Insights From One of America’s First Meditation Teachers – Sharon Salzberg – HPP 71
Trauma has impacted countless lives, especially with the pandemic going on in the world. There’s no telling how much it can damage an individual as time goes by. With this reality, there have been several treatments to counter the effects it brings in our lives. However, there’s no real guarantee that one treatment will be as effective for the next person. But what if there was one that is easy to integrate into a possible routine with real significant effects?
For decades, thought leaders and pioneers have purposely studied and dug deep into developing methods on how we can allow healing to occur for patients suffering mental illnesses. There certainly has been a growing interest in the recent decades for employing meditation as a method that has real potential for healing and wellness.
In today’s interesting episode, we are deeply honored to be joined by a world renowned teacher, author and a meditation pioneer and industry leader, Sharon Salzberg. Together, we dive deep into the benefits that meditation and its practice brings for our patients, and how it can impact our mental well-being.
Understanding The Ego – 02:37
“And so, the idea is not to kill anything or destroy it, but to undo our ignorance or delusion about things and see the self as they believe it really is, which is interdependent, rather than independent, not in nearly controlled”
The Self: A Buddhist Perspective – 06:45
“When things arise, they arise because a combination of conditions has come together. It’s like if we want lunch, you don’t just say poof! There’s lunch, which will be nice—But it’s not like that. Life isn’t like that. All these conditions need to come together for something to arise”
Learning Meditation – 11:39
“So I say, of course, there’s still a certain number of people who just want to seek some greater peace of mind. It’s very personal. So a more direct answer to your question, like when I started out meditating, I wasn’t really thinking about much beyond some relief of my own personal situation. And that seems natural to me”
Purpose And Fulfillment – 20:32
“the story we tell about our lives. It’s like the narrative that we weave, and how much in that story is just imported from somebody else, you know, or from circumstance, other people, let’s say, are defining us, rather than our defining ourselves and actually talk about it often”
Mindfulness: When Does it Come To Play? – 27:26
“even if we’re doing something mainly like paying attention to the feeling of the breath, as the body of the meditation very often, we might start just by listening to sound, because it’s a way of relaxing and creating more open awareness and so on”
Experiencing Meditation In The Moment – 32:37
“I would say Just receive it. And that’s the gift. Because there are all kinds of experiences in meditation in so many ways. I think we barely live on the surface. So realize that, to do something like meditation brings us to all kinds of different terrains, including, you know, some very spacious and open, connected places, and we can appreciate them”
Trauma In Meditation – 35:12
“So why not build in balance all along? Like because the purpose is the balance, not the pain, you know, it’s not just to experience pain, with overlays of like bitterness and other things. It’s the balance, it’s the way of being with it”
Defining Emotion In The Meditation Perspective – 40:04
“But just looking at the feeling itself that also demands a pivot from when we have a very strong emotion, usually our fascination is going to the object situations story. Like, if you want to buy a new car, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking, do I want that feature, or that feature? We don’t necessarily turn our attention around”
Intergenerational Trauma And Reincarnation: Interesting Insights – 45:46
“Buddhists do not teach Buddhism. The Buddha taught a way of life, this is in no way about trying to adopt a belief system, this is about power of your own awareness, and harnessing or refining it—This is something I came to believe”
Sharon Salzberg, Dr. Will Van Derveer, Keith Kurlander
Sharon Salzberg 00:00
We feel that anything we might do could never be enough. It could never be enough to ease our own pain, it can never be enough to make a difference for someone else. It certainly could never be enough in terms of the system of oppression or difficulty of some kind. And so we just don’t have that in us. But that is the magic moment.
Keith Kurlander 00:25
Thank you for joining us for the higher practice podcast. I’m Keith Kurlander with Dr. Will Van Derveer, and this is the podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health. Hi, there. Welcome back. Today we’re going to explore optimal mental health from a little bit of a different perspective than we usually do. We’re going to be talking to a renowned spiritual teacher, meditation instructor, Sharon Salzberg. I’ve been following Sharon’s work for well over 20 years, and really respect her teachings. She was instrumental in really bringing meditation to America over 40 years ago, and Buddhist teachings, and she’s just got a really down to earth way of speaking about it. We get into some really cool, interesting concepts around ego and how well can you refine the ego? And what’s the purpose and why meditate? Why do that? Why spend hours sitting on a cushion? And how does that impact one’s well being? We even get into some more esoteric conversations about reincarnation, and things like that. So it’s a really fun conversation, interesting, and also really meaningful to speak with somebody who’s so well versed and experienced in meditation to share her insights about how we really live well in this world, in our minds and in our bodies. So I’m happy to introduce Sharon Salzberg. Sharon Salzberg is a meditation pioneer and industry leader, world renowned teacher, and New York Times bestselling author as one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her relatable demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. She’s the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of 11 books, including New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness. Let’s welcome Sharon Salzberg to the show. Hi, Sharon, welcome to the show.
