The Myths of Love: A Conversation with Sharon Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg is a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher and author. With Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Sharon cofounded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts—one of the most prominent and active meditation centers in the West. She is a New York Times best-selling author and a monthly columnist for On Being. Sharon’s most recent book is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.
1440: What are some of the myths we tell ourselves about love?
Sharon Salzberg: Well, for me, one of the biggest myths I suffered from was that love is in the hands of another—which made it something someone could give me, but it left me very vulnerable, because if someone chose to take it away, I’d have nothing. I would just be bereft.
The image I kept coming up with for this was the UPS person standing at my doorstep, holding a package and looking down at the address and then looking up at me and saying, “No, I don’t think so,” and taking it somewhere else.
One of the biggest experiences I had in lovingkindness meditation was in Burma in 1985. During this intensive period of practice, this myth was somehow overturned and I really began to see love as an ability within myself—as a capacity inside myself.
I began to understand that other people could certainly ignite love or nurture it or threaten it, but it was mine.
And that was a kind of subtle, but very powerful, turnaround. It also created a very different sense of empowerment and joy and responsibility, because if love was mine, then perhaps ultimately in a difficult conversation or relationship, I might have to be the one to bring it in.
1440: What other myths about love cause us to suffer?
Sharon Salzberg: I think there are stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves that cause suffering. There are also stories others tell about us that we tend to believe. Those are more myths about ourselves than myths about love, but they’re so connected. Stories like: Maybe I don’t deserve much or I’m broken.
In reality, there’s a difference between feeling broken and being broken.
Instead of taking it on as an identity, it could be: Right now, I feel this. I think that is a much wiser and healthier way of approaching a sense of injury. We feel devastated. We feel undone. We feel we have no energy. But we’re not broken—though we call it that.
Or we have been told things about ourselves by our parents, or our culture, that leave us feeling like we don’t belong. We take those things to heart and once we do, we often make choices based on them that lead us to reject opportunities. If we’re conditioned not to trust or rely upon anybody, or if we believe we have to do everything ourselves and not take care of others because they’re not going to take care of us, then we end up on our own.
1440: Let’s talk about the impact of believing these myths.
Sharon Salzberg: I think the impact is huge. These myths can govern our sense of well-being and our ability to form relationships. They can hold us back and make our life feel very small. They can prevent us from enjoying the wondrous things that are happening around us. They can cause us to relate in a pretty toxic way to pain, like it’s our fault, like we blew it. That reaction makes pain something shameful, instead of just part of the universal condition.
One of the benefits of being aware, of being mindful, is to see past the intensity of these myths.
The feelings that accompany the myths can arise so powerfully and with such intensity that it is easy to think, “Oh, this is all I’ll ever feel.” We need tools to help us recall that, “Oh, wait, this morning I felt something different.”
One suggestion I make is to give your inner critic a persona, because a lot can depend on how you relate to that voice. If you have a very persistent, nagging, bullying inner critic, it helps to give it a name, and maybe even a wardrobe.
I call my inner critic Lucy, based on the character in the Peanuts comic strip.
It comes from Lucy saying to Charlie Brown, “Charlie Brown, you know what your problem is? The problem with you is that you’re you.” To which poor Charlie Brown answers, “Well, what in the world can I do about that?”
That Lucy voice was so dominant in my earlier life.
My meditation practice has given me some tools for working with Lucy.
Naming her means that when she appears, I can greet the inner critic thoughts with, “Hi, Lucy,” or “Chill out, Lucy.” That’s much different and much healthier than, “You’re right, Lucy. You’re always right.”
1440: So, how do you define real love?
Sharon Salzberg: I mostly define it as connection—a profound sense of connection. The teaching within the Buddhist tradition is a term called metta, which is usually translated as lovingkindness. I certainly use that, but it is a bit of an odd term. You don’t exactly go to a café and overhear a conversation at the table next to you about lovingkindness, you know?
Though sometimes when we say love, we frankly mean a medium of exchange. I will love you as long as (fill in the blank) or I will love myself as long as I never make a mistake, and that’s not what metta means.
I think of real love as including someone (or ourselves) in our field of attention.
Where we used to look through someone, or ignore them, we opt to truly listen, and kind of recognize ourselves in someone else or perhaps relate to ourselves in a deeper way than what the immediate circumstance dictates.
It is important to understand, however, that there’s a distinction between the heart space and the action one takes in response to it.
In other words, maybe your heart is filled with love and compassion for someone, but through discernment, through evaluation, through experience, through intuition, you decide not to spend time with that person. Drawing the distinction between the heart space and the action, there’s a lot that happens right there, you know, in terms of assessing what seems the most skillful.
Perhaps something in the relationship feels out of balance. Perhaps there’s an awful lot of giving and very little receiving. Maybe that was fine for a while, but now something—be it inspiration or intuition—is telling you this imbalance no longer works and is not going to be helpful in the long term.