Donna Quesada: Lovely. Well, I watched your Ted Talk, and I loved it, of course. And there was a story you told about a woman
who ripped her nylons in the bathroom, that I found so amusing. And I think I found it amusing because of its simplicity. So simple, but still, it takes us to that deeper place. I’m sure you remember the story; would you mind retelling it, so we can go into that a bit?
Sharon Salzberg: Sure. As I recall, I was in the gym and there was a woman getting dressed… also in the locker room, in the gym. It was kind of frenzied and frantic, and in the course of this woman putting on her nylons, she ripped them. And as she said to this woman who was telling me this story… This woman looked at her and said, “I need a new life.” “No, you don’t… you just need a pair of new nylons.”
DONNA: A little dramatic…
SHARON: A perfect example of what we do. Also, stress tends to be coma-like. It sounds stupid but this was the last straw. It wasn’t volcanic, it wasn’t some terrible incident, but she couldn’t take it anymore.
DONNA: Is the point that we do this every day? We get to the drama. We go to the horrible, dark, crisis, panic, hyperbolic outcome? So, the answer…. Is it in the head? Is it the constant reminding ourselves to balance it with the more positive? Or is it to drop down into the heart? And that is the love and kindness… Or is it just both?
SHARON: It’s both, I think. Why wouldn’t it be both? How lucky we are, that it’s both.
DONNA: What do you do. What is your first go-to, when you find yourself spiraling?
SHARON: The first thing I go to would be breathing. Just try to ground a little bit. And watch. It’s also very interesting to me to watch the arc of anxiety. And something I’ve realized in looking at my own fear, is that despite the world’s pronouncement that we are afraid of the unknown… of course, I am afraid of the unknown… but, I’m much more afraid of what I think I do know, and it’s going to be really bad. So, I start telling myself stories… Oh no, I wonder if this plane is going to be so late that you miss the connection… Will I get stranded?… I don’t know how late those flights go to the West Coast… What’s going to happen to me?… Am I going to be stuck at Chicago Airport?
I use this example of afriend… I was teaching with Bob Thurman, and the way I told the story as we were teaching… I said, “You are sitting on the Tarmac of the New York City Airport, and it’s about to take off”… and you start thinking… Oh no, I wonder if this plane is going to be late. I bet it’s going to be late… What’s that going to mean? Will I miss my connection? And in Chicago, that means, I’m going to land in Portland, Oregon. There’s gong to be no cabs… it’s going to be after midnight. What is going to happen to me? And then, I said that I have a personal mantra that I use, just as an aside, in telling the story, and that mantra is “Something will happen.” There will be a bus… or, I’ll spend the night at the airport… Something will happen. So, the reason I mentioned Bob… about six weeks after teaching that class, I got an email from him which simply said, “Just landed in Portland. Lots of cabs!”
DONNA: We distort.
SHARON: We distort. I tell myself stories. It’s going to be really bad. You are going to miss the plane. The whole conference… but if I can see that… Of course, I can see that much more quickly than I could before. Then, I have a chance to let go of it and say, “it’s just a story.”
DONNA: So, you constantly come back…. That’s just a story.Or, your mantra “Something is going to happen.” Yeah, I used to have a daily mantra like that. At this moment, I’m okay.” So, it’s a matter of just coming back to what is. Because what is is usually not as bad as what our head is telling us. Do you think more people are coming into meditation for therapeutic reasons? Or spiritual reasons? And by therapeutic, I mean… maybe you can get into this a little bit… now we know that it combats anxiety. That we do have neuroplasticity in the brain, and we can rewire some of these mechanisms. So, do you think that more people are approaching meditation from this kind of therapeutic perspective? Or, is there still that spiritual curiosity? Or, are they one and the same?
SHARON: I don’t know if it’s a false divide, but I don’t think it’s a divide that’s as deep as people think. I don’t think it’s completely wrong, but I don’t tend to categorize my life in that way. I try to think it through. I think people come. Either they have a particular situation in their life… or, they are suffering in some way. A scary diagnosis. Or, a few other reasons, of course, as well. Or, tremendous curiosity these days. People just want to understand life in a different way. People come for different reasons, but I think it comes down to suffering, for some reason. So, to that extent, you could be teaching a retreat and being very strict… following those guidelines… and teaching another retreat a week later, and people are different. The motivation is vert important.
DONNA: Do you have any stories you would be willing to share, along those lines… when someone was dealing with something really challenging… a personal crisis… and through this practice, was able to turn around, or deal with that difficult situation differently?
SHARON: In that case, you are approaching a crisis. They might go to practice. It might be love and kindness. Because it’s so uplifting. It has so much kindness in it. I think it creates a different internal environment. So, we are able to deal with the difficulties more directly.
DONNA: I love that. A different internal environment. That’s a lovely way to put it. You’ve worked with so many people. Would you be willing to share any stories with us of this kind of turn around? That you’ve witnessed or observed? And I’m sure that was a wonderful thing to observe… to see how this practice actually changed someone.
SHARON: There’s so many it’s hard to know where to start.
DONNA: That’s a good problem to have!
