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Sharon Salzberg cultivates compassion
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Sharon Salzberg cultivates compassion
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Sharon Salzberg cultivates compassion
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“We do live in an interdependent universe. This is not being sentimental, it’s not wishful thinking. It’s not even always nice. But our lives really are intertwined. That’s the way it is. And there’s always a place for wisdom.”
20 March 2018

Sharon Salzberg cultivates compassion

Interview by Pierz Newton-John
Photography by Tawni Bannister

Pierz Newton-John on Sharon Salzberg

I speak with Sharon Salzberg via Skype in New York in the wake of the stunning election of Donald Trump. In the atmosphere of shock and anxiety that prevailed for many—not only in the United States, but across the world— it seemed an appropriate time to be talking to one of the world’s leading teachers of the Buddhist practices of loving-kindness and equanimity.

Sharon’s journey with Buddhism began in 1969 when she studied Asian philosophy at The State University of New York, subsequently travelling to India for a year to study meditation. Her interest was not purely academic. Having suffered a difficult childhood with much loss and turmoil, she came seeking answers for her own personal pain. In Vipassana meditation she did not find a miraculous panacea for life’s ills (and indeed she is sceptical if such a cure exists), but discovered a profoundly different relationship with her own mind and emotions, and an enduring source of peace and wellbeing. She has been spreading the message ever since, having founded—together with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield—the renowned Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She’s also written nine books, chaired panels with the Dalai Lama and addressed audiences at some of the world’s major conferences, including the State of the World Forum and the Peacemakers Conference.

Admittedly I had some trepidation about interviewing a spiritual luminary of Sharon’s stature. Would she present as an enlightened being presiding calmly above the fray of human anxieties and conflicts? Superhuman calm can almost be alienating for those of us still mired in our messy terrestrial entanglements. Yet I need not have been concerned. What I found was a down-to-earth, thoughtful woman without a trace of affectation, whose take on life and the troubles of our time was refreshing for its balance and sobriety.

Really good conversations are those that move us a step further, a step deeper in our thinking about the world. Like a steadying hand as we ford a stream, they help bridge the gap to the next stepping stone of our truth. Talking with Sharon had this effect for me, crystallising and giving shape to half-formed ideas. Not only did it help clarify my thoughts, but since our conversation I’ve returned to my meditation mat with renewed determination. That has to be the sign of a great teacher.

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

PIERZ NEWTON-JOHN: You’ve been a pioneer in bringing Buddhist meditation to the West. I wonder if you could explain in simple terms what you consider to be the essence of the Buddhist approach?

SHARON SALZBERG: I would say, and I think it is commonly said, that the essence of the Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths, and so that’s basically an examination of the suffering in life and a conviction that there’s a path to come to the end of suffering. The end of suffering doesn’t mean everything’s delightful, or that there are no more adverse circumstances or real tragedies, it doesn’t mean that at all. But it’s considered to be very powerful in the way we relate both to pleasure and to pain. And to neutrality for that matter. So that we may have wonderful, fantastic, amazing things happen, but we’re so distracted we don’t even take them in, or we have such a fixed idea of what should be happening that we’re not appreciating what is happening. And

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #50 of Dumbo Feather

when there’s pain, there’s sorrow, there’s difficulty, we may respond with self-blame, with hatred or bitterness, we may respond with a sense of isolation. Or we may respond with compassion and a sense of community and being part of a bigger picture of life.

So the way we hold it, the way we relate to it makes a very big difference. And the other thing about neutrality I always found interesting—like all those ordinary repetitive routine times of the day, and a lifetime, when we tend to snooze or get numb or whatever—is that we have a chance to actually wake up and come alive in those periods as well. So there’s a lot of potential with the power of one’s own mind to relate differently. And that’s the essence of the path really.

What I notice nowadays is that when people have a moment in which they’re not distracted or stimulated by something, they’ll straight away reach for a device. And so there seems to be, particularly at this point in time, a lot of unwillingness to actually sit with experience.

