Real Love: A Conversation With Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is a New York Times best selling author and pioneer of Buddhism in the West. She co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein in 1974, and has been leading retreats around the world for over three decades. Her books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995), A Heart as Wide as the World (1999), Real Happiness, and Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, which has just been published. I talked to my longtime colleague and friend about what she means by real love, and the possibility of feeling such love for individuals we cannot like — especially in these ethically challenging times. 

Mark Matousek:  What inspired you to write a book about love?

Sharon Salzberg: I’ve always been fascinated with love. In  a way, it was going back to fundamentals and asking, “What do we really want?” Because I teach loving-kindness meditation, I’ve seen how people can equate it with weakness or gullibility. This is a degradation of the notion of love, and I thought it would be great to reclaim the word and the power of love, and to re-own concepts that have gotten away from us.

MM: In the book, you recommend that we should “love everybody.” How do we do that?

SS: When I talk about loving everybody, it means recognizing a fundamental interconnectedness of life and how our lives are inextricably interwoven. If we can recognize an essential connection, we won’t need to come from a place of hatred or alienation even when we don’t like the person or are committed to fighting them in some profound way (in terms of what they’re trying to do in the world). It also doesn’t mean we have to spend time with them, approve of their actions or support them in any way.

MM:  There is so much animosity and conflict in global affairs these days. Can one really love someone doing evil things without feeling like a hypocrite?

SS: Horrible actions that people take are often born of this sense of alienation, where “the other” doesn’t matter. Thinking the other doesn’t count, people may feel you can do anything to them. If we recognize that many terrible actions come from that place, we’re less likely to operate from that place.

The questions to ask are, “Where does real strength lie?” “Where does happiness lie?” And, “How alone are we anyway?” We may have been taught that things like compassion make us weak or bring us down but is that true? Does being vengeful make us strong? This is about cultivating knowledge not of someone else’s idea of how we should live, but knowledge that there might be a source of strength that is not so damaging and that reflects our values.

It’s not always easy, but there are ways of understanding love not as giving in, but as an antidote to fear. Corrosive fear does not beget effective action and does not help you stand stronger. So, I go back to the very deep recognition that our lives are connected. The knowledge of that does not leave us weak and I think that is an essential lesson.

MM: This approach sounds more rational than emotional. The love you’re talking about isn’t necessarily a warm, fuzzy feeling.

SS:  Love is a feeling and it’s what we yearn for, but looking deeper, it’s a capacity within us to care and to want others and ourselves to be free from suffering. We want to have a sense of belonging that’s rightful no matter who we are, and that is an ability within us. If we think of it as a warm fuzzy feeling then it’s in the hands of someone else. I describe it as being beholden to person holding a package on our doorstep who then changes their mind. They’ve gone somewhere else and then there’s no love in our lives. That’s the way we usually think about it. But if we see love as a capacity within ourselves to connect, then people can enliven it, enrich it or threaten it but no one is giving it to us. Or taking it away.

MM:  No-one can stop us from loving.

SS:  Exactly.

MM:  Why is it necessary to move past shame in order to express genuine love?

SS: Whatever is within us that feels abundant or at least sufficient, is where the generosity of love comes from. If you are feeling depleted and exhausted or awful and broken inside, and then someone tells you their sad story, you won’t have it in you to have the energy to listen, to connect, or to care. Shame is an inner state that leads to that feeling of having no resource and no inner strength. That’s why love for oneself as an antidote to shame is such a significant ingredient in love for others. It’s a generous energy that is renewing for us and for others.

MM: Could you talk about the negativity bias and how it affects love relationships?

SS: Many evolutionary psychologists say that we have a kind of negativity bias that leads us to notice threats—like we’re still in the jungle with lions about to leap out. We may well be conditioned to see what’s wrong, difficult, unsatisfying, and so on. It’s not to deny or pretend that difficulties aren’t there, but we are not only that person who said that stupid thing at the meeting. That may have happened but maybe we also did five great things that same morning. It takes conscious effort and intentionality to commit to a fuller, truer picture of our day. Or of our life.

MM: How does that work in relationships?

SS:  With somebody that we are in relationship with, whether that be a friendship or a romantic partnership, we may be very tuned into noticing what’s wrong—especially after a while. It works both ways in that we have to be able to say, “I’m not just that person who made that mistake.” It takes intentionality to remember to spend time noticing what’s right.

MM: So, it’s about where we place our attention?

SS:  Very much so.

MM:  What’s the connection between story—what you call “buried narratives”—and the ability to love?

SS:  One of the most fascinating things we can do in terms of noticing what we pay attention to is noticing the assumptions we make that function as filters. If you walk into a room and think no one would want to talk with you, your energy is going to be really contracted into that conviction. But if you see that thought when it first arises, you can shine the light of awareness on it and ask if it’s true or just an assumption you’re making. Is it a perception based on what you see or just an old story you’ve been carrying around? We can look at our thought patterns and let them go if they are those old stories. In the freedom of beginning to see, you need compassion for yourself, rather than self-blame as you let go of that inner critic.

MM:  How does one work with loving-kindness towards oneself when there’s actual trauma in the body?

SS:  First of all, listen to the body. That is fundamental for both the thoughts and the physical reaction. Hold yourself in the light of loving kindness. It’s easy to blame yourself when years have gone by and you’re still frightened. The sea we need to be moving in is one of great love and compassion for ourselves.

MM:  And when trauma comes up we just bring the attention back to our heart, back to the breath and softening around the physical resistance?

