Transcripts > The Tim Ferriss Show > Sharon Salzberg, World-Renowned Meditation Teacher
Hello, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show where it is my job to interview people from many diverse fields, different arenas of competition or lack thereof, to dissect what makes them the best at what they do. The habits, routines, philosophies, beliefs, et cetera that you can apply in your own life.
This episode we have Sharon Salzberg, S-AL-Z-B-E-R-G. You can find her on Twitter. I believe it’s just @sharonsalzberg. Sharon is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renown teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role from the very beginning, in some respects, in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West, and very much into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and the author of several books, including the New York Times bestseller Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness, which we’ll get into, and Real Happiness at Work.
Very well known for her down-to-earth style and you’ll get a firsthand view of that when you listen to this. She offers a secular and modern approach to Buddhist teachings, making them more accessible than, I think, some of the esoteric varieties would be to type A personalities, like you, friend, listening to this podcast, probably. She’s a columnist for On Being, a contributor to the Huffington Post and the host of her own podcast, The Metta Hour, M-E-T-T-A, and we will get into what that means. Her newest book is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.
I’ve wanted to speak with Sharon for a long time. I’ve read her work. I’ve heard her audio, and it’s very meaningfully impacted how I operate in the world. How I perceive myself and others, and ultimately that has made me both more effective and given me a greater sense of wellbeing. So I hope that you pull some of that from this conversation. We bounce all over the place. I ask some very personal self-interested questions, which I think make the answers practical also. And there you have it. I hope you enjoy, as much as I did, this wide-ranging conversation with Sharon Salzberg.
Sharon, welcome to the show.
I have been looking forward to this conversation for some time, and I’m glad we could finally make it happen, the construction around your apartment in New York notwithstanding. I know that you have to be out at a set time, so I’d like to just jump right into it and begin at the beginning, in a sense, with a question related to your youth, and if you’re comfortable sharing the story, could you tell us about your experience that you had, I think it was at nine years old, when you were dressed in your Halloween costume and watching Nat King Cole.
Yes. My mother died when I was nine, and it was that night when I was nine that my mother started hemorrhaging. I was alone in the house with her, and I ended up getting an ambulance and she went to the hospital, and she died about two weeks later. It was much later when I was writing a book called Faith, which is like my faith journey, that I looked back over my life from the time I was born till the time I went to college at 16, and I realized that I had lived in five different family configurations along that time. And each one of them had been altered by trauma or death or some kind of really terrible circumstance.
What was your relationship like with your father when you were younger?
Well, my parents had divorced when I was four, and my father, as far as I can recall, was really like my hero. He was the love in my life, and then he was just gone. He’d completely disappeared and there was no contact whatsoever from the time I lived with my mother after they split up, and her siblings, from the time I was four until the time I was nine.
At that point, after she died, I ended up living with my father’s parents whom I hardly knew. And that was the first time that contact was reestablished between us, and he didn’t reappear in my life … my actual physical presence … until I was 11. And by that time, it was clear he’d suffered really severe mental illness. He was drinking. He was gambling and he was really lost. He came back when my grandfather died when I was 11, and was in the house for, it was about six weeks, when he took an overdose of sleeping pills and then entered the mental health system where he stayed for the next significant number of years before he died.
It was part of that was my recollection, because I was sort of part of a family system where this was never ever really talked about. And so I had, as one could imagine, all these feelings inside, and I didn’t know what to do with them, and people would always tell me, “Oh, your father accidentally took an extra pill. He just didn’t remember that he’d taken sleeping pills already,” and it was only when I was in college years later that I thought, wait a minute. That’s a lot to have happen so that you then end up in a mental health facility for the rest of your life.
It took a lot to figure out. Oh, people, of course, were trying to protect me. They were trying to keep me happy, keep me going, but it was on the basis of denying what I actually was feeling, and so it was very destructive.
When did you have your first encounter with Buddhism or mindfulness? How did that enter your life?
I went to college when I was 16. When I was a sophomore, I took an Asian philosophy course, and honestly looking back, as far as I can tell, it was like happenstance. It was on Tuesday. It fit in with my schedule. I had a philosophy requirement. Let me do that one.
Right, right, right. Didn’t start too early.
No, no. Exactly. Couldn’t do that. I took this class, and it was really in that class that I encountered Buddhism for the first time, really. It was the ’60s. It was all kind of around in away, but it was the first time I really heard what the Buddha taught. And the first part that was incredibly important, given everything I’d been through, was just the teaching about suffering. That suffering is a part of life. That it’s not just me.
It’s not something to be ashamed and feel I’m aberrant and different which, of course, was what I primarily felt my entire life, is that I’m different. People have two parents. People have sane parents. All the things are going on for other people, but not me. But all of a sudden, it was like I was part of the human family. Life is not always pleasant. It doesn’t always go our way. It’s not that it’s grim or horrible, but it contains suffering for everybody, and that was like a huge liberation.
And then I heard in that class that there was actually something you could do about the suffering in your life. Not the suffering of circumstance, but all the ways we hold it. The ways we … we can have pain and we can hold it in isolation or we can hold it as feeling part of the human family, or we can have rage or we can have compassion. There’s so many options.
And I heard there was this stuff you could do. There were actual methods or techniques called meditation, and if you did them, you could be happier. I was going to school in Buffalo, New York. I looked around Buffalo. Didn’t see it anywhere. It’s probably everywhere now, but didn’t see it.
There was an independent study program at the school and I created a project. I said I want to go to India and study meditation. And they said okay, so off I went.
Had you traveled outside of the country prior to going to India?
No, I had not. I was just teaching a class here earlier today and I said I’d never even been to California before I went to India. I grew up in New York City. I went to school in Buffalo. There had been one family trip to Florida in my youth. That was it. And then I was on a plane.
I had read that a few days before leaving to India, you went to a talk by a famed Tibetan Master.
I’d love for you to tell us a bit about that, a) because I have no idea how to pronounce his name properly, and b) what you took away from it.
His name is Chogyam Trungpa. It was his first trip to the United States. I don’t know who did his tour. He ended up in Buffalo, New York. He later became the founder of Naropa Institute and Shambhala Publications, all kinds of things. But this was his first trip, and he was giving a lecture, not at my university, but at a nearby college. This is maybe three or four days before my friends and I were going to leave for India and we didn’t know where we were going to go. I just know I wanted to study meditation.
We went to his talk and they asked for written questions. I wrote out the question, where should I go? I’m leaving in a few days for India. I want to study Buddhist meditation. Where should I go? And he had this big pile of questions in front of him, and he pulled it out, and he read it out loud and then he was silent for a moment, and then he said, “I think you had perhaps best follow the pretense of accident.” “I think you had perhaps best follow the pretense of accident.” And that was it. It was like no addresses, no handy monastery guidebook. Nothing. Just follow the pretense of accident. That’s exactly how it happened.
So pretense of accident meaning no set plan, allow things to unfold as they unfold? Is that what that means?
It means that … I think what it meant for me was stay close to your intention. My intention was so strong and my yearning was so strong that it really saved me in a way, staying close to that. Because there were naturally some disappointments along the way. Ways that I couldn’t imagine how things were gonna turn out. I started out in Dharamshala, in India, because I knew the Dalai Lama lived there. I’d heard he was a Buddhist. And there were amazing teachers and opportunities there, but it was one of those situations where it didn’t quite work. Like I’d go to a meditation class and … Because remember, I was really into the practical how to. What’s the stuff that’s gonna help make me happy? And I’d go to this mediation class and they’d say “Well, the teacher had to go to the dentist at the other end of India. Come back in two weeks.” “The translator’s out of town. Try again later.” It just wasn’t happening.
And I went to a Tibetan restaurant one day and I overheard a conversation where these two women were saying there was gonna be an international yoga conference in New Delhi. And I thought “Oh great, I’ll go there. That’s where I’ll find my teacher.” I went there and it was a really dispiriting time where the low point was probably when these yogis and swamis were up on the stage pushing and shoving against each other to be the first to grab the mic and speak. And I thought “Oh man, I should’ve stayed in Buffalo. This is terrible.”
And actually, Dan Goleman, who is now very well known for his book Emotional Intelligence and his work, but in those days, he was a graduate student in psychology at Harvard and he was studying mediation. And for some reason, he was delivering a paper at this conference. So I went to his lecture. He said at the end the lecture that was on his way to this town called Bodhgaya in northern India. He was gonna do an intensive 10 day meditation retreat, which was like an immersion course, free of cultural baggage and really the direct stuff. And I thought “That’s it.” And it was it. So I followed him to Bodhgaya.
And the pretense of accident. What happened in Bodhgaya, if I’m saying that correctly. I probably am not.
Yeah, you are.
Alright, great. I’ll take it.
No, you are.
What happened there?
Well, there was a teacher named Assanguwanku who had just left Burma. He was teaching intensive 10 day meditation retreats where you were basically meditating under his guidance, all day. He’d give one lecture at night. We had certain silent days and silent times. And he would just keep modulating the instruction until we’d come to the end. So we did meditation for some feeling the breath and just basic concentration. And then kind of scanning your intention through your body. Feeling these different sensations. And then the very last thing that he taught was a loving kindness meditation, which many years later, became sort of my main meditation, my personal meditation, and also in terms of my teaching and writing.
So that was the 10 days. It was really like an immersion. And it was a tremendous time of discovery. Not only did we forge lifelong friendships, because here it is all these years later. That was January of 1971 that I took my first retreat. And I just saw Dan Goleman last night for example. And we are tremendous friends, this whole group of people. And it really was about learning. It was about discovering. The lab, the vehicle was ourselves.
So the timing of our conversation is very opportune, because I’m actually in about six days time, doing my very first 10 day silent retreat.
You are, eh? You are, eh?
I am. At Spirit Rock. And I’ve never-
I’ve never had this experience. I am apprehensive. Excited, but apprehensive about it. Jack Kornfield will be there, so I’m very interested to engage with him before I have to stop talking. What advice would you give to someone going into that type of experience for the first time?
I think that’s great and congratulations.
I would love to hear from you when you come out actually.
We’ll have a follow up.
I’d really love that. Sincerely. There are a few things. The thing is most people feel trepidation about seems to be is the silence. And people show up and they say “I don’t think I can be silent.” Or “My partner doesn’t think I can be silent.” Or one woman came and said “They’re doing a betting pool in my office. They don’t think I can be silent.” But of all the elements of the retreat, it’s almost always one of the things people point to is the most beautiful. Because it’s like for once in our lives, we can really fully be ourselves and we don’t have to present ourselves to others and think about their experience versus our experience. And am I witty enough. Am I strong enough, or anything. We can just be. And it’s a beautiful beautiful gift to give to oneself.
I’d also say the first few days of the retreat … Like the first day and a half, let’s say, are usually pretty rough. Even if you have tremendous experience in mediation and retreats. It’s just an adjustment period. It’s like I, 40 some years later, 45 years later, if I go into an intensive retreat, the beginning is usually … I say there are two voices that arise inside my head. One voice says “There’s nothing happening here. It must be time to go to sleep.” So even if I slept for 10 hours, it’s just like I conk out. And the other voice says “There’s nothing happening here. Let’s make something happen.” The next book. The next center. Whatever. All these fantasies start pouring in.
