Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash in conversation with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg at the Rubin Museum about loving yourself, your work, and—yes—even your inner critic.
Sharon Salzberg: I was once on stage with the Dalai Lama when he started talking about his mother, who he always says was his greatest teacher. “She taught me compassion,” he said. “She taught me everything.”
I could feel the mood in the room go down because many of us were thinking about how hard life is if you didn’t have a parent like that. So I raised my hand and said, “I didn’t have that kind of childhood.” And both the Dalai Lama and his translator, their mouths went, “Awwww!” [drags down corners of mouth with fingers to make sad face. Laughter]. They looked so sad.
Although I didn’t have a mother like the Dalai Lama’s, what I did have was a strong intention. I wanted to be better. I wanted to make a different kind of life for myself. I found sources of love and ways to love. I found it without that childhood the Dalai Lama had.
Rosanne Cash: I had a tough childhood too. My father was a drug addict. My mother was enraged about it and very distracted. But I was resilient and created imaginary adults who were safe. I knew early on that I was an artist, and that art and music could save me. And they have—many times.
I wonder why certain people’s longing for love and art and healing is so great that it carries them through terrible trauma, and other people, who don’t have that longing, give up right away. I think longing is a wonderful thing to keep your whole life. Don’t get rid of it for anything, even love.
Sharon Salzberg: Yeah, but I would say that even if someone doesn’t have that longing throughout much of their life, I wouldn’t give up on them and the possibility of their turning things around.
I think there was some kind of knowing in me early on as well. When I was eighteen, I left for India. There was something in me that just knew there was something else—something truthful for me. I could have stayed in Buffalo and studied Buddhism, but I got on that airplane. I think now, “How did I know?” Something in us does know.
Rosanne Cash: When my dad got clean, he was a really good parent about my songwriting. He would tell me I was good. Even when my songs weren’t good, he would just keep encouraging me. Later on, my first husband, who was my record producer at the time, gave me a lot of confidence when I didn’t have it in myself.
My mother did not want me to become a musician, or a writer, or an artist. She wanted me to get married, have kids, and be quiet. Understandable. Her template for being a performer or musician was that you were a drug addict, you got divorced, you were never home, and your relationships fell apart.
I found good parenting wherever I could. I somehow knew how to do that. If somebody—an older woman—was nice to me in a store, I would take it in. I was smart about that. I still am.
Sharon Salzberg: We find love in many places.
Rosanne Cash: I was thinking of the love in music. I remember 9/11. It was so traumatic and awful, but I was stoic. I had little kids, so I just plowed through. Then I was sitting in the kitchen listening to the radio at Christmas, and they played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which is, I think, the saddest piece of music ever written. And those three months just came flooding out of me. I cried to the depths of my being. That piece of music healed me.
I’m now married to my collaborator and I don’t think we would still be together if it weren’t for the healing power of music. You see the essence of someone when they’re performing. You see what they give to an audience and how exquisitely beautiful and vulnerable that is. How could you hold on to petty things when you see someone’s essence? I was talking to Diana Krall about this because she’s married to Elvis Costello and she said it’s identical for her. She said, “I can absolutely hate him that day, then he gets on stage and I see who he is and my heart melts.”
A lot of times when I can’t relate to people, I can relate to art and music. A great painting or a great piece of literature can change everything.
Sharon Salzberg: In the Buddhist tradition, the thing that makes a work of art so great is the transformation of the artist in the process of creating it. I’m sure we intuit that when we are reading or listening to something.
Rosanne Cash: The most beautiful thing for me is to feel that the artist or writer touched something mysterious, something that brings up more questions than answers. They broke through into something. They touched a mystery.
Sharon Salzberg: When I was working on my book Faith, someone said to me, “A lot of people think that, if you’re writing about something, it’s because you’re an expert on the topic and want to impart your expertise. But sometimes you’re writing about it as part of your attempt to immerse yourself in it and understand it.”
