you sit up straight so your breathing can be more natural.

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A simple meditation posture, with legs crossed easily.

Back: Whether you’re on a cushion or a chair, the way you hold your back is the most important part of the meditation posture. Sit up straight, but don’t strain or go rigid. Picture your vertebrae as a neat stack of coins. The natural curve at the small of your back will help support you. Maintaining a straight spine helps you breathe more naturally and stay alert. If you’re sitting in a chair, try not to lean against the back of it, in order to keep your spine straight. With your spine stacked this way, your hips are level, your shoulders are level, and you are a balanced, solid triangle.

Arms and hands: Let your hands fall naturally onto your thighs, resting palms down. Don’t grab on to your knees, or use your arms to support the weight of your torso. Some meditators prefer to arrange their hands in this way: Cup your right hand in your left, palms up, with the tips of your thumbs barely touching and forming a triangle with your hands.

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Some meditators prefer to rest their hands in this position.

Head: When you’re seated with a straight spine, look levelly in front of you. This drops your head very slightly forward. When you lower your gaze or close your eyes (see below), maintain this position. Keep your shoulders relaxed; if you find them rising into a shrug, gently lower them.

Eyes: Close your eyes, but don’t squeeze them shut. If you’re more comfortable with your eyes open (or if you find yourself dozing off), gaze lightly at a point about six feet in front of you and slightly downward. Soften your eyes—don’t let them glaze over, but don’t stare hard, either.

Jaw: Relax your jaw and mouth, with your teeth slightly apart. A teacher once told me to part my lips just enough to admit a grain of rice.


This week, you begin learning how to use concentration to overcome myriad distractions in your life.

You’ll start on the most intimate and workable level: Week One’s meditation sessions will be devoted to improving concentration by aiming your attention at your breath as it moves in and out of your body. We choose the breath as our focus because it’s something we do naturally: There’s no intentional effort involved. (If you have respiratory problems, or you’ve tried several times to follow the breath and found that doing so makes you anxious, experiment with focusing on sounds, as in the Hearing Meditation in this chapter, or use the Body Scan Meditation that you’ll find in Week Two.)

Thoughts and feelings will inevitably arise and claim your attention, but you’ll practice repeatedly noticing and letting go of these distractions, then returning your awareness to the in and out of your breath. Breathing, discovering you’ve been distracted, and starting over: simple and manageable.

Some of these thoughts and feelings may be fascinating and delightful; some may make you uncomfortable; some may be deadly dull. You’ll practice letting them all go, without taking the time to judge them. This is a crucial first step in learning how to be more centered and present.

Almost immediately you’ll feel the healing power of being able to begin again, no matter where your attention has gone or for how long. Everyone who meditates, beginners and longer-term practitioners alike, gets hijacked at times by thoughts and feelings; it’s impossible not to be. But once you see how doable it is to start over, you won’t judge your efforts so harshly. And you’ll learn that starting over and not fruitlessly berating yourself are skills you can bring into your everyday life when you’ve made a mistake or lost sight of your aspirations. You can begin again.

Another healthy result of concentration: It brings wholeness when we feel scattered, because we allow ourselves to be aware of all of our feelings and thoughts, the pleasant and the painful ones. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves by running away from difficult or troubling thoughts, or by keeping them hidden, or by beating ourselves up for having them. And because we’ve begun to be kinder to and more accepting of ourselves, we can be kinder to and more accepting of others.

As meditation moves us toward wholeness, we rediscover a strong center, an inner store of mental and emotional strength that was once lost to us. Many people who practice concentration to steady their attention use the same word to describe the feeling it gives them: empowered. Once we have a sense of a center, we can more easily withstand the onslaught of overstimulation, uncertainty, and anxiety the world launches at us without getting overwhelmed. We’re stronger because we not only see more but also see more clearly. When your attention is diffuse, it’s like a broad, weak beam of light that doesn’t reveal much. Concentration brings the weak beam down to a single, sharply focused, supremely bright, exponentially more illuminating point.