SHARON: I guess part of my quandary… when you are talking about balance as a value, as a guiding light for what you are doing… balance means many different things and it means different things to us at different times. So, sometimes we are overwrought. We’re pushing too much into the experience. We really need to relax. I’m always thinking about myself as a baby meditator and judging myself very harshly. I remember my first teacher… I’m kind of famous for walking up to the front of the room… I looked him in the eye and said “I never used to be an angry person until I started meditating!” Laying the blame exactly where I felt it belonged, which was on him! I had been fine all along, but of course I had not been fine all along. And it was very difficult for me just to admit the anger. But yes, that was what was happening. And it proved to be a very important step in the process of healing.
DONNA: It’s getting out of that denial. Who are we as spiritual beings? You mentioned emptiness earlier. Could you speak about that a little bit?
SHARON: I think of consciousness and connectedness. I mean, consciousness is something we live very much on the surface of. We don’t even know what life means. There are more and more subtle ways of having an experience…. which are not ordinary experiences… They are not the goal, but it kind of reminds you that life is so much bigger than we ever imagined. It’s huge. For all we know, it might transcend time and space. And yet, conceptualizing it rigidly, and fighting with other people about those concepts makes no sense to me. And so, I think this is a time where people have to put down their egos more… and their sense of I’m the one who will save you is really getting in the way. We need to listen to one another, and take whatever resonates with us back into a bigger world.
DONNA: It seems like that is so much of a daily practice. Getting that ego under control. What is meant by that? What is the ego?
SHARON: You can use that word in so many ways. It is how our brain just functions. Consciousness functions as a “team leader.” Maybe people ask… “I’m afraid to meditate because then I’ll lose my edge… I’ll just let things go by…I won’t care anymore… I’ll be numb.” It’s not like that. We respond to pleasure and pain and neutrality and we have all those feelings, so we can function, instead of being overwhelmed. We realize that we need to be in touch with the feeling… hear what it is suggesting, in terms of action. Look at that action with the eye’s intelligence.
One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness came years ago. I was reading the New York Times and there was an article about a fourth-grade classroom, which means the kids are nine or ten years old. And there was a pilot program in Oakland California… and in those days, there were very few around. So, they asked this kid, “what does mindfulness mean?” And he said, “mindfulness means, not hitting someone in the mouth. That’s what mindfulness means.” That is a great definition of mindfulness! Because what does it imply? It implies that you know you are feeling angry, when you are starting to feel angry. Not after you have pressed send on the email. Not after you have hit someone in the mouth. You are so in touch with yourself, that you can see it. It shows a certain balanced relationship with the anger. If you just fall into it and it consumes you, you’ll likely hit a lot of people in the mouth. Life can be so frustrating, but at the same time, if you are deeply ashamed of what you are feeling… you want to deny it, you want to push it away. You want to hide it. It’s not going to work. We will explode at some point. It simply doesn’t work, so we have to find a place in the middle, that is neither of those extremes. And we can. That is what mindfulness means.
DONNA: Is it the ego that would have hit someone in the mouth?
SHARON: It was the ego responding to a grievance or an insult or whatever it might be, as if that was the appropriate response. Another element of mindfulness… because we are looking at our own minds and our own experiences… We can see for ourselves. What is making me stronger? What is making me weaker? What is filling me with the joy of existence? What is filling me with dread? What is helping me feel closer to others? What is making me feel totally alienated? Because in the end, we are our own laboratory. Many of us have been taught “It’s a dog eat dog world.” You don’t help anybody else because they aren’t going to help you. And, you better climb up that ladder because you’ve got to. And, don’t hold it for anyone coming later. How could we not believe it? We are taught it. But, if you take a step back, and you take a look, and you say, “is that really true? Wait a minute…” The world does open up and there is a lot of new perspective.
Ego is like a function. It functions to coordinate information. And to helps to coordinate volition so that we are moving forward. But if it’s paired with ignorance, instead of wisdom… our learning would be safest treating it like a dog eat dog world. We are lost because we are going to believe that. We don’t have to be. You look at your mind when you are boiling with rage… fixed on revenge. That’s really strong. Loving Kindness on the other side of the spectrum, seems stupid. If you repeat the phrases, you think it wasn’t so stupid… it wasn’t so crazy. It’s brilliant, actually.
DONNA: We get a self-talk…
SHARON: We all have the ability to change. Whatever we have been denying or pushing away… We take a look. It might be very different than we assumed.
DONNA: In our last few minutes together, is there anything that you would like to share? About upcoming projects, or workshops, or retreats, or just general comments about the world?
SHARON: For workshops, someone could look at my workshop. It’s sharonsalzberg.com And I’m working on a book, which I am pretty excited about. But,I don’t know exactly when it will come out, or how it will be. Maybe we will call it Real Change.
DONNA: How many books does this make so far?
SHARON: So far, I’ve had ten.
DONNA: Well, congratulations, again! And I would like to thank you again, for the time that you have spent with us today, and for sharing your thoughts on mindfulness and how you’ve applied this practice through the years… with your own stories and applications with others, and the adjoined practice of Loving Kindness, which I hope will be a benefit to many who watch this interview.
SHARON: Great. Thank you so much!
DONNA: Thank you, Sharon.
Read and watch Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Sharon Salzberg Pt 1 – The Light of Loving Kindness
Read and watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Sharon Salzberg Pt2 – Doing From A Place Of Perspective And Understanding