It’s kind of extraordinary. I don’t think there’s been a time precisely like this, because we can make contact in such a vast arena at any time. We just have to pick up that device. But how many people are aware of where they actually are? Somebody was talking to me about New York City and how their fondness for New York City is really getting challenged because they said it used to be the kind of place where you could turn to the person sitting next to you on the bus, or maybe you’re both waiting in line, and you have a really interesting conversation with this other person. But she said now no one talks to one another ’cause everyone is on their phone.

And you see friends sitting next to one another and they’re talking into phones rather than actually having interactions with one another. And then in recent years mindfulness has become a huge thing. I don’t know if those are related but it certainly seems to be taking off at the moment.

I agree. It’s kind of funny if you’ve been practising for a long time and are used to a word like “mindfulness” being a very restricted, sort of in-house word, you know. You really used to use the word “mindfulness” in a very narrow context. Now everybody uses it and I don’t know exactly what they mean anymore!

You’re sceptical?

Well, I just think it may have nothing to do with the practice! I don’t tend to fall on the sceptical side of things. I really applaud the phenomenon. I think it’s fantastic. But I do think that there are in many cases—not in all cases, but in many cases—parts left out. Most of my observation of the way that mindfulness practices are used or celebrated these days is to really inhabit your life. If you are always multitasking and you’re drinking that cup of tea while you’re checking your email, while you’re on the conference call, you’re not going to really taste it and you’re not going to appreciate it.

We so rarely look at the quality of our attention as playing a factor at all in our degree of dissatisfaction.

Mostly we blame the tea. Then we think, I need a better quality tea, I shouldn’t be using tea bags anyway, why don’t I use loose tea? Or I better buy a tea ball or I have to buy a strainer, you know? But that’s how we get into addictive spirals. And so it’s a powerful thing to begin to make contact with your actual experience. And to really connect. But classically that is just a fraction of why one would practise mindfulness. It’s really purposed not only towards inhabiting your life, but towards understanding your life, really understanding it.

We have been taught so many myths about happiness, about strength, about aloneness: are they true? Let’s just sit and just be with a quality of mind like vengefulness. Is that really onward-leading? Is that really strong? Let’s look at compassion. Maybe we’ve always been taught that’s sort of weak and sentimental and maybe the same as giving in. Let’s sit and generate some compassion and take a look at it. Is it really weak? Or let’s look at ourselves.

Am I who I always thought I was? Independent, not counting on anybody, not interdependent, but independent? Is that the truth of our experience? And can we hold on successfully to something that will never change? That’s really what mindfulness is about: to radically dismantle the myths that we’ve been told about our own experience. And so it’s not so much to inhabit our lives, although that’s great, but to understand our lives in a whole other way.

Yeah, that’s interesting. A lot of the time the context in which mindfulness is talked about is being present in the moment, which is great, but you’re talking about a whole other level, which is almost like a scientific approach to your own experience isn’t it?

That’s right. It’s fascinating. Being propelled by that kind of understanding and not because we’re trying to be a certain kind of person or meet someone else’s description of a good or enlightened person, but because it’s coming from within. From our own experience and the things we have ourselves seen.

Yes. So can you talk a little bit about your own personal journey with meditation and how you came to it?

Mhmm. I grew up in New York City and I went to college very young. I went to college when I was 16. And I went to college in this place, Buffalo, New York, which arguably has the worst climate in the entire country. [Laughs]. Lots of snow. And in my second year, my sophomore year, there was a philosophy requirement. So I took an Asian philosophy course. And as far as I can recall, looking back it was kind of happenstance.

Like, “Well that fits my schedule, let me do that one,” you know? It was really a course in Buddhism. And that was my first real acquaintance with the teachings of the Buddha, and it was life-changing. First of all, I learned there is suffering in life: that’s the first Noble Truth. And if you have personal suffering, as I certainly had, you don’t have to see that as aberrant or different or feel like you’re so alone. Because it is really the nature of things.

