"Pauses Are Essential": Sharon Salzberg on Compassion and Lovingkindness
Sharon Salzberg is a foremost Buddhist meditation teacher and author. With Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Sharon cofounded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, which has since become one of the most prominent and active meditation centers in the West. A New York Times best-selling author, Sharon focuses her teachings on both Vipassana and the deep and profound practice of metta (lovingkindness) meditation. Her numerous books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness; Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience; A Heart as Wide as the World; and the bestseller Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, A 28-Day Program. Her newest book is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. Sharon’s writing has also been published in The Sun magazine, on Huffington Post, and been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine.
1440: As a Buddhist meditation teacher, do you find it difficult to deal with this seeming saturation of stimulants from the digital world? Technology, social media, and email are all over us. How do you cope? How do we cope?
Sharon Salzberg: I love technology. I correspond via email so much more than talking to someone on the phone. I feel it’s liberated me from the constraints of being in a different time zone, of always traveling, of people not knowing how to find me. I get all the news of the world from Twitter, and news of my friends from Facebook.
I have a student who is a university professor, who told me once how concerned he was about the way his students used social media to constantly compare themselves to others, usually feeling bad about just not being good enough. As he put it, “No one ever posts a photo of their mediocre meal.” I told him that maybe it was an age thing: my people tended to post details about their shoulder surgery and other assorted sufferings.
Of course, much depends on how we use technology and how much we use it. Addiction can be a fine line in these realms.
“Irrespective of age, taking a look at our intention before we post or even open our devices seems like a good idea—what do we really hope to get out of engaging in this way, at this moment?”
And I find it good to remember that pauses are essential—just being tuned in to stimulation all the time, unremittingly, can be exhausting.
1440: You’ve visited many richly spiritual places and met with the Dalai Lama. What seems to be the common thread that deeply happy and fulfilled people/cultures share?
I think the Dalai Lama put it very well when he said, describing himself, “I’ve never met anyone I consider a stranger.”
I think about that statement often. Many of us meet a stranger and all the while hardly really notice them—we are so wrapped up in self-preoccupation—“What do they think of me? Do they like me? Do they like me more than they have ever liked anyone before? Oh no, I said something stupid. They must hate me!” The more we are lost in that way, the lonelier and more disconnected we feel.
In contrast, the Dalai Lama seems to be describing a state of genuine belonging no matter where you are, because you are so connected to your own body and mind, to the person or people you are with, to a bigger picture of life than just the immediate circumstances you find yourself in. I think he’s describing a sense of having a home wherever you go. That’s a state of deep happiness.
1440: Sometimes we think we just need a magic button to feel happy, but that doesn’t exist. What would you say to folks who are discouraged by hard setbacks as they try to move deeper in a more peaceful, loving existence?
Sharon Salzberg: Life can often buffet us with great adversity, or just a steady, wearisome lack of fulfillment. Most of us then have the unfortunate habit of piling on—adding shame or self-condemnation or a sense of isolation (“It’s only me.”) or projection into an endless future (“This is all I will ever feel.”) onto what is already a difficult moment.
With the development of greater compassion, including self-compassion, we can feel the pain of such times without the addition of extra pain. That also leaves room to feel and accept the love that may be coming towards us and within us.
My most recent book, Real Love, was first inspired by a line from a movie, Dan in Real Life. The line is, “Love is not a feeling, it’s an ability.” Of course it is known to us as a feeling, the one we often long for, but ponder for a moment what it feels like to consider love as an ability. For me, that was tremendously empowering. Instead of thinking of the love I could have in my life as dependent on someone else giving it to me (which also meant they could take it away from me), once I thought of it as an ability, it was mine, a capacity inside me others might enliven or threaten, but they could never actually take away. It was up to me to strengthen it, nurture it, and make a home in my own ability to love.
1440: Can you tell us what lovingkindness is in 10 words or fewer? Is that even possible?
Sharon Salzberg: In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, the word is metta, most commonly translated as lovingkindness. Other translations are: love, friendliness, and good will. I tend to use the term connection.
So, lovingkindness is a state of profound connection to ourselves, others, and ultimately all of life.
Well that’s 13 words!
Metta isn’t necessarily highly emotional, though it might be. It can also be a deep knowing of the fact that we live in an interconnected universe, a shift in worldview, a movement towards inclusivity, a transformation in how we pay attention to ourselves and others. In fact this last is the root of the practice of lovingkindness: experimenting with who we pay attention to and who we look through or objectify, how we pay attention (fragmented and distracted or more fully present), and what we pay attention to (e.g., if we think of ourselves, do we pretty much exclusively think of our faults, or can we give a little airtime to the good within us or wishing ourselves well?).
1440: In Real Love you wrote: “At those wounded moments when we most need love, a hardened heart can seem like the best defense.” This thought hits home for many of us. How can we not become hardened in hard times? How do we learn to offer an open heart in wounded moments when we need love?
Sharon Salzberg: Of course, the first recipient of that loving heart is ourselves. An interesting exercise, when we are looking at our own fear or anger or jealousy or craving, is to call it what it is—painful—instead of bad or wrong or weak or only what we deserve. Those are states of suffering, and instead of armoring up against them, or denying them, or blaming ourselves for them, we can feel compassion.
We have the power of awareness to be able to look at our own feelings and reactions, our habitual thought patterns and behaviors, to see for ourselves what brings us happiness and what makes us more contracted and unhappy. Many of us have been taught that, in effect, it’s a “dog-eat-dog world.” You’ve got to only look out for yourself, the more you can put others down, the better you’ll feel; if you feel vulnerable, you should hide it…But the more mindful we are, the more we see for ourselves that the opposite of the myths we have absorbed is often true.
That gives us the courage to reach out more when we’re hurt, to practice extending and receiving generosity, to realize that, whatever state we are in, delighted or despondent, we are never really alone.