Sharon Salzberg and Alice Walker: The Power of Loving-Kindness

The thing about love that I’ve discovered in my life is that one love leads to another. It just gets bigger and bigger. You can let it start anywhere; it can be really tiny.

Melvin McLeod
1 January 1997

Sharon Salzberg and Alice Walker discuss the strength of loving-kindness with Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod.

“It’s too bad you can’t hear the tape of this conversation we had with Alice Walker. There is a lot of heart and many powerful ideas in this printed version, but it can’t convey the real depth and caring and calm certainty of Alice Walker. While Sharon and I often made reference to our particular Buddhist traditions to try to express our thoughts, here was someone who spoke directly from her own life experience, from intimate, direct knowledge of her own heart. Here is a person of true, self-realized spirituality. By way of background, Sharon Salzberg is a member of the Insight Meditation Society, a very fine Buddhist teacher, and author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Alice Walker is best known for, among her many writings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, and as a committed social activist who has had the courage to take on difficult and often unspoken issues.”
—Melvin McLeod

Sharon Salzberg:
I’m really delighted to have this opportunity. I’ve loved your work and have been so moved by it. In speaking about metta practice, or loving-kindness practice, one of the hardest things is not to sentimentalize. That’s especially hard in our society, where the whole idea of love can be degraded and considered a weakness. But in your books, the power, the actual life force and potency of loving-kindness, comes through so strongly.

Alice Walker: I think my feeling of loving-kindness is rooted in a very irrepressible spirit that has always been earth-connected. When I was a child I felt so much a part of the countryside and everything that was in it, that I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I had to have been loved very much, to find myself there.

So when I came to meditation—I actually started doing TM when I was living in New York after a divorce—it was a kind of going back. Just after being initiated in doing the training, when I finally sort of got it, I started to laugh, because I recognized where I was. I was back in a place where I had lived as a child, in my spirit, in a very open, spacious, loving place, where I felt totally at peace and in myself.

Then last year, when I was in another period of great struggle and trial, I read your book about metta practice, and it was wonderful. I was so comforted to have again such a place within my reach. It was that incredible thought that we can care about ourselves and not fall into the pit of thinking that just because life is not working now, there’s something terribly wrong with us. That is what metta has done for me, this reassurance that of course we go through incredible periods of stress and pain, but if we hold on to our love of ourselves through it, we can come out the other side.

Sharon Salzberg: There’s a teaching in Buddhism that suffering strengthens our faith. That’s hard to understand, it’s hard to even speak about, because so many people are embittered by suffering and are broken by it, rather than renewed by it. It’s finding the transformative quality in the openness that makes all the difference.

Alice Walker: For me, it is also not having my love and faith in the earth itself broken. Ten years ago I experienced having Lyme Disease, which at the time I didn’t even know existed, so I just thought I was dying of some mysterious thing that nobody had ever heard of. Then when I realized that this disease was caused by a tick bite, I thought that the earth had kind of turned on me. I had always been such a shameless pagan, out there fornicating in the grass and up the trees and everything, and I felt I had to withdraw from that kind of intimate contact with nature, because nature bites back, I thought. So I went for years with this kind of fear, and only after a very long time did my love for the earth and for nature prove so strong that I just decided that I loved it no matter what it did. And so (laughs), it’s been wonderful.

Sharon Salzberg: In the tape you did, “My Life as Myself,” you say something like, “Love makes me look at what I can’t stand,” which is a tremendous affirmation of the bigness of love.

Alice Walker: It’s true. I think that feeling had to develop in me because so much of what I’ve had to look at in life is so hard. If I didn’t have the love of the people and of the earth and of the life force itself, I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t know that children are being subjected to all the things that they are being subjected to. I would just turn away, I think, as many people do. People go into drugs, they go into television, and they go into many things. But you can also go in through love.

Melvin McLeod: Can I ask what your understanding is of the actual practice of loving-kindness? Many people might hope that they could access such love in their lives, love for themselves and for others, but how does one actually do it?

Alice Walker: Well, for me it has always been through activism. I’ve been a very contemplative person by nature, and was fortunate enough always to live very far out in the wilds of the country. I think this is where all meditation really comes from, that feeling of spaciousness in the countryside or with nature. But I was also very lucky to have been placed in a part of the country where one has to struggle politically and socially in order to grow, and actually to exist at all. So I was brought into contact with people and movements and with forces for change in society, and I could not help but grow. It was just inevitable that if I looked out and saw people in all their radiant fighting beauty, then I would just be struck with love for them.

I’m so happy that I lived in Mississippi for seven years, because each day I could see these warriors, who were really the least of everybody. They were poor, they could be thrown off their land, they could be jailed, they were often shot; you know, lynching was not uncommon. And there they were—they would stand up to anyone and hold their ground, insist that they were children of God, and that they had a right to exist. This was incredibly humbling, and I just found myself loving them without reservation.   The thing about love that I’ve discovered in my life is that one love leads to another. It just gets bigger and bigger. You can let it start anywhere; it can be really tiny. You can start with a daffodil, but if you sincerely see it and if you sincerely love it, then it’s like the key. The daffodil is like a key to the big, big, big storeroom. Then everything becomes something that is lovable.

Sharon Salzberg: You describe the naturalness of it all. I guess the problem is that we’ve forgotten, or we’ve got out of touch. It’s not so much a practice to get more loving, but to remember more, and to feel more safe and confident in our ability to love.

Alice Walker: Yes, and also to see the good even in the midst of the dreadful. That has always been very powerful to me. I’ve known so many people in my life who were almost split in half, good and bad. You could see them doing something that was just horrendous and despicable on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday, you would see them drop all of that and stand up to incredible forces of oppression and despair, and call upon something very deep within themselves that was really precious.

Sharon Salzberg: It’s like the creation of the other, even within oneself. We don’t incorporate all aspects of our being into this loving space, and so it’s that much easier to dishonor others and to feel so separate.

Alice Walker: I think you have to really work at it, to see the good, and sometimes you do it in such peculiar and maybe perverse ways. For me, I have had to recognize a real fear of Germans. When I travel through Germany I feel afraid, and all of that. But I made myself get a German car, and I really like it a lot. I drive around in it and it’s perfectly smooth and wonderful and it makes me every day think about Germans in a different way. I don’t think about them as people who are hunting me through the woods or frying people in concentration camps. I kind of think about them on the car level, the Mozart car-making level, that this is something very beautiful and very efficient also, in a positive way. I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we’ve been brought up to.

Melvin McLeod: Is there also a healthy type of anger or outrage that is compatible with, or perhaps even a companion to, loving-kindness? Could this be the sense of the power of loving-kindness that Sharon referred to originally?

Alice Walker: Creativity—for me, that is where the power is, that is where the healing is. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, to make something that is beautiful and not destructive, or to make something that is useful and not destructive, that is the healing power of the artist. For me, as someone who spends so much time in solitude, it has been about making actual objects—making stories and making quilts, you know, things that you actually make. And making friends with somebody, that’s very good. And we all together make political movements; we make change in society.

One of our big problems is that we live in a culture that bombards us with destructive images that are killing us. I think that the children are battered so badly by destructive, negative images from television, mainly, and the movies, that they often have no idea that they can create in a way that is not destructive. They actually think that creation itself is destructive. That’s a terrible place for us to find ourselves, where our children believe that.

Sharon Salzberg: Maybe the power we’re talking about is the clarity of truth telling and clear seeing. I would hate to call it the positive aspect of anger, but maybe it has some of the energy of anger.

Alice Walker: I love clear seeing. It is such a wonderful phrase. It just gets right to it, that you try to see things as clearly as they are. Then you try to express them to yourself, and then to the world, as clearly as you can. This, I think, is really the only hope. Because it’s as if this world is constructed almost entirely of lies, and so we can’t help but be lost. We are floundering about, trying to find the path, and they have deliberately said East where it’s West, North where it’s South, up where it’s down, green where it’s blue. And all the time they are wrong. These signposts have been deliberately put on the path to send us off somewhere else. So clear seeing, clear speaking—that is our responsibility.