So it’s like a careening almost from sleepiness to restlessness, from sleepiness to restlessness. That will definitely change and it will even out and you’ll have an experience of both energy and calm at the same time. But the most tricky thing is believing the thought that tends to arise that says “Oh no. Nine more days exactly like this.” Which we tend to believe. And if you can remember, don’t believe that thought. It’s gonna keep changing. Just keep going. It will change and you’ll feel much more completely there.
Thank you. I’m really excited about it and-
I’m excited too now.
Yeah, I’m really excited about it and I’d love to hear how you … Let’s just say you had a room of open minded, intelligent people who are al Type A. That’s basically most of the people listening to this.
Imagine you have these people and they are in the boat that I was in for a very long time. And I’m not gonna lie. Occasionally I end up back on that boat, which is meditation just doesn’t seem to work for me. I’ve tried A, B and C and it’s just not the tool to fix my particular set of problems. I can’t sit still. I can’t do fill in the blank. But, I would like to make an attempt because I recognize at least the benefits I’ve seen in other people and read about and so on. How do you get those people started? What do you say to them?
Well my first question is about what is that blank that we’re trying to fill in, because a lot of people have really intense expectations of what meditation is supposed to do and they’re often wrong. So a lot of people have said to me, for example “I tried that once. I failed that.” And they said “Well, I couldn’t stop thinking. I couldn’t make my mind blank. I couldn’t have only beautiful thoughts. I couldn’t keep the anxiety from coming up. I couldn’t keep sleepiness at bay.” And we say “Of course, you cannot fail at it. It’s impossible to fail at it. Because you cannot be having the wrong experience.
The question is not what is happening, but how are you relating to what’s happening?” That’s the whole terrain of the transformation, is how much presence, how much balance, how much kindness, how much compassion are you bringing forth in relationship to what’s coming up? And of course, there’s a kind of social pressure these days. Like if you ran into a friend, what you’d like to be able to say is “Well, you know, I had a little bit of restlessness in the beginning, but then it’s peace. This unfathomable peace just extended upon me and then it started shimmering at the edges and turned into bliss and there was bliss and peace.” That’s what we wanna say. We don’t wanna say “Well, my knee hurt. My back hurt. And I got restless and I got angry and I judged myself and then I fell asleep.”
But in truth, really in truth, not just consolation, but in truth, from the point of view of mindfulness, it doesn’t matter. The question is how were you with the sleepiness? How kind were you when you got angry? Kind towards yourself. How much could you include in that field of awareness? Those things are much more subtle and they’re not as satisfying. They’re certainly not as satisfying to talk about. But that’s the whole point. So I would really wanna know what someone’s expectations are. And then you can be reassured. You’re gonna sit with Jack, who’s been teaching for a very long time. There’s not like a cookie cutter description of what it’s supposed to look like. Maybe for you he’ll suggest more walking meditation than sitting meditation. Maybe he’ll suggest a more structured approach because that is proving useful for you. Or maybe a less structured approach. There’s so many possibilities.
When you are, say advising someone who is really making an effort to create meditation as a practice, much like they would brush their teeth or do something else, what are … I think what you already said is very helpful in the sense that it’s not the content of the experience, it’s how you relate to the various things that come up during your experience. I remember one thing that helped me as a typically very … well, I suppose I’d self describe as sort of driven type A personality … was the idea that this is something that someone said to me, I don’t recall who it was, but it’s not important, or you shouldn’t judge the session based on how many times you lose focus of X, whether that’s a mantra or your breath or whatever, because the practice itself is coming back to the focus. Thinking of it in terms of repetitions in that context really helped me to relate better to what I viewed as these horrible distractions, but not realizing that no, that’s the lowering of the weight, and then your job is to lift it back up.
That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Are there other mental frameworks or analogies that you’ve found very helpful, much like that, for people to keep in mind when they’re sitting down and their knee hurts and they’re having these… thinking of the last episode of Rick and Morty they watched, whatever. Are there other … Great show. Are there any other analogies or recommendations that allow people to be easier on themselves and make progress through relating to themselves in easier ways as opposed to straining?
Yeah, I mean that’s also a great question. There’s several levels to that in the immediate level, what you said is the most important thing. Sometimes we say the healing is in the return not in ever having wandered to begin with. The most important thing is that coming back. In some ways it’s the opportunity to come back that the distraction gives us. So you can come back, you need to let go and come back a billion times and it will be fine because that’s the actual training. One of my teachers– a Tibetan teacher– called it exercising the letting go muscle.
The secret ingredient in that is actually self-compassion, which means that you realize you blew it, your mind wandered, or in life maybe you realized you made a mistake or things didn’t really go the way that you wanted them to. Rather than spending the next year and a half castigating yourself about that, it’s realizing okay, a lesson’s learned, or maybe I need to make amends, or maybe there’s something I need to do to come back into balance. But, I need to do that with kindness towards myself. That makes the process go a whole lot quicker and it’s restorative rather than if you just blame yourself and you call yourself a failure and you get down on yourself and you judge yourself, it’ll last forever and you’re exhausted. It’s not really resilience. It’s not really the space with which we can start again. If you start finding yourself doing that in the process of meditating, that’s the signal to remember this happens, this is the process, this is actually the path. It’s not that I need remedial work or I’m the worst meditator that ever lived. This is what it looks like for everybody. Let me just start over and start over. It’s really very important.
