Sharon Salzberg is a well-known author and a teacher of insight and lovingkindness meditation who (along with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein) founded the Insight Meditation Society and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, which are both located in Barre, MA. spoke and enjoyed some laughs together by phone in advance of her visit to Los Angeles.
Sharon, I must say: it’s lovely to connect with you outside of Twitter for a change.
(Laughter) Yes, it is. Usually you’re a name that pops up on my computer screen, my favorite person to re-tweet.
Well, I hope we can talk more about social networking in a bit, but first I wanted to ask you about Real Happiness. Happiness is an area that many Buddhist teachers have been giving particular emphasis in recent years. I’m curious to know how you came to this topic yourself.
Well, so much of my teaching, as you know, is on lovingkindness meditation. The form that I use involves repeating certain phrases that usually begin with, “May I be happy, may you be happy…” So that brings up a lot of really interesting issues to consider right away. We tend to equate happiness with being happy-go-lucky (and maybe kind of stupid), seeking pleasure endlessly, and all those things. When I wrote my book Faith, one of the things motivating me was a desire to help reclaim that word, “faith,” because so many people had a negative reaction to it. When this book was ready, it needed a title, and the publisher actually suggested it. I thought, “Well, you know, it’s kind of in the same vein; let’s take a word that can be used in so many ways and see if we can reclaim its potency.
It’s interesting that you underscore the importance of titles. Your book titles tend to bring attention to these virtuous principles within the tradition…
Yes. I handle all the virtues in my titles, and Pema [Chödrön] handles all the anxieties in hers.
Well, that’s an interesting and vital dialectic to me because it seems like more and more, we’re seeing these communities and groups of practitioners expressing feelings that all this emphasis on things like faith, lovingkindness, happiness, and so on means that things are getting “too soft.” And yet, when things like the national conversation we’re having right now in the aftermath of the horrible shooting attack in Tucson happen, it seems to highlight the crucial importance of the kind of work you and others do. Faith, lovingkindness, happiness—these things all seem very basic and simple and sufficiently discussed, and yet it also seems like an open question how well we’re doing embodying these virtues as a culture.
Yeah, on a lot of levels, we’re not doing that well! I often say that we — not everybody and not always, but by and large — live in a time of blunted aspiration. We don’t imagine that well how things can be better or the lovingkindness we’re capable of or the power of compassion. We often tend to cast them as a kind of weakness, or weak response to something. So one of my hopes in focusing on the virtues is that it might help us open just even the scope of what we believe is possible and what we’re capable of—and I mean “possible” not in an abstract way. We are capable of these forces and understanding that can make a very big difference in our lives.
I am very curious about your specific thoughts around Tucson and the attention and energy being placed on civility in the U.S. Would you add anything or emphasize anything that’s already being said?
Well, I think it’s always interesting to look at it when we cast someone else as “the other,” and why. I see it as a great experiment — this goes back to what I was saying before how we tend to feel stronger when we’re strident. Where is real strength? Does it come from that burst of momentary anger, or does it come from a different kind of sense, like compassion? What is going to keep us going for the long haul? The changes many of us hope to see in society do not seem to be happening overnight, and so we need a power of endurance and sustainability that really is a power and not just make-believe that everyone gets along. I think we need to see that we can stand on principle and take very, very forceful action without this kind of hatred and intense demonizing of the other that is going on.
Going back to Real Happiness, I’m wondering if you could talk to us a little about the structure of the book. It seems to me — and please tell me if this is right or not — that the four foundations of mindfulness are at the heart of the arrangement here.
Yes — with the last week being lovingkindness. So four, and then another three. The particular publisher, Workman, is very interested in something practical, and very inclusive, so that people of all faiths and no faith tradition might pick it up and find it useful in terms of beginning or sustaining a meditation practice. Originally, in my mind, at any rate, the book was going to address the question, “Why meditate?” with a small section on how-to. Over time, the how-to part of the book grew. So there’s really both; it offers an invitation, basically, to take meditation up. I tried to create a program that was realistic too.
I don’t know if you’ve looked at my website, but right now we’re doing a retreat for the month of February, a 28-day challenge, where a number of people have agreed to blog about their meditation experience, and then everyone is invited to join and comment. A wide variety of people are blogging: we’ve got two firemen, an undercover policewoman, several writers, a hedge-fund guy — some people don’t want their names out there, so that’s why we call them things like “hedge-fund guy.”