Sharon Salzberg: It’s also feeling the truth of our own experience, because being cut off from our own suffering, it’s that much harder to open to the pain of others.

Alice Walker: That’s why it’s good to be a writer, or to be a poet, because you can at least offer your own truth. I’ve had the experience of writing about incest, wife beating, child molestation, female genital mutilation, all kinds of things, and having people say, this could not possibly exist, and even if it does, why would you want to tell us? And at some point you stop really caring whether it makes other people uncomfortable, because, as the Buddhists say, this is just basic human stuff (laughs). Essentially, your experience, whatever it is, is human stuff. And for people to pretend they don’t know what it is, or that it’s so shocking somebody said it, this is another signpost that says East instead of West. Because deep in your heart, you recognize what is human when you see it.

Sharon Salzberg: In your novel The Temple of My Familiar, Carlotta says to Fanny, well, maybe the problem is too large for anger. The way you phrased it in “My Life as Myself” is that maybe it’s too big not to forgive. That sense of bigness is, I think, a spiritual understanding which is totally inclusive. It’s not separate from what’s happening, or trying to get beyond it, or transcend it in some way.

Melvin McLeod: For me, the problem is that it is so hard to recognize what is happening beyond our immediate sight. Literally, at this moment, there are terrible things being done to people around the world. Right now. Just over the horizon. Yet it is so difficult to see this world in its entirety and to see beyond our own lives to the terrible, terrible things that are happening right as we speak.

Alice Walker: Well, Melvin, you just did. So stop beating up on yourself. Have a little loving-kindness, please! (laughs)

Well, I don’t know. I think that with me, I do realize it’s pretty messy all around. Lots of suffering, lots of pain. And I have just decided that there are places where I feel I am uniquely suited to be, and causes that just fit. Causes where I feel I understand some of what it’s about, where I feel I can actually do this without being insulting or ignorant or not good for the people involved.

I work on what I am able to work on, more or less joyously. When I tackle something like female genital mutilation, I think about one child at a time, and I try not to think about a hundred million people. I can’t really think about every one of them all in their collectivity. I have to just try to go after one child who has a possibility of not being harmed, if I speak now. And I go into that with a real light heart. It’s very heavy, but because I’m off my couch, my heart is fairly light. And that’s it. I give to the extent that I can, and then I sit back and I eat tomatoes. And I enjoy them, and I look out at the landscape and I love it, and I walk and I go swimming and I love being alive, and I enjoy my life. And then when I get my strength back, I go out again. That’s all I can do, and I do it with such happiness. It’s not in any way a strain, and when it gets to be a strain, I just take a nap. But it’s good for me.

Sharon Salzberg: That reminds me of something out of the classical Buddhist tradition, that at the time of the Buddha, the Buddha would smile, throw a flower, or say three words, and 50,000 people would get enlightened. And it doesn’t happen that way these days. I asked one of my teachers once, why not? And he said, it’s basically because we can’t open up to the suffering all at once. We have to do it gradually. It’s not the point to suffer; it’s the opening that’s the point. It is that lightheartedness, that bigness, that spacious mind and love that can hold the suffering and accommodate it and integrate it and understand it. It’s not just to suffer and be broken by it.

Alice Walker: I’ve had this experience where I go somewhere, and even on the way, I’ll be thinking, oh no, it’ll be so rough, how can I stand it? Then I’ll get there, and I’ll be with the people, and sure enough, they’ll be up against some incredible madness, and I’ll just find myself getting happier and happier and happier. And we’ll all look at each other, and we’ll be grinning and grinning and grinning, and by the time it’s over, whatever it is, we will have decided that this was absolutely the high point of life. And so there’s that to be experienced.

