#81: Sharon Salzberg, 'Real Love' author
“I think people do things motivated by love, certainly more strongly sometimes, and more successfully, than when motivated by hate… I think love is actually the force that keeps us going,” said renowned meditation teacher and best-selling author Sharon Salzberg. A regular on the “10% Happier” podcast, Salzberg talks about her new book, “Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection,” out on June 6, which explores how we can change the way we feel about having self-compassion, love for all beings and love for life itself.
Love is not a commodity or finite resource. It is a capacity within all of us that can be trained and cultivated through practice like any other skill.
Having self-love and compassion for oneself can be really hard to apply, yet it is not selfish, as it can have a profound impact for the important people in your life.
Many people feel or have the idea that meditation is self indulgent. Sharon shares some tips on ways to work with the feelings of self indulgence/judgement related to your meditation practice.
Sharon and Dan talk about how Martin Luther King Jr used to say "You've got to love everybody."
There is a place for love within competitive environments. Through the practice of mudita (sympathetic joy) is possible to have happiness for other peoples success or happiness.
“I think love is actually the force that keeps us going. - Sharon Salzberg
"For love - I'm talking about a profound sense of connection. A complete sense of presence and connection." - Sharon Salzberg
"What I saw in Burma was love as a capacity, as an ability within me, as a potential within me that other people or situations could certainly awaken and enliven or threaten, but it was mine, it was within me, and so that feeling of being completely dependent on an external source really did evaporate." - Sharon Salzberg
"With some compassion for yourself. Right there, there’s a kind of training that leads to the sense of love." - Sharon Salzberg
"Being able to listen more deeply. There’s a kind of vitality, I think, that comes from mindfulness where we’re not so lost in categories and on all of these assumptions. There’s something very fresh and alive, and actually in that sense of being. Being with ourselves in a different way or being with others in a different way. This is all training." - Sharon Salzberg
"Studies would show that 9 minutes of mindfulness a day and only 7 minutes of Lovingkindness meditation a day will change your brain." - Sharon Salzberg via Richie Davidson
Other content mentioned:
See Episode #29 with Richie Davidson on the 10% Happier Podcast
How to learn more about Sharon and her books:
New Book! 'Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection'
Previous 10% Happier Podcasts episodes with Sharon:
Introduction from Dan:
Sharon Salzberg has the dubious distinction, I guess, of being the only person to have been on this podcast four times, but she deserves it, because she is a pioneer. She is one of the people who helped bring meditation to the United States back in the seventies after spending some time in India. If you want to learn more about her at points wrenching backstory you should go back and check out episode eight where we really go through all of that.
But the reason why we're bringing her back on is she's got a new book called "Real Love." You'll hear me admit this early on in the interview, because I've been so deep in my own writing for my own book that's coming out at New Year's, I've been a bad boy, a bad friend, and only read half of real love, which is excellent, as everything she's written has been, but I didn't get to read all of it, so I admit that to her, and she characteristically, for somebody who wrote a book about love, was quite understanding about it.
This book is really a way to redefine what love is as a skill, or an ability. A lot of us think, and I definitely fell into this trap, that we have a certain amount of compassion and patience and we're kind of stuck with that, it's our factory settings. But in fact you can work on this. Sharon is the foremost expert, I would argue, in the West, or at least one of them, in the skill of what's known as loving kindness or compassion meditation. So here she is, one of my favorite people, Sharon Salzberg.
Conversation with Sharon & Dan:
Dan: I've read half of this excellent book and then I got stuck into writing my own book. Full disclosure from the jump. But I know you won't get mad at me because you're the avatar of loving-kindness.
Sharon: Shucks. I guess I can't get mad, ever, never ever.
Dan: Is that an issue with your friends and people you're really close with, that you, as the loving-kindness proponent that you are, that you can't just be pissed off once in awhile.
Sharon: It sort of does come up, or once I was having a conversation with a friend on the phone and we were being a little bit unkind about somebody and then I thought better of it. I thought, "This doesn't feel good," and I said, "Well, you know, I don't feel so good about the tone of this conversation." And my friend said, "Have you been reading your own book?"
Dan: (laugh) All right, well speaking of book, I should say we have interviewed you before. You're the most frequent guest on this podcast. So we're not going to get into your personal story as much on this podcast, but you have a new book called, "Real Love," and it follows on your previous books, "Real Happiness," "Real Happiness at Work," and also you're really, from my point of view, seminal book, "Lovingkindness," early, early on, which I have made this joke before, but when I was reading it on airplanes I used to cover it up like it was a Penthouse, because I didn't want anybody to see that I was reading a book called, "Lovingkindness."
So let's just start with the title. What do you mean by that?
Sharon: Well, as you know, I don't choose the titles of my books that often.