And then I heard about meditation in that class—there are techniques, there are tools that are very practical methods that one could use to really change your relationship to your experience and thereby change your life. And this is in 1970. I looked around Buffalo, New York and I didn’t see it anywhere. Of course it wasn’t anywhere. So the school started an independent study program where, if you created a project that they liked, you could go anywhere for just a year and study whatever your project entailed, and then come back and do your final year.

And so I created a project. I said, “I want to go to India and study meditation,” and they accepted it. So off I went. Like many people I stayed somewhere longer than a year. But I did go back, I finished school, and I went back to India.

I like the concept of normalising suffering. I think a lot of people compound their suffering by feeling there’s something abnormal about that state.

Mhmm. Well definitely. I mean I’m not of the school that believes if we could only change our attitude or have the right spirit we wouldn’t suffer. I know some people say that but I really don’t believe that. I believe some things in life really hurt. And they will be very painful. But we do very readily compound that pain, we have extra suffering, which we don’t really need. We compound it by feeling we’re the only one, by feeling it will never change, by insisting no one help us even though maybe many people are trying. And we end up adding quite a lot to it.

So is there a pot of gold of enlightenment at the end of the rainbow where you think you can transcend that? Or do you think that even as an enlightened person you still suffer?

Well I can’t really say authoritatively, you know, about an enlightened person! But I think about legends or stories of the Buddha, when his two chief disciples died, Sāriputra and Moggallāna, he said something like: “It’s like the moon and sun have left the sky.” He didn’t just say, “It’s another day,” you know. He had grief. I think certainly as an enlightened person you do not compound the suffering. What you’re adding to it is wisdom and compassion rather than ignorance and grasping. It’s a whole other world of experience and I think well short of enlightenment we can experience that.

Yeah. I mean to me I think there’s a great wisdom in the acceptance. Because I think a lot of suffering seems to come out of people’s deep aversion to the notion that they have to suffer at all.

Yeah. And believing we’re the only ones, ’cause then we’re even further cut off from how things are for others as well. So we’re not experiencing ourselves as part of the human community.

And we kind of go, like, “I’m suffering and I can’t tolerate that so I have to do something to remediate it.” And then the remediation itself causes you to suffer more. And so around you go.

Certainly in the US I think there’s a kind of conditioning that says we should be in control all of the time. Absolutely all of the time. And of course we’re not in control in that way.

The body has its own nature, healing may have its own rhythm. Our minds are changing all of the time.

You can’t insist, “Well I’ve thought about it really carefully and I’ve decided I’ve grieved long enough. It’s over.” Or, “I’ll never be X again.” That’s not the way life works. But we can develop tools and different kinds of strengths so that, should grief linger or should fear come back, we can deal with it very differently.

And so thinking about the state of the world at the moment, particularly in the US but actually all over the world, the response to the US election has been pretty powerful. And there’s a lot of anxiety. Do you think that Buddhism has a message for people in this situation at the moment?

I do. I mean there’s certainly a lot of anxiety. I think with meditation practices there’s a certain sense of being able to step back in many ways. Like, step back and take a look. A lot of people are feeling quite helpless right now. A lot of despair and certainly a lot of anxiety. And it’s helpful to be able to step back and take a look, and ask, “What means a lot to me? What issue, what aspect of society means a lot to me?”

And to engage. And engaging also means remembering the need for balance. We need to find our own balance. How much media are we taking in? Are we taking care of ourselves? Are we getting a break? Doesn’t mean you’re lazy or cowardly or anything, it means you’re building resources, you’re creating resilience. So, if anything, the tools of meditation teach us to step back and take a look. And understand that a whole-hearted application of our energy, even on a small thing, can make a big difference at the end. And then I think wisdom really has a huge role.