The book I’m just finishing is on activism. The point of it is that unfortunately we live in a time when people think that if their activism is not some huge, grand thing, that if they’re not some great hero like the ones who have been assassinated already, then what they have to offer is not good enough. Just writing a letter, for instance, or teaching somebody how to vote, or picking up litter in a neighborhood where picking up litter is unknown, and so influencing the people there. They feel that, well, this is so small, I’d like to do it but what is it, it’s so tiny. And I’m saying that the tiniest thing can be very powerful and very beautiful, and it’s something that one should do for oneself. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not to clean up someone else’s neighborhood, or feed their children, and just do this for them. It is really for you; that is where your happiness is.

Sharon Salzberg: It’s so healing to recognize our connection. I’ve received a lot from people who had very little, and that has been an awesome experience. Like going to a country such as Burma to practice meditation, where every single meal is offered to us by people who are sometimes just dressed in rags. They’re so happy for the chance to have fed you, and they have nothing. To receive so much from them is beautiful.

Alice Walker: Also, Sharon, you know what?

Sharon Salzberg: What?

Alice Walker: They are quite aware that they have everything and you have nothing.

Sharon Salzberg: That’s true too.

Alice Walker: You’re the one who left home to come to Burma.

Sharon Salzberg: Yes, that’s very true. And sometimes when we do something small, we have no idea where it’s going to lead anyway.

Alice Walker: Never. And also there’s just the joy of beginning, beginning.

Melvin McLeod: I’d like to go back, Ms. Walker, to your ability to maintain a light heart. I saw part of a film on TV, which may have been your film about female genital mutilation, and it was an actual scene of a young girl undergoing some sort of terrible excision of her genitalia. The child was screaming, and I was completely shaken. I couldn’t watch it. So when you’ve seen that sort of thing, as you have, how do you not get your heart broken, on one hand, and on the other hand, not be completely enraged at the people doing it?

Alice Walker: I think you feel all of that, and you just don’t stay there. Once again, here it is—the most horrible thing in the world is happening, but by some miracle you are there at the beginning of seeing that it stop. So how could you not be light hearted? I mean, ultimately. But it’s very difficult, I know. When I was in Africa, I was walking along—this was after a whole long line of young girls had been mutilated—and I couldn’t watch it. And out of nowhere there was a little girl, I guess maybe three or four years old, who just came up to me. She’d never seen me before, and she just took my hand, and we walked along holding hands for a little distance. All I could think was, I’m doing this for other children, but we’re not starting in time to save this particular child. And I’m telling you, it almost drove me under the ground.

At the same time, I think, well, I am here to help. I’m here with all of the skill that I have acquired as a writer over 25 or 30 years, and all the love that I feel for the people here, and all the love that I feel for myself and my connections to the people of Africa. So I felt like it was okay. It’s better to start, even when things are so dire, than to be sitting home not starting.

Melvin McLeod: This reminds me of Trungpa Rinpoche’s metaphor of the “Great Eastern Sun,” which refers to the fact that in every situation, no matter how difficult, there is always the possibility of going forward, toward waking up, toward helping others. This situation seems exactly the definition of warriorship, that you can see the possibility of going forward, even while your heart is broken.

Alice Walker: You know, what are hearts for? Hearts are there to be broken, and I say that because that seems to be just part of what happens with hearts. I mean, mine has been broken so many times that I have lost count. But it just seems to be broken open more and more and more, and it just gets bigger. In fact, I was saying to my therapist not long ago, “You know, my heart by now feels open like a suitcase. It feels like it has just sort of dropped open, you know, like how a big suitcase just falls open. It feels like that.”

Instead of that feeling of having a thorn through your heart, that feeling Pema Chödrön talks about in tonglen meditation, you have a sense of openness, as if the wind could blow through it. And that’s the way I’m used to my heart feeling. The feeling of the heart being so open that the wind blows through it. I think that is the way it’s supposed to feel when you’re in balance. And when you get out of balance, you feel like there’s no wind, there’s no breeze, there’s just this rock and it has a big thing sticking through it. I don’t know how you get from one feeling to the other, except through meditation, often, but also activism, just seeing what needs to be done in the world, or in our families, and just start doing it.

