Donna Quesada: Well, Sharon, I want to thank you for spending this hour with us… I know we’ll be benefiting from your years of experience…
and before we get going… in case anyone out there… I can’t imagine this, but just in case anyone out there doesn’t know who you are… Sharon Salzberg is the author of many books, including the most recent Real Happiness; The Power of Meditation, a 28-day program, which is a New York Times best seller. Congratulation on that!
Sharon Salzberg: It’s actually not my most recent book.
DONNA: Well, I think I have these on my book shelf… The Force of Kindness… Would you like to share your two most recent, which I don’t have?
SHARON: After Real Happiness came Happiness at Work. And then Real Love. That was my most recent book. Although, I am working on one right now, so…
DONNA: You never stop! And you are also the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. You are joining us from the East Coast this morning. So again, thank you for your time. And in light of our tradition… because this is Awaken.com, I’d like to dive right in and start with the question, what is awakening to you?
SHARON: Awakening to me, has two faces you could say. One is an absence of greed, hatred and delusion and one is mind. It’s a mind that experiences, as a general rule, more in the light of loving kindness… compassion.. the joy and happiness of others. So, the things that usually drag us down and confuse us and have us suffer are not so present in an awakened mind. I think a lot about seeing things as they are. You know, we can be so lost in projection, fear and all kinds of habitual add-ons. We wake up when we come back in touch with what is actually happening.
DONNA: You know, this has been a point of fascination for me for so many years. This idea of being present with what is… and it seems like conflicting paths want to give you ways to rise above that. What if what is going on is not particularly pleasant? I remember at one of the retreats I did years ago… it was a Zen Retreat and someone said it in a very blunt and funny way. What’s the big deal about now? What if now sucks? So, what if now does suck?
SHARON: Well, now often does suck actually! This is the way I see it and I understand your dilemma. It’s a very subtle thing and it’s not easy to come to grips with. So, the way I see it… certainly in terms of mindfulness as a tool for meditation… The point isn’t what is happening, but how we are with what is happening. So, people often feel despair and they tell me all the time. They will hear I am a meditation teacher and they will tell me, “I tried that once and I failed at it.” And I’ll say, “what makes you think you failed at it?”
And they will say, “I couldn’t make my mind blank”… “I couldn’t think beautiful thoughts”… “I couldn’t keep anxiety from arising.” From my point of view, it is impossible to fail at it because we are not so concerned with what’s going on. The training is actually being different in relationship to what is going on. Maybe you have a beautiful, wondrous feeling arising within you and you feel you don’t deserve it, so you put it down. Or you have pain, emotional pain, physical pain. And right away, we start to project it into the future. What is it going to feel like tomorrow? What’s it going to feel like next week?
So, we are not only with the difficult experience, we’ve now added a future to it. So, there are lots of ways that our relationship to what is isn’t helpful to us. It’s very conditioned. It’s very habit driven. And it denies the pleasure. It exacerbates the pain. So, our task in mindfulness is to develop more balanced, open, interested and kind relationships to whatever is arising. That’s not happening. We are exhausted. It feels like it’s too much or it is too much. So, there are a lot of practices we do to renew balance. They are good practices. I don’t see them as secondary, in any way. But our goal is not to make the pain go away. Our goal is to change the relationship to the pain.
DONNA: And not add to it…
SHARON: And not add to it. So, love and kindness would be an example of one of those practices. I don’t see it so much as trying to “rise above.” I call it a “stretch.” That would be a gratitude practice. Some of us say that is one of the most healing things we can do, is keep a gratitude journal. Write down three things a day that you are grateful for.
DONNA: Do you agree… that is one of the best things we can immediately do to lift ourselves up?
SHARON: Yeah. I don’t see it as “lifting ourselves up.” I see it as “stretching.” I say that because for me, that doesn’t come naturally.
DONNA: So, is that why you use the word “stretch?” Because it doesn’t come naturally?
SHARON: That’s right. It takes intentionality. Not force or coercion. I say that because in truth… if I come to the end of the day, I’m just more likely to think about what I can complain about. I really didn’t show up in the way I wanted… And that person disappointed me. There is always an airline, there is always a phone service. That is where my mind will go. It takes a stretch. All that might be true, but what else happened today? So, it’s moving out of my accustomed rut. That’s another true place that usually gets no air time. So, there are many practices like that… that open our view and remind us that it’s just not that one way. I’m bigger than that. Life is bigger than that. It takes a lot of audacity to do because we are not used to going to those places. You don’t have to feel phony or that it’s being forced on you. It’s like an experiment.
DONNA: Yes, in the Yoga tradition, it says that we have a “negative mind” and it’s our strongest mind… and it’s our “go-to” mind. We want to notice what is wrong as a way of protecting ourselves against potential danger. And it’s a daily practice to bring ourselves out of that habit.
SHARON: To recondition ourselves, yeah.
DONNA: Do you think with regular practice it is possible to recondition that tendency of the regular mind? Have you seen it in your practice? And would you be able to share any stories of a turn around? Or maybe, in your own life?
SHARON: Yeah. I do see it as possible to recondition. The caution I feel, that the old habits may still arise… but they were intense and strong. And we have a different relationship with them. Sometimes they are even amusing, rather than so scary. For instance, one of the suggestions we make to people, if you have a really persistent inner critic… just tearing yourself apart… and it’s a familiar voice over time. Give it a name. A wardrobe. Give it a persona. Because the whole question is going to be, how do you relate to it? So, the story I usually tell is that a friend of ours rented a house once for several of us to move in and do a retreat.