I was trying to make a distinction between Love as a commodity, you know, which is kind of the common thought. It was very much, I realized, my thought. I had a very profound experience doing loving-kindness meditation intensively in Burma. I think like many profound experiences it may not sound like much in words, but it made a big difference for me. Up until that moment in time I did think of love as a commodity, which meant it was like a package in someone else's hands. It was a thing, and a certain kind of feeling tone, a certain range of emotion. It was almost like if the UPS person was standing at my doorstep and changed their minds, I'd have no love in my life. You know? I'd be completely bereft.
So what I saw in Burma was love as a capacity, as an ability within me, as a potential within me that other people or situations could certainly awaken and enliven or threaten, but it was mine, it was within me, and so that feeling of being completely dependent on an external source really did evaporate.
Dan: So, can we define what you mean by loving-kindness, or metta? M-E-T-T-A, which is an ancient Pali word.
Sharon: Yes. I think both for loving-kindness and for, these days, for love, I'm talking about a profound sense of connection. Like a complete sense of presence and connection. It's not necessarily an emotion. That feeling, tone, that we look for and long for and invest in for love, I think, is a particular manifestation. But love itself is not the commitment, it's not the structure that a relationship may take, and it may not be that emotional. I feel like if I'm meeting a stranger and I'm completely present and I, in a way, find some of myself in them, or I have that sense of what in my youth we used to call grokking, like of actually feeling into or connecting to, that's love.
Dan: But there is a practice too, when you say you went on a metta or loving-kindness retreat, there's a practice that goes along with that?
Sharon: Yeah, I mean I think that in terms of loving-kindness or love, probably the two greatest controversies, I find, is first what you were talking about, the idea that it's a weakness, that it's sentimental, it's kind of squishy, rather than a strength or a force. And the other, it's so peculiar to us, the idea that this can be trained. I don't know if we tend to think of love and compassion, things like that as a gift, and you've either got it or you don't, or we think of it as a spontaneous emotional eruption or something. But, you know, from the point of Buddhist psychology, certainly, it absolutely can be trained, because attention can be trained. That's what meditation is.
That sense of connection is based on paying attention differently. Not being so fragmented, not thinking about your email, for example, but really being fully present. Being open, not being so burdened by assumption. You know, "I know all about that person, I don't need to listen." Or, "That other person told me about this person." Or, "That kind of person is not my kind of person." Or whatever it is. There's so many filters and so many distortion to our perceptions. So, if we clear away some of those and we're open, we're interested, that is the nature of the loving response.
Dan: But is all that love is is fully paying attention?
Sharon: It's not just fully paying attention, it also involves what we pay attention to. We may be fixated on, for example with ourselves, what's wrong. Stupid thing we said this morning, we could have said that much better. The way we fail. So it's a broader, more inclusive sense of who we are. And it also, it very much involves who we pay attention to, who we discount, who doesn't matter, who we objectify. It involves a kind of quality retention that is kind of beneficent.
It's like, "Okay, what if we were on the same side? I see you're a mess, you know, and I don't really like you or your behavior," but what if my wish wasn't so much that you be reduced to nothing but that you see the error of your ways? It's realizing that the kinds of mind states or forces or habits that probably lead to your being such a jerk can lead to me being such a jerk, and that that's really a burden, to be living under the sway of those states.
Dan: So when you talk about love, you're not just talking about romantic love or even parental love. It's much broader.
Sharon: It's much broader, and it manifests in all of these different ways, and I think it does manifest in all of these different ways.
A common question that people ask, things like, "I want to be like the Dalai Lama, but I really kind of like my husband. Do I have to love everybody the way I love my husband?" We don't, you know? We have very particular relationships with particular people or beings. I say beings because, well, you have cats, right?
Sharon: The first group, I did a lot of groups with people for this book to try to hear their stories and learn from them. The very first group this guy raised his hands and he said, “Most people of a good relationship as 50/50. My dog and I, we’re 100/100.” And I got all the way, like, two years later I was finishing the book, I was in England about to sit a retreat and was about to press send and I thought, “Did that story make it all the way through?” And that hadn’t, and I put it back in, I pressed send.
Dan: But it is a skill and an ability. Can you just walk us through how one generates that through meditation?
Sharon: Yeah, that is the attention training. It’s like, first of all, we realize in general our attention is pretty scattered and we’re all over the place. You meet someone at a party, you’re not really listening to them or looking at them, most likely. You’re thinking about the email you need to write or the people you’d rather be talking about and you recognize that you learn to gather your attention, and then you lose it, and you gather your attention.
Even right there in the example I just used, there’s a tremendous kind of love for oneself and compassion for oneself. Because you sit down to meditate and let’s say you’re just doing something like being with the breath. It’s so unlikely it’s 9,000 breaths before your mind wanders. Usually it’s one or two. So how do you speak to yourself when you realize that? Do you then digress into another 45 minutes of judging yourself and emerge feeling beaten up and so demoralized? Or can you say, “I blew it, let me start over,” right? With some compassion for yourself. Right there, there’s a kind of training that leads to the sense of love.