You may not be convinced that sitting and breathing can lead to personal transformation. But you’ll soon have the opportunity to test this for yourself; your meditation practice is about to begin. Don’t worry about getting it right. When your mind wanders, as it inevitably will, don’t be alarmed. Just notice whatever has captured your attention, then let go of the thought or feeling and gently bring your attention back to the breath. No matter how far away you drift, or for how long, don’t be concerned. If you get tangled up in thoughts, release them and start over. If you feel bored, or panicked, start over. If you can’t sit still, start over. If one day this week you just can’t find the time or the will to meditate, start over the next day.


In Week One, try to do a twenty-minute sitting meditation on three days of this week. You can use the following Core Breathing Meditation or you can try one of the two variations offered in this chapter—the Hearing Meditation and the Letting-Go-of-Thought Meditation. You might also practice incorporating the mini-meditations suggested on page 56 into your day.



*Listen to tracks 1, 2, and 3

All audio files can be downloaded here:

This classic meditation practice is designed to deepen concentration by teaching us to focus on the in and out breath.

Sit comfortably on a cushion or a chair in the posture detailed on pages 41–42. Keep your back erect, but without straining or overarching. (If you can’t sit, lie on your back, on a yoga mat or folded blanket, with your arms at your sides.)

You don’t have to feel self-conscious, as though you’re about to do something special or weird. Just be at ease. Close your eyes, if you’re comfortable with that. If not, gaze gently a few feet in front of you. Aim for a state of alert relaxation.

Deliberately take three or four deep breaths, feeling the air as it enters your nostrils, fills your chest and abdomen, and flows out again. Then let your breathing settle into its natural rhythm, without forcing or controlling it. Just feel the breath as it happens, without trying to change it or improve it. You’re breathing anyway. All you have to do is feel it.

Notice where you feel your breath most vividly. Perhaps it’s predominant at the nostrils, perhaps at the chest or abdomen. Then rest your attention lightly—as lightly as a butterfly rests on a flower—on just that area.

Become aware of sensations there. If you’re focusing on the breath at the nostrils, for example, you may experience tingling, vibration, pulsing. You may observe that the breath is cooler when it comes in through the nostrils and warmer when it goes out. If you’re focusing on the breath at the abdomen, you may feel movement, pressure, stretching, release. You don’t need to name these sensations—simply feel them.

Let your attention rest on the feeling of the natural breath, one breath at a time. (Notice how often the word rest comes up in this instruction? This is a very restful practice.) You don’t need to make the breath deeper or longer or different from the way it is. Simply be aware of it, one breath at a time.


Read First, Then Sit

Perhaps you’re asking yourself, Should I be following along, performing each action described as I read about it? What happens when I close my eyes—do I peek at the instructions? Good questions. Four of the meditations in this book are also on the accompanying CD, so you can close your eyes and listen to my voice guiding you through the practice, if you wish. But I suggest that before you try each meditation exercise you read the instructions through completely a couple of times so you can absorb them and know what to expect.

And if you get lost at any point while you’re doing one of the meditations, remember these simple, basic guidelines: Breathe naturally and focus on the sensations of each breath. If you have a thought or a feeling, notice it and then gently return to following your breath.


During the course of this meditation session, you may find that the rhythm of your breathing changes. Just allow it to be however it is. Sometimes people get a little self-conscious, almost panicky, about watching themselves breathe—they start hyperventilating a little, or holding their breath without fully realizing what they’re doing. If that happens, just breathe more gently. To help support your awareness of the breath, you might want to experiment with silently saying to yourself in with each inhalation and out with each exhalation, or perhaps rising ... falling. But make this mental note very quietly within, so that you don’t disrupt your concentration on the sensations of the breath.

Many distractions will arise—thoughts, images, emotions, aches, pains, plans. Just be with your breath and let them go. You don’t need to chase after them, you don’t need to hang on to them, you don’t need to analyze them. You’re just breathing. Connecting to your breath when thoughts or images arise is like spotting a friend in a crowd: You don’t have to shove everyone else aside or order them to go away; you just direct your attention, your enthusiasm, your interest toward your friend. Oh, you think, there’s my friend in that crowd. Oh, there’s my breath, among those thoughts and feelings and sensations.