Sharon Salzberg 02:36
Thank you so much.
Keith Kurlander 02:37
Yeah, it’s great to have you. And as I mentioned in that, just before, I’ve been following your work for a really long time, and I think an interesting place to dive in, is just to talk a little bit about ego. And for this audience, particularly, and what the role of ego is, from your perspective, and maybe kind of unpacking a little like is ego something that can get refined and mastered? Is it something to transcend? From your lineage, your training, what’s the perspective that you’re teaching within?
Sharon Salzberg 03:10
Most of my background in formal meditation practice has been within Buddhist traditions. And so ego is not a word you often hear, they might talk about the self and the idea. Unlike in other spiritual traditions, or in some of my assumptions, when I first went to India, to learn how to meditate, I thought the goal was to kill the ego, or undo it or destroy it, which was scary, you know. But it’s really not that from the Buddhist perspective. What we hold as the self is misconstrued. And we interpret things wrongly and anytime we veer off from basically reality or the truth of how things are, we suffer. And so we might hold that sense of self as independent, kind of enclosed, in charge and control. Any number of things that are from that point of view wrong. And so, the idea is not to kill anything or destroy it, but to undo our ignorance or delusion about things and see the self as they believe it really is, which is interdependent, rather than independent, not in nearly controlled much, you know, but almost like a kind of coordinating function, when we see through the myths of the ego or the self. So like, everything falls apart, and we enter the soup, you know, and it’s all murky and weird, because there is this coordinating function. As one person once said to me in confusion around this topic, he randomly pointed to some woman in the group and he said, Well, if there’s no self, how come she’s not paying my taxes? You know, like, we have this idea that it’s all gonna melt or something, which is not so but it’s a good thing for us to be able to see through, or even take one of them. The idea of being in control at all times, well, guess what? Not so. And the more we insist on that, the more we suffer.
Keith Kurlander 05:17
Yeah. And so is Self defined as something that’s location based in Buddhism, where there’s actually an identity of separation, is that how it’s defined in Buddhism?
Sharon Salzberg 05:30
Is there an identity, location based identity. I would call it a function. It’s like a mental function of coordination, of cohesion because there is cohesion. So if you think about every cell in our bodies has died and been reborn since we were seven years old, but there’s something that’s forming a continuity of process. And so you could call that the self. So it’s more like a function than the thing, you know.
Keith Kurlander 06:01
Right? Yeah. It’s more like an operating procedure.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 06:05
Right. Is that function, Sharon, I’m curious from your experience with a vast experience of meditation. Does it seem like that function is continuous? Or would you say that it has the appearance of continuity? Are there gaps in terms of that cohesiveness?
Sharon Salzberg 06:23
I don’t know, that literally, you know, again, I’m just referring back to a tradition. I don’t know that they would say that there are gaps in that cohesiveness, there are gaps in perception, cohesiveness, you know, but something’s holding us together,
Keith Kurlander 06:45
And what is the function of Self? In this function, what’s the purpose of Self from a Buddhist perspective?
Sharon Salzberg 06:53
No one’s ever asked me that question before, this is very interesting. I would say, its function is the necessary function. The sense of recognizing some amount of cause and effect, for example, you know. That’s what cohesiveness each time allows us to do. It’s only when we reify, when we think it is something is not, and then we stick to that, and then we’re in battle with the whole world, because there’s self. And then there’s the great big other out there, where there is self, and we’re desperate for control, and it’s just not working. When things arise, they arise because a combination of conditions has come together. It’s like if we want lunch, you don’t just say poof, there’s lunch, which will be nice. If there were like a little being inside and controlled everything they could just dominate in that way in order to have lunch, somebody has to have grown the food and has to be transported, to be harvested and transported and sold to us. And maybe we need a job in order to be able to afford to buy the food and maybe we need a car when we get to work. And it’s like all these conditions that come together for lunch to appear. And that may be kind of an innocuous example, but if you think about a friend of yours who’s suffering mightily, wouldn’t we want to be able to just say, poof? Cheer up. It will be fine now. But it’s not like that. Life isn’t like that. All these conditions need to come together for something to arise. So that doesn’t mean we are helpless at all. We can certainly work to affect conditions, and we do. But the idea of somehow we’re gonna master it all, we’re gonna dominate, we’re gonna decide, you know, this is the way it’s gonna be. It’s just not true. And so as long as we don’t kind of fall into those mistaken notions, then it’s a much happier life.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 08:55
And does that not fall into mistaken notions? I assume that that would develop over time with practice and through awareness and getting caught a whole lot. I’m curious about your thoughts about the challenge of mindfulness off the cushion and the challenge on the cushion and how they relate to each other?