Then being able to see those assumptions. Not being caught by them and, you know, “That person is all bad and always will be,” or, “I’m all bad and I always will be.” Being able to listen more deeply. There’s a kind of vitality, I think, that comes from mindfulness where we’re not so lost in categories and on all of these assumptions. There’s something very fresh and alive, and actually in that sense of being. Being with ourselves in a different way or being with others in a different way. This is all training. You know, that sounds cold, but it’s just, it’s realizing that’s not how I grew up, that’s not what I’m used to, and it’s a process that we can do that. We can be different.
Dan: There’s mindfulness meditation, where you watch your breath coming in and out, usually. But then there’s metta, M-E-T-T-A, or loving-kindness meditation. What is that like?
Sharon: It is a different technique. It’s a different method. They’re very supportive of one another, but they’re distinct. We say mindfulness meditation allows us to see the difference between our direct experience and the story we weave around it, and then we have a choice. Do I want to go forth with that story or do I want to let it go?
Whereas loving-kindness meditation will change our default story. So, if the story that tends to rush in right away is one of our unworthiness or about fear of others or a sense of alienation, what will happen over time is that the story becomes one of connection, and that the kind of almost calcified, rigid sense of self and other and us and them begins to dissolve. There’s a much more profound sense of interconnection. It’s done differently than, say, the breath, where we actually choose certain phrases that are the centering point for the awareness. The phrases become the conduit for paying attention differently.
So, I think of a friend, and rather than thinking about how they need to change jobs, you know, I have the perfect piece of advice for them, I wish them well. May you be happy, may you be peaceful, or whatever those phrases are. It’s considered a practice of generosity. It’s like generosity of the spirit. It’s just offering-like. May things work out for you. May you have peace, may you have a sense of love in your life.
Dan: We should say that you teach an excellent introduction to this kind of meditation on the 10% Happier app. You are one of the guiding teachers on the app and basically one of the masterminds behind the whole darn thing.
Just from a personal standpoint, I’ve been doing, on your direction, metta meditation, notwithstanding my deep aversion to anything syrupy, for about eight years now. How do I know if it’s working? How do I know? I mean, I don’t know if I’m any nicer, and if I am nicer, maybe it’s because I married well, or I have a kid now and that makes everybody a little bit softer, or I’m older and, I don’t know, sometimes you mellow as you get older. How do I know it’s this thing you’re having me do where I picture people and send them good vibes?
Sharon: Well, I mean, I would never claim singular credit. That’s such a vast amount of happiness in your life, way more than 10%, I bet. But I think it is a great question, because I think we do want to know. It’s crazy to think we’re just going to do something endlessly without a sense of accomplishment. But I wouldn’t ever counsel somebody to look at the actual formal period of practice each day, however long that is, but look at your life. You know? Look at your marriage, look at your relationship, look at how you are with your kid who is what, two or something?
Dan: Two, yes, yes.
Sharon: Yes, so he’s saying, “No,” or whatever kids do at two.
Dan: Yeah, a lot more than no.
Sharon: Yeah. You know, so … which is the point. You know? We don’t practice to become great meditators.
Dan: This morning, by the way, he pointed at the other side of the room and told me, “Daddy, go sit over there.”
Dan: That’s the level we go at.
Sharon: Had daddy been naughty?
Dan: I was trying to eat his bagel.
Sharon: Well there you go.
Dan: I interrupted you, sorry.
Sharon: No, no, no, no, that’s quite alright. We practice to have a different kind of life, and so that’s the place to look. People often feel frustrated by that. They think they should have a great breakthrough experience while sitting and be engulfed in this warm and blissful feeling, but maybe they’re just better with themselves when they make a mistake and more resilient. They can come back sooner. Maybe they’re different with their kid or their partner or their colleague or something like that, and you will be. And that’s the place to look.
Dan: But I might be different with my colleague or kid, though, for some of the other reasons that I listed before. It’s just hard for me to identify what’s the source of … I think I am calmer and more compassionate than I used to be. I don’t know if I can quantify that. But it’s hard for me to know what the contributing factors are.
Sharon: Well, I mean, I think there’s the art of life, where we just do these different things and it’s like art. Then there’s the science where you can stop doing it and see what happened, you know? It’s like if you’re allergic to a food and you try to figure out what it is. You eliminate all these other foods, and then you-
Dan: So if I stop doing metta and start … and see what happened to my attitude.
Sharon: Yeah. I give it six weeks.
Dan: I’m not going to do that, but I think that’s … I think you’re right.
Dan: I start every sit with just, “May all beings be free from suffering.” Which I can’t even believe I’m saying that, it sounds so embarrassing when I say it out loud. But it actually, it feels pretty good. It just connects you to something larger. People have this desire to get out of their own heads. You hear that all the time. That, I find, is a really good … Sometimes I have to do it three or four times before I connect to the sentiment at all. But there is a kind of spaciousness that can be invited when you do that.
Sharon: Yes, absolutely. I mean, one of the reasons I like this book title is, actually, I think that is what we actually want. We want a sense of love, we want a sense of connection. That’s why nobody who’s dying says, “I’m so glad that I sold that many books,” you know? Or whatever. Unless it’s in the context of, “I touched that many people, I’m so glad my work, my life had some meaning for others.” But not in the sense of like, “Look what I racked up!” You know? Where does it go? We want connection, I think, most profoundly.
Dan: So what did you learn in the course of this? Because you’ve written about love before, “Lovingkindness,” the book that came out a couple decades ago, and you’ve written about compassion meditation in the context of “Real Happiness,” and “Real Happiness at Work.” So what’s new and different about this book? That’s kind of two questions, you can take them at your leisure. What’s new and different about this book, and what did you learn?
Sharon: I think one of the things that’s new and different is, of course, I’m new and different, because I’ve been learning all along. I certainly learned a lot from talking to all of these people about this specific topic. I really saw, for one thing, the difference between liking somebody and loving all beings. I saw what I really believe is kind of the bottom line of love is a power, in a deeper and kind of a new way.
There’s this story that I tell that I’ve rarely, rarely ever told, but is about spending time with this man Myles Horton who founded this school called Highlander Folk School, at the time it was called that, in Tennessee, which was kind of a training school for a lot of Civil Rights workers, and later early environmental workers. Like, Rosa Parks was there before she sat on the bus seat and stuff like that. It just happened that we spent a day together for some reason. I said to him, knowing some of the history of the school and the duress being in the South and being an integrated facility and the pressure and the lawsuits and threats and all of that, I said, “What do you do? You must do something to get a break and not be lost in fear and stuff like that.” He said, “Well I sit and look at the mountains. I just sit outside in Tennessee and look at the mountains.”
Dan: That’s meditating.
Sharon: Yeah. And then we talked about loving-kindness meditation, because it’s so much my thing, and he said, “Oh Marty,” Martin Luther King, Jr., he said, “Marty used to say to me all the time, ‘You’ve got to love everybody,’ and I’d say, ‘No I don’t, I only have to love the people who deserve to be loved.’ And he would laugh and he would say, ‘Nope, you’ve got to love everybody.’” And I realized, me, I realize that the few times I have told that story, almost always somebody raises their hand and says something like, “Well look what happened to him, he got assassinated.” As though there were cause and effect there. As though if he’d been vicious and hateful and whatever he would have been safe.
While I’ve always kind of known that, that really hit home for me in a very different way when I saw how we, it’s almost like a degradation of the sense of love and what it could be, and really what’s become of us, you know? And how atomized people are, how lonely people feel in this country, certainly, and how powerless we feel, and how when we do talk about power and change, love doesn’t often figure in the conversation, and I think it really should.
Dan: When you say, “Love is a power,” what do you mean?
Sharon: I mean, I think people do things motivated by love, certainly more strongly sometimes and more successfully than motivated by hate. We think because outrage may be the way many people wake up, like, “Ooo, look at that,” you know? It may be a force for seeking change to begin with. I think love is actually the force that keeps us going.
When I think about the music during the Civil Rights era, for example, people were connecting to something larger, right? Something that kept them going. It wasn’t just a denunciation of the sheriff’s actions or something like that, or the town council that was maintaining segregation. They weren’t reciting the litany of the unfair laws. They were connecting to something much bigger, and that’s like a state of love.
Dan: I sometimes worry though that talking about love is hard because it’s easy for it to just get lost in empty platitudes. You know? All we need is love, great song, but does it land?
Sharon: I know. Looking back over my work, my writing, I realize that in a funny way something I seem to have been seeking to do is to redeem word. It’s like when I wrote the book, “Faith,” of all things. Even my friends were saying, “What are you on about? Why do that?” Because for so many people the word meant being silenced and not being able to ask questions, and being sort of reduced in terms of your self-respect, and just taking for granted what someone else says is true. And I realized I wanted to help redeem the word, because redeeming the word means redeeming the power of it and being able to use it differently. I just thought, the other day I thought, “Oh, I think I’m doing the same thing for love.” Because of course it’s used … “I love my trail mix,” you know? “I love my sublet,” you know? Which I actually do.
Dan: That’s a good sublet, I’ve been there.
Sharon: Yeah, thank you. But if I lost it I would be very sad, but is that the biggest expression of love I can get? I don’t think so.
Dan: So do you love everybody?
Sharon: Sometimes I do, actually.
Sharon: Sometimes I do. I kind of do. (laughs)
Dan: Unpack that. I kind of do.
Sharon: Let me rephrase that. Sometimes I do.
Dan: What do you mean by that?
Sharon: I think there are moments when I feel the interconnectedness of all of us. Even if I don’t like some people and I feel very oppositional to their actions and want to seek change or whatever, I still feel a kind of poignancy. I feel it in different ways. I feel like I think as human beings we are capable of some real greatness, each of us, in terms of love and connection and wisdom and so on. I think there’s a poignancy in having a really limited view of what happiness is and power over others or vengefulness or something like that. I don’t think those things really make us happy, except in a very temporal sense. To see people devote their lives to it I think is kind of poignant.
I was teaching with Sylvia Boorstein and she kind of drove me crazy at one point because she kept saying, “Everyone’s just doing the best they can.” I think … You know … But I actually do think if they could do better they would do better.
Dan: I think it’s absolutely true. They’re doing the best they can.
Sharon: Yeah. They’re doing the best they can.
Dan: We may not agree on what their interpretation of best is, or what the most skillful way to do your best is but everybody … I agree with that.
Sharon: Yeah, no, she was right, she was definitely right. For all my … my reaction initially, it was like, “Well they are. If they could do better, they would do better. It could be me,” you know?
Dan: So when you say, “Sometimes I love everyone,” does that mean sometimes through the practice that you described earlier of sending well wishes to all beings, which is usually the last move in a cycle of metta meditation, where you try to … what’s the word I’m looking for … generate some sort of imagery of all beings. Like the earth or the universe or something like that. Just send out whatever you’ve got. In those moments you feel like? Or do you feel like in your everyday walking around life you can generate a love for everybody?
Sharon: They’re not disconnected, but I think I really lay it all at the practice. It’s because I do the practice that at times when I’m walking around or I’m just encountering a clerk in the supermarket or hearing about somebody in this world that I feel it really does happen in that way. I think it’s not everyone’s job to, this is a funny way of saying it, but if you’ve been really harmed by somebody, I don’t think your first obligation is to try to generate compassion for them. More likely it’s to generate compassion for yourself and find your way. But I think that those people who devote themselves and devote their life energy to getting back at somebody, for example, or being defined by the actions of others in some way, they suffer, you know? I suffer, or any of us suffer in that position, and we don’t need to stay there.
Dan: So how do you deal with that, psychologically, if there is somebody out there that you think has directly harmed you or is just obnoxious presence in the world, how do you generate loving-kindness for them?
Sharon: It’s like a form of play. First you have to really check the degree of loving-kindness for yourself, because it’s not a matter of giving up or giving in, ever. You also have to check your understanding, because the generation of loving-kindness for someone doesn’t dictate a certain kind of action, which is another thing people are very afraid of. “I’m going to have to give them money, I’m going to have to say yes, I’m going to have to not have a strong boundary, I’m going to have to give up competing,” or whatever it is. The cultivation of loving-kindness doesn’t dictate the action. It re-forges the motivation for action.
But you might decide in a certain situation that a real kind of tough love is what’s best called for. Very fierce compassion. That’s like discernment. That’s looking at the situation. That’s important. Even if you remind yourself again and again, “This doesn’t mean I have to have Thanksgiving dinner with them, this doesn’t mean …” whatever.
It’s a form of play, like in the Buddhist texts they say with a difficult person, is there a way you can imagine them? Imagine them being an infant, being so helpless and subject to the actions of those around them. Imagine them dying. Not with glee, but look at this. We carry on in this life and we hold grudges and we get consumed with whatever, and look at that. In the end we all have to let go of everything. So you kind of use active imagination to picture this person.
So what happens then? Remember, you’re not looking for these engulfing waves of feeling. You’re looking for some kind of sense of connection. Our lives are really tied together. We extrapolate from that. Is there a way you can imagine this person? People say all kinds of things, like, “My difficult person was on this island and there was no boat. He had plenty of food, they weren’t going to starve to death. They were fine. But they couldn’t reach me. And then, you know what, then I could do it.”
Dan: You talked about competing. This is something I always come back to with you because I’m in a competitive job. Not only a competitive job, but I have an app in a competitive space. Well, we have an app in a competitive space where we’re competing against other apps. And I publish books, as do you, in a competitive marketplace. One of the most challenging concepts that comes out of Buddhism, but you talk about quite a bit is mudita, M-U-D-I-T-A, which is defined as sympathetic joy. Taking pleasure in the successes or happiness of others. How would one employ mudita when one has a competitive job?
Sharon: I would start well before mudita. Of those four qualities that are usually talked about together, loving-kindness and compassion and sympathetic joy, joining the happiness of others, and then equanimity or balance of mind.
Dan: These are the four capacities that are often talked … the classical Buddhist, they call them … Divine Abodes.
Sharon: Yeah, yeah.
