READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- Why love is not just a feeling
- How compassion works when it comes to narcissists
- How to accept your emotions without getting lost in them
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher of meditation, having played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture. She recently joined University of Pennsylvania psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology Podcast to discuss what real love is all about, and how we can achieve peace and self-knowledge through mindfulness.
Scott: Before you discovered what meditation could do for the mind and body, could you describe what you felt like?
Sharon: In one word, it would be “fragmented.” I was in a lot of turmoil. My life, my mind was chaotic, but I didn’t really understand the layers of anger and grief. It’s only when I began meditating that I began going through those layers, and experiencing all those things directly.
I started practicing in January of 1971, and I heard about this parallel practice called “loving-kindness.” I heard about it at the end of my first intensive 10-day retreat, and it was offered as a ceremonial way to say goodbye to end the retreat: “May I be happy, may you be happy.” Just silent recitation, and charging your body with these sensations of loving-kindness. I got really intrigued by the practice, so in 1985 I went to Burma for a three-month period of intensive loving-kindness practice.
Somewhere in the course of those three months, I had this turning point. I realized that up until that point, I had considered love almost like a commodity, like a package in someone else’s hands. I would get this image of the delivery person standing on my doorstep with the package of love, and he’d glance down at the address and say, “[Oh] no, I’m going somewhere else.” Then there would be no love in my life, and I’d be completely bereft.
The turning point was realizing that’s not the way it is. Love is actually a potential within me. It’s a capacity and ability within me, and other people. Different scenes might awaken it, enrich it, or threaten it, but it’s mine.
That was a huge life transition. It was matched seven years later when I saw this movie called Dan in Real Life. There’s a line in the movie that my most recent book, [Real Love,] is almost completely based on: “Love is not a feeling. It’s an ability.”
Scott: You use the phrase “being love” in your book, and Abraham Maslow used the phrase “be love.” He called it “unneeding love.”
Sharon: I think there’s something about the generosity of the spirit that is love, but it warrants examination. A man I know [once] told me that his move toward a more liberated kind of love, a more real kind of love, was moving [away from] privilege, not listening to his wife primarily in terms of how his needs might be satisfied. [Maybe] things weren’t that convenient for him, but it meant a lot to her, so he would give her the power.
“Real love isn’t a tradeoff.”
We’re friends, and he used to tell me stories about his marriage, and I would say, “There are an awful lot of people in this world, notably women, who never get to express their needs. For them, a move toward a more liberated or real kind of love is not [surrendering] to the wishes of the other. It’s giving voice to what they want.”
A friend of mine named Gina outlived her cancer prognosis by literally 40 years, [but] when she was first diagnosed, she looked at absolutely everything in her life. She told me, “I realized that I was the kind of person who’d be sitting in the car with my husband, and I’d be boiling hot, and the most I could ever bring myself to say was, ‘Are you warm, dear?’” That changed [with her diagnosis].
That balance for each of us at different times might look different, but the core value is authenticity.
Scott: For sure, striking that balance of getting outside yourself while not sacrificing yourself. Real love isn’t a tradeoff.
You discuss multiple paradoxes. One is the more that we give love and get outside of our need for it, the more likely we’ll receive love. Another one I really enjoyed reading about was the attachment paradox. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sharon: In Buddhist teaching, attachment is the root cause of suffering. “Attachment” has a very specific meaning, which is more in the sense of control. If you think of the generosity aspect of love, there are a lot of different ways of giving a gift. You can give someone a gift, and it’s really a freely given gift. Or you can give someone a gift because they have something you want—”Maybe if I give you this, you’ll give me that.” You can give a gift with a timetable of how soon you’d like to be thanked, and how loudly you’d like to be thanked.
Those strings, the expectation, the need for reciprocity—they’re human and they’re understandable, but they cause a lot of suffering because those things are not in our control. We can’t control someone else’s behavior. [Trying to control it leads to] a state of suffering.
Scott: Let’s talk a little bit more about the practice of loving-kindness. What is loving-kindness?
Sharon: “Loving-kindness” is a translation of the Pali word “metta.” It’s an inner state of connection. It’s looking at the rigid sense of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them” that we can carry around, and realizing it’s all just a construct. In a more real sense, we live in an interconnected universe, and our lives have something to do with one another.
That doesn’t mean you [necessarily] like somebody. It doesn’t mean that you’ll give them money or spend time with them. But there’s that sense of connection.
Scott: This is such an interesting idea, that you can love someone and not even like them.
Sharon: Yeah. I mean in reality, don’t we find that?
Scott: For sure. When I do your meditations, you say [something like,] “Now let’s broaden the circle to someone that maybe you don’t like very much. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then show some compassion to yourself, because you’re actually suffering by not extending love to this person.”
I like the idea that no matter how horrible a person seems to be, they are suffering, and if you reduce their suffering, you’re making the world a better place. There’s a concept we study called “grandiose narcissism,” and those who score high in grandiose narcissism never say that they’re suffering. They think everyone else are suckers for suffering, and that they’re great, they’re the best. What do you do with that kind of logic?
Sharon: A human being is capable of greatness of heart, and real presence and real contribution. And then you look at the choices some make for what they think happiness is—making money, squashing other people, living in a dog-eat-dog world.
It’s so ironic that in the end we all die, that we have to give up everything. Why did you spend a whole life being lonely, trying to put everyone down? It’s quite an interesting way to spend an entire life and die that way. There are lots of ways of feeling compassion for that person, even when they seem incredibly self-satisfied.
Scott: I agree. But you know, I was talking with my research colleague [about] those who score high on dark triad characteristics: narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. I was making the argument that they are not fully human, but then I said, “Wait, I’m dehumanizing the dehumanizers. They’re missing out on so many aspects of humanity that could bring them joy and happiness.”