Sharon Salzberg 09:14
Well, usually we divide mindfulness. So we tried meditation, even into kind of the formal dedicated practice, which you might do say on the cushion or a chair; or lying down or walking in the posture can be different, but it’s a dedicated period of practice where your only goal or your only intention is to cultivate greater awareness and balance and compassion and so on. You’re not also in that period sitting down to think through your strategic plan like that may come up. But that’s not the intention. And then there is a whole other category, which I once heard this venerable Tibetan Lama high up in the Himalayas call short moments, many times where we try to bring mindfulness to a daily activity, something that doesn’t last that long each time we do it. Probably the most famous example of that is from tikkun olam. Who said, Don’t pick up your phone on the first ring. Let it ring three times and breathe. And then you pick it up. Because it’s not actually hard to do, it’s very hard to remember to do in a world of pressure and momentum and stress, and so on. So the phone ringing is like a signal. Although I went to a finance company in New York, and suggested that and I looked up, and I saw the panic on everyone’s faces. And I said, Well, okay for you, maybe just twice. Let it ring twice and you can pick it up. People tell me I learned most of these from people telling me. People telling me like try to make a habit of writing an email, and not pressing send right away, taking a few breaths, and then maybe reading it again, decide if they really want to send it as is. Then they press send, or every once in a while, don’t multitask, you know, every once in a while just unitask. Like if you’re drinking a cup of tea, try not also checking your email and being on a conference call, and five other things, you know. See if you can just drink a cup of tea. It’s not so long an ordeal that you’re going to up end your to do list or something. But you will actually feel the warmth of the tea cup, you will smell the tea or taste the tea. And it will be a very different kind of experience. And it won’t mean you get less done, you probably get more done actually.
Keith Kurlander 11:39
I’m wondering for you, has your reason why you sit on the cushion changed throughout your life? And could you share a little bit about how that works for people? Like why do this right? Why meditate? Something has to compel you to go and sit on that cushion, right? And just maybe, if you’re open to sharing a little bit about your reasons, that could be, you know, interesting to hear about.
Sharon Salzberg 12:05
Sure. I think it’s different now perhaps than it was like in the old days when I started. Because I started meditating very young, I was eighteen. And that was a long time ago. I started through going to India on this independent study project to my university. And I went. I created a project saying I wanted to go to India to learn how to meditate. And it was so hard to find, like what I was interested in was not really a comparative religion or philosophical explanation, I wanted to know the How to. I wanted to know the direct practical tools that I might experiment with, to see if they could help me be happier because I was not very happy. I wrote a book once called Faith, which is about my own faith journey. So it really looked at my life a lot in that process. And I realized that I went to college at the age of 16. And by the time I went to college, I lived in five different family configurations, each of which ended by somebody dying, or some tremendously traumatic experience. And then there I was, in college. And my family, like for many people, was one where distressing things were never spoken about, even though they were happening in such an extreme way. And so I didn’t know what to do with those feelings inside of me. It was actually when I took an asian philosophy course, which was really just happenstance, to fulfill a philosophy requirement. When I was a sophomore that first of all, I heard the Buddha talking about suffering in life, and basically saying, this is a part of life, this is natural. And it translated in my mind, too. It’s not just you. It’s not just me. I’m not weird, after all, you know, I’d have to feel that kind of isolation. This is a part of life. And it was such a tremendous and different sense of belonging. And then I heard in the context of that class, there were these things, these methods called meditation, and if you actually did them then you might be a lot happier. So I was going to college in Buffalo, New York. I looked around Buffalo, I did not see it anywhere. And so I created this project and said, I want to go to India, and learn how to meditate and the university said, Okay, so off I went. So I was 18. As I said, I grew up in New York City, I was going to college in Buffalo. I’d never even been to California when I went to India. So in those days, to access actual methodology was not easy. And it meant you had to have a huge impetus or inspiration to go. So for most of us, I think who ended up in Asia in those days. That had a lot to do with having a lot of suffering in one’s life and really trying to find some resolution, you know, some other way of being. These days, it’s so different. And we talk about this all the time that I have, or anyone really has an understanding of it. But it’s so much more accessible, the actual methods and good teachers, and a lot is much more readily available. You can pick up your phone and find it on an app, you know, often. And so some people, of course, are motivated by a high degree of suffering in their lives, or they’ve witnessed. I work a lot with so-called caregivers, people who are in the international humanitarian aid workers or these days, frontline medical personnel or, there’s a lot in one’s personal or professional life that might give you an emphasis. But people are also motivated by a kind of intense curiosity or wanting to understand life in a deeper way, you know. You didn’t have to haul yourself to India, to try to find a method. And so it’s different, I think now and intriguing to kind of look at those differences. So I say, of course, there’s still a certain number of people who just want to seek some greater peace of mind. It’s very personal. So a more direct answer to your question, like when I started out meditating, I wasn’t really thinking about much beyond some relief of my own personal situation. And that seems natural to me. It is only through the evolution, I mean, first of all, finding much greater relief, and also just the evolution of understanding that I began to see how my personal practice had so much more of an effect on my ability to be with others, to care for others, to try to take care of others, and so on. So my motivation itself, I think, really changed over time. And I think that is the natural course of events.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 17:02
It makes a lot of sense that would evolve naturally, over time. I get really curious about as a trauma therapist, I guess that’s where this is kind of coming from is how people move out of a feeling of being at the effect of life or a feeling of passive or frozen, let’s say a freeze response into agency. And I think this has been something you’ve been interested in too. And I would love for our audience to get to hear your thoughts about that pivot point from kind of, you know, the initial freeze to how do I move into challenge or suffering or move into life?