Dan: You don’t have to make too much of that. I’m not a big …
Sharon: Divine abode guy?
Dan: No. But, again, they are compassion which is being able to … the desire to help people who are in need or suffering. Loving-kindness which is just sort of love and well-wishing for people. Equanimity which is a balance of mind in the face of everything. And mudita, which is, again, sympathetic joy.
Dan: But a lot people think mudita is the hardest.
Sharon: Yes, a lot of teachers will say mudita is the hardest. Hard doesn’t mean impossible, but it’s hard. One of the things with sympathetic joy practice is that we usually take a step back and we see what makes it so hard. Because those assumptions or those concepts are very interesting to look at. Even though, you know, there is a kind of market share, there is a certain competition, sometimes we go way beyond that as though happiness itself were a limited commodity in this world and the more someone else has the less there’s going to be for me. We fall into this, like, “I have nothing and I will forever, and you, you have everything and you will forever.” Well, certainly nothing is forever, so that’s one problem. And it’s so unlikely we have absolutely nothing. Maybe my book did not start out as number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Maybe somebody came up to me and said, “Your book saved my life.” Why isn’t that enough in that moment? What if it’s never enough? What does that mean about our values or our life?
So we just take a look at all of these things. Sometimes there’s a kind of competition or there’s this feeling of resentment, which is completely irrational, as though the New York Times truck was running around looking for a bestseller and they had my address and they came, they were heading right to my neighborhood and they were close to there, and you hijacked it and you took it away, therefore your book got on and mine didn’t. If your book had not, mine would have. Whereas really there’s not that kind of correlation at all, right? We feel so undone by that, like we’ve been ripped off, we’ve been betrayed, but it’s just life.
So we look at all of those assumptions, because they do limit us, they make us so unhappy, and they fly in the face of reality. Reality is that so many conditions come together in any moment for anything to rise. Some we can affect, some we can’t. And that’s just the nature of things. It’s so lonely and it’s so relentless, that sense of comparison, because it has no natural end. You can compare yourself endlessly to everyone under some upstart new network. What about them? And they’re pioneering, that’s really scary. And then, oh no, now all of the others. And it just goes on and on and on and on. Out of compassion for oneself you think, “I don’t want to just live that way.”
But I don’t think the consequences of giving that up are losing your edge, or this sense of wanting to be excellent at what you do and wanting to be recognized. I mean, we’re just human beings. We want to be recognized. But how much do we want to be recognized?
Somebody told me a story the other day of a friend of theirs who was in the front row at some game. I don’t know, basketball or something like that. The front row is the one that was most visible on TV, and some massive celebrity sitting in the second row kept saying, “I need to change seats with you, because no one’s going to see me. It’s going to be like a downfall for me.” And I thought, “Really? Really?” That’s what I mean by poignancy, because it’s like when does that end and how does it end? What happens when …
Dan: When does it end?
Sharon: When does it end? I mean, that process only ends when we see the mind state for what it is and we say, “I’m not going there.”
Dan: What about love in the age of political polarization? We are in a country where we can’t even agree on the basic facts. Do you have any hope that love can swoop in and if not save the day, at least improve it?
Sharon: I think it can improve it. I think it has to improve it. That’s part of what I’ve always wanted. I’ve always wanted love to be part of these conversations.
Dan: Yeah, but do you really think that’s going to happen?
Sharon: I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I think we need to take like 30 steps back there and really not only talk to one another … Talk to one another doesn’t mean agree with one another. I’m not somebody who really believes in moral relativism, for example. I think there are actions and beliefs that are extremely harmful, and it’s not just a question of mutual respect. It’s a question of facts, or looking at the real consequences of certain kinds of choices or certain kinds of actions.
But the sort of basic sense of otherness and belittling of someone else has got to stop. Maybe it has to stop with us, you know? With any one of us, and go on from there, rather than hoping for this kind of widespread-
Dan: What do you do when you get strong feelings about the current political situation?
Sharon: First I try to find a different kind of balance. I monitor my input.
Dan: You mean how much Twitter you’re consuming?
Sharon: Twitter is my bottom line. I’m always on Twitter.
Dan: Yeah, I know, how do you do that?
Sharon: (laughs) No, I’m not always on Twitter.
Dan: You’re on Twitter quite a bit though.
Sharon: I went through it a little bit. Actually, Twitter is good for me because it’s so brief, and I only have to pursue something in greater depth if I want to instead of having it appear in front of me. Then there’s Facebook, which I also do, that’s why I’m not always on Twitter, because I’m always on Facebook. I try to have a certain perspective.