If distractions arise that are strong enough to take your attention away from the feeling of the breath—physical sensations, emotions, memories, plans, an incredible fantasy, a pressing list of chores, whatever it might be—or if you find that you’ve dozed off, don’t be concerned. See if you can let go of any distractions and return your attention to the feeling of the breath.

Once you’ve noticed whatever has captured your attention, you don’t have to do anything about it. Just be aware of it without adding anything to it—without tacking on judgment (I fell asleep! What an idiot!), without interpretation (I’m terrible at meditation); without comparisons (Probably everyone trying this exercise can stay with the breath longer than I can! Or / should be thinking better thoughts!), and without projections into the future (What if this thought irritates me so much I can’t get back to concentrating on my breath? I’m going to be annoyed for the rest of my life! I’m never going to learn how to meditate!).

You don’t have to get mad at yourself for having a thought; you don’t have to evaluate its content: just acknowledge it. You’re not elaborating on the thought or feeling; you’re not judging it. You’re neither struggling against it nor falling into its embrace and getting swept away by it. When you notice that your mind is not on your breath, notice what is on your mind. And then, no matter what it is, let go of it. Come back to focusing on your nostrils or your abdomen or wherever you feel your breath.

The moment you realize you’ve been distracted is the magic moment. It’s a chance to be really different, to try a new response—rather than tell yourself you’re weak or undisciplined, or give up in frustration, simply let go and begin again. In fact, instead of chastising yourself, you might thank yourself for recognizing that you’ve been distracted, and for returning to your breath. This act of beginning again is the essential art of the meditation practice.

Every time you find yourself speculating about the future, replaying the past, or getting wrapped up in self-criticism, shepherd your attention back to the actual sensations of the breath. (If it will help you restore concentration, mentally say in ... out with each breath, as I suggested above.) Our practice is to let go gently and return to focusing on the breath. Note the word gently. We gently acknowledge and release distractions, and gently forgive ourselves for having wandered. With great kindness to ourselves, we once more return our attention to the breath.


Cradling the Breath

Sometimes in my own practice I use the image of holding something very fragile, very precious, as if I had something made of glass in my hand. If I were to grab it too tightly, it would shatter and break, but if I were to get lazy or negligent, my hand would open and the fragile object would fall and break. So I just cradle it, I’m in touch with it, I cherish it. That’s the way we can be with each breath. We don’t want to grab it too tightly or be too loose; too energized or too relaxed. We meet and cherish this moment, this breath, one breath at a time.


If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine. That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath at a time.

If you feel sleepy, sit up straighter, open your eyes if they’re closed, take a few deep breaths, and then return to breathing naturally. You don’t need to control the breath or make it different from the way it is. Simply be with it. Feel the beginning of the in-breath and the end of it; the beginning of the out-breath and the end of it. Feel the little pause at the beginning and end of each breath.

Continue following your breath—and starting over when you’re distracted—until you’ve come to the end of the time period you’ve set aside for meditation. When you’re ready, open your eyes or lift your gaze.

Try to bring some of the qualities of concentration you just experienced—presence, calm observation, willingness to start over, and gentleness—to the next activity that you perform at home, at work, among friends, or among strangers.


Sit comfortably or lie down, with your eyes closed or open; if they’re open, find a spot in front of you on which to rest your gaze. Center your attention on the feeling of your breathing, wherever it’s predominant, wherever it’s easiest for you—just normal, natural breath. Follow your breath for a few minutes. Then turn your attention from focusing on the breath to focusing on hearing the sounds around you.

Some sounds are near and some far; some welcome (wind chimes, say, or snatches of music) some not so welcome (a car alarm, a power drill, an argument on the street). In either case, they’re simply sounds arising and passing away. Whether they’re soothing or jangly, you note the sounds and let them go.


Here’s an optional way to end any meditation in this book:

As you come to the close of your practice session, feel the pleasure that comes from caring for yourself, paying attention, taking risks, and being willing to begin again. To do so isn’t conceited or vain; you’re experiencing the joy of making healthy choices.