Sharon Salzberg 17:41
I think some of it is, when I described that moment of belonging, way back when I was in college, like not having the sense of being so much on the outside or isolated, or different, or weird, or certainly in the context of traumatic events, stigmatized, you know, just having a much better sense of belonging. And then finding ways that sometimes it’s just sheer energy. I wrote a book recently called Real Change. And in it, I described my great love for the Statue of Liberty. And I was very pleased that somebody I was doing an interview with just held up the book and said, do you realize the color of the cover is the same color as the Statue of Liberty, and I was so happy. Because I’m like, totally a fan girl. And I have all these, like, eraser material, rubber replicas of the Statue of Liberty. And clearly, it was being her sense of welcome and compassion, and you belong too. Even you that no one else wants, you can find a home here, even you that has always meant the most to me. It was only when I was working on this book that I realized at a deeper level, that she’s a woman on the move. She has a leg up. She’s actually mid stride. And that is a model, that there’s action here. It’s not just a passive state like, hey you’re welcome. It’s taking action. And often I think we don’t have that sense of energy, just sheer energy because we’re battling a lot or things are too hard, or we feel that anything we might do could never be enough. It could never be enough to ease in our own pain, it can never be enough to make a difference for someone else. It certainly could never be enough in terms of a system of oppression or difficulty of some kind. And so we just don’t have that in us. But that is the magic moment. You know, I think about that moment for me when I was in college. Endless laughing. Isn’t that amazing? I decided to go to India. Like why didn’t I just think I’ll write a paper? Find out more about it, or maybe even consider graduate school, you know, like, I’m gonna do something about this and the passion with which I did it made me cut through any obstacles that came up. And so that’s really, I think the major part one’s healing is beginning with that sense of belonging. And so not fighting your experience in the same way, being able to marshal even a little bit of energy to take one step and realize that’s significant.
Keith Kurlander 20:32
Thank you. For me, the conversation of purpose, and you know, what an individual’s teachings and offerings are in the world, and how much is discovering that being aligned with it, mobilizing around that, how important is that for fulfillment, and for equanimity and these types of experiences that we can have as humans. What are your thoughts on that purpose? And how important is that for fulfillment?
Sharon Salzberg 21:04
I think it’s very important. I mean, the way I usually describe it is the story we tell about our lives. It’s like the narrative that we weave, and how much in that story is just imported from somebody else, you know, or from circumstance, other people, let’s say, are defining us, rather than our defining ourselves and actually talk about it often, in terms of the insight meditation society, which I co founded in 1976 was a place that we began after, you know, not long back from Asia. And so it was confusing, like how many people in this country would ever want to learn how to meditate? You know, we went to a facility that was just big and yet really good as a retreat center. So we went to downtown Barre for lunch. Barre is a very conventional New England town. A town green. And in those days, there was a monument on the town green which had engraved upon it the Barre Chung motto, which is tranquil and alert. So we took a look at that and decided, oh, any town that has a motto like tranquil and alert should have a retreat center in it because those are two qualities we talk about all the time in the development of meditation. So the building that we bought was on a ship. And the main part of it, you know, it’s had different wings. The main Part of it was built as a private home by someone who, at one point was the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, same as Colonel Gaston. It turned out that Colonel Gaston himself had a motto that he tried to live by which was, you should live every day so you can look any damn man in the eye and tell him to go to hell. So when I read that, you know, I instantly felt like, I wonder how well he got along with his neighbors who were maybe going around trying to be tranquil and alert. But I like to tell those stories in juxtaposition because I think we often do have a kind of theme about what our lives are about, what we’re capable of, what our limitations are, and very often in that scene or that story is pretty small, compared to the truth. And so one of the things I think in any introspective process, we do is we get to see that, and we get to see if we really want to expand that, or we read language that might be not taken on someone else’s story so much something like that. And then there’s the moment by moment or day to day expression of it, you know, that story, or that theme, or that sense of purpose is not, I mean sometimes it’s too specific, like I want to make a lot of money. You know, but really, nobody wants a lot of money. People want what money symbolizes to them, leisure, safety, something and then you might think, well, are there other ways perhaps that I can also achieve that feeling? And not just have that one narrow kind of perspective. So if you have a sense of purpose or vision that’s more like, I want to be a force for love in this world or good in this world. I want to help create some compassion, then, you know, every conversation figures into that as a possibility. I knew someone, she worked in a call center for complaining customers. And interestingly enough, I had just so recently been a complaining customer for something and she was radiant about her job and I can’t help but think it was perhaps not the job of her dreams, you know? But she said I love everybody. I respect everybody. By the time they talk to me, they’ve already talked to two people, they’re freaked out. I’m totally honest with everybody. I don’t always find a way to help them. But if I say, I’ll get back to you at two o’clock, I get back to you at two o’clock. And I just looked at her. And I thought that was not my experience. I was a complaining customer. Mine was very different from that. And so whatever her values were, whatever her idea was about her life, she was making it real in these kinds of awkward and difficult conversations.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 25:37
It seems especially important right now, with how things are in the world, and how many challenges we face, it seems like more than usual, to me, anyway, for people to find a way, you know, for us to support people to actually discover what those values and that inner set of priorities, I think, seems to be a big theme in my work with people, that people have injected values, or they have a set of internalized values from the culture, from the family, parents. I’m curious about your thoughts on this, but for us to work our way through these big challenges, it’s going to be hard to do that if people are living inside of a self structure that’s largely determined by internalized values.
