Beloved meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg shares her thoughts on gratitude, pandemic resolutions, and the power of words.
Sharon Salzberg is a meditation pioneer, world-renowned teacher, and New York Times bestselling author. She is one of the first to bring mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation to mainstream American culture over 45 years ago, inspiring generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers.
Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of twelve books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition, and her seminal work, Lovingkindness. Her newest title, Real Life: The Journey from Isolation to Openness and Freedom, was released April 2023 from Flatiron Books. Her podcast, The Metta Hour, has amassed six million downloads and features interviews with thought leaders from the mindfulness movement and beyond.
We chatted with Sharon about Real Life, reviewed in the March/April 2023 issue of Spirituality+Health.
S+H: Your authorial tone in Real Life is so generous—you welcome and weave in so many voices from fellow teachers, writers, and everyday people. Has inclusivity always been important to your teaching and writing? How did you develop this nature?
Salzberg: Thank you so much for saying that. That’s very kind of you.
I think the people I tried to include are the people I have learned from, and I enjoy the way they express their deepest values, or their commitment to change in themselves and change in the world. In a way, I wanted this book to be a representation of my actual day, you know? I would be reading some of these people and talking to them, or interviewing them for my podcast, or just reflecting on things I know they’ve said and what they mean to me. I think we’re all enriched by greater inclusivity and hearing a variety of voices, and being open to surprise.
I don’t know if I developed a nature of honoring inclusivity, but I think it has a lot to offer for all of us. I love it; it’s almost like gathering all of my friends together. Even if I’ve never met them, they’re all like my friends. It’s gathering my friends together and saying to the world, Here we are! We’re having a party, come join us!
Tell us a little about your writing process. How do you know when you have another book—a full-throttle, theme-driven, organized thing—in the works?
No one has ever really applied the word “organized” to my writing process, so I think that’s a little different! I would say that since we all have strengths and weaknesses, structure (which is organization) has really been my weakness.
I think in the beginning of my writing life, the single most common editorial comment I would get was, “How did you get from here to there?” I’d say, “I don’t know, I just went!” In the professional process of creating a proposal, you need to have an outline and table of contents and so on. So, I do it, but I have the kindest of editors and publishers who say, “Well, we understand this isn’t a rigid thing, we know things will evolve and change.” And they do!
I need to feel inspired by a topic. I need to feel I’ll learn a lot. When I was working on Faith, which was 20-some years ago, I was being coached at one point by Susan Griffin, who is a phenomenal writer. She said two things to me that were very important; she said, “You’ve got to stop thinking of yourself as the person who’s writing this book, and think of yourself as the first person who gets to read this book.”
Then she said, “People might think you write a book on a topic like this on faith because you’re an expert and you want to impart your expertise. But, more likely, you write a book on a topic like this because you want to learn about it, and the writing is part of the learning process.” So I think that’s what really calls me with different topics.
I also don’t know that I have a “full-throttle” approach. Someone once said to me, in an effort to reassure me because I wasn’t actually writing, they said, “Well, you’re spending time in the neighborhood of the topic.” And that’s true! I find things that come to me, such as a poem, or I see a movie, and it’s like, “Oh look at that! It’s got the same theme!” Or I have a life experience of some kind, or I just sit and reflect, I contemplate the theme and I see what associations arise. I spend a lot of time just in the neighborhood of a topic.
And sometimes there are big surprises; the book will take a different direction. Or I’m working with a freelance editor who will suggest something. I think Faith was a really good example of that. I was working with a freelance editor and we were just in conversation a lot about faith, which, in the Buddhist tradition, is not like a commodity that you either have or you don’t have. It’s a process of unfolding, and it involves a lot of self-respect, like being able to ask questions and so on.
I was saying to her that within that context and that tradition, doubt is not really the enemy of faith, because the right kind of doubt, an insistence on asking questions and so on, really enhances faith. So she said to me, “Well, what’s the opposite of faith then?” Just spontaneously I said, “Despair,” and so she said, “Then you’re going to need a chapter on despair!” I said, “I think not! I’d rather not! Let’s not go there!” But of course she was right, and I do have a chapter on despair in that book. And I think it’s that way for each of the books.
I sometimes meet with groups of people—in person or online—and just say, “Tell me a story about love, tell me a story about when you felt most authentic in your life, tell me when you felt least authentic in your life.” We just speak. One of the great stories that came out of doing that for Real Love (another previous book)—somebody raised his hand in a meeting in New York and said, “Most people would think that a really good relationship is 50/50; my dog and I, we’re 100/100!” That’s in the book! So you know, it too is a process of gathering different resources from other people.
The word “real” is often used to juxtapose in-person interactions with our virtual ones. Would your lessons and offerings in Real Life have been different 15 or 20 years ago, before the era of social media and Zoom offices?
I don’t know that the lessons would be any different. I think that the implications in our contemporary time are taken a little differently because the assumption is that I’m talking about person-to-person contact rather than virtual relationships. But I’m really not. I’m talking about that sense of wholeness or authenticity that we might have, or not have, whether we’re online or in person.
There’s a famous quote from James Joyce where he said, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” And many people would say they live a short distance from their bodies, from their emotions, from their feelings, from their heart. Whatever it might be. So, traversing that distance is kind of the point. So we feel much more deeply connected to ourselves and to the world around us.