And when I went to the bedroom that was set aside for me, I saw that someone left a cartoon from the Peanuts comic strip. And in the first frame, Suzie is talking to Charlie Brown and she said, “you know what your problem is? That you are you.” And then Charlie says, “what can I do about that?” And then Lucy says, “I don’t pretend to be able to give advice. I merely point out the problem.” And somehow, whenever I walked by that desk, I would see that cartoon “The problem with you is that you are you.” Because that Lucy voice had been so dominating in my early life. I also saw that through the meditation practice, I had tools of relating to Lucy differently. So, something happened very soon, after I saw the cartoon. Something wonderful happened for me. And my very first thought was, it’s never going to happen again.
DONNA: It’s that negative self-thought…
SHARON: So, my first thought was Hi Lucy. And, chill out, Lucy. One option for most of us… because of conditioning… is just to fall into it. The other option is to despair… be so upset… so afraid. I’ve been a therapist for years… I have been meditating… why is this still here? It slices right down the middle, so you are neither consumed by a thought or emotion and you are also not fighting it and shaming it… You just say “Hi, Lucy.”
DONNA: Make fun with it a little bit…
SHARON: That was many years ago. I couldn’t swear Lucy is gone. Sometimes she drops by. It’s so different now.
DONNA: You’ve shifted the relationship with her. And so, is that what awakening is? Would you say that there are degrees of this? Or, that it’s an on-going process? And I guess piggy backing on that is… Is there such a thing as a “grand enlightenment?”
SHARON: I think it’s a process and I think that there is maybe such thing as a grand enlightenment. I can’t speak from experience, but I suspect for those people that seem more completely free of hatred and delusion that it has been a process. It didn’t happen overnight.
DONNA: Now, you mentioned “greed,” “anger” and “delusion,” and from my experience with Buddhist teachings, they remain familiar to me. Could you describe those? Especially, “delusion?”I don’t want to assume that it’s clear because delusion in the sense that you are using it, is quite a specific usage. Do you mind explaining that? To be free from these things…
SHARON: I mean, yes, it is a specific usage. One way of seeing it is… these are the ways we can relate to experiences that are distorted because they are themselves distorted. They bring about misunderstanding. Like, if I can only hold on tight enough, this won’t change. I’ll be in control. This person won’t change. The situation won’t change. This experience won’t change. I will be able to control it, which is the hope that we bear, and yet, is that true? It’s never true! So, we hold on again and again and again. Just out of habit.
One way of seeing it is that we tend to feel different things. The hearing of a sound. The seeing of an image. An emotion within sensation, within our bodies. We tend to feel them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. And one of the big problems for us when we experience something that is pleasant, is clinging or holding on… grasping. One of the big problems we have when we perceive something as painful, is shame and fear and rejection. Trying to declare something untrue. So that doesn’t really work either. All that pushing doesn’t seem to have a good effect. And when an experience is felt as neutral, neither pleasant or painful, then we tend to go to sleep. We tend to fog out. We tend to space out. We get numb. So, in this particular context, that is what delusion means. It’s kind of the numb sensibility. It’s that numb sense of things. We’re just coasting. We’re dreaming. We aren’t really connected. That’s delusion.
DONNA: And the other two, greed and anger? I guess those are self-explanatory. So, the idea is to break free from those and I’ve heard you mention this morning and also in other talks that you have given, this form of practice that you call “love and kindness.” I’d like to dive into that a little bit because you said something that piqued my interest. And correct me if I’m not describing it correctly… I understand it to be a meditative path that uses certain phrases, such as, “may I be free from danger…” Or, “may I have mental happiness…” Or, “may I have ease of wellbeing…”
So, the idea as you have expressed it, is to just focus on these phrases, without the overlay on top? And I loved that word “overlay.” Could you explain what this practice is all about? And what do you mean by using these phrases “without the overlay?”
SHARON: I don’t know out of context which overlay I was talking about, but there are many. That is a really good description of loving kindness practice. They are phrases that we use, both as an expression of the generosity of the spirit, and as a way of paying attention differently. If you are in a habit at the end of the day, looking back on yourself, and you access yourself, I’d say you only remember the mistakes you made and the things you didn’t do so great. All the ways that you could improve. It’s almost like asking yourself “did anything else happen today?” Let’s switch channels for a moment, and wish ourselves well. So, the “May I”… “May you”… as a grammatical construct can be confusing. Because it sounds like pleading or something. “May I be happy?” People say to me all the time, “Who are we asking?” I say, we are not asking anybody, we are giving! It’s like, you hand someone a birthday card and you say, “may you have a happy birthday!” “Have a great year!” It’s an offering. It’s a generosity of the spirit. There may not be a material exchange at all, but there is… maybe you take the time to thank the bus driver. Pay attention to someone you don’t really know. Let’s try to have a conversation with you.
DONNA: It’s like a blessing. That’s lovely! If I say, “may I have ease of wellbeing,” I’m blessing myself. Letting myself off the hook, so to speak. It sounds like a prayer, also. But in a way that is not like asking for something… in way that is connecting with something… I don’t want to say “above” because you have corrected me on that before, but in a way that allows us to stretch, or come into a more balanced perspective with what is going on.
SHARON: That’s right.
Read and watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Sharon Salzberg Pt2 – Doing From A Place Of Perspective And Understanding
Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Sharon Salzberg Pt 3 – Balance As A Guiding Light