Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?

North Star by Ginger Graziano for Sharon Salzberg blog post

A Conversation with Meditation Pioneer Sharon Salzberg

A meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher, Sharon Salzberg was one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition; Lovingkindness, her seminal work; and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, coming in September 2020.

Sharon Salzberg for Sharon Salzberg blog postSharon has been my friend and teacher for over a decade. On my very first retreat with her, I fell in love. Using stories from her own life as well as others, she imbues our poignant earthly suffering with compassionate laughter. Over the years, her talks and books have inspired a new understanding of what it means to be human. Sharon has many gifts as a teacher. One of them is to instill faith and courage in her students, and I am one of the millions around the world who deeply admire her wisdom. It is a great pleasure to interview her for Psychology Today.

Dale Kushner: For any readers who don’t already know you, your illuminating work, and before we talk about your new book, Real Change, would you tell everyone a bit about your background, and about lovingkindness meditation?

Sharon Salzberg: I went to India to study meditation as a junior in college, on an independent study program. As a sophomore, I had taken an Asian philosophy course which inspired me to look for meditation training. I wanted to learn how to utilize direct, practical skills, rather than simply learn the philosophy, to see if they could help me be happier. My first immersion into meditation practice was an intensive 10-day retreat in January 1971. It was a mindfulness retreat, using tools like focus on the breath and awareness of the body as the main trainings. It was like a revolution for me, to connect more deeply with myself, and with kindness. Right at the end of that retreat, S.N. Goenka, who was the teacher, introduced lovingkindness meditation, which is very related to mindfulness but is also a distinct technique. Through that, I saw the possibility of connecting much more deeply with others.

D.K.: It’s been helpful for me to sit quietly and focus on the questions I’d like to ask you today. Like so many others, my inbox is flooded with links from friends and from various groups offering opinions, invitations, strategies, and messages of equal amounts of hope and despair. Sorting through all this material is overwhelming, and yet I’m inspired that so many unheard voices are now being heard.

 In one of my favorite books of yours, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, you encourage readers to rely less on outside authorities, gurus or abstract principles and to trust our own insights and lived experience. Today, many of us live with doubt and confusion that our insights have been in error or inadequate in addressing issues of social justice. We wonder how to affect transformational change without falling into guilt, doubt, fear, or anger. From a Buddhist perspective, how best might we uncover the true nature of our biases that distort our ability to see how our actions shape the collective? Are there particular practices that can help us?

Covid Compassion by Lynne Adams for Sharon Salzberg blog postS.S.: One of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice is that it enables us to see our thoughts as thoughts, before we say or do something on the basis of the thought that has arisen. The illuminating and ultimately empowering aspect of this is that we can see our assumptions as they come up, so they are not unconscious. Not all of our assumptions are wrong of course, but many of them are, and grievously so. My friends have a daughter who was born in China. Two blond Caucasians, they adopted her at a young age and formed a very happy family. When the little girl was in the first or second grade, her teacher presented this assignment to the class: “Name a physical characteristic you have in common with one of your parents.” The little girl started sobbing, and kept on sobbing at home. Her whole sense of family, and belonging, was suddenly ripped away. The teacher was making an assumption about what makes a family. It’s unlikely that her intention was to cause harm, but not seeing her assumption as a thought and carrying it into action did in fact hurt someone.

D.K.: Your new book, which was to be released this month but will be launched in September, is presciently titled Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. What prompted you to write this book?

S.S.: I encounter so many people who inspire me through their dedication to their work in the world, some of whom function in very tough situations. I have a lot of respect for people who have a vision of the world that is inclusive, who navigate the world with love and care as their north star, and who try every day to make it real.

D.K.: In writing Real Change, you consulted with veteran activists and agents of social change. Were there common threads among the consultants that aligned with your own experience of Buddhist teachings?  Could you give us three or four brief examples of the principles that emerged from your conversations?

S.S.: I think that there are many Buddhist principles that emerged for me out of the lives of the people I interviewed, even though they weren’t all Buddhists or even formal meditation practitioners. One was a belief in the innate dignity and worth of everybody. I think of Shantel Walker, one of the leaders of Fight for $15, a nationwide movement for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize for fast-food workers. I’ve met several of the striking workers. They work very hard, at times are homeless because even with a full-time job they cannot afford rent, and in many cases, they are denied the wages owed to them.  Some would recount how even their parents would tell them “don’t make waves.” But Shantel is an exemplar of someone who realized she (and not only she) was worth being treated with respect—because everyone is.

Meditation Bowl (2015)This brings to mind the fundamental truth of interconnection the Buddha talked about. It doesn’t mean we like everyone or want to spend time with them, but there is a deep realization that our lives are intertwined. The corollary to this is that everyone counts, everyone matters. Everyone I talked to had this worldview. That’s why they do the work they do.

And a third principle is the conviction that love is stronger than hate. No one I talked to believed that meeting hatred with hatred was the way forward. They derived their energy from a sense of justice and a vision of what could be possible. This certainly echoed the Buddha, “hatred will never cease by hatred. It can only cease by love. This is an eternal law.”

D.K.: Does practicing mindfulness always involve meditation or are there other ways to achieve it?