When you’re thinking back on the many people you’ve taught and interacted with, readers who’ve given you feedback and so on, have you identified any type of, what I might call, minimum effective dose. What I mean by that is if you look at say, certain types of resistance training or physical training, you can research and experiment with the frequency, the duration, the intensity and figure out which parameters you respond best to. Same is true for different aspects of diet or drugs certainly. You do too much, there are unintended side-effects. You do too little, you don’t get the effect you were looking for.
I’ve noticed, from myself at least, that … this is just for me, but … that maybe 20 minutes a day first thing in the morning for five to 10 days straight is about the minimum dose that I need to click into feeling generally much more relaxed with meditation. Then after that point I can actually dial back the frequency if need be, but I need that first loading period. Have you observed any sort of generalizable minimum effective dose from people? Or is it like X, Y, and Z is too little, too infrequently. This is too much, you’re more likely to quit. But like this is the goldilocks in between that I’ve seen to really deliver the most benefits for the least inconvenience, for lack of a better term. How would you think about that?
Well it just so happens that last night I was with some friends that were giving a lecture. Dan Goldman, Richard Davidson, who’s a neuroscientist at University of Wisconsin - Madison and studying meditation. And Jon Kabat-Zinn who founded Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Ritchie, from the point of view of neuroscience said that nine minutes a day will actually change your brain. But you have to do it every day. I often think of retreats, like the intensive retreat, as a period of really deepening confidence and clarity about the practice so that you have better tools to actually practice every day.
Somebody also made a comment about how it may not be the healthiest thing in the world to think about the least possible amount I need to put into this thing to get some result. So I would pad it some, I wouldn’t just try to do nine minutes a day. Usually I say 20 minutes a day, more if you can, just because the first five minutes or so in a daily sitting tend to be the most distractive, like what’s that sound, think it’s my refrigerator, do they still have refrigerator repair people, I don’t know. Maybe I need a new refrigerator, do they still have refrigerator repair men any more? I don’t know. It’s almost like this discharge of tension for the little bit. Then, if you can hang in there, you get a chance to go deeper, having discharged all of that. It’s just more fruitful in a way, if you can do 20 minutes. But if you only have three, I’d say do three. Everybody says it’s the every day-ness of it which seems to be the most potent thing.
For a beginner, what would you recommend those 20 minutes look like? What would the protocol or the format of those 20 minutes look like?
Well there are kind of three main thrusts of the tradition, which were reflected in my first retreat. The first is concentration, where we try to settle our tension and have it be more stable, and get more centered. That usually means choosing an object … whether it’s the breath or a mantra or whatever it is, in our case, it’s usually the breath … settling your attention on that object and then simply returning every time you realize you’ve wandered. Over time, you get a sense of, first of all, a tremendous amount of energy returning to you because there’s an awful lot of energy that could be available to us, but isn’t because its scattered all over the place. We keep gathering it and returning it and do feel the empowerment of that. And also a kind of integration of our being. It’s like all that scatteredness is also a kind of fragmentation, and we kind of bring it all together.
Then there’s mindfulness, which actually is an extension of that where we not only pay attention to the single object like the breath, but we pay attention to our emotional worlds and what’s coming up predominantly in our bodies and what we’re feeling and all kinds of things. With that same kind of balance to awareness, which is why we say mindfulness is the basis for insight. We understand so much more about everything. One example is I often talk about sitting and looking at my own fear, trying to be as mindful as I can, which means not condemning it and also not diving into it and having it take over. I feel I’ve seen a lot, so as one example I felt that, unlike the kind of world’s maxim that we’re afraid of the unknown, I find that I’m really afraid when I think I do know and it’s going to be really bad. It’s all the stories I tell myself that really get me going. Even in the midst of that, if I remind myself, “You know what? You don’t know,” then I feel relief. I feel a sense of space.
We look at our desire and we say, “Look how much loneliness there is in there.” We look at our anger, say, “Look how much sadness there is in there. Wherever we look, we see in to change. Look at that, I thought it was so forever. I thought that was all that I ever felt, but, look at that, it’s always changing. So, all of that, just kind of naturally arises from paying attention.
Then, the third kind of thrust of the skills training in meditation is loving kindness or compassion. That was the last meditation that Assanguwanku introduced in the course. It was just an hour or so, but it so ignited me that it became something I got very devoted to. That’s threaded throughout both the self-compassion we have to feel for ourselves to be able to do the first two, concentration and mindfulness, well.
Then, there are distinct practices, which are just devoted to the deepening of loving kindness and compassion.
Now, is loving kindness, I’m not terribly familiar with loving kindness, but I recall, and please correct me if I’m misapplying the label, but I read some writing by a gentleman named Chade-Meng Tan who, out of Google, you may know, and a friend of mine. Meng introduced me to a very simple practice of thinking of two people. Initially, people you know well and care for, and just wishing them to be happy in the most-
In a sense, in the most abstract of ways, but it didn’t seem to matter that it was abstract, even though I love the concrete. I did this for a period of time, about a year ago, at night, just before winding down and going to bed. It had a tremendous impact on my happiness, if we want to call it that, or self-reported wellbeing, over the subsequent 10 days. I mean, I was in such a good mood and the only variable that I could identify that I’d changed was wishing two people happiness for, say, two or three minutes a piece, every night. Does that fall in the category of loving kindness practice?
Okay. All right. I was really, really, just impressed by how profound the impact was because I’m not gonna lie, I expected it to do very, very little, and … Why does it appear to have such an impact? I mean, I don’t feel like I’m a jerk. I mean, I do like to wish other people to be happy and I try very hard in my books and so on to facilitate that, but why does it seem to have such an impact?