Rosanne Cash: You probably wanted to know more about it and the way to find out more was to write about it. When I was writing my memoir, Composed, it was startling how I was able to unpack so many boxes about my life and organize my thoughts around them. I would say. “Oh, that’s why that happened! That was the motivation of that person. That’s why I left that person. That’s why I cut that tie.” I found out so much. I wrote it for myself.
Sharon Salzberg: Totally. There are certainly ways of writing a piece where you are attempting to implement your expertise, but that’s very different from baring the soul.
Rosanne Cash: I think people don’t care as much about expertise as they do about humanity. Vulnerability. Phewf!
Do you always find yourself feeling like a beginner every time you start a new project? I find there is always a little thrill for me going into the studio or walking on stage or starting a new song. I ask myself, “How do I do this again?” Then some sense of mastery takes over. But the thrill remains if you always feel like a beginner. That’s very Buddhist, isn’t it?
Sharon Salzberg: The Dalai Lama, if he were sitting here, would be nodding his head.
Rosanne Cash: There’s a beautiful balance between having mastery and being a student, and going back and forth between the two.
I’ve been singing some songs for almost forty years, and even if I’m bored with one song and I’ve sung it several thousand times, there are people in the audience who really want to hear it. It’s their first time, so I’ve got to bring my full self to that moment as much as I can. That’s where the discipline comes in. You’re creating something you love, but that doesn’t mean you enjoy or love every second of it.
When I teach songwriting, I run into this phenomenon regularly—a young songwriter who thinks he doesn’t need to know the tradition he’s writing in, or about the songwriters who came before him, or what a rhyme scheme is, or the mechanics of melody or verse/chorus structures. He feels his personal expression is enough. To me that’s completely self-indulgent. Some people would say, “Well, that’s valid. It’s his expression.” I say, “That’s what toddlers do. Art requires discipline.”
I had a songwriting mentor who gave me a great piece of advice once: “When nothing’s working in a performance and people are on their cellphones, remember there is always six percent of the audience who are poets, and they really need it. They really want it. They’re really there to get it. You’ve got to show up for them.”
Sharon Salzberg: I agree with you about craft and discipline. There was a Thai monk who used to say, “It’s not a question of following your heart. It’s a question of training your heart.”
Rosanne Cash: You talk about self-love in your book. When seen through the lens of a performer and artist, this whole concept of self-love makes me a little nervous because where’s the line between self-love and self-indulgence?
Sharon Salzberg: I don’t feel like I need to love what I’m writing. Often I don’t even like it. I feel like I have to tell the truth and I have to get simple. The advice I always got was to just tell the story—don’t try to embellish it so magnificently. So that’s what I always tell myself: “Just tell the truth.”
When I was writing Faith, there were many times when I was really struggling and couldn’t see my way forward. At one point, this fabulous writer, Susan Griffin, said something to me that was really amazing: “You have to stop thinking of yourself as the person writing this book and think of yourself as the first person who gets to read it.”
That was tremendous because I had so much fear about doing the book justice. Faith is such a highfalutin topic, so I thought, “I’m not going to hit it. It’s not going to be right.” But with her encouragement, I thought, “Sharon, let go of that.” Then words would appear on the monitor, and I would be so excited. “Oh, look, words! I get to read them!”
Rosanne Cash: It’s interesting that you experienced that same insecurity. I mean, insecurity is the definitive experience of being a writer or an artist—those moments when you think this is crap and why am I doing this? It’ll never be as good as so-and-so’s book or song or whatever.
I say to my songwriting students that the inner critic can dismantle you, so in order to get your work out of your body, you’ve got to silence your inner critic. You’ve got to get it out and objectify it and get it outside of your body to see what it is. But then I tell them something else: bring your inner critic back later, when you’re editing.
Sharon Salzberg: I had never considered that—the relative worthiness of the voice of my inner critic. I named mine “Lucy” after the character in Peanuts comic strip. In one cartoon, she says to Charlie Brown, “You know what your problem is? The problem with you is that you’re you.” Then poor Charlie Brown says, “What in the world can I do about that?” Lucy responds, “I don’t pretend to be able to give advice. I merely point out the problem.”