I think outrage and anguish and all of that are understandable feelings and I think the most important thing is if I feel them to take some action. Like a kind of loving action. I am, as you may know, maybe we’ve talked about it before, I’m extremely passionate about people voting. It’s not partisan, it’s not suggesting who somebody should vote for, but I think that sense of participation is as close to the dharma as an action can be. It’s like everybody has innate dignity, everybody has a right to a voice and a point of view. They have a right to express that. The right to express it is equal. Thwarting that or stopping that is really demeaning somebody’s basic humanity. I think that’s completely wrong. So rather than freaking out and retweeting or just carrying on and being in a really upset state, I think, “It’s time to do something. Let’s see about registering people to vote.” That’s my thing.
Dan: That is great advice, because a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum feel hopelessness and helplessness, especially if the power of their side of the argument is ebbing at that particular moment. Actually just volunteering and doing something, you’ve made this point before on this show, is a great antidote to that.
Sharon: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Dan: Back to “Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection,” do you think that … Talk me through the DNA of the book. How did you come up with this idea? Why did you want to do this book? Why now? What was the process of writing it like and gathering your editorial eggs for the basket?
Sharon: I think why now is partly that passion I’ve had for a long time, like, can’t love be part of this conversation too? Seeing my own development, “Lovingkindness” was my first book, it came out in 1995. When I started working on Lovingkindness I didn’t even have a computer. Cutting and pasting meant getting pair of scissors, literally, and cutting out the paragraph and moving it up and down the page and getting a roll of Scotch tape and then taping it where you wanted it to go. I did have a computer before the end. I tell that story in the book, actually, about the visit to the Insight Meditation Society of a 94-year old Sri Lankan monk who mentioned he was learning how to use a computer. I thought, “If he can do it at 94, maybe I can too.”
So part of it is how much I’ve thought about it and learned about it and taught and learned from people. So I kind of wanted to go on and say, “Well what about this?” I have a very different sense of referencing. I think I quote James Baldwin more than the Buddha. Which, I love the Buddha, and he’s not a white male, in fact, but I think that’s kind of right for our time. I think it’s a very contemporary expression of some of those same ancient principles.
There was a whole process, because there’s no inherent structure. If I was doing loving-kindness as a book, I have the structure of the meditation. You start with yourself and you move-
Sharon: And so I just really had to try to think deeply. Okay, what do I see as the flow? That was the whole first section is about love for oneself and how that’s not narcissism or selfishness but really the cultivation of a kind of inner wherewithal that will allow us to give and care and so on.
The whole second section is love for an other, whether that’s a partner, a child, a parent, a pet, you know, whatever it might be. The third section is, actually, there were two sections originally, it became one. It’s sort of like love for all being and love for life itself, so really the bigger picture.
I saw how, you know, people were amazing and they were so generous in giving me their stories and offering the life experience. And how many people are really struggling in some way. At one point my editor said to me, “Don’t you know anybody whose partner doesn’t have a disease?” And I thought, and I said, “I guess not!”
I also saw and wrote a little bit about the breakdown of the normal mechanisms of community, like that book, “Bowling Alone,” and how people really are trying to create some sense of community. I just did an interview about how an app can do that.
Dan: Talk to me about self-compassion. Love for oneself. We talked about mudita being tricky, but having love for oneself is really tricky for many people. Even though I’m a narcissistic news man, it’s especially hard for me in the process of meditation, because when I get lost, which happens a lot, as it does for anybody who actually sincerely tries to meditate, I’m all over myself. So, hold forth to your heart’s content - I know we’ve joked about my distaste for the word heart - to your heart’s content about self-compassion and what the value is and how we generate it?
Sharon: Well, you might be happy to know, we’re looking at the book cover right now, one of the first things I said to them was, “No hearts, please no hearts.”
Dan: (laugh) Thank you.
Sharon: Yeah, I was really happy not … I mean the first-
Dan: It’s a beautiful cover, actually.
Sharon: Thank you very much. The first iterations all had hearts.
Sharon: And interestingly enough, every heart was broken.
Sharon: And given that the subtitle is “The Art of Mindful Connection,” I said to my publisher, “Your art department has a very interesting relationship with connection. Everything’s broken. Look at that.”
Dan: Yeah. Or maybe they … a bunch of sad people in there.
Sharon: I don’t know. (laughs) Maybe every art department, I don’t know.
Dan: Perhaps. Maybe everybody in publishing.
Sharon: Maybe everybody, everybody.
Dan: Yeah, true.
Sharon: I think that is the basic confusion, that it’s somehow being selfish to cultivate some love for oneself. I often think of and quote Barbara Fredrickson, who is a researcher at the University of North Carolina who studies positive emotion. And even though I’m saying I don’t really think of love, loving-kindness, compassion as an emotion, that’s the common way of referring to it. So I say positive states. So states like compassion, gratitude, and so on. And share a theory, it’s called the Broaden and Build theory, that first of all when we cultivate these states our perspective broadens. Like, there’s a sense of expansiveness and openness.