We do live in an interdependent universe. This is not being sentimental, it’s not wishful thinking. It’s not even always nice. But our lives really are intertwined. That’s the way it is. And there’s always a place for wisdom.

I just think it’s such an interesting time because it isn’t necessarily a spiritual perspective that is talking about the interdependence of life. It’s science, it’s economics, it’s environmental consciousness. Like, what happens over there doesn’t nicely stay over there anymore.

Yes. And yet I think part of what has happened in terms of Brexit and Trump is a kind of scared retreat from that, or a notion that we can just go back into our own little world and put up a wall. And it’s obviously not wise.

Yeah. I mean you can’t live successfully in the long-run, you know, at some weird angle to reality! You’ve got to be in harmony with how things are. It’s like the proverbial banging your head against the wall.

Yeah. When you use the word “wisdom” what do you mean by that? How do you conceive of wisdom?

In this context I would conceive of wisdom very much as being about interdependence. Another kind of cultural myth in America is around independence. It’s probably very connected to the control thing. But we live in an interdependent universe. We’re counting on a lot of things. Like sometimes, I don’t know why it’s particularly in this situation, but if I’m a passenger in a car coming into New York City, say, from Barre, Massachusetts, where the retreat centre I co-founded is, there are fewer people taking money, collecting tolls, it’s more mechanical now. You line up behind this mechanical arm which reads your device that’s sending a signal about your bank account. And the arm lifts. And I always think, What if it doesn’t work? Like, we’re sitting here!

Yeah, right!

All these people behind us, you know. They have places to go to too! Are they going to be okay? We’re counting on those things being repaired and maintained and, you know, crafted to begin with, with some artfulness. Every day, every moment, our lives are intertwined. And I think even in a climate where that’s been challenged and people in power are challenging that, which is very difficult, it just needs to constantly be brought into the conversation. As well as the fact that it’s such a time of hatred. Real creation of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them,” and disdain for a great, big “other” out there, then being out to get the other! It’s very interesting.

We need to continuously have as part of the conversation the power of compassion, the fact that we’re all in this together, that under the Buddhist point of view you’d say, “Everybody wants to be happy.” Everybody actually wants not just superficial happiness, but a sense of belonging, a sense of being at home somewhere, in this body, in this mind, in this life. And it is through the force of ignorance we get so confused and we create so much pain for ourselves and for others. But everybody actually wants to be happy.

Yes, and a sense of peace. Just a sense of peace. I think that’s really missing in a lot of people’s experience.


So I guess one critique that’s sometimes levelled against meditation is that it’s quite literally inward-looking. How does that square with social justice and activism for example? Is there a contradiction there? Or can they help one another?

I think they certainly can help one another. You know, there doesn’t need to be a contradiction. I think for many people it feels like there’s a contradiction and so that’s an interesting exploration to be made. I think both individually and collectively.

I wrote a tweet the other day, for people who ask me questions on Twitter. I was actually quoting this CNN commentator Van Jones, who basically said, “Empathy does not mean agreeing, it means understanding.” So I put up something about empathy meaning understanding. And somebody wrote back and said, “I don’t see why I should try to understand someone who feels I should not exist.” So then I wrote back and I said, “I don’t think understanding precludes taking strong action.” I don’t think seeking that level of understanding means that you’re just going to sit there and feel like a doormat. I think quite the opposite actually. But, you know, it takes more than 140 characters to work it out! [Laughs].

Yeah. Yeah, indeed. Interesting bringing up Twitter because that’s a domain in which there’s so much shouting and lack of understanding and almost seeming to revel in refusing to listen to anybody else. Just vocalising. In your approach to meditation, you talk about loving-kindness. And I’m interested in that aspect. ’Cause I think surely the remedy for so much of what we’re seeing in the world has to be the cultivation of that. But it’s a difficult thing, isn’t it? It’s certainly an ideal that I hold to, and yet I know also in my own experience that, under pressure and stress, it can be very hard to actually feel that, when you’re in traffic or whatever. So how do you cultivate that loving-kindness under the pressure of everyday life?