The problem with you is that you’re you. The Lucy voice was so dominant in my earlier life that I mapped my understanding of mindfulness and my progress with it by how I related to her. Very soon after I saw that cartoon, something great happened for me, and my first thought was, “Oh, but it’s never going to happen again.” But this time, I responded with, “Hi Lucy,” followed by, “Chill out, Lucy.” I considered this a triumph because it was so different from, “You’re right, Lucy, you’re always right.” It was also different from my other usual thought, “Oh my God, Lucy’s here. What a disgrace. I’m so ashamed. I can’t believe she’s still here.” I was always trying to be nice to her without letting her take over. But I never actually thought about sitting down with her and saying, “Okay, now everyone’s calmer. You can talk now.”
Rosanne Cash: Once I painted my inner critic. There were these ten evil little creatures I called “The Committee.” I actually made a T-shirt of The Committee so that I could really get them out. But I realized that what they actually want is a job. If you bring them back at the end of your process to help you edit, then they’re happy.
Sharon Salzberg: In the beginning of my teaching career, I was terrified of public speaking. I could never give a talk. The first retreat I taught in this country was with my colleague Joseph Goldstein. It was thirty days long, and he had to give every talk. I was petrified. I couldn’t do it. My big fear was that my mind would go blank, and I’d just sit there and be completely humiliated.
But people kept yelling at him, “Why won’t you let her have a voice? Why won’t you let her speak?” And he kept saying, “I’d love a night off. Talk to her!”
Then a year went by and I felt there was this one topic, loving-kindness, where there’s always a guided meditation you can do. So if my mind went blank, I could launch into the guided meditation.
I did that and I thought, “You know what? It is all about loving-kindness. That’s why we’re in this room together. It’s not about my expertise in something—it’s about connection.” That was the moment I could begin to give talks.
I told Pema Chödrön that and she said, “I was always terrified of speaking because I was afraid I was going to detour into some topic that was completely tangential.” And then she said, “In all these years of my doing just that, no one has complained. No one’s come up and said, ‘You started out talking about one thing and ended up talking about something else. How could you?’”
I think of it in terms of balance. For many of us the strongest voice is that sense of blame and failure. Balance is moving away from that and having some kindness toward yourself and being able to begin again. It’s resilience training. You acknowledge, “Yeah, I blew it, I made a mistake.” But you start over, rather than collapsing or blaming yourself for the next fifteen years.
In Buddhist psychology, there’s a difference between remorse and guilt. Remorse is the genuine pain of seeing that you blew it or could have done better, and you want to move on with determination to see more clearly. Whereas guilt is not having the ability to move on, it’s being stuck. “I’m only that.” It’s being frozen in time, which is what trauma is.
To get unstuck requires wisdom, an understanding that the guilt isn’t serving anyone and it’s an old habit. You need to see what you can do in terms of making amends or discovering lessons learned and moving in a more positive direction.
Rosanne Cash: I’ve learned that myself when performing. My idea and understanding of performing has changed over the thirty-eight years I’ve been doing it. In the beginning, I thought that you went on stage to be judged, and that “perfection” was what you were attempting. Over time I’ve come to realize it’s not about that at all. I used to have dreams about forgetting lyrics, but every time I’ve forgotten a lyric, that’s the moment the audience loves the most. Your humanity is revealed, and they feel connected to that. They don’t want perfection.
It’s also about energy exchange; it’s about feelings. Bob Dylan said an audience doesn’t come to feel the performer’s feelings. They come to feel their own feelings. They want you to open it up for them so that they can feel it.
We’re all human. We all suffer. That’s what we have in common. Art and music are there to reveal our lives to us and reflect ourselves back to us, and it’s not all pretty. That, to me, is love.
This conversation between Rosanne Cash and Sharon Salzberg was hosted at the Rubin Museum in New York and was titled How Love Resonates, celebrating the release of Salzberg’s book Real Love.