And because the inner work we do is never for ourselves alone, make a point of offering the positive energy you generate in your practice to those who have helped you. Maybe it is someone who took care of things at home so you’d have more free time or someone who has been encouraging you in your practice. You can offer the energy, the positive force, the sense of possibility you’ve been generating to this person, so that the work you do within is for them as well. May my practice be dedicated to your well-being.

Maybe someone you know is hurting. The greater awareness, sensitivity, love, and kindness you’re developing can be dedicated to their happiness as well. Or think of your family and the greater community. Every step we take toward peace and understanding affects everyone around us.

At the end of your meditation, say to yourself, May the actions that I take toward the good, toward understanding myself, toward being more peaceful be of benefit to all beings everywhere.

And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes.


There’s nothing you have to do about these sounds; you can hear them without any sort of effort at all. You don’t need to respond to them (unless, of course, it’s the sound of a smoke alarm, or your child crying); you don’t need to judge them, manipulate them, or stop them. You don’t even have to understand them or be able to name them. See if you can just hear a sound without naming or interpreting it. Notice changes in intensity or volume as the sound washes through you, without interference, without judgment—just arising and subsiding, arising and subsiding.

If you find yourself shrinking from a sound or wishing it were over, note that and see if you can be with it in an open, patient way. Keep your body relaxed. If the sound is upsetting, return to following your breath for a few minutes. Don’t strain to hear, just stay open for the next sound.

If you find yourself craving more of a sound, take a deep breath and relax. Simply notice that a sound has arisen, that you have a certain response to it, and that there’s a little space between those two events. Stay open for the next sound, recognizing that sound is continually coming and going outside of our control. If you find yourself getting tense in response to a sound, take a deep breath and relax, using whatever technique works for you; maybe it’s directing breath into a tight area of the body. Or you can, at any point, return to following your breath as an anchor, as a reminder of easy, spacious relaxation. If thoughts come up, notice them and let them go. You don’t have to elaborate: Oh, that’s a bus. I wonder what number? I wish they’d change the route so it’s more convenient. I wish I didn’t have to ride a bus at all. I’m so annoyed that my car’s in the shop ... All you have to do is hear. All you have to do is be present.

And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes.

As you return to your daily activities, consider the way this meditation reminds us that we can meet experiences with more presence and centeredness.


Michelangelo was once asked how he would carve an elephant. He replied, “I would take a large piece of stone and take away everything that was not the elephant.” Practicing concentration during a meditation session is something like learning to recognize what is “not the elephant”: It’s a continual letting go of that which is nonessential or distracting. When we’re practicing concentration and a thought arises in the mind—a memory, a plan, a comparison, an inviting fantasy—we let go of it. If anger arises, or self-judgment, or eager anticipation of a party we’re going to that night, we simply let it go, calmly returning to the object of concentration. We release a thought or a feeling not because we are afraid of it or because we can’t bear to acknowledge it as a part of our experience, but because in this context, it is unnecessary. Right now we are practicing concentration, sustaining our attention on the breath.

In this meditation you can sit comfortably or lie down. Close your eyes, or if you’re keeping them open, find a spot in front of you to rest your gaze. Center your attention on the feeling of the in-and-out breath, at the nostrils, chest, or abdomen—just the normal, natural breath. As you feel the sensations of the breath, make a very quiet mental notation of breath, breath with both the in-breath and the out-breath. When a thought arises that’s strong enough to take your attention away from the breath, simply note it as not breath. Whether it’s the most beautiful thought in the world or the most terrible, one you’d never disclose to another soul, in this meditation, it’s simply not breath.

You don’t have to judge yourself; you don’t have to get lost in making up a story about what triggered the thought or its possible consequences. All you have to do is recognize that it’s not the breath. Some of your thoughts may be tender and caring, some may be cruel and hurtful, some may be boring and banal; all that matters is that they’re not the breath. See them, recognize them, very gently let them go, and bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath.