It’s hard [laughs]. But I think with both mindfulness and with loving-kindness the idea is not to imagine you’re going to have, like, the great breakthrough experience and then forevermore you’ll have no problems. It’s more along the lines of what this one great Tibetan Lama once described as short moments many times.

You want to be able to cut through what might seem like a steady state of alienation or disconnection with some moments of connection.

And that’s the way that alienation or that disconnection is going to dissolve. It’s from those intermittent but regular, more and more frequent moments where we actually connect. And so I wouldn’t look for some great state of perfection and think I’ve failed ’cause it’s not all day every day. There’s a movement towards it, and I think that there’s a sense that mindfulness all on its own will bring you the loving-kindness, the compassion that you really need to have a different life. And I think that’s true.

There are ways in which we just see things differently. We learn to listen to one another, we learn to really be present with one another, just the sheer force of being mindful. It’s a fantastic tool. It’s also true that there are techniques and there are methods that are particularly dedicated to the deepening of qualities like loving-kindness and compassion. That’s really what happened for me in the evolution of my own practice and in my teaching. My first teacher was S.N. Goenka and it was an insight meditation, a Vipassana course. It was a mindfulness course, and right at the end of the 10 days he led a bit of loving-kindness. And that was almost like the ceremonial way of saying goodbye. That’s what that served.

And yet for the first time when I heard about it I thought, Oh! That’s amazing! And then I heard that there were techniques where you could, in a very devoted way, pay attention to cultivating loving-kindness and compassion. But it wasn’t until 1985 that I went to Burma for three months and I actually got to do those methods: mindfulness and loving-kindness. So I teach both styles of practice. I do emphasise loving-kindness. And many, many people do both, they choose some of each, and it’s not like if you choose just to do mindfulness practice that you’ve chosen the no-love path. It’s not like that! [Laughs]. Your heart will open anyway!

So you find that this sense of compassion and kindness then starts to flow out from that into other experiences in your life with sustained practice?

Oh absolutely. I mean if anything, one of the difficulties of doing loving-kindness practice formally is that the changes that will then happen and the benefits that accrue will happen in your life—they’re not going to happen sitting on the cushion. It’s so unlikely you’re going to have that great breakthrough experience and afterward you can say, “Now I love myself completely!” It happened at 8:42 in the morning! You know? It’s vastly more likely that you will start to notice, not a hundred percent turnaround, but you’ll keep noticing changes. How do you speak to yourself when you’ve made a mistake? How are you meeting a stranger? How are you in a time of adversity? Like now!


This is a really difficult time for a lot of people. And people are reaching out to one another. How are you responding? And there’s so many moments in life where the presence or absence of loving-kindness is the key definer of what’s happening. And you’ll see tremendous change over time when you practise these techniques. But you may never see it when you’re sitting on the cushion! Which drives people crazy, you know! Nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening! I don’t feel anything, nothing’s going on! But all of us need to be counselled and reminded quite a lot to keep looking at the changes in our lives.

Yes, I like that. I’ve been a meditator for a long time myself, and I have to say I still find it difficult and I still find that my mind wanders. What do you say to people who get frustrated or feel that it’s too hard, or that they can’t do it? Do you think there are people who can’t meditate?

I would question that. Some of these people say, “I tried it once, I failed at it.” But then if you ask someone what happened they describe something that I would never consider a failure. Like, “I had a lot of thoughts, I couldn’t make my mind blank, I couldn’t stop thinking.” We would say

the purpose of meditation is not to make your mind blank but to develop a different relationship to your thoughts.

So there’s more space. You have more choice. You don’t have just some weird thought and find yourself up on your feet led by it, you know!