Whether the advent of social media makes that more difficult, I know many people and a lot of research says yes, but I tend to think of social media more as a means. I know plenty of lonely people who can’t get out, and if they go to social clubs of some kind or even a religious service to meet other people, it’s going to be online; that’s just how it is.
Look at how we’ve been in these last several years—we’ve spent an enormous amount of time online. At times, I’ve felt like reaching through those chats. In one I was on, someone wrote, “I’m a resident in a nursing home and I haven’t had a visitor in a year.” And I just felt for him so strongly, and I was just so grateful something existed, for at least some people—not for everybody, because not everybody has Wi-Fi for one thing—but, for many people, it was a lifeline and remains that way. Because not everybody is yet resuming the life they once had.
I kind of like it, but I can see how dangerous and manipulative it is. I marvel at the ads and emails I get—I wrote a book on love and I’m of a certain age now, so all of a sudden I’m getting emails from “Silver Singles,” people who are thinking I’m trying to date in my advanced years, you know? I’m really, actually not! You know, they just put pieces of my life together and they came up with that. Wow!
You also write about how language can foster attachment to illness and pain and affect how the body experiences the stress and “constriction” of illness. As the pandemic shifts and so many people have suffered from illness and loss, it seems that the world population may be living in a state of constriction. How is this collective constriction affecting our daily lives?
People have gone through a lot. It’s been this really extraordinary time, and I feel also very grateful that I’ve had some tools, you know? I’ve long said, people would ask me questions like, “How could mindfulness be of use in a time of complete crisis?” I’d say, “I wouldn’t wait! It’s those ordinary day after day after day applications. It’s like strength training, so when the bottom does fall out, you just have more of a sense of resource. You don’t feel so completely depleted and overwhelmed.” But many people do wait, and nonetheless, these tools can be very helpful.
The part about illness and pain came about just through my personal reflection, realizing how different it is to describe oneself in terms of one’s ailment rather than a human being who happens to have that ailment. The difference between “I am an epileptic” and “I have epilepsy” is vast! I say in the book, I joked about how when I was younger and when TV shows would make reference to somebody in a hospital setting: “It’s the gallbladder in bed three.” But we are more than that!
It holds true for terrible circumstances even. One of the people that I feature in the book is Zainab Salbi, who is the founder of Women for Women International. Years ago we were both in the same speaking event at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, and she said something that really touched me. In her talk, she said something about how she worked with women in warzones to match them up with sponsors in the US who would write them letters and send some money. And she said she found herself back in the US talking about one woman who was in Afghanistan who was suffering the terrors of war and was very vulnerable in lots of ways. Zainab would always talk about the woman’s terrible treatment at the hands of the Taliban.
But Zainab said one day she stopped and realized that she’d never actually mentioned that the woman in Afghanistan was a lawyer; the woman was educated, the woman had skills, and the woman had resources of different kinds. She had people who loved her. And Zainab said, “I’d just kind of defined her as her awful circumstance. I realized, that’s not compassion. Actually, I needed to see her more as the whole person, who also was suffering in this terrible way.”
So I think every time we have that kind of identification, we become smaller, or our view of someone else becomes smaller. It’s also a little bit of a wake-up call. Like, Oh, what’s the bigger picture, within which we need to acknowledge and try to help or see what we can do about some situation? Whether it’s our body or someone else’s poverty or war. But, within that bigger context. Because that’s the truth actually. And so, it’s not easy right now in terms of, say, the pandemic and this shift, to move to a bigger picture again. But I think that’s important.
You write about your wish list of things to accomplish during those early months of pandemic isolation. You wanted to learn Spanish, but, ultimately, you resolved to be kinder: rereading emails before sending, thanking people. What is one thing you hope your readers can continue to remember and practice today that felt so relevant during those early months of the pandemic?
It’s funny, because I did have certain resolves at the beginning, and, of course, no one knew quite how long this was going to last! I came up to Barre, Massachusetts, from New York City in early March 2020, thinking, I’ll go up for a couple of weeks and ride this out. I came up with my snow boots, which I still had in the summer. It was really odd.
I thought, I’m going to learn Spanish. I didn’t learn a word of Spanish. I saw something on TV where a woman was saying, “I always thought that if I only had the time I could really clean my house. Turns out time wasn’t the problem.” I thought I would really clean my house—which I didn’t do, either!
But I did resolve successfully to try to be kinder and to bring that forth in different ways. Different people will decide what is the most important thing for them. But I think something like that resolve to be kinder—resolve to bring more love into this world—is a very good thing. Because it doesn’t have to be flamboyant, and it doesn’t have to be grandiose. It could be as simple as thanking somebody or listening to them when you don’t really have a compelling need to, you know? You can actually stop being distracted, thinking about your email, and you really arrive, and you listen to somebody, and you give them that gift. Or you’re dealing with a customer, or somebody like that on the phone, or whatever is happening, it’s possible to bring that kind of resolve to life.
Gratitude is another attribute that many people tried to practice during that time when so much that we were accustomed to was taken away. You know, What do I have to be grateful for? Not to deny the difficulty, which is how people often misconstrue gratitude, but because it gives us energy and it gives us a sense of some buoyancy and some inner resource, so we’re not meeting difficulty feeling already exhausted, feeling like we have nothing going and no capacity inside to treat things differently.
Whatever that value is for you that can be expressed in ordinary life, day-to-day life, ordinary interactions—that’s the one I think that you should really cherish.
Read our review of Real Life here.