Sharon Salzberg 26:24
If our self structure is largely determined by internalized values.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 26:29
Values that are not our own sort of, okay, fingerprint. Yeah, it’s cultural or is injected from our family.
Sharon Salzberg 26:39
Yeah, now I think that’s really true. And that’s part of self-knowledge, and learning how to pay attention even to some hard stuff, because it’s all to the good that we see it, that we see it more clearly. And the freedom is very real. When we recognize that it also, I think, makes it less personal. And some way, you know, so you don’t have to blame yourself so much and, or belittle yourself it’s just an understanding like a Yeah. I was taught to make this kind of assumption, or this was a strong conditioning that I imbibed and never realized that she was governing my choices now I can see, then we’re empowered by that.
Keith Kurlander 27:26
How do you frame mindfulness in action? And I think there’s a lot of sometimes conversation around mindfulness in action would look a certain way or not look a certain way, like passivity versus agency in mobilization. And does mindfulness in action need to look any way? Could someone be mindful and behaving any which way? And what does this actually look like off the cushion? When we’re actually being mindful?
Sharon Salzberg 27:57
I think somewhere in between everything that you said. I don’t think it’s passive, you know, or resigned or apathetic? I think that’s part of the problem with language, I think, I mean, my son’s need to find lots and lots of different ways. But part of the problem for us the way it’s often defined in English, not incorrectly, I think those are correct, but they carry certain assumptions. For us with them, like mindfulness is accepting things the way that they are. So whereas accepting mean, mindfulness means being with our experience, without judgment, what does that mean? You just sit there, you know, like, you can’t differentiate one thing from another. It sounds like that to us. Leaving a sitting somewhere. And very often, even if we’re doing something mainly like paying attention to the feeling of the breath, as the body of the meditation very often, we might start just by listening to sound, because it’s a way of relaxing and creating more open awareness and so on. So like, then only as far as that part of the instruction, like, Let’s sit and listen to sound. And somebody raised his hand and said, Well, what if it’s the sound of the smoke alarm? I hear going off? Should I sit here mindfully knowing the smoke alarms going off? Or should I get up and I said, I get up. But it sounds that way. Right? We’re gonna accept things the way that they are, you know, there’s a smoke alarm, judgment, but it doesn’t really mean that kind of activity at all. We have feelings, we have responses, we take action. Hopefully the action that we take is not driven by habits we don’t even realize it’s like, my favorite example is when we show irate, impatient, angry. We only realize that we go off to the computer and type that email and press Send. And then some time later you go whoops, did I say that? With a certain amount of hostility, am I likely to get what I want and the olden days of email to such a funny thing to say, if you were on AOL as your server, and the recipients were nasty, hostile emails also on AOL, and has not yet received it, there was this magic button you could send, you could press unsend. And if you pressed it, like something magical happened, where something in your computer like reached out to theirs, back then it’s like it never was. So I went and sent an email to somebody who wasn’t nasty, but I just thought better of it. And I heard someone immediately like, the weirdest thing just happened. I was looking at my screen, and there was an email from you, and it just disappeared. And I wrote back that it’s so strange. Like, it’s so weird, but life doesn’t give us that many unsend buttons. Email doesn’t either anymore. So to know what we’re feeling, as you’re feeling it to know, we’re thinking is we’re thinking it gives us choice.That is why it’s empowering, then we can decide, yeah, I want to send this email saying just this. Maybe not. We’ll sit with this a little bit. Whatever it is, but we do act.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 31:24
Thinking about how much momentum there is in our culture, Sharon has to do and I appreciate what you said about multitasking. And I’m curious, over the course of since the mid 70s, of creating your institute where do you think this is all going with all this doing?
Sharon Salzberg 31:47
Well, we’ve largely not totally, but in many ways, we’ve been brought to some kind of stop. We’re still doing and working and often working outside the home and doing all kinds of things. But one of the things we used to do each year, right? This interesting is actually a word I learned. anthro was like the earth is quieter.