Our habitual tendency is either to grab on to a thought and perhaps build a complicated scenario around it, or to push it away and struggle against it. In this meditation, we encounter thoughts and stay detached, centered, and calm. We simply recognize It’s not the breath and very gently let the thought go, returning our attention to what is the breath.

And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes and relax.


Ordinary life activities offer a chance for small bursts of meditation, times when you can shake off distraction or anxiety and restore concentration and calm.

Anywhere we happen to be breathing, we can be meditating—standing in line at the DMV, watching our kid’s soccer game, before going into an important meeting. A few times a day, wherever you are, take a moment or two to tune in to the feeling of your breath at the nostrils, chest, or abdomen, whichever is most comfortable for you. You don’t have to close your eyes, look odd, or feel self-conscious. You’re just grabbing a quick, centering moment—as short as following three breaths—to connect with a deeper sense of yourself.

Some people set up routines or choose cues in order to build these moments of mindfulness into their day: They take three mindful breaths before they answer an e-mail; or stop and follow the breath for a few moments when the microwave dings as they’re heating up their lunch; or they let the phone ring three times before they pick it up, and take a mindful, centering breath in that brief interval. I heard about one executive who has her assistant put a free minute on the calendar before every meeting for a short following-the-breath break. These moments of stealth meditation may restore the calm state we achieve in longer practice sessions, and they remind us that the breath is always there as a resource, to center us so we remember what matters.


The practice of feeling your breath and bringing your attention back again and again may not be glamorous or dramatic, but it makes a difference in those times when you have to say to yourself, “I need to start over. I can’t just stay stuck in this place.” This is a wonderful skill to bring to your life.

When I started practicing meditation, I assumed that taming the mind and developing concentration took a great deal of grim, laborious effort. At the first meditation retreat I ever attended, I became so frustrated with trying to pay attention that, in a frenzy, I declared to myself that the next time my attention wandered I would just bang my head against the wall.

Fortunately the lunch bell rang just then. Standing in the meal line, I overheard a conversation between two students I didn’t know. One was asking the other how his morning had gone. The tall, thin man replied with great buoyancy of spirit, “I couldn’t really concentrate very well, but this afternoon may be better.”

That startled me, and I turned around to get a better look at this guy. Why isn’t he as upset as I am? I thought. Doesn’t he take this stuff seriously at all? This was my first meeting with Joseph Goldstein.

Five years later Joseph and I, along with Jack Kornfield and other committed friends, founded the Insight Meditation Society. By that time, I’d come to understand what lay behind Joseph’s lighthearted statement. I’d learned, as my practice evolved, that the conditions required for concentration to develop were far from the sort of tormented battle I’d engaged in. Straining to attain calm makes no sense, yet that’s often what we do. I realized that struggling to keep the mind on an object such as the breath doesn’t create the conditions in which concentration most readily arises. When the mind is at ease, however, when our hearts are calm and open and confident, we can more comfortably, naturally concentrate. But how do we arrive at this state of ease?

It helps to have the perspective Joseph had in that lunch line so many years ago. He accepted that there are always ups and downs in meditative practice, as there are in life. Sometimes meditation is easy, fun, even ecstatic. Sometimes it’s annoying, difficult, painful. Whatever it is, we stick with it: Effort needn’t be struggling or straining—it can be relaxed perseverance.

Those inevitable up-and-down cycles don’t need to define our sense of progress in meditation. You can’t bully yourself into awareness; kindness and acceptance work much better. When thoughts and feelings distract us during our meditation session, we acknowledge them without judging them, and we let them go. This view doesn’t make us undiscriminating or complacent. Rather, we capture the energy previously used to blame ourselves and direct it toward making informed choices about how we want to relate to what has come up in our minds.


Mix It Up

Experiment with the variations on the Core Meditation. On some of your practice days, use them in place of the Core Meditation. Or incorporate into your daily practice just those components you find helpful. You might, for example, choose to switch from following the breath to hearing sounds whenever you feel tense or anxious during your practice. Or you might decide to employ the mental note not breath when you feel especially distracted. Use whatever works for you.