S.S.: I think there are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness. Life gives us many opportunities every day, really every hour. Meditation is a little like strength training—a dedicated period of immersion where your focus is on cultivating the different facets of mindfulness—awareness, balance, and connection. It then becomes easier to apply mindfulness in conversations, at work, commuting, whatever we might be doing.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



You Can’t Fail at Love!

Invisible by Laura Williams for Love blog post

 

February can be a tough month for love, reminding us of relationships we wish were brighter, deeper, reciprocated or still there. We’re inundated by images of couples walking on a tropical beach or canoodling under the stars. Our heads fill with comparisons, and worse, we imagine we don’t measure up, or have failed at love.

I bring you reassuring news. The words “failure” and “love” live at opposite ends of the universe. Whatever our disappointments in love, we aren’t doomed to relive them. Our minds may get stuck in unhelpful patterns, but love does not. Love isn’t fixed or static. It’s a quality of the heart, a transformative force that blasts through preconceived ideas and stale assumptions. As my wise and wonderful Buddhist teacher and acclaimed author, Sharon Salzberg, said during a recent conversation, “Love isn’t just a feeling. Love is ability.” We can develop our love skills. We can grow as students of love.

Sharon Salzberg for Love blog postSharon is my spiritual consigliere. At eighteen she left the States for India on a spiritual quest. Fast forward many years and she is now a world-renowned author/meditation teacher and the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. I seek her counsel because, like many of us, I feel worn down by the grim news around the globe, the sense of escalating violence at home. As a poet and novelist, as a wife and mother, and as a woman concerned about the state of humankind, my work is to examine and articulate the dilemmas of the human heart.

The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, explored familial love, friendship, and a young girl’s first experience of passionate love. My novel-in-progress examines how we can survive terrible things and still keep our hearts open. Over the last year I’ve felt an increased urgency to hone my skills as a “love activist,” to search for new approaches and a new set of behaviors for how to respond to violence and the threat of harm. After reading Sharon’s latest book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, I set up a time for us to talk.

Bodhidharma Seated in Meditation by Gahō for Love blog post Sharon, too, has been a lifelong investigator of love. She tells me the story of her younger self who used to think of love “as a commodity in someone else’s hands,” something like a UPS package that others could deliver to her or withhold. When she realized that her ability to experience love wasn’t dependent on others, that love was inside her, her anxiety about being lovable evaporated. Other people or situations might awaken her love, but she “owned her ability to experience love.”

Many of us grow up believing our happiness is in the hands of other people. We forget that the ability to love others starts with the ability to love one’s self. This may seem counterintuitive, even sinful to those of us raised to put the needs of others first. Self-love is a radical idea. How many of our parents said, “You really ought to love yourself better, dear.”

If befriending yourself feels difficult, Sharon advises offering kindness and compassion to ourselves as if we were our own best friend. Part of my own loving-kindness meditation practice is to imagine a very young self held in the arms of an older wiser self. Effortlessly, my compassion flows out to the little one.

But what if love has beaten our hearts and crushed our spirits? While we can’t undo the past, our history doesn’t have to be our destiny. Science validates what the Buddha instinctively knew: meditation can rewire our brains. Our marvelous organ of cognition is adaptable, plastic, and capable of regeneration. We’re not condemned to live out the negative consequences of rejection, loss, or trauma forever. Sharon reminds me that feeling connected to others has beneficial physical effects as well as mental ones: our nervous system functions better and we get more control over pain relief.

Sara Lazar slide for Love blog postNo matter what we’ve been through, however troubled, we always have the capacity to awaken our potential to love. According to Sharon, “real love is trying to come alive in us despite the distortions of our culture and the habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation.” We’re born with an innate goodness. Our ability to love is our birthright, a tiny seed that may be hidden from view or damaged by experience, but it is indestructible. To keep the seed alive and help it blossom, we can water it with a meditation practice and attention.

How do we practice love? Imagine every encounter as a love encounter—at the grocery store, on a bus, with a pet, or a favorite tree—let each be an opportunity to experience our connectedness. We can even send love to people we don’t like. His Holiness the Dalai Lama considers his enemies to be his best teachers, and encourages us to think of our real enemies as the fear and anger within. The Buddhists liken overwhelming anger to a forest fire that burns up all the trees, destroying its host.

Is it possible to heal the world with love? At an earlier time in my life, I might have thought this sappy. Now I don’t know. I do know that a dedication to alleviating the suffering of others goes a long way in creating happiness within our own hearts. And happiness can encompass a range of emotions. “Anger and compassion,” writes Sharon, “are not mutually exclusive in the brave and willing heart.”

Recently, my husband and I decided to write a new set of marriage vows after decades of being together. You don’t have to be married, or even have a partner to do this exercise. In fact, I highly recommend it as a way to soulfully connect with any person you love. When I sat in silence and brought an image of my husband into my mind-heart, I saw him clearly, with an appreciation for who he is, not for who I’ve wanted him to be. A quality of love is paying attention. Sharon suggests meditation is “attention training.” Love brings us into the mystery of the present moment, to cherishing the smile we see each morning, or delighting in the goofy antics of our dog. Love is a responsibility to ourselves, to our beloveds, to all beings. In moments of stillness, truth comes to us free of our ideas, associations or desires. We start by keeping our hearts open and our compassion ever-ready.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

Cherubs for Love blog post