Meet Sharon Salzberg, Author of "Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection"

Interviewed by Eleanor Duke

“Equanimity can help us admit what we don’t know, it can help us to have healthy boundaries, and it is also admitting that there are inevitably ups and downs, nothing is perfectly flat — no endeavor, no effort, no relationship.”

Note from Susan

I learned to meditate in 1993 by listening to a cassette recording, over and over again, of Sharon leading a loving kindness meditation. A three-hour drive from our home in upstate New York to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, was all it would have taken for me to learn from her and her IMS co-founders Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield in person, but I was a working mom with two young kids and carving out the time wasn't an option. Fueled by workaday stress and existential angst, I was motivated though, and so I listened to guided meditations from these pioneering teachers and read each of their first books -- Loving Kindness by Sharon, A Path With Heart, by Jack, and The Experience of Insight, by Joseph. Their books were a mindful lifeline until enough space opened up for me to study with them in person, along with lineage holders from other schools of meditation. If you haven't read their groundbreaking early offerings yet, I encourage you to dig in. These three books steered me and countless others towards a path that would ultimately transform our lives.

A lot has changed over the past twenty-five years but some things remain immutable. One sure thing is Sharon's steadfast commitment to exploring, to borrow from Joseph Goldstein's blurb of her new book,  "the subtleties and nuances of love." In her first book, she artfully unpacked love's theoretical foundations and a powerful visualization practice called loving kindness. Now, nine books and almost twenty years later, Sharon's latest contribution brings her (and us) full circle. I'm honored to call Sharon a teacher and friend and delighted to shout out about her terrific new book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. Sharon speaks to Ellie Duke about love and equanimity and shares an excerpt. 

What is your definition of love?

I think of love as pure connection — it’s different from liking somebody or approving of somebody, it’s very different from seeing a future together. It’s not about the form, but it’s really about that moment, of recognizing that our lives are connected. Sometimes it’s not even highly emotional, even though we tend to relate to love as an emotion.

So you think of love as a much broader action, from our usual conception of it.

Yes. I tried to do a lot of crowd-sourcing with this book, meeting with groups and learning about people’s understanding of love. In the very last group I did, some said to me, “My whole life I’ve thought of liking somebody as a sort of ordinary thing to feel, but loving somebody was so rare and unusual. And you’re reversing it — you’re saying we can love everybody, and maybe not like people much at all.” And I thought about it for a moment, and I said: You’re right! Because I don’t think of love as that romantic bonding, I think of it as connection.

You write that love is the energetic opposite of fear. Why do you think love and fear are so connected, for many people?

I would take an almost excruciating look at words, and how we’re using certain words. Is it the love that’s scary, or is it the attachment that’s scary? Wanting to hold things static, wanting to keep things from changing, wanting to have a certain result. We like to think if we love someone enough they will heal or be “fixed,” but what if they don’t? That might mean our love is deficient.

I mean, love is scary, often — in the book I tell a story of having a dream, and in the dream I was asked why we love people, and in the dream I commented: because they see us. And then I woke up and I thought, that was really good! So of course, that part can seem scary to us — we’ll be seen, we’ll be known. But I think that in the end, love is the energetic opposite of fear, and we choose one or the other.

Someone in publishing once told you that the “love market was saturated.” That seemed very surprising to me — people never get sick of reading about love! What niche do you think your book fills in the “love market”?

My publisher will probably kill me for saying this, but it’s not actually a relationship book — as in, how to find a relationship, or how to fix a relationship. But it’s about how to love, whether it’s loving ourselves, loving a friend, loving a partner, loving a child, loving life itself. Which is not the same as liking everything that happens to us. Within that, people tell me they see things about their partners, and the way they relate, and I’m very happy about that. But it’s not primarily a relationship book.

How does the principle of equanimity from insight meditation translate to our loving relationships?