Well, I think it’s because it trains our attention to be different. It’s like we’re paying attention differently. So, for example, if you were doing it in a formal sequence, and you may in the retreat, I’m not really sure. You start with offering loving kindness to yourself and then you move on to those people that you like, and you keep on moving through. Those you feel neutral toward, maybe, somebody who plays a role in your life that you see now and then. You move on to offering loving kindness to more difficult people for you and, then, finally, all beings everywhere, all of life.
I think the reason it works, and it does work, and I also know it’s easy to be cynical about it, it sounds so schmaltzy and so ridiculous. It does sound ridiculous, I know that. But it’s actually very powerful, so the question is do you want to make the experiment or not, or is it just so outputting that you’d rather not, which some people feel.
But it is, I think, all about paying attention differently. For example, in looking at yourself, if you’re the kind of person who, at the end of the day, is sort of evaluate yourself, like how did I do today? If you’re the kind of person who pretty well only remembers the things you did wrong and the mistakes you made and-
Check and check.
What you didn’t say so well. That’s right. The loving kindness is almost like asking yourself, anything else happen today? Any good within me? It’s not to be conflict avoidant and pretend we’re perfect or anything, but it’s that kind of singular, obsessive look at what’s wrong that we want to broaden. So we want a little airtime for the rest, so what do we pay attention to? Who do we pay attention to is a fascinating question. Who do we look right through? Who doesn’t count? Who doesn’t matter? Who’s like an object for us? This is one of the places where that neutral person is real interesting because they’re just the shopkeeper or just the dry cleaner or whatever they are. Very easy to objectify, very easy to look through. So what happens when we look at them instead of through them, which is, in effect, what we’re doing in the practice.
How do we pay attention? Are we really there ever? Are we talking to a stranger and thinking about our email and whatever else we need to do when we actually arrive. That is exactly the same movement we do in the concentration meditation. It’s like we realize we’re a million miles way, we come back. What’s it like then, when you’re really listening? That’s how the practice actually works.
The filter question, or the lens through which you look at your daily experience, the reframing of that by doing this exercise is a really important point. I want to underscore that for people listening. Just to draw an analogy, or at least a parallel, if you buy a new car, let’s just say you buy a white Volkswagen Golf. It will seem, the next day or the subsequent week, that there are white Volkswagen Golfs everywhere on the street, but it’s simply because you’ve attuned your attention to that particular object.
I owe one of my ex-girlfriends a debt of gratitude because, at one point, she noticed that I did have this habit of running my life along a certain philosophical line, which was the good things will take care of itself, just tell me what’s going wrong. I didn’t want the positive feedback, I wanted to know how I could improve and what I needed to improve. To remedy that, at one point, she created this jar. It was a big mason jar and she just wrote on the side, the jar of awesome. What she asked me to do was every night, just to write down one really good thing that happened, that made me happy or made me grateful that day, and put it in the jar.
It’s not that I was a total ingrate, it’s not like I was Ebeneezer Scrooge or anything, but I would put down the things that were good and I realized one of the critical mistakes that I made, and I’m getting a little off-track here. But I assumed that I would always remember the good things long term because I found it second nature to remember the bad things long term. It turned out that it was a completely false assumption. I would very quickly forget the good things that happened. So my girlfriend encouraged me to write down these events or encounters, whatever it might be, on a piece of paper and fill up the jar. Then, when I was having a down moment or being over-judgmental towards myself, to just reach into the jar, rifle, and to go through it and pick out one or two examples. It was really therapeutic for me. I still have it to this day.
The question of self compassion, or the topic of self compassion, is one I want to come back to. We were chatting before we started recording a little bit about the word love and how, perhaps, it’s been co-opted or used in ways that have made it challenging. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by that? We didn’t get into it before we started. Just for myself also, this is a word that is so often used, it seems to have almost lost a lot of meaning, so I’d be curious to know how you wield it and how you suggest people think about it.
Well, I think it has lost a lot of meaning because we use the word love from everything, from I love the color of that cabinet and I love frozen yogurt, to I love you. There are so many associations with love, it’s like … I mean, in one of the questions you posed before, if you are a person who is kind of a Type A person and you’re brought into a room and say, “We’re gonna do a meditation on love.” It tends to be a little nauseating for a lot of people because we often associate love with weakness, with giving in, kind of smiling with … it’s just this frivolous smile, it’s not connected, maybe to very deep feelings of pain or anger or edge or ferocity or intensity or the things that are really part of us.
The word in Poly, the language of the original Buddhist texts is metta, M-E-T-T-A, and it’s commonly translated as loving kindness, which I think has a flavor of the actual meaning, but it’s kind of a problematic term because nobody really uses it. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to go to a coffee shop somewhere and hear the conversation at the next table include the word loving kindness. It maybe is a little saccharine or removed from day to day life.
I’ve had scholars and translators come to me and say, “Just say love. Stop being so cutesy. You mean love.” But love is so complicated and can also be, frankly, a medium of exchange, like, “I would love you as long as the following 15 conditions are met,” or, “I would love myself as long as I never make a mistake.” It’s so fragile, it’s so breakable. It’s not really what metta means.
The literal translation, I also have a problem with. The literal translation is friendship. For me, friendship implies conviviality, like, “Let’s have dinner together,” or, “Let’s go to the movie together.” “I want to spend time with you.” Love, in that sense, it does not mean that at all, it actually doesn’t even imply a certain action. It’s an inner space of connection. We acknowledge our lives are connected, that everybody counts, everybody matters, doesn’t mean I like you, it doesn’t mean I want to spend any time with you, it doesn’t mean I’m going to cease fighting you and your agenda. But not from a place of hatred. It’s connection. That’s really what it’s about. And so those practices of, say, loving-kindness meditation, are about connecting more deeply to ourselves and connecting more deeply to others.
What if someone feels themselves steering towards anger in an exchange with someone, aside from the mindfulness training or practice they would do outside of that encounter, is there anything you recommend they do or self-talk they could use to diffuse that and steer it in a less antagonistic direction?
I mean, I think there are lots of levels to that. One, is getting really acquainted with what’s happening in your body, it’s like you feel the beginning of the anger, not like after you’ve sent the email or, you know, lashed out, but you can feel it really emerging. And then you have choice and we also practice in mindfulness being able to hang in there with the anger without having it take us over and also without being ashamed of it or afraid of it, without fighting it. But we have a more balanced relationship to do it in, we can hang in there. It’s almost like this storm moving though your body, and then you decide how you want to act, because often we do have to act and we should act, but maybe that very email is not going to get you what you want. Maybe it’s better to wait a moment and see what else emerges, something like that.
And there’s also … there’s kind of intentionalities. It’s like we can remember our deepest intention, like, “What do I want to have come out of this conversation? What would make me happiest? Do I want to be seen as right? Do I want to grind them into dust? Do I want to be helpful? Do I want a resolution?” And that will give us a lot of information about where we’re really coming from, and if it’s to have a resolution to find a way to work together, whatever it might be, or even never work together, then that might counsel being quieter and not being so forceful or finding another way of saying, “This is what I feel,” instead of, “This is the way the truth is.” Things like that. And if, in fact, you want to grind them into dust, that will be a different path.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, the ‘this is how I feel’ frame is one that I want to personally get better at using. I think it’s so easy, at least for me, to unfortunately convey messages in a way that seems very Spock-like. And if you were to take the same content and have someone transmit it with a smile and preface it with, “This may be just how I feel, but … “ I think that I could have avoided a lot of wasted time and energy and hurt feelings in other people. Even though it’s exactly the same content, in effect, the … so two quick notes. The first is, just since you mentioned email and creating unnecessary messes, I would suggest to anyone out there one thing I’ve learned, if you’re experimenting with any type of fasting, obviously with proper medical supervision, and so on, probably a good idea, if you’ve never done it before, to not let yourself send email on the second or third day.
I’ve created a lot of ugly disasters by manning the inbox during times like that. The second is something that I wanted to back into that’s related to what we’ve been talking about, and I thought was really profound and worth highlighting for people, and that is that oftentimes, this has certainly been true for me, that others, if you are working on, say, your meditation practice, it also applies to all sorts of things like medication, in some instances. This happened to a friend of mine when he started taking very low-dose lithium, for instance, others see the changes in us before we see the changes in ourselves.
And I’d love for you, if you could, talk about that a little bit and I can certainly give an example or two as well. But it strikes me that a lot of people give up because they feel like nothing has happened, when in fact a lot has happened, they just can’t yet perceive it themselves. So, if you could talk to that at all, I’d love to hear your additional thoughts, because I think it’s really, really important, since so many analytical, left-brain people think they’re really good at self-assessment and self-awareness, but it’s hugely, hugely overestimated, at least in this capacity.
I think that’s really true. I tell a story sometimes about a friend who came to me in New York City and took me out to lunch and he said, “This is like a confessional lunch.” And I said, “Oh, really?” He said he had been doing loving-kindness meditation, that was just his particular methodology, he said, “I’ve been doing loving-kindness meditation for about three years now and I want to say that my experience when I sit each day, or when I’m on retreat doing that practice, it’s not that different now than it was three years ago when I started out, but I’m like a totally different person. I’m different with myself, I’m different with my family, I’m different ethically, I’m different with my community.” And then he looked at me and he said, “Is that enough?” I said, “Yeah, I think it’s kind of enough,” you know, really.
So, that’s the first thing I say, is if you’re trying to assess your practice, and you should, you don’t want to do something forever, not knowing if its making a difference, but don’t look at that, say, twenty minute period a day when you’re formally practicing. Look at your life.
That’s where you’re going to see it.
Ultimately, I mean, you don’t see it right away, you’re totally right. Usually other people see it more in us, first, before we see it in ourselves. I have many people come to me and say, “You know, I was going to stop, I didn’t think anything was happening, but my kids came to me and said, ‘please don’t stop, you’re much better.’” So, the ultimate point is to look at our lives, maybe not right away others will tell us if we’re changing, but then when we are really seriously assessing, do look at your life, that’s where it matters. And I think it’s in our lives that we really do see the benefits if they’re there to be seen and that’s where they matter, so that’s where it should be.
The friend I mentioned had a very similar experience. He runs pretty hot, as I do, as a lot of people do. And his story was very similar, and I think applies equally to meditation, which he’s also since started. But he began taking this very low-dose, like five milligrams of lithium orotate, so caveat people, talk to your medical professionals, but generally you would expect, say, for … as a mono-therapy for bi-polar depression, you’d be looking at something like 1200 or 1500 milligrams of lithium carbonate, so this is five milligrams. And he started taking it, didn’t really notice anything. Took it for a few weeks.