Keith Kurlander 32:17
hmm. It’s a good word.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 32:19
Like anthropos? Yeah, I’ve definitely seen quite a bit of appreciation happening right now for less opportunity to do people in their gardens, more people with their families, more people cooking their own meals, more opportunities for presence.
Keith Kurlander 32:37
A little bit of a tactical question around meditation, somewhat technical, from your perspective, is when we can enter like some of these bigger spaces, the Samadhi type of experiences, what are we supposed to do with those experiences? Is that around? Is there an integration? When people who have been meditating a long time and are entering these spaces longer and longer? And more often? Is there a teaching of what to do with that type of experience? Or is it just receiving it, and that’s the guest and it’s over?
Sharon Salzberg 33:14
I would say Just receive it. And that’s the gift. Because there are all kinds of experiences in meditation in so many ways. I think we barely live on the surface. So realize that, to do something like meditation brings us to all kinds of different terrains, including, you know, some very spacious and open, connected places, and we can appreciate them. And they’re interesting, you know, because the things we normally count on the sense of fulfillment, that costs money, or going out to the theater or something like that, they’re not involved in this, it’s just the capacity of our own being. And that’s powerful to see, Oh, look at that, I was just sitting there, and I was happier than I’ve ever been, or something like that. But it’s not just joyous experiences that count, we also have some very painful experiences in meditation that are really important to and onwards leading as we approach them the right way, you know, with, say, compassion instead of judgment and so on. And so it’s really opening to the range of experience in a different way. But you can’t hold on really, you can’t really successfully replicate something. You know, it’s much more a question of like, okay, you know, because I wasn’t really dealing with an insight. By the time it becomes cognition in our head, like, Oh, that was a real different view and impairments, sorting done its thing. We’re already shifted in some way. And that’s the last part of it.
Keith Kurlander 34:57
Yeah, I like how you’re saying that how to shift That’s already happened once the experience has happened, and we’re just trying to categorize it and boxed into something from our old way of thinking,
Sharon Salzberg 35:08
yeah, yeah. Mm hmm.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 35:12
Another thing that comes through is the depth of your experience over the years sharing with teaching so many students, and sitting with so many students, and I think one of the things that’s happened over the last couple of decades is much bigger awareness of trauma and the role of trauma. And I’m wondering how that increasing presence of understanding trauma has impacted your teaching how you work with people?
Sharon Salzberg 35:40
Yeah, I mean, that’s in several different ways. It’s a big impact. One is, my original teaching in this country was all just open retreats. So all kinds of people came, you know, with all kinds of different backgrounds and experiences. And somebody once said to me, other things about me as well, one of my colleagues and the kind of chastising voice, she said, there’s always trauma in the room, it’s like, time you woke up to that. And I think that’s been a reality is trying to understand that crizal meditation is just one bad method, you know, like, there are many things one might experiment with, if you’re suffering, you know, that is worth doing. And then there are certain aspects of the meditative process that are implicit that I think need to be made explicit. If you feel somebody is really struggling, you know, in some way, if we’re traumatic materials, so for example, a lot of people in meditation, for example, have a very heroic view, like, I’m going to sit here with this pain, so they break through it and come out the other side, or transcend it totally. And we once brought a Burmese meditation masters and I decided Fundy to to IMS to teach for three months. This was in 1984. And it never imagined going there. It was a very great teacher. So he was from Burma, and he was a great teacher. And he was also like, fierce and intense and demanding. And I was sitting in that retreat with them. And one day he was doing a question and answer session in the hall and someone asked, How long should I pay attention to physical pain, before I move my attention to something that’s easier? So that might mean listening to sound, it might mean something easier in your body, it might mean, doing loving kindness, meditation, something like that. And it’s a very interesting question, because we use physical pain as a model, for emotional pain, for heartache, for disappointment, whatever it is. So I thought given his personality, Pandita was going to say you should be with the painting. And to my astonishment, he didn’t, he said, it won’t be very long, He said, Be with the pain, move your attention to something that’s easier to be with, go back to the pain, move away from it again. He said, It’s not wrong to just be with the pain, he was in pain, he was a pain, but you’re likely to get exhausted. So why not build in balance all along? Like because the purpose is the balance, not the pain, you know, it’s not just to experience pain, with overlays of like bitterness and other things. It’s the balance, it’s the way of being with it. So I was sitting there in the hall, and I saw that I almost fell over, right. So those words are really coming out of his mouth, must really be true. So things like that, which are there and the teaching, but may not be emphasized very much, seemed very important. And then in much more recent years. In my own life of teaching. I’ve spent a lot more time working with populations, we’re working with people who are suffering, trauma, from domestic violence shelter workers, to international humanitarian aid workers to frontline medical personnel these days. So that’s like a whole other kind of consciousness to bear in mind. I’ve been really intrigued looking at things in this country, like an emphasis on empathy training, which I think is essential. You know, we see a cold, cruel world, that has a lot of empathy for these people, they have a lot of empathy. That’s why they do the work that they do. They’re burning out for some other reason. So then it’s really emphasizing maybe it’s self compassion, that would provide the balance or maybe just a sense of limits like not having this kind of wildly protectionist expectations and understanding that we do what we do and we can fix it all in some ways. So that’s been a big part of my life more recently.