That makes sense, because when I think about the opposite, like fear and anger and greed and so on, when we are lost in those states the world collapses, right? We get tunnel vision and we have no sense of options, and we feel caught. We’re just in this vise. And so it makes sense that the opposite would just like open us up. So that’s the first consequence of cultivating these states.
Then a second part of the theory is Build, so it’s building inner resource, not feeling so overcome and tenuous and fatigued and all of those things. You have a sense of wherewithal inside. That’s really, those are all positive things, not only for ourselves to feel better, but as we manifest in the world. It’s like if your kid needs something and you’re exhausted and you’re just like, you can’t bear it. It’s not that easy to get there. Whereas if you have more of this sense of wherewithal inside, it is much easier to really get there. So that’s what it’s about. It’s not about being selfish and self-preoccupied and pleased with yourself, but building this sense of inner … certainly sufficiency and maybe abundance.
Dan: When we did this cross-country meditation tour not long ago, the whole idea was we were going to sort of systematically taxonomize and tackle the various impediments to meditation. One of the big ones that we hit, and this was a big one for my wife, interestingly, is the idea that meditation, generally, is self-indulgent.
Dan: Especially for my wife, who is a doctor and a mom, her whole mindset is of helping other people, and the idea of doing something for herself, she really struggled with it. What do you say to folks who struggle with this?
Sharon: That I understand the struggle and that I find it kind of ironic that if any of us were told, “Here’s this thing, if you did for 20 minutes a day it would really help your friend,” we’d do it. But the idea that it’ll really help us, it just feels wrong. But how do we keep on helping our friend? Even though it’s such a terrible cliché at this point, it’s such a great example. If you’re on the airplane and the oxygen masks descend, put your own on first.
I actually was talking to a writer friend and I said, “You know, I can’t even use that anymore, everyone uses it and it’s so clichéd.” And she said, “Oh! I was just on an airplane and they made that announcement and the woman in the seat next to me said, ‘I could never do that, I could never put my own mask on first.’” I said, “Maybe I can use it. It’s still provocative.”
Dan: Yeah. I use it too. It’s great, I love it. It’s also so relatable.
Sharon: Yeah! It’s perfect, yeah.
Dan: I should have asked you this at the beginning, and I can’t expect you to remember this all chapter and verse, but could you give us a walkthrough of what the science is showing us about what the benefits may be of specifically loving-kindness meditation, where you’re again, you’re sitting there and sending yourself and others and difficult people and everybody good vibes. What is science telling us about what kind of affect this has on physiology and behavior?
Sharon: Well, the science is a lot newer than the mindfulness. Mindfulness itself is new, but it’s just more likely that a study will have been done on mindfulness than on loving-kindness. But I understand that some of them are the same benefits. There’s certainly a benefit in things like self-efficacy, the feeling of confidence. I was just reading about a study where it looked like loving-kindness played a strong role, not surprisingly, and undermined bias and assumptions. I always come back to the sense of assumption. How do I see this other person that I’m with? There’s a growing … They did this one study out of Emory University in the foster care system of Georgia using loving-kindness practice. That had also a lot to do with self-confidence and sense of belonging and so on.
I think a lot of the physiological studies have had to do with vagal tone-
Dan: Our vagus nerve, V-A-G-U-S, not V-E-G-A-S.
Sharon: … which I guess connects the brain to the rest of our being.
Dan: The body, yeah.
Sharon: Yeah. And that just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation seems to have a very profound affect on vagal tone, which is a good thing.
Also, out of Richard Davidson’s lab they did some studies on neuro-economics, the affect of neurological changes on behavior, economic behavior. They found things like more acts of generosity coming from even just a few minutes of loving-kindness. Last time I saw Richard Davidson I was in Milwaukee-
Dan: Who, I should say, is a pre-eminent neuroscientist, old, old friend of yours, and a previous guest on this podcast. Carry on, sorry.
Sharon: Yes. We were both in Milwaukee. He of course lives in Madison and I was visiting him. I was at a dinner and somebody said something about how difficult it was to maintain a meditation practice. Richie said that study … and he said it with a chuckle for me, because I’m so identified with loving-kindness practice, he said, “Studies had shown that nine minutes of mindfulness a day and only seven minutes of loving-kindness a day would change your brain.”
Sharon: So there you go.
Dan: If you’re looking for the faster route … Sharon, you’re the best.
Sharon: Thank you.
Dan: I love you. How about that?
Sharon: I love you too.
Dan: Thank you very much for coming on. Congratulations on the new book.
Sharon: Thank you.
Dan: Where can people find out more about you?
Sharon: I guess sharonsalzberg.com will have it all.
Dan: And also on Twitter and Facebook.
Sharon: That’s right.
Dan: Perpetually. Not really.
Sharon: But kinda.
Dan: Thank you, Sharon, appreciate it.
Sharon: Thank you.