And at one point, he was out with his wife and she was trying on some shoes and she came out, they kept walking, and he was telling her, “I’ve actually been taking lithium for the last week or two, I haven’t really noticed anything.” And she said, “Wait, what?” And rewound, and she said, “Do you realize that you just sat while I tried on shoes for 45 minutes and did not complain?” She goes, “Go buy all the lithium you can buy!” She goes, “You’ve been totally different,” with her and with the kids. What I’ve found is that it’s also really easy to perceive a lack of progress because you don’t see yourself doing new things in the rest of your life, where what you don’t notice are the things that you’re doing less of, if that makes sense.
Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
And what I have found, for myself at least, it’s very subtle until someone points it out in you, but if I think of, let’s just say, my proneness to anger, or impatience. Let’s just say there’s a buffer. So there’s a buffer between control and then externally throwing out anger or impatience. And there are certain things that decrease that buffer, that kind of … that safety zone. Like, for me, caffeine, for instance, sleep-deprivation. But when I meditate and do other practices, it increases the buffer, so it takes more and more and more to get me to that threshold after which I lash out or send the stupid brusque email or whatever it might be. I’d love to … you mentioned the conditional love, a while back, ‘if you satisfy these 15 requirements, then I will love you, if not, I will revoke my right to, or my ability to love you,’ whatever it might be. I’ve read a little bit, maybe you can elaborate on it or tell the story about the man and his dog. The Hundred, Hundred story.
Could you share that with the people listening, please, because I do like it. I only read a very abbreviated version.
That’s great. Well, I recently wrote a book called Real Love. The process of writing the book, really tried to crowd source in a way. I wanted to hear a lot of people’s stories and insights about love. Some that I tried to do online. A lot of it I did meeting with groups. The very first group I met with was in New York City. People were just talking about their experiences of love. So, the trajectory of the book, the structure of the book is that the first section is about love for oneself. The second section is about love for another, whether that’s a parent or a child or a lover, whatever. Then the third section is about love for all things. I just said, “Let it rip. I don’t care which section you’re talking about, but help me. Tell me what love means to you. Tell me some stories.” We got through a good part of the evening and this guy raised his hand. He said, “Most people think of a good relationship is 50/50. My dog and I, we’re 100/100.” It was perfect. I love that story.
Then I was unfortunately quite late with the book. It kept getting delayed because of me. Finally, it was little over a year ago and I was in England in a retreat. I was just about to press send. It was a day early from the final, final deadline. I felt really proud. “Oh, I’m a day early.” I was just about to press send when I remembered that story. I thought, “Did that make it in there? Did it stay in there through all these changes and editings and stuff like that.” So, I looked and I had not. So, I quickly typed it in and I pressed send. So, it was the last thing that got written.
Oh, you’re kidding. That’s awesome. Meeting deadlines always a good feeling. Doesn’t always happen with books. How do you think about success, if you use that word? Or how would you like people to redefine it?
I’ve kind of redefined it a lot in my own life in that I know now meditation, mindfulness is extremely popular. A lot of people talk about scaling. Let’s have a big impact on a lot of people. Even a small impact on a lot of people. But the lot of people part is what’s critical for a lot of folks. When I think about it, it’s not really so much that way for me because I feel really privileged. I feel incredibly luck in my life. The things I get to talk about, the things I get to explore with people and their willingness to be vulnerable and honest, and the methods were given to me. I’m able to pass on and that I find really viable and useful and lifesaving in many cases.
I ask myself, “Is it enough if one person or three people or have hundred people in front of me and only three people want to take it to some depth,” or whatever it is. Is that enough? I actually really kind of feel it’s enough because it’s so amazing when somebody says to you with that kind of sincerity, “Oh, your work is really made a difference,” or people recognize my voice now because of recordings. It’s really a beautiful thing. So, I like anybody have great conditioning toward numbers. It’s got to be this many people or it’s got to be this many people per recording or something like that. As I get older, which I have somehow, I think, “Who cares?” Really. Just think of that one person.
What are your biggest challenges right now? Are there any particular behaviors you’re trying to change, problems you’re trying to solve? If you’re comfortable discussing it because I think it’s very easy for people to assume that you’ve got everything figured out. That you wake up and it’s just one blissful, zen moment to the next of self compassion and love and kindness towards everyone in the world. But I would imagine there’s more to the picture. Are there any particular challenges or things you’re trying to change in your life right now?
Yeah. I guess in a minute, but first just this story occurred to me. That I was sitting in it was actually the San Francisco airport and my flight was delayed for six hours. Six and half actually. It was delayed for six and half hours.
Well, welcome to San Francisco.
Yeah. Thank you. For the first five and a half hours I was fine, then I just got so irritated. I was so impatient. I felt so miserable. Just then a woman came up to me and said, “Are you Sharon Salzberg?” I thought, “Great.” You know? I was having a temper tantrum on the floor. If only you had come three hours ago, I was fine. There’s just a lot of that.
Yeah, I mean I say yes to too many things. I’m tired. I’m a night owl anyway. If I’m asleep by one, that’s a good thing. If I’m asleep by three, that’s a bad thing. I just have this book come out and I was traveling like crazy. I’m like so happy I’m not getting on another airplane for a few weeks. There’s this great temptation in this moment and time because I remember coming back from India in 1974 as a meditation teacher because one of my own teachers had told me to teach. In those days, if I was at a party or some social situation, introduced as meditation teacher, people would kind of slide away. Like, “That’s weird,” or they’d say, “Did you meet The Beatles when you were over there?” I said, “No. Sadly, they went when I was in high school.” But now, it’s so tempting. There’s so many opportunities. I could go so many places and reach so many different kinds of people. I was like, “Wait a minute, take a break.”
How do you work through improving any of those things? How do you think about making progress with behavior change?