Sharon Salzberg: I think open heart comes from a sense of community, and it can come from a meditation practice, or both ideally. Because when there’s a central connection with others, that’s also the source of joy. Realizing that what’s happening to those little girls is not different from me, not other than me. Inevitably, it’s awful and one’s angry and terrified, but at the same time, that connection itself is the joy, that open suitcase heart.

Alice Walker: I don’t know where that suitcase image came from (laughs), but now that I think of it, a suitcase is something that you also fill up again and move on off with (laughs). So it doesn’t stay empty. It’s also portable.

But I don’t know, the world is in such a mess. What has been on my mind a lot lately is the land mines that have been planted all over. They are completely evil and horrible, and the damage that they do is so severe. This is something the world has to face up to and do something about. And the best place to do it is at the point of manufacture of the mines. It’s too dangerous to go to these countries to try to remove the mines yourself, so some pressure has to be brought to bear on the manufacturers who sell these things.

Sharon Salzberg: I was at a conference with MahaGhosananda, who’s one of the surviving Cambodian monks, who actually leads peace marches through mine fields. Somebody asked him how he encourages the people he’s walking with and keeps them from being afraid, and his response was, “I tell everybody, just go step by step.” And of course it’s what we all need to do, go step by step.

Alice Walker: Instead of always being at the receiving end of the violence, maybe a shorter step, and a more effective step at this late date, is to just go after the people who are actually responsible for creating the violence and the disaster. It doesn’t make sense for us to always be the ones catching the bullets or stepping on the mines, when there are some very wealthy industrialists sitting somewhere in an office and selling these very things that we have to put our bodies in front of and on top of, so that people will know that they are being made.

Sharon Salzberg: Perhaps that is also part of the role of community, both to enlighten one another as to what’s going on, and also to support one another in taking that kind of action.

Melvin McLeod: There is also a pervasive issue which I think of as the team mentality, the division of the world into competing teams on the basis of nationality or ideology or race or gender or whatever. And for teams, winning is the issue, not the transcending interests of the whole. I know, Ms. Walker, that at times you’ve suffered accusations of not being “on the team” for taking on certain difficult issues. It’s so easy for “my community” to become “my team.”

Alice Walker: I know. Well, my little theory is that you find that you just keep doing the thing that gets you kicked out, and this has everything to do with living as your true self. And then you meet up with all the other people who’ve been kicked out. And then you have your team, and it’s a team of everybody.

I definitely feel that way. I feel that because of the positions I have taken and the things that I have written, I often find myself totally out. But it never means that I’m alone, because then I discover that there are all these other people who also have subversive thoughts and have also done and written things that their particular clan didn’t approve of. And so there we all are, and there begins to be built a whole other community, a whole other family of people who are not related by color, blood, sex or whatever, but by vision. That’s how I feel, that I’m a part of a whole community of great people, and it’s not about race, it’s about vision and what we think the world will be and should be.

Melvin McLeod: Sadly, in situations of conflict, those people who see beyond the interests of their own side usually get crushed.

Alice Walker: But there’s also the realization that you crush me today, and tomorrow you die of cancer. So it’s not as if anybody is winning, and I think that’s clearer today than it used to be. When I was growing up in the segregated apartheid South, the white supremacists actually thought that they would crush black people, and they even thought that they would live happily ever after. They would never be sick, and nothing could touch them. In a way, any kind of supremacist system means that the people who are at the top really feel that they’re invincible, that they’ll live forever. If not them, then their children will inherit the earth and roam over it. But in fact, we know that the earth is so poisoned, and so full of danger everywhere, that it is well for people to understand that whoever they crush on Monday, on Tuesday they themselves may find that Life is crushing them. So there is no winning. And I take solace from that, actually.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.