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.