Room to Breathe: An At-Home Meditation Retreat with Sharon Salzberg, by Sharon Salzberg
Sounds True, 978-1-62203-614-1, 2 CDs (10 tracks) and 36 pp. booklet, 2016
Meditation is easy, yet you can spend a lifetime getting comfortable with it. That’s why it’s called a practice. And there isn’t just one way to meditate, although that’s what you might have thought if you’re new to it. In Room to Breathe, Sharon Salzberg, a well-known Asian meditation teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, acquaints us with several meditation practices and philosophies. You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor with your fingers in mudra position; you can sit on a chair, stand, walk, lie down on the couch. She encourages all of it.
Room to Breathe is subtitled “an at-home meditation retreat,” and it feels like it as you move through the material, comprised of two CDs and a booklet containing eight chapters. Each chapter introduces a topic, then directs you to listen to one or two meditation practices corresponding to it. The chapters are entitled: “Calming the Mind,” “Trusting Yourself,” “Letting Go,” “Facing Challenges,” “Being Present,” “Opening the Heart,” “Knowing Yourself,” and “Being with the World.” The connected meditations illustrate these concepts and teach how to work with each of them.
For instance, “Calming the Mind” teaches three basic methods of working with the breath: feeling the breath, breath and not-breath, and counting the breath. The latter was my favourite meditation. Counting while breathing allowed me to fall into a deepened state of meditation with the least distraction. Later on, “Opening the Heart” and its associated meditations introduce the practice of “lovingkindness,” in which the meditator focuses on specific phrases meant to engender compassion for oneself, others, and the entirety of creation.
In each track, Salzberg teaches the practice and the concepts in a clear, soft, easy-going voice. These are not guided meditations; you are not directed to any astral planes or to fields of wildflowers. Salzberg explains what you may experience physically, emotionally, and mentally during the meditation; possible ways you may react to what you experience (and all reactions are valid); and suggestions for deepening the practice when you feel ready. There is absolutely no pressure to sit a certain way, feel a certain thing, or to not scratch an itch when one arises (all things I’ve heard from meditation teachers that did not sit well with me).
“As my practice evolved,” Salzberg writes, “I learned that the conditions required for concentration to develop were far from the kind of tormented struggle I had imagined. As I came to realize, straining to keep the mind on an object does not create the atmosphere in which calm most readily arises. When the mind is at ease, serene, and happy, on the other hand, we can more easily and naturally concentrate.”1
I felt, as I moved through this retreat, that I was being introduced to a calmer, less stressful way to meditate than I had encountered previously. The tracks are between 5 and 20 minutes long (the longest being the walking meditation); yet, I felt no pressure to endure for the entire time. What I felt was a great allowing; if I could not finish the whole track, I developed a sense of self-forgiveness and compassion for myself, knowing I could come back to the practice when I felt ready, and try again.
That is the theme I found running through the retreat: the theme of returning to the breath, to the counting, to the awareness of the practice, to bringing my attention back to the present moment, to becoming fully aware. Salzberg points out that every experience has a “feeling tone” for us: pleasant, painful, or neutral.
Through meditation we learn to more fully enjoy pleasant experiences…we learn how to open to painful experiences with a more compassionate heart…and we learn to connect more completely to neutral experiences, so that we are not relying on intense pleasure or pain in order to feel alive.2
Room to Breathe is easy to listen to, simple to learn from, yet you can come back and begin again, over and over, and hear something that deepens your awareness each time. Meditation, however you do it, is a rich practice.