SS:  Sometimes we stay with the imagery or the sensation or the emotion, but usually not for very long. Your goal is not to be submerged in re-traumatizing yourself but to touch upon those states from a place of balance and then come back to something that feels like a respite to you. Something that feels safe for you and then you can venture out again from that place. A psychologist once described it to me as getting in an elevator and realizing you can press the button to the floor you want to be on.

MM:  That’s great. What’s the difference between “idiot compassion” and genuine compassion in your experience?

SS:  Idiot compassion is unbalanced compassion. Compassion for others that’s not balanced with compassion for oneself utilizing insight and wisdom. That’s a great recipe for burnout. In some schools of Buddhism, they call it equanimity, which reflects wisdom and indicates an understanding that we are not in control of the unfolding of events. Healing happens on its own timetable and change takes time. Maybe it’s not exactly as we would wish, but we’ve planted a seed or we’ve just been present in the face of some difficulty or sorrow. We don’t know exactly what will come of that. We always want both compassion for ourselves and wisdom to be part of our compassionate effort.

MM:  So compassion that’s not balanced by wisdom is ineffective?

SS:  It’s both less effective and kind of torturous if you really need to be in control. Often what makes us pull back, withdraw and feel defeated is that sense of powerlessness that consumes us when expectations are not met and when one is not in control. That can feel unbearable.

MM: You can’t really talk about love without talking about forgiveness. How do you define forgiveness and what practice do you recommend for cultivating that?

SS:  A colleague gave a talk on forgiveness and this man came up to me afterward to complain about her talk. He’d been in a terrorist attack and his body was kind of trashed and he was in pain all the time. He said, “I’ll never be able to forgive them but what I realize is absolutely essential, is to stop hating.” I thought, “I’ll take that!” Sometimes we think forgiveness is amnesia or wiping out the incident as if it didn’t matter, but when it comes to forgiving someone else, it’s more about seeing how much of our life energy is actually defined by their actions. And because we can’t do anything about their actions, we can recapture that energy and reclaim it as our own.

So the practice is letting go and returning to ourselves with some integrity. We practice by learning to shift our perspective so that we don’t feel so lost in a particular action. There’s a part of loving-kindness practice which is an actual forgiveness recitation: “If I have hurt you knowingly or unknowingly, I ask your forgiveness. If you’ve hurt or harmed me knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive you.”

MM:  That’s great. Anne Lamott said, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” How does perfectionism play out in love?

SS:  That’s wonderful. What she said stands on its own. None of us are perfect but that doesn’t have to bring us down or be a source of comparison. It’s a bit like a negativity bias, always saying what’s not good enough. Wouldn’t it be great instead just to have a sense of gratitude and appreciation for what we have?

MM:  Absolutely. And why is curiosity important to love?

SS:  Because love and attention are very tied and attention in love is tied to curiosity. How do we pay attention? Are we really there or are we thinking about the email we need to send? What do we pay attention to? Is it only what’s not right or can it be a fuller picture? Could we pay attention to how we become the other? Through indifference or disregard? Instead of having a prior judgement or being swept away by an assumption, you can be curious. “Who are you?” or “What’s happening with you?” or “What’s going on right now?” Curiosity brings us right into the moment.

MM: And in order to have curiosity, we have to move through the story we carry?

SS:   Not only the story we carry about ourselves, but the story we carry about others and stories others have told about us that we’ve incorporated. There are lots of layers of story.

MM:  Circling back to where we started, can you give a couple of pointers or suggestions on how in the midst of all of this turmoil, we can remain open as loving human beings?

SS:  I tell a story in the book about a friend of mine who was extraordinarily depressed and began volunteering in a variety of ways. He ended up wrapping sandwiches for people who have meals delivered. On one level, it was not an activity that suited his accomplishments or his degrees but on the other hand, it suited his heart tremendously and it really helped to heal him.

Take that abstract angst and translate it into something immediate, like the popular saying goes: “Transform anger into action.” Instead of feeling irate or livid about what’s happening in the country according to your view, take action! Channel that energy into something that’s constructive for someone.

It’s hard when you’re feeling despair, but I think we can still have a sense of community. Another thing I write about in the book is how it’s hard for social structures that have brought us together to no longer feel supportive. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community talks about places we used to be together where we could be a little different from one another. Whether church or synagogue or other institution, it facilitated a joining together to help us realize our essential sense of direction as community. Maybe it’s now time to re-create that. What kind of community do we need to get support and give support? Community’s a very powerful way of countering despair.

MM:  My last question Sharon. Is how is it possible to resist without living in resistance?

SS:  I went to give a talk recently and the topic they gave me was: “Love or resistance? Can’t we have both?” I think we can have both through a deeper understanding of love that helps us see that in cultivating love, we are not giving up our principles and our sense of right or wrong or discernment. But if we are resisting with a base of fear all the time then we are going to burn out. It’s not a recipe for a long-term engagement. Yes, try to make this a better world for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of what we want to see happen, but try to cultivate other strengths and balance. You may be close to despair over the environmental crises and climate change but every once in a while, look at a child’s smile to soothe yourself. You’ve got to remember love for yourself and look at what you’ve got to be grateful for. Connect to something bigger through the kind of actions you take.

When I was visiting Walter Reed Hospital, a friend of mine who is a nurse there arranged for me to give a talk to the other nurses. She also arranged a short tour of one of the wards. Of course, it was extremely intense, the devastation between soldiers and families. At the end of the tour she turned to me and said, “The nurses who continue to serve are not the ones who get lost in sorrow. The nurses who stay here are the nurses who can connect to the resilience of the human spirit.”

MM:  And what helps you connect to the resilience of the human spirit?

SS: For me, that is centered around meditation. Universal tools for anyone who wants to undertake it. But whatever it is, that’s what we need to connect to, because sorrow, despair and anger will only take you so far.

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