Donna Quesada: Now, I want to go a little deeper. I find this so fascinating that it starts with us… this kind of self-blessing.
But there are steps to it… you bring it into a second step where you wish it upon a neutral person and then finally, a difficult person. Could you explain that?
Sharon Salzberg: In a classical Buddhist approach, there is an arc. There is a whole sequence to the practice, including everything that you have. And this is not meant to be done all in one session. It would be a pretty cramped session. Over the course of time, you want to make sure that you have included yourself. The next category is a benefactor, someone who has helped you. Maybe you’ve met them, maybe they’ve inspired you from afar. But the texts say that when you think of them, you smile. You think about your puppy… you think about your granddaughter… your teacher. The next category is a friend. And then, a neutral person. Someone you don’t strongly like or dislike. Then a difficult person. From there, we launch into a global… all beings, everywhere.
DONNA: Now, this is hard to do, obviously.
SHARON: It is.
DONNA: Like forgiveness practice or something like that. Let me be obvious. Why do this? What benefit will it have for us?
SHARON: Well, again, going back to the classical teachings, it said that the Buddha described love and kindness as the answer to fear. That’s worth exploring. And I understand what you are implying because I hear it all the time, of course. And people say, “why should I bother?” And… “that’s the same as giving in.” And especially in such heated times that we live in. People will say, “why should I do love and kindness for them? They are pushing for me not to exist!”… “because of my race or my sexual identity,” … or something.
DONNA: What do you tell them?
SHARON: I say, “I understand that point of view.”I don’t think love and kindness leaves us inert and unable to take action, at all. I think it frees our hearts, so we aren’t driven by hatred, and things like that. And it’s a really powerful experiment. I always go back to… what if you take away the idea of complacency… and just giving in? And… reflect on Buddha having taught us the anti-dote to fear? Because that seems worth pursuing!
DONNA: Because ultimately, we want to be happy. And so, if we are filled with these negative emotions, it’s impossible to be happy.
SHARON: That’s right.
DONNA: Is there ever a place or an appropriate way to use those negative emotions that we are talking about? That resentfulness and that anger? And if so, what would be the appropriate usage?
SHARON: I would think that there is more possibility around anger than resentment. Resentment to me, seems a little more baked in, you know? It’s a pretty corrosive state. Though we certainly might get angry. We might get very angry at something. It’s different, in some subtle way. I think it’s different. The chronic nature of these feelings… these states… tends to be complex. They are many things interwoven. One of the things, in terms of mindfulness, we would say… Let’s say there is a great wave of anger and you are looking at it… that in itself, is different. We mostly act out of it.
But to sort of sit there, with the anger, not denying it… but hanging in there and not exacerbating it, is a very powerful and interesting thing to do because one of the first things people tend to see is that anger is not just one thing. There are moments of sadness… moments of fear. In Tibetan Buddhism, they say anger is what we pick up when we are feeling weak because we think it’s going to make us strong. So, I’m certain there is a sense of weakness in there, or helplessness. So, the anger is rebounding off of that. So, these are important knowings. These are important understandings. Should I choose to act? I can now act based on all of those feelings… not just the top-most layer.
DONNA: And in this culture, there seems like there is an emphasis on acting. Venting or going up to punch something. Getting it out of your system. So, your approach is to, obviously, not do that. I remember something I read… I think it was Thich Nhat Hanh. That approach just rehearses it, or reconditions it, so you are working from this paradigm of not exacerbating it. Because it will quell if we don’t exacerbate it.
Is there something that happened in your life that made you want to take this on as a teacher and help people with their own emotional life… and dealing with these kinds of emotional stumbling blocks and negative emotions?
SHARON: Well, sure. I went to India as a Junior in college. I was 18 years old. I grew up in New York City. I’d never even been to California before. I went to India.
DONNA: Well, that was a culture shock!
SHARON: I have written many times about my own very difficult and traumatic childhood. My parents divorced when I was four. My mother dying when I was nine. Having a very attenuating relationship with my father. He came back when I was 11. I mean, it wasn’t an accident that I ended up in India. And I forged some very strong relationships with different teachers along the way. So, that was very important. And then, there is something which is very hard to describe… There were many things that were very reassuring to me in the presentation of the teachings. For instance, the idea that you don’t have to believe anything, which Buddha said. “Don’t believe anything… don’t believe anything because I said it. Don’t believe anything because a great master has said it.”
DONNA: Experience it
SHARON: Experience it yourself. Put it into practice. And that felt like it had so much integrity. I was very reassured by that and I felt safe to make the experiment.
DONNA: And so, that trip to India… would it be fair to say that it turned your life around and made you want to teach?
SHARON: It didn’t make me want to teach, but it certainly turned my life around. I started teaching because one of my teachers told me to.
DONNA: What teacher was that?
SHARON: It was this woman named Deepa Ma. That is like a nickname fore deepest mother. I met her fairly early on in my time in India. But I just thought it was ludicrous. Crazy. I could never do that. But as life evolved, that is what happened.
DONNA: Do you think we need a teacher to evolve on the spiritual path?
SHARON: I actually think we don’t, but that it is one of the greatest things we could have. It works out that way.
SHARON: We need a path and we need to be able to bring it to life and not just admire it from a distance… or, keep postponing things…. it’s going to be so great when I’m 20 and I can just meditate all the time. Or, once the kids are out of the house, I will be so free. Whatever it is we might do… It’s just procrastination.