Keith Kurlander 40:04
And it’s amazing that one of the Lynton, the teachings, and that teacher specifically was on to this concept of pendulation, and trauma therapy that’s only really been being worked in the last couple of decades if that of just moving between a more resourced experience. And then leaning back into the more disorganized challenged experience. It’s just amazing that’s there. It’s like rediscovering wisdom. Yeah. Yeah. And so, if we talk about emotion for a moment, how do you frame emotion in terms of, do you speak about it in terms of emotion that arises and goes away from chronic emotion? And what is that? How are you framing emotion in your teachings? And what is it? And yeah, just curious there. Because that’s obviously a big topic in the psychotherapy field is, you know, what is emotion? What’s healthy? When are we on a path to emotion kind of ruining us, so to speak?
Sharon Salzberg 41:15
I don’t know that the emphasis in the teaching is so much on the emotion but on the relationship to the emotion. Because mindfulness is sometimes described as a middle place where one extreme would be being overcome, say, by the emotion, defined by it, to submerge in it, the other extreme would be disliking it, trying to push it away and make it go away. And then you have mindfulness in the middle where you can connect fully towards going on, but you’re not really sucked into it in the same way. That’s where the choice comes in. And so that’s where the insight comes in, it’s like. That means it should be a very classic thing to say, if you sit and look at anger, for example, not adding to it, the angriest person in the world, and it’s only me, or this is all I am or this is disgraceful. But just looking at the feeling itself that also demands a pivot from when we have a very strong emotion, usually our fascination is going to the object situations story. Like, if you want to buy a new car, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking, do I want that feature, or that feature? We don’t necessarily turn our attention around. So it wasn’t sure like, I want something so badly. But that’s just what we do in the mindfulness process. So you turn your attention to that anger, was it feeling my body? And what’s like the anger movie, and we see these complex things, it’s usually moments of fear, moments of sadness, moments of frustration, almost always, the teacher would say that if you’re looking at anger, you’ll see a kernel of hopelessness. And if we can get there in our observation, then that’s a place where we might decide to do something and take some action, however small but you’ll also see that the anger is always changing. You know, these states come up in size terrifies because they seem so permanent, and delegable, and kind of inflexible, but when you look at it, actually look at that. It’s coming and going like everything else. So there are also some kind of universal laws that said, we can see universal characteristics of life, that we can see if we’re looking at any emotion. So one of my favorite definitions of mindfulness actually been that way for a long time came from an article I read years ago in the New York Times about a program or a pilot program, bringing mindfulness into the classroom. So this was really one of the first and fourth grade classrooms. So kids are like nine or 10 years old. So they asked one of the kids, what is mindfulness? And he said, mindfulness means not hitting someone in the mouth. That’s what mindfulness means. I thought that is a great definition of mindfulness. What does it imply? For fires, we know we’re feeling angry, we’re starting to feel angry. But after we send the email, not after we retaliate, or something, and it also implies a certain balanced relationship to the anger, because if we’re consumed by it, whenever it comes up, there’s no space at all. We’ll likely hit a lot of people in the mouth because life can be really frustrating. And at the same time for shamed revolt, we see only Hate it, we try to repress it, try to deny it will just explode. That doesn’t work either. And so we want that place in the middle that can fully connect to the emotion with enough space. I like to think of that kid thinking in some random outline last week didn’t work out that well. Maybe I’ll try this. I actually put this story in my book, my latest book and actually my previous book because I started so much About his friends, that holistic life Foundation, which is a group of people bringing mindfulness and yoga, to inner city classrooms in Baltimore. And they tell me the story about this young girl who’s like eight years old, who’s always getting into trouble, because she’s always fighting and knocking people out. And then when the kids are mean to her new cheese in her, there’s a lot of provocation. But she was the one always getting into trouble. So what they taught her how to meditate, one day, they walked into the gymnasium or some public place. And she had this little girl up against the wall holding her by the throat. And she looked at her and said, you’re just lucky I had to meditate? it works.
Keith Kurlander 45:46
Yeah, that’s so fascinating. We circle back to trauma conversation, again, we’re just in that conversation so often. And in this concept of intergenerational trauma. Trauma being passed through generations, and what are your thoughts on? Maybe this even brings in the conversation of reincarnation on some level, which is what are your thoughts about the energies and the suffering where we are actively relating to ourselves? And obviously, in the world of psychotherapy, we’re often making stories right about what things are and trying to make better stories. From your perspectives, how much does it matter? First of all, if things have been passed down, previous to this lifetime, does it matter that we know that it happened? That’s one part of the question. And then I guess the second part is just your thoughts right now on just these concepts, intergenerational trauma, reincarnation, your current thinking, at this point, in your practice, in your meditation practice, what are your thoughts on these things?
