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Searching For Stress Relief? Try Feeling Your Breath

Jul 12, 2014
Originally published on July 12, 2014 2:12 pm

Many Americans are swamped with stress, but there may be ways to ease the tension without changing the circumstances.

Almost half of all adults say they've experienced a major stressful event in the past year, according to a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Meditation can help people cope, says author Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.

Salzberg teaches "mindfulness," which she describes as a way of looking at the world without bias, fears or assumptions. "We have the opportunity to take a fresh look at our experience," she tells NPR's Tamara Keith.

Salzberg says getting that new perspective starts with taking a deep breath.


Interview Highlights

Mindfulness is not just focusing on the good things in life

[It's] focusing on everything, so that we're with it as it actually is. With pleasant and wonderful things, maybe we're so distracted we don't get to enjoy them. With painful and difficult things, maybe we add on shame and blame and dread and all of these things which make the bad ... or difficult situation so much worse. And with neutral experience, just ordinary routine, we tend to rely on intensity in order to feel alive.

Mindfulness training is about changing your relationship to everything. It's not changing the thing, but we're different with our experience.

On how mindfulness and mediation can help with serious chronic health issues like diabetes

I think it can, because the way we hold an experience like that, you know, sometimes we feel tremendously alone, we feel isolated, we're caught in this kind of corrosive self-hatred. One of the ways of understanding meditation is that it's about connection; it's connecting to other aspects of yourself, so that you're not only the diagnosis. That might be a benefit.

An example of a mindfulness exercise

Often we start just by listening to sound [like ocean waves]. ... Then bring your attention to the feeling of the breath. See if you can feel just one breath. If you find your attention slipping away, you get lost in thought, spun out in fantasy, or you're falling asleep, don't worry about it. You can practice just letting go gracefully, and bring your attention back to the feeling of the breath.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News - I'm Tamara Keith, All week NPR has been taking a look at just how stressed out Americans really are. The series is based on the results of a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. It found that almost half of all Americans reported having a major stressful event or experience in the past year. All of this might just leave you feeling even more stressed. So to help with that, we've brought in Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Nice to have you here.

SHARON SALZBERG: Thank you so much.

KEITH: So you teach meditation and mindfulness. And I guess we should start with a warning, which is that as a hardened journalist, I'm just a little skeptical of this whole mindfulness thing.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Can you start by giving us a definition of the term?

SALZBERG: The classical meaning of mindfulness is a quality of awareness where our perception is not so distorted by bias. We're not so haunted by old fears or maybe projection into the future, assumptions, conclusions, prior conclusions. And we have the opportunity to take a fresh look at our experience.

KEITH: And focusing on the good stuff.

SALZBERG: Focusing on everything so that we're with it as it actually is. With pleasant and wonderful things - maybe we're so distracted, we don't get to enjoy them. With painful and difficult things - maybe we add on shame and blame and dread and all of the things, which make the bad situation or the difficult situation so much worse. And with neutral experience - it's just kind of ordinary routine. We tend to rely on intensity in order to feel alive. And mindfulness training is about changing your relationship to everything. It's not changing the thing, but we're different with our experience.

KEITH: According to our poll, some of the biggest causes of stress are health problems, parenting teenagers and the effects of low wages. For someone with a serious chronic health issue like diabetes - can mindfulness help with something like that?

SALZBERG: I think it can because the way we hold an experience like that, you know, sometimes we feel tremendously alone, we feel isolated. We're caught in this kind of corrosive self-hatred. And one of the ways of understanding meditation is that it's about connection - it's about connecting to other aspects of yourself so you're not only the diagnosis. You know, that might be a benefit.

KEITH: Now, what about the people who can't afford to buy a book about meditation or attend one of your seminars? For the people who really do have a major financial stress.

SALZBERG: And there are many. And it shouldn't be a question of a kind of elite pursuit. I see meditation really as a kind of resilience training. And I would love to see it available just for everyone.

KEITH: And I know that you're an advocate of silent meditation. But this is radio (laughing) so we were wondering if you could walk me through some exercises that possibly with sound like something other than silence.

SALZBERG: Silence?

KEITH: Silence, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SALZBERG: OK, I'll try. Often we start just by listening to sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCEAN)

SALZBERG: It's like the sound washes through you. And then bring your attention to the feeling of the breath - see if you can feel just one breath. And if you find your attention slipping away, you get lost in thought, spun out in fantasy or you fall asleep - don't worry about it. You can practice just letting go gracefully. And bring your attention back to your feeling of the breath.

KEITH: OK, we're back. Sharon Salzburg is a meditation and mindfulness instructor. Her book is called "Real Happiness At Work." Thanks for being here.

SALZBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.