Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Onward and upward

A couple of weeks ago I went to a meditation in Oxford Town Hall. It was led by Sharon Salzberg, and the photo of her here is taken from her website.

Sharon is described on her website as "one of America's leading insight meditation teachers and spirituality writers". She was in Oxford between a week's teaching in Ireland, and further teaching in London from where, if I remember rightly, she was going to France. 

There were about 100 people in the hall and I'm reliably told that the average 'dana' or voluntary contribution per person would be £10, so £1000 in all. (This is given directly to her in cash: the expenses of hiring the hall, putting her up and paying her travel were met by the organisers by charging participants £20 each.)

Born in New York City in 1952 to a Jewish family, Sharon had a troubled early life (in the words of Wikipedia). Her parents divorced when she was four, and her father abandoned the family. At nine, her mother died and she went to live with her father's parents. Though her father returned when she was eleven, he soon overdosed and was subsequently hospitalized. He was soon placed in the mental health system, where he remained until his death. By 16, Sharon had lived with five different families.

At the State University of New York in 1969, Salzberg encountered Buddhism during a course in Asian philosophy. The following year, she took an independent study trip to India, and in January 1971 attended her first intensive meditation course at Bodh Gaya. After returning to the US in 1974, she began teaching vipassana (insight) meditation.

A tough start to life, and it is easy to see how Buddhism and meditation would have given her a foundation on which to build a more stable life and create a more loving environment. 'Lovingkindness' is a word that recurs frequently in what she says and writes. She has said herself that the meditation community is her family, and makes up for the broken family of her childhood and the partner and children she has not had since.

It's not entirely surprising that Sharon teaching today, age 61, looks as in the second photo here: a tad dishevelled and certainly obese. But this is quite unlike the photograph above that she puts on her website. I admit I was rather surprised, less with how she looked than with her apparent reluctance to come to terms with the changes we undergo as we get older. On the other hand, part of me is secretly pleased that a teacher and practitioner of Buddhist meditation should be vain enough to dye her hair!!

I'd like to know more about what she has learnt about her childhood traumas (if that is what they were) in her subsequent 40 years of meditation and Buddhist practice. What has the growing process been like? How has it informed her meditation practice and teaching? The Wikipedia article on her has a link to
Sharon Salzberg talks about her childhood and early life, June 2011. Unfortunately the interview, originally posted on Vimeo, was deleted in February this year, as you will see. I wonder what she said that she no longer wishes to say? The only clue to the power of that early background that I can find is on DharmaWeb: 'An early realization of the power of meditation to overcome personal suffering determined her life direction. Her teaching and writing now communicates that power to a worldwide audience of practitioners.'

Yet that first hour was as basic and introductory as it comes. Although there was a forest of hands raised when she asked who had practised meditation before, I heard nothing new and was taken to no new places. Sadly I didn't stay.

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