Instead of being discouraged if you feel sleepy, anxious, or distracted when you wanted to feel peaceful and focused, remember that success in meditation is measured not in terms of what is happening to us but by how we relate to what is happening. Do you calmly observe your sleepiness, anxiety, or distraction? Success. Do you try to stop punishing yourself for feeling these things? Success.

The theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman recommended that we “look at the world with quiet eyes.” It’s an intriguing phrase. Too often, we’re more like those cartoon creatures whose eyes are popping out on springs: “I see something I want! Give it to me!” Boing! “Wait—I see something better; I want that instead!” Boing! We grab the object, the person, the rush, and clamp on to keep it from changing or leaving. And then—boing—we yearn for something else, because we aren’t even really paying attention to what we’re grasping so tightly.

Not paying attention keeps us in an endless cycle of wanting. We move on to the next thing because we aren’t really taking in what we already have; inattention creates an escalating need for stimulation. When we’re keenly aware of what’s happening, we don’t need to grasp for the next great moment of sensation or taste or sound (all the while missing what’s actually here, right in front of us). Nor do we need to postpone our feeling of happiness until a more exciting or more pleasing object comes along, thinking, This is OK, but it would be better if ... Only when we are attentive in each moment do we find satisfaction in our lives. The point of our practice is to point us to our direct experience.

When we live without awareness, numb to small delights, we may more easily fall into addictive behavior, as we need increasing levels of stimulating sensations, either pleasant or painful, in order to feel alive. In the poem “Escapist—Never,” Robert Frost writes,

His life is a pursuit of a pursuit forever.

It is the future that creates his present.

All is an interminable chain of longing.

When our lives feel like an interminable chain of longing—when nothing satisfies us the way we thought it might—often the first link in the chain is not being fully present. Here’s how it works: Imagine eating an apple. If you do so paying very little attention to the sight of it, the feel, the smell and the taste, then eating the apple isn’t likely to be a fulfilling experience. Becoming aware of a mild discontent, you’re likely to blame the apple for being boring and commonplace. It’s easy to miss the fact that the quality of your attention played a major role in your dissatisfaction.

You may begin to think, If only I could have a banana, then I’d be happy! You find a banana, but you eat it in the same distracted or inattentive way, so again you end up feeling unsatisfied. But instead of realizing that you weren’t paying attention to the experience of eating the banana, you start to think, My life is just too prosaic; how could anybody be happy with apples and bananas? What I need is something exotic. I need a mango. Then I’ll be happy.

With some effort, you find your mango. The first few bites are wonderful; this is a fresh sensation. You proclaim it delicious, just what you were looking for. Soon, however, you’re finishing off the exotic mango in just the same distracted, preoccupied way you ate the prosaic apple and the banana, and once again you’re left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, of yearning. It’s not the fault of the apple, the banana, or the mango. It’s the quality of your attention that’s driving your quest for something more. That’s how an “interminable chain of longing” gets forged. Concentration is what breaks the chain.


Keep a Sitting Journal

Each time you meditate, record in a small notebook how long you practiced and the predominant aspect of your meditation—a few quick notes, such as “sleepy,” or “couldn’t stop planning for tomorrow,” or “clear and energized,” or “wished I were skiing.” Then at night add a word or two describing your general emotional state that day—“impatient,” say, or “resolved,” “openhearted,” “calm and confident,” “anxious.” At the end of every week, review your journal and see if you notice a relationship between your sitting and the rest of your day.


Learning to deepen our concentration allows us to look at the world with quiet eyes. We don’t need to reach out and grab ever more exotic or forbidden fruit. We develop calm and tranquility—and the calmer we get, the more at home we feel with our body and mind, with life as it is.


Q: I find it very hard to concentrate on my breath. Am I doing something wrong?

A: Being with the breath isn’t easy to do. To explain the proper technique for focusing attention on the breath, I often use the image of trying to pick up a piece of broccoli with a fork. Your goal is connecting the fork with the broccoli just deeply enough so that you can lift it to your mouth. To accomplish this, you need two things