Why it's possible to turn the most difficult experiences into something positive

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Sharon Salzberg had a difficult childhood. Along the way, she discovered that no matter how painful her memories were, there was something valuable about it too: it gave her a lot of compassion for others and the ability to look below the surface. 

Change your life and be happier 

When I was seventeen, I took an Asian philosophy course that was really about buddhism. It was almost by accident that I took the class, but it changed my life. First of all, there was the Buddha saying that suffering is a part of life, because it is inevitable and natural.

Like many people, I had a difficult childhood. I didn't know what to do with all these feelings inside of me and I felt isolated from everyone around me. Then, there's this Buddha saying: You're not so different, you don't have to feel alone! And then, I heard there are methods you can actually use to change your life and be happier, called meditation. Later, when I did meditation for the first time, it clicked right then and there. I sat down, started feeling my breath although my knees hurt. I felt that this was right, this was true. 

Something valuable 

One of my teachers told me two things that were amazing. She said that I should teach, because I really understood suffering. It was probably the first time I thought of my childhood as something valuable. I wouldn't say my childhood and my suffering were a gift, that's a little too much, but it gave me a lot of compassion for others and an ability to look below the surface. Zen teacher Joan Halifax said something like: 'Don't think of trauma as a gift, think of it as a given.' Your pain is there, what happened happened, you can decide to make something good out of it. 

Text: Eveline Helmink - Photo: Jeremy Bishop