All kinds of people are doing it. It’s just amazing to see. I wanted to offer something that people could take into their lives just as they are. I’m hoping that years from now they’ll be able to look back fondly on this as they’re going on a long retreat or something. One of the firemen wrote that he was on a call and was overworked because of the department budget, and he had to sit by this manhole for three hours so he decided to do his meditation then. And I thought, “How cool is that?”
So, yes, the book is arranged over four weeks, and emphasizes sitting with the breath over to a broader mindfulness and walking meditation and lovingkindness meditation as well.
There’s a wonderful section towards the front of the book where you essentially explain to readers what neuroscientists, psychologists, and other scientists have been learning about mindfulness and meditation in the last several years. That’s something we’ve been doing a lot of interviews about at Shambhala SunSpace. I’m always curious to ask people involved in all of this what they find have been the most significant discoveries. I’ve found a tremendous diversity in terms of what these scientists and Buddhist teachers find most exciting in all of this work. It’s a different answer every time, no matter whom I’m talking to.
One thing, and this is kind of a meta thing — M-E-T-A — is that this conversation exists at all. That’s pretty remarkable itself.
This whole concept of neuroplasticity is fascinating to me too, because when I was younger, like in high school, we were taught that when you reached adulthood the size and the circuitry of the brain were fixed. So to see neuroplasticity demonstrated, and that earlier notion disproven, again and again, is just amazing. The basic idea is that the brain will rewire and reshape itself in response to the environment, and somebody eventually thought of the internal environment, in terms of meditation practice, because that’s what it essentially is: reshaping the internal environment. So the effect of meditation is really pretty extraordinary.
All the attention on these studies has been extraordinary too: just in the short time since the book has come out, there have been significant articles. You know, it used to be that I’d go to a party or something, and someone would say, “So what do you do?” I’d say, “I teach meditation.” Then they’d say, “Oh…” and sort of sidle away.
But now, I think largely because of the science and the research and the pioneering efforts of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, the most common response I get is “I’m so stressed out, I could use some of that!”
So we were talking about Twitter before, and I can’t resist asking you more about that, since you are a Twitter person (@SharonSalzberg). We have mutual friend in Vince Horn of Buddhist Geeks fame, and Vince tweeted something kind of striking and provocative that I actually wrote down when it went up:
“Meditation teachers who demonize technology are alienating most of the next generation.” There must be some sense of this among teachers, because so many more of them are coming to Twitter and Facebook — having some kind of presence there, at least. Of course, there’s also this very distracting element in the social networks to contend with; in Real Happiness, you mention this aspect of the internet in a few places, like how we can find ourselves unmindfully checking and re-checking our email or social feeds. Yet there’s also great possibility and some very positive qualities to the social networks too. Would you say something about all of this?
I actually love Twitter. I’m on Facebook much less. I should say I love Facebook too, though, so it doesn’t feel like product-placement.
With Twitter, I just feel like I get such a wide-range. You know, I follow you and Bob Thurman, and because of that I’m able to hear about Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma and the things the Dalai Lama is doing. I can follow the Dalai Lama directly too, and get those quotations of his. I follow a lot of political people too because I’m interested in that. I appreciate seeing those worlds displayed and knowing I have the ability to pursue or not pursue something with a click. I can get something in 140 characters, but also pursue things in greater depth with links and things.
In terms of teaching, I think the first thing I ever did with technology — anything other than face-to-face or writing — was probably a tele-teaching. Somebody called in from Moscow, and I was in New York City. I remember thinking, “O.K. There it is. It’s a boundary-less world, actually, and this is enhances that.”
I follow a lot of Buddhist practitioners on Twitter, and I think it can be kind of funny sometimes the rollercoaster they go on with it. One day, someone will tweet, “That’s it! I quit! I’m too involved in this, too distracted!” Then the next day, they’ll say that they’re having a Twitter renaissance or renewed love affair with it.
Now that you’ve spent some time working with Twitter and getting to understand it, I’m curious about any advice you have on using it, especially for those cycling between extremes like these.
Actually, Ethan Nichtern just had a post about this on The Huffington Post — the mindful use of Twitter and Facebook. I thought it was very good advice, like notice your intention, notice when it’s taking up too much time, set some boundaries, go on “tweet fasts” or whatever he called it — have those days where you give it up for a while. Balance is certainly needed with these things.
On a previous book tour, for Faith, eight years ago, the publisher put me up in a hotel somewhere. When the driver came to pick me up and take me to the bookstore, he said, “I noticed that everybody sitting in that very nice lobby was talking on a cell phone. Nobody was just being where they were — in that extremely nice, pleasant place.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s right.” We have this immediate access to avoiding where we are, even if it’s quite a wonderful place. So you really need that balance.
Sharon, thank you very, very much for your time.