DONNA: So, the teacher keeps us in line.
SHARON: Yeah, definitely.
DONNA: I remember reading about when you first opened the Insight Meditation Society… and that was the late sixties, I believe.
SHARON: It was ’76 when we moved in.
DONNA: There was a motto on your brochure that said, “It’s better to do nothing than to waste your time.” So clever and amusing because it’s so true. People think of this kind of practice, meditation, or mindfulness, or whatever buzzword is in vogue to describe the practice of meditation, and at that time, it was certainly novel… and the tendency is for us to think, why would I just want to sit there? It’s not “productive.” We are told to be productive. So, what you were doing is countering the idea that meditation is not productive. Do you still find that to be something that you have to get past? A hurdle, that you’ve got to convince people that it really is good to sit there?
SHARON: I think it is. It’s such a doing culture. The idea of simply being is so strange. But as you can see, when we started teaching here in the states, there weren’t massive waves of interest. I mean, there was fluttering and it steadily grew. And yet, it takes something… a real willingness to experiment. It’s a step out of the comfort zone for many people.
DONNA: And it seems that at that time, the late 60’s, early 70’s… that fluttering you speak of came in through a crack in the window. It was a time when we were ready for new ideas. We were angry enough as a culture to go looking elsewhere for new spiritual teachings, and so forth. Do you still find the curiosity to be strong because there is still a lot of anger today?
SHARON: There still is a lot of anger today. It’s different. This is a conversation me and my friends have a lot and nobody knows the answer to it because in my time, being as old as I am, you needed a significant motivation to do some very uncomfortable things. Like go to India. And so, most of the people who went… not everybody… but quite a lot of the people who went, had some kind of traumatic background… some sort of terrible incident that they thought… in order to be free, I have to really see this differently.
We were able to live with very little, so the hardships didn’t matter. It was such an exciting time of discovery. It was really fantastic. And these days, you don’t have to go to India. So, what does that mean? Nobody knows quite what it means. You don’t need to have the same intensity of motivation and willingness to explore. It can be a much more casual interest. It could be about curiosity… or interest in going deeper, but not passionate. And nobody knows what that means if people are going to a health food store and buying Vitamin C and they pick up a meditation tape. That’s great but different.
DONNA: Well, and a lot of people also wonder, how is this going to benefit the world? And carrying over from this conversation to the state of the world today, with environmental degradation… So much political unhappiness. So, what do you say when people ask you “how am I going to change the world by sitting there and doing nothing?” So, it kind of goes back to that brochure. How does sitting there as an individual help the world?
SHARON: Well, I think it probably does on many levels, in the cleansing or purification of our own mind states. We are living differently. We are putting different energy out into the world. The dynamics between us and other people shift—the ultimate goal from a classical point of view. Mindfulness is “insight” or wisdom, which never hurts, you know? If you really want to understand the world and change it. Doing from a place of perspective and understanding, is much better than just lashing out in some kind of pain.
DONNA: So, in a sense, are you suggesting that without that kind of insight or internal wisdom, my efforts on the outside will be futile anyway, and misguided?
SHARON: I think they will be incomplete. They will be very partial. For any of us. That is the truth. Because we have to look at a deep level, at causality. Causes and conditions. And not just stay on the same level. For example, this Thai activist came to visit us at The Insight Meditation Society. And he gave a little talk and he said, “If you really want to understand the sex trade in Thailand, look at agricultural policy.” Because we are so conditioned… Why are those farmers selling their daughters? Because they are starving. Why are they starving? We don’t always have the tendency to keep looking deeper, for causes and conditions. But we can.
DONNA: It’s hard to see the interconnections between the farming industry… to look deeper… One of the questions we like to explore at Awaken, has to do with this imbalance between the feminine and masculine energies. And what you were saying about this Thai teacher’s story made me think of this sort of global imbalance between masculine and feminine energies. And I’m wondering if you could speak to that a little bit. Do you think that is something that is real, and is actively driving these kinds of grizzly things that affect the trade of people and environmental destruction, and the sex trade that you just spoke of?
SHARON: You know, I don’t tend to frame it in that way, but I think the energies are real. Probably, one of the reasons I don’t tend to frame it in that way is because love and kindness which we might attribute to the feminine… My teacher was a man, a Burmese teacher… there is a Buddha statue up in the front of the room. People are so surprised that I learned love and kindness from a man… from a monk… but that was the case. That was a little disruptive to my ordinary way of thinking.
DONNA: Because it’s soft?
SHARON: Yeah, It’s soft. It’s a girly quality. Which I was pretty much told when I began to teach love and kindness. You’ll lose your edge… You won’t get enlightened. You are just going to wallow in good feeling… My first book was called Love and Kindness. I went ahead and wrote it, anyway. And now, the world has caught up with that topic. So much of the early research was about mindfulness and now more and more, it’s about love and kindness, which I think is fabulous.
DONNA: So rather than frame it as a question of masculine and feminine energy, is it just a matter of getting into a deeper, softer place within us? And that has no gender…
Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Sharon Salzberg Pt 3 – Balance As A Guiding Light
Read and watch Part I Here: Awaken Interviews Sharon Salzberg Pt 1 – The Light of Loving Kindness