Sharon Salzberg 46:49
Well, in the Buddhist tradition, they tend to call it rebirth of this measure of incarnation. But you know, all my teachers have been people who own very kind of non dogmatic, you know, there’s a cosmology, there’s a view that a lot of things, but my first teacher was this and going to actually and in India, and the first night in my first retreat, so this is January 1971. He said, the Buddhists do not teach Buddhism, the Buddha taught a way of life, this is in no way about trying to adopt a belief system, this is about power of your own awareness, and harnessing or refining it. Then I had a teacher named Linda, and he was asked once about rebirth, because in that cosmology, is such as rebirth as a human and these different realms of existence and sense of cycle around like, maybe we’re grasshopper in your last life, your person, your psychologist, it could be anything in the next life. And the person asked me, Melinda, this question is very, like, I’m not into this. I don’t believe this stuff. And ninja said, you don’t have to believe it. He said, it’s true. But you don’t have to believe it, you know, with their ninja like answer, like the practice of the practice, or the methods of the methods and the most important thing is understanding the nature of suffering and freedom from suffering. And you don’t need a cosmological name for that doesn’t make sense to me. Yeah, I spent a lot of your sophomore years in India, that was important for me. And so a lot of things, I heard a lot of things that were not the same as when I was growing up before when I was 18. And they do make a lot of sense to me. And I would be more likely to agree than not think that’s true isn’t important to know, I don’t think it’s ever really possible to know. And it depends on how one uses intuition or something like that. And this is where the ninjas answer, I think, was great, because we can fight a lot about different systems of thought. And it’s hard to know how much we’ve actually experienced ourselves. And it’s almost like one of the things he would emphasize says the teacher was, maybe don’t dwell so much on why, but dwell more and what like what’s happening right now, what is this? Because if you get involved in why there’s a certain level of why which is very useful, like to see, oh, this is conditioning. This is a story I’ve been told. This is something I came to believe. But to realize that if you exclusively focus on the why, then you’re adopting someone’s belief system like with however many schools psychotherapy, there are, would you get a different answer from different people depending on who you asked or if you asked a very classical Asian Buddhists, about why they would say this in previous life. You know, you did this or that. And so you may agree with that or not agree with that, but so not helping you resolve whatever it is, you know, right now and deal with it in a different way from the second argument.
Keith Kurlander 50:12
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, we’re toward the end here. I think first, can you tell us a little bit about how people can learn more about your work, any books you want to talk about right now? Anything like that?
Sharon Salzberg 50:26
Yeah, my website is just sharonsalzberg.com. And my latest book just came out, called Real Change. I’m very intrigued by the book, you know, not only is the color of the Statue of Liberty, but I wrote virtually every word in the book before the pandemic. And then publication was delayed from June to September 1st, and a friend of mine who’s a journalist was reading it to excerpt it and post pandemic. And he said to me, You know, I keep reading those examples and thinking, that’s what made you anxious, you know, wait till you see what’s coming. So I went to the publisher and asked if I could write a process that would ground it more in contemporary time. So I’m worried actually, frankly, that the book would not be relevant, because things are so extreme. I am very gratified to hear that people find it relevant. My favorite comment of all was somebody said to me, psychic? Like, did you know? Great, I read irrelevant, but even in these times.
Keith Kurlander 51:33
Great. Real Change. Great. And are you still leading retreats at the insight center? Or?
Sharon Salzberg 51:38
Well it’s closed right now. But we’re doing stuff online.
Dr. Will Van Derveer 51:44
We have a question that we always end with our guests, and we’d love to hear your response here. If you had a billboard with a paragraph on it that every human being on the planet got to see once in their life, what would you like to see on that billboard?
Sharon Salzberg 51:58
Be kind to one another. It’s not going to make you weak. It’s going to be your greatest strength.
Keith Kurlander 52:06
That’s powerful. Sharon, thanks so much.
Sharon Salzberg 52:09
Yeah. Thank you. Thank you both.
Keith Kurlander 52:14
That was a great conversation with Sharon. We are so honored to have her on the show. And, of course, her insights are just so important for how to, first of all relate to everything going on right now in the world. Obviously, right now, there’s a lot to relate to, with the pandemic and politics and a lot happening, social upheaval. And I think her teachings are really valuable in how to not only stay well in mind, but this concept of optimal mental wellness, optimal mental health. How do we live well, how do we relate to what we can’t see, things beyond ourselves, things beyond the ego beyond the Self, and how to really try and live gracefully? If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with other people. It’s the greatest way to get this type of information to other people’s hands. We look forward to connecting with you again on the next episode of The Higher Practice Podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health.