Equanimity means balance, so in terms of relationship, it’s the balance borne of wisdom — it’s perspective. In a compassionate relationship, you might think: “I will do everything I can to try to ease your situation and make it better, and wisdom tells me I’m not control of your decisions. I can’t make you stop drinking, or force you to switch jobs.” So in the end it’s a kind of letting go, that balance. We use compassion and equanimity so we don’t burn out, or get filled with expectation.

It also implies admitting what we don’t know — a lot of times you’re trying to help somebody and maybe it feels like it’s going nowhere, and if you’re lucky you find out later, wow, that really planted a seed, I never would have guessed. So what we see in front of us isn’t really the end of the story. Equanimity can help us admit what we don’t know, it can help us to have healthy boundaries, and it is also admitting that there are inevitably ups and downs, nothing is perfectly flat — no endeavor, no effort, no relationship.

What are the best ways to teach kids to know their worth and truly embody “real love”? 

The main thing I’ve learned is that in order for things to be age-appropriate, for most kids, they need to be very concrete. So if I’m teaching lovingkindness to a little kid, I won’t just teach the phrase “May I be safe, may you be safe.” We might ask: what does it feel like when a person holds your hand while you’re crossing the street, or makes sure you’re okay? That is the feeling of safety, so that’s the feeling we want. Things like that. And some of it, again, is being concrete. Doing acts of generosity, making sure to thank people and show appreciation. Very interactive.

There is this really old study about residents of a nursing home getting a plant, and half the people that get one are told to take care of the plant and half the people are told to just enjoy the plant, the nurses will take care of it. And there was a huge difference in the two groups, in terms of mortality and illness. The group that had been responsible for taking care of a plant was way ahead. So, showing kids concrete ways of taking care of themselves and others.

Do you think that the Buddha's teachings of anatta (the non-self or self-transcendence) are useful teachings in bringing about compassion and interconnectedness in a "self"-centric western society?

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta means selflessness, but it doesn’t mean selflessness like you disappear, or we all become like part of a soup or something like that. The idea is that the way we conceive of ourselves right now tends to be mistaken: isolated, in control, all powerful, sealed off from everybody else. If we really saw how life was, we would see that we’re all interconnected. If you look at a tree, on one level you just see the tree — and that is a true level. But you can also look at the tree as the nature of the soil that is nourishing the tree, and the things that affect the soil like the rainfall, and all the things that affect the rainfall, which we know are pretty vast. You look at the tree, and you see it's a network, it’s a combination of all these things relating to one another and these conditions coming together. That’s another level, and when we see the tree on that level, we understand, to save the tree, you’ve got to look at some of those conditions — check out the soil, check out the rainfall. That’s a truer view of the interconnected universe. That doesn’t mean you don’t also see the tree. Once we understand interconnection, we have to ask ourselves what our responsibility is to one another. And I enjoy that you don’t necessarily have to have a spiritual awareness to understand that — economic study, certainly environmental study, even epidemiology, get this. What happens over there will never just stay over there. So how do we treat one another and how do we act in this world?

Is one definition of love recognizing self in other?

Yes. I think what we recognize in one another is at least two things. One is this universal wish to be happy, that all beings everywhere want to be happy. We want a sense of belonging somewhere, in this body, in our mind, spirit, somewhere. We want to feel apart of something than our usually limited sense of who we are. The problem is not the urge toward happiness, the problem is the ignorance that usually accompanies it; we’re fed so many myths and all kinds of stories about what will really make us happy, but we need to take a look for ourselves. For example, there’s this obsessive sense of seeking revenge, does it really make me that happy? And is compassion really that weak? Or is it in fact strong?

The other thing we share is a great vulnerability. While we don’t in any way share the same measure of pain, we do share this vulnerability. Because anybody can be just going along and their life can turn on a dime. You can pick up your cellphone messages and all of a sudden have a different life than you had two seconds ago. We all have this vulnerability. A logical adverse of that understanding is we have to take care of one another, we have to be here for one another.

What practices do you turn to most, in times of difficulty?