There’s just more space and you’re more empowered to go with it or not. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t bunches of thoughts. There might be a million thoughts. And that’d be okay. So a lot of people have a lot of ideas about what should be happening, and it’s worth examining those. I think given how many sorts of meditation there are—you know, you can do walking meditation. You can do all kinds of movement meditations. You can do meditations that are much more verbal. Or that are much more active, even if they’re silent. Loving-kindness is much more active, for example. That makes for its own challenges but it also gives us a lot of variety in the tools that are available to us.

I particularly like something that you wrote in an article about how the practice of returning your attention to the breath is actually practising starting again rather practising accumulating more and more breaths. It’s comforting.

Yeah. Yeah, well I think it’s true. I don’t say it just to be comforting. It’s actually true. Because that mostly comes from myself looking at my own mind. I’d be sitting—in this case with the breath ’cause that was the first technique I used—and I had originally thought, Okay, what’ll it be? Like 800 breaths or 900 breaths before my mind wanders? And to my astonishment it was like one breath!


Or two breaths! And it’d be gone and I’d be way gone. And then I’d come back and then I would berate myself endlessly. Just go on and on, thinking that no one else in the room is thinking, they’re all so enlightened, I’m the only one who’s thinking and I’m so awful and they’re so great. And at one point I realised not only was I adding sometimes a tremendous amount of time to the period of the original distraction, but it was so demoralising, so exhausting that it was not skilful. It was not a useful pattern. It was only bringing me down, you know. It was not in any way fortifying me or inspiring me or moving me back. It was a complete waste of time. It was a bad habit. And so I asked myself what’s the opposite of that? I realised it’s actually letting go and beginning again. Letting go and beginning again. It’s what one of my Tibetan teachers calls, “Exercising the letting-go muscle”—that’s important.

Being able to begin again is hugely important. Because if we look at anything we do in life, as I say these days, nothing in life is a straight shot. We’re always adjusting and saying, “Oh that didn’t work, try this,” or, “Whoops, maybe I didn’t say that so well, maybe I need to rephrase that.”

We’re falling down, we’re getting up. It’s just the nature of things. And so to be able to begin again more gracefully with less judgement and with some compassion I think is a very important thing.

And that’s resilience isn’t it?

Yeah it is resilience. Yeah, that’s why we sometimes say meditation is a resilience training.

I’ve been reading a lot of world history recently and it’s a pretty sad story. And then I look at the world and I just think, Wow, nothing is changing. Like, we seem to be just making the same mistakes over and over again. And I wonder: do you remain hopeful for us when you see the kind of cycle that we’re in at the moment?

I wouldn’t say I was the cheeriest person around.


But I do have a kind of hope in that I think about how many times I’ve been present when the Dalai Lama’s been asked that very thing. And he always says he’s hopeful. And people will then often follow up with, “Why?” [Laughs]. You know, what makes you hopeful? And he says things like, “You can just kind of sense the shift in consciousness which is growing.” And he said it used to be like the king said, “We’re going to war” and nobody complained. And now thousands and hundreds of thousands of people were brought onto the streets and said it’s not right. And so far it has not thwarted us in war probably.

But there’s something there—that the people, not the nation state—are in many cases moving and growing and understanding things differently.

And I know we can complain about technology but I actually am very fond of my phone. And I think it’s a miracle. I went to India when I was 18 years old. And I had never even been to California before. And it was this huge journey. But the end result of that journey was that I felt like I didn’t really have what I call “psychological distance” from India. Like, if somebody said to me after eight years you could go for a week, I would go. I wouldn’t think, Oh that’s a foreign land, how am I going to adjust in just a week? like most people. But there is no psychological distance anymore because people do that with their phones. Never having got off their chairs. So we have the potential to make genuine connection. I mean look at us talking right now!

Yeah exactly.

If I had to get on an aeroplane to do that it’d be really dire. So that just shows the kind of potential that’s really here.

Pierz Newton-John

Pierz Newton-John is a writer, psychotherapist and founding faculty member of The School Of Life Melbourne. His short story collection Fault Lines was published by Spineless Wonders in 2012.


Photography by Tawni Bannister

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