Well, I mean, by the time my thousandth friend has said to me, “You’re traveling too much.”
It sinks it.
I guess it’s obvious, or, “You look really tired.” I think, “Yeah. Maybe I should go to sleep a little earlier.”
What has worked well for you historically when you feel overwhelmed or are in a dark place? Are there any particular times that come to mind for you in the past where you could tell a story and then what helped you get out of it? Whether the funk is overwhelmed, depression, or some combination.
Yeah. I did write a book called Faith. Faith in the British tradition is not a commodity you have or you don’t have. If you don’t have enough or the right kind, you’re condemned. It’s more of a process. It’s a journey. Faith is almost defined as offering your heart, being able to be fully present with something, moving off of the sidelines into the center of possibility, that movement. It’s only aided and strengthened by questioning and doubt and wondering the right kind of doubt. Like, wanting to see the truth for yourself. I was working with this freelance editor friend on the book, and saying, “Well, you know, from the British point of view, doubt is not the right kind of doubt that insistence on questioning. It is not the opposite of faith.”
She said, “What’s the opposite of faith?”
I said, “Despair.”
Then she said, “Well, you’re going to have to tell a despair story in your book.”
I said, “I’d really rather not.”
I did. It’s a story. We started this conversation talking about my mother dying when I was nine. In the book Faith, I talk about this time in the ’90s. It’s 30 years later more. I was meditating. I was in Australia on an intensive retreat, a month long intensive retreat with my Burmese teacher. So, I had Assanguwanku who gone to Australia to teach. Out of no where, I was kind of back there. I was nine years old. Not knowing what to do. Not knowing how to get help. The terror and the anguish and the whole thing, it was just there. It was one of those moments where I thought, “I thought I worked through this.” You know? I thought this was done. Through the whole process a lot relying on him and his trust in me, the practice and just being in nature. Things like that.
I really saw that despair was like the severing of connection that faith was like connection like love, which I’m also defining as connections. I’m realizing I’m kind of back there again. So, I realized that everything I could do that would renew my sense of connection and kind of bring me to that sense of not being so alone, not being severed from life itself. There was, at the time, this passage from Rilke came up in my mind. Something like, “Do not be frightened if a sadness greater than you’ve ever known before comes up before you. Life has not forgotten you.”
I love that.
That really became my mantra. Life is not forgotten me. I’m still a part of life. Life is not forgotten me. Maybe that first class I did in Asian philosophy was the beginning of that. Everybody suffers. This is a part of life. Life is not forgotten you. You haven’t been abandoned. So, when I feel that, I don’t really feel it often but if I feel the intimations of that reemerging, it’s all about connection.
Well, I know we have some time constraints today, but I think that’s a actually very good place to just hit pause for a second. I didn’t do this up front but I was planning on it so here it is, I wanted to thank you personally for the work that you put out in the world because it’s had an impact on me. I’ve listened to your audio. I’ve read a lot of your writing. I want to, I suppose, reaffirm what you said earlier about success, and not necessarily reaching for scale from the outset. But focusing on one person at a time because your work has impacted me, which has helped me to also try to do better things in the world. So, from a very personal standpoint, I just wanted to thank you for doing what you do.
Ah, thank you. Really.
I continue to read your work. I would highly recommend people check out Real Love, and certainly for people listening, I’m going to link to that as well as anything that we’ve spoken about in this episode in the show notes at Tim.Blog/Podcast, as per usual. But I’m wondering if there’s any ask that you have or recommendation of the audience that you have before we draw to a close? Are there any parting comments or words that you would like to share? Could be anything really with the people that are listening.
Yeah. I do find this … Thank you. I do find this such a time of grief and the part of people, rage and so many people say to me, “I can’t bear who I’ve become. I’m continually in rage.” My hope is always love be a part of the conversation, and that we, in a way, I guess that’s why I’m glad the book came out when it came out because it’s so easy to think of love as being weak and saccharine and all that. It’s so easy to think the only strength we have is vengefulness and hatred. I hope we just keep looking at that all together, and understand that we can fight and struggle and we kind of have to because what a time. It can come from a different place. It’s kind of got to come from a different place. I know that quotation from Einstein is a little suspect because you can never really source it where he apparently said somewhere, “The problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” It sounds very Einstein like and I bet he did say it. It’s an amazing statement. I think about that really a lot. My deepest hope is that people do the good that’s in front of them even if it feels very small because the problems right now can seem insurmountable and massive. We just have to step by step do what we can.
Do the good that’s in front of you. That’s advice that everybody needs to hear. I think it’s so important, so thank you, A. And, B, what’s in front of you is concrete. I think this is also why a lot of people feel overwhelmed is that the big, the macro, the global economic political fill-in-the-blank tend to be very, very abstract. It’s difficult to kind of grapple with the shadow in that sense. Rather than focusing on the things you cannot control or the things you will not attempt to control, work with what’s in front of you. It’s those small acts done by one or several or many people that ultimately create the large scale change. So, do the good that’s in front of you. I appreciate that. People can certainly find you on social. If they want to say hello, do you have a preferred location on the internet for people to say hello?
Perfect. Well, Sharon, thank you so much. I hope we have a chance to meet in person or do a round two. I’ll definitely keep you posted on the goings on or not goings on during my first ten day.
Yeah. Oh, I’d love to hear it, really. I’d love to meet you sometime.
To be continued. Thank you very much for the time.
Oh, well, thank you.
Just to repeat for everybody listening, you can find links to everything we’ve discussed, including the books and so on at Tim.Blog/Podcast. Until next time, thank you.