It’s a combination of things. Over long term exposure to meditation, you just learn different techniques, you have different tools in your toolbox. Some of it is remembering to breathe, because we do forget to breathe, we freeze. Remembering to breathe also introduces a kind of fluidity in a situation, you don’t feel so stuck. I’ve practiced a lot of sitting with and looking at uncomfortable feelings, and looking at them anyway, not adding to what’s already uncomfortable — this string of “you’re so terrible, you’re the worst meditator that ever lived, how awful, whatever — one learns not to use those add-ons. And also lovingkindness meditation, just a general reorientation. Offering ourselves the gift of wishing ourselves happiness and peace and happiness. 

 


 An Excerpt from sharon's new book"real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection"

 Making Peace with Fear

When we pay attention to sensations in our body, we can feel that love is the energetic opposite of fear. Love seems to open and expand us right down to the cellular level, while fear causes us contract and withdraw into ourselves. Yet, so often fear keeps us from being able to say yes to love—perhaps our greatest challenge as human beings.

Close relationships ask us to open our hearts and expose our innermost thoughts and feelings. Yet if you felt unseen or unappreciated in childhood, the risk of self-disclosure can seem almost life-threatening. Or if you were valued only as a "good kid," and not encouraged to express your individuality, intimacy may feel suffocating. How we felt in relation to our caregivers in childhood is the (often unconscious) prototype for our connections later in life. Becoming more conscious of those early feelings can make us less fearful of dropping our protective masks.

This fear of loss is natural, especially if you’ve had a big loss early in life. But it also can keep you from savoring the love that's available to you right now.

Working with the Barriers

As we explore new ways of loving and being loved by others, we need to equip ourselves with open, pliant minds; we need to be willing to investigate, experiment and evaluate as we approach a topic we thought we knew so much about.

I imagine an internal version of a position taught in Tai Chi, in which the knees are always slightly bent. Sometimes called the Horse Stance, it is thought to increase the flow of energy throughout the body. It also lowers the center of gravity, increasing stability in the event of an unexpected blow.

In the practice of mindfulness, the counterpart to the Horse Stance might be called the Stance of Inquiry. We attend to the present moment. We gather in our attention, again and again, and open to whatever comes, humbly accepting it. In doing so, we begin to peel back the layers of conditioning and unconscious expectations. We can’t judge whether they’re realistic or not until we know we have them. We start to discern what, in actuality, is available to us, both in terms of what we can give and what we can receive. And at a deeper level, we realize that love simply, perpetually exists, and that it's a matter of psychic housekeeping to make room for it.

As psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm said: "Love is not a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole...”

Inner-Abundance Practice

In this exercise, we’ll examine the feeling of deficiency and self-contraction that often gets confused with love for others—when we become lost in feeling like we are responsible for the happiness of others, and lose sight of our inner abundance in the process.

Throughout the day, notice moments when you become overwhelmed with feelings of responsibility for others—be it a parent, significant other, child, student or friend. You may be convinced that it’s your job to give more of yourself to this person, or perhaps you feel a sense of resentment—that this person should feel the same way and doesn’t.

Try connecting to the weight of this feeling with more spaciousness, and explore what happens both in your body and to your mood as you relax.

Take as long as you need to describe your experience of relating to the feeling in different ways— with self-judgment, resentment, fear of permanence and/or fear of loss, versus that state of adopting a “big mind” perspective. Look for moments of:

  • Anger

  • Desire

  • Judgment and/or self-judgment

  • Restlessness / impatience / frustration

  • Uncertainty

This practice is completely portable, meaning you can try it out during any experiences of overwhelm. It particularly helps strip away those confusing and restrictive assumptions about love for others—such as the all too common notion that love is about recognizing our responsibility to fix others, or be fixed by others in return. It is a practice of cultivating open awareness, which makes us become more curious and creative in the ways we relate to others and ourselves. Through recognizing the space we have within ourselves, and the availability of the feeling that we are enough, we make room for real love.

© 2017. Reprinted by arrangement with Flatiron Books, New York, NY. https://us.macmillan.com/flatiron-books

Susan Kaiser Greenland