Sharon: That’s right. If you kick a human being and think they’re like a table, that’s a big problem—and that’s the state of disconnection we face sometimes within ourselves or in others. That is so dangerous. You don’t want to perpetuate or be engaged in that kind of dehumanization or objectification.
Scott: Yeah, I think [they’re] worthy of compassion.
“We live in an interconnected universe, and our lives have something to do with one another.”
We’ve been trying to measure loving orientation, and we created a new scale. We found that the most loving people show the highest level of what’s called “survivor guilt,” feeling guilty if you achieve great success and others are not achieving your success.
[The most loving people also feel] a form of guilt called “omnipotent responsibility guilt,” feeling responsible for the suffering of anyone that’s around them. It seems like having a loving orientation can come with great joys and a full existence, but there are some things to be aware of.
Sharon: I find that really fascinating, and the first thing that came to my mind was this quality called “equanimity,” which is usually taught in conjunction with loving-kindness. Equanimity is a balanced form of wisdom, meaning that every action, every moment of love and kindness and compassion, is supported by wisdom. Otherwise loving-kindness becomes attachment, like “It’s up to me to ease your suffering,” or “I’ve got a list of people to make happy.”
It’s that balance like, “I care for you, and I care about your pain, and I will do what I can to ease you. [But] it’s not in my hands in the end. This is not my universe to control.” What about the balance between loving-kindness for oneself and for others? It’s multidimensional, not just in one direction.
Scott: You do tend to find a correlation between having a loving orientation towards others and having a loving orientation towards yourself. And those that have an antagonistic orientation towards others tend to have an antagonistic orientation towards themselves. It seems like cultivating real love in any form will have benefits in the larger system, so to speak.
Sharon: It’s interesting that you say that, because we work with a lot of caregivers, people who are serving the needs of others in their personal or professional lives, and there is such massive burnout.
Scott: Empathy burnout. The research shows that loving-kindness, compassion, is the antidote to empathy burnout. Matthieu Ricard says when he sees someone suffering, he doesn’t feel pain—he feels warmth. That motivates you more to actually do something, right? To approach the person, as opposed to hiding because you feel so upset.
I really love the part in your book about the stories that we tell ourselves and the stories others tell about us. What’s the role of stories in connection to love?
Sharon: It has a lot to do with the assumptions in our minds. A friend of mine gave a talk somewhere, and in the course of the talk he mentioned how, when he’d been younger, reading Proust had been very important for him. After the lecture he’d gone out to dinner and was sitting in this restaurant, and a small group approached him. This woman emerged from the group to talk to him, and he took a look at her and he’s like, “She looks really kind of uneducated, not that smart.”
The first thing she said was, “I was at your lecture. I really liked it, [but] I find I get a lot more out of reading Proust in the original French.” It’s fascinating, those assumptions that come up about a person, about ourselves, gender, race, anything. One of the great gifts of mindfulness is to be able to see these things, so they’re not unconscious or half-conscious. And then we can [say], “Maybe I’ll just listen for a while and see if it’s true.” It’s actually very empowering.
And one of the biggest feeders of those assumptions is those stories. We tell stories about ourselves: we need to be perfect, we need to be better than perfect, that wasn’t good enough, or it might have been great but wasn’t good enough. Those stories deeply affect our every moment, [as do] the stories others tell about us, even the stories others tell about life.
One year, a friend brought me to this concentration of cherry trees. We managed to get there during the day, and [there were] delicate pink blossoms and it was just beautiful. And then my friend said, “Oh no, it’s past the peak.” They only bloom once. And I thought, “Oh no, it’s not the peak. This isn’t good enough. I’m having a bad experience.”
Scott: As soon as they said that, it changed the whole flavor of things.
Sharon: That’s right. There are so many stories about us, about life, about someone else that we carry, and our goal is to see those stories so they’re not hidden assumptions.
Scott: I love that.
“No matter how horrible a person seems to be, they are suffering, and if you reduce their suffering, you’re making the world a better place.”
I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t quickly run through your RAIN model.
Sharon: Yeah. When something comes up and we’re working to be mindful of it, we want to avoid two extremes. One extreme is fearing it and being ashamed of it. Let’s say a wave of anger comes up. We don’t want to be afraid of it and just try to make it go away. The other extreme is letting it take over and being completely defined by it, like “I’m such an angry person, and I always will be.”
Mindfulness is the place in the middle, where we’re neither getting lost in what’s happening, nor are we trying to push it away. That sweet spot in the middle is sometimes described by this acronym RAIN.
R is Recognizing: “Oh, it’s anger.”
The A is Acknowledging what’s happening right now, [saying] “I don’t have to fight it, and I don’t have to get lost in it.”
I is Investigating, looking into the anger, feeling it in your body. When we look without holding on and without pushing away, we see, “Oh, there’s a lot in there. There’s sadness in there, there’s fear, this sense of helplessness.” We see it’s a composite, and it’s constantly changing. This quality that seems so permanent and impervious to change—“Look at that, it’s changing, it’s shifting.”
And then the N is Non-identification. You don’t have to say, “I am such an angry person.” You see that this was a passing state—it came and went. So that’s RAIN—it’s a good way of sensing what mindfulness is.
Scott: [To close,] I have another quote from you: “We cannot will what thoughts and feelings arise in us, but we can recognize them as they are, sometimes recurring, sometimes frustrating, sometimes filled with fantasy, many times painful, always changing. By allowing ourselves this simple recognition, we begin to accept that we will never be able to control our experiences, but then we can transform our relationship to them. This changes everything.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed.