KK: Hi, my name is Keri Kelly and welcome to another episode of CTZN Podcast where we are exploring the practice of citizenship and the politics of wellbeing. Today, we are talking about love, not the mushy, romantic kind of love but real love. How to love when it's hard or less obvious, how to love when we don't agree, how to love in the face of so much division and oppression. So we are turning to the incredibly wise, Sharon Salzberg, meditation master and bestselling author. Sharon Salzberg has been teaching meta meditation or loving kindness since 1974. She's been seminal in just bringing meditation and mindful practice to the West but by modernizing the practices, making it relatable and accessible.
Her latest book, Real Love, does just that. This book really challenge my ideas about love, especially given the state of the world. It's hard to love people who are perpetuating harm and separation. But if I'm being honest, I equally struggle with loving myself. Whenever I'd hear or read about self love I'd roll my eyes. It just seemed impossible to me. Instead, I had my own flavor of love, one that was conditional and perfectionist, a perspective I realized that's not very different from the culture of scarcity and supremacy that is profiting off of the idea that love or worthiness much earned, that one must be good enough to get or give love.
But that's not what Sharon is talking about. Instead, she offers a more complex and inclusive perspective on real love. She says, "Real love is not about letting yourself off the hook. Real love does not encourage you to ignore your problems or deny your mistakes or imperfections, you see them clearly and still opt for love. Love has the capacity to exist beyond difference and division, beyond imperfections and mistakes. When we understand real love for ourselves, we can understand it for others especially when it's hard." What Sharon is teaching and what I'm learning for myself is that love, too, is a practice. Welcome Sharon Salzberg. It's so great to have you here.
SS: It's great to see you.
KK: So I want to talk about love right out of the gates.
KK: You wrote this amazing book, Real Love. Well, you've written a lot of books, a lot of amazing books in fact. But I do feel like this book really gets at the heart of why we're all here. I devoured this book. So I'm going to ask a question that I'm sure you've gotten a lot, especially in the last couple of months because we're living in a time where there are people in power doing really unlovable things. In the book, you talked about loving everyone but I personally have a really hard time with love given the context of our country right now and given the things that are happening and the harm being done. So how do we reconcile this idea of real love, of loving everyone with this moment of oppression or even just with the oppressor themselves.
SS: It's nothing like starting with the hardest thing.
KK: Is that the hardest question? I mean, that was the first thing that came up for me when I was reading your book, it's like, "Okay, I want to be about real love but I've got feelings I'm not proud of."
SS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I've kind of watched the trajectory of my students or people I'm spending time with over the course of the last year and maybe at the beginning of the year, people were saying, "I'm so angry. I'm so outraged. I'm so freaked out," and more these days they're saying, "I can't bear my own mind. I can't live with myself anymore." It takes a real exploration and a deep exploration like, "What do we mean by love?" Because if we mean complacency, then it's outrageous. One shouldn't go there.
But there are many, many layers and levels of meanings of love. I tell a story in the book actually about I got to spend the day once many years ago with this man, Myles Horton, who began a place called the Highlander Folk School, in those days, it's called something else then, in Tennessee and it was kind of a training school for a lot of civil rights workers.
KK: Yeah, Highlander.
SS: Yeah. Very early environmental workers but it really came to prominence in the civil rights year, because it was like an integrated place in the South and it was scandalous and there were kinds of lawsuits and stuff like that. So he and I got to spend a day together and at one point we were talking about loving kindness meditation because it was me, right?
KK: You're the loving kindness person.
SS: He said to me, "Oh, Marty," Martin Luther King, Jr., he said, "Marty used to say to me, you got to love everybody. I used to say, 'No, I don't. I only have to love the people who are worthy of being love.' Marty would laugh and he'd say, 'No, you got to love everybody."
Before this was in the book, I very rarely I found, told that story, but every time I told the story, I would get a lot of pushback, like, "Well, look what happened to him. He got assassinated." I thought, "Isn't that interesting that we tend to see cause and effect there," that if Martin Luther King, Jr. Have been vicious and conniving and full of hatred, he would have been safe.
KK: Yeah, like where did love get him kind of a thing?
SS: That's right. Exactly. But what if we disentangled that sense of cause and effect and not define love as a weakness and making you too open and all of that, but really seeing it. I mean, the Buddha taught loving kindness meditation, they say, as the antidote to fear. Now, that makes some sense, right?
In our time. Another part of it is that when you see how people can treat other people when they have declared them other, they depersonalize, dehumanize somebody and it's one thing if you kick a table, it's nothing if you kick a person, you feel like you're kicking a table then we're really in trouble. So I mean, some kind of inner commitment I think to not duplicating that. But that doesn't leave us resigned and apathetic and weak. It actually leaves us very strong because love can be a strength and compassion is a strength. But this hasn't come to ... It's come to by experience which means experimentation, not by being lectured or trying to lecture yourself or force yourself to be in a place you're not ... I think it's a real stretch and it needs to be genuine. That's why we practice. We kind of check it out like what it's like. We don't start with the most unthinkable person because that's like really reaching too far.
KK: Like what I'm doing?
SS: Yeah, exactly. It's like a bridge too far. You start with somebody you feel a little conflict with at work or something. You kind of say, "What it's like when I wish him well?" I wrote one book with Bob Thurman called Love Your Enemies.
That book... actually, it originally had a different title, for a long time it had a different title, which is based on Bob having seen a movie and in the movie there was a church and in front of the church, there was like an electronic billboard as there often is and there was a saying on that billboard which was, "Love your enemies. It will drive them crazy." That used to be the title of the book and then-
KK: Like kill them with kindness, that kind of [crosstalk 00:08:01].
SS: Yeah, exactly. The best revenge is living well. I'm not going to get sucked into that. I'm going to-
KK: Yeah. It does throw people off, right?
KK: You give into their trick when you break down and freak out and replicate their behavior.
Ss: That's right. That's right. Exactly. So I was very sad when the book title changed. It simply became Love Your Enemies. Bob, we used to get asked that all the time, Bob was fond of saying, "Of course you want your enemy to be happier. If they'd be happier, they'd behave better. They'd be so much less of a jerk." Sometimes the most we can bring ourselves to say or think with somebody in the ... Because that practice, that particular practice depends on phrases, it's like offering, maybe happy, maybe peaceful. I've know people who really the most they could say was maybe free of hatred and I think that's enough.
KK: Yeah. It's funny because I think your book gets at this but we're seeing this I think play out across the movement, this sort of multidimensional idea of love, like love being redefined in many different ways. I think one of the great examples of what love looks like in public right now is the way people are speaking truth to power. Because I love you, I'm going to tell you how I feel. Because I love you, I'm going to reveal to you the truth of your actions. That's a really brave and bold expression of love. Are you surprised by what your seeing?
SS: I am in a way. I am a child of the '60s.
KK: That's right. So we're coming back around.
SS: I have always, always thought of the civil rights movement as a deeply spiritual movement as it was. Certainly, you watch those documentaries of freedom writers going out and praying, crouching down and praying before they went out and were beaten and whatever. The whole concept of nonviolence and it was-
KK: It emerged in the church, right?
SS: Yeah, definitely emerged in the church and then all those rabbis are going down and marching. It was a deeply, deeply spiritual movement.
KK: We're seeing that play out again. It's like we're returning to the thing that gives us courage and capacity to keep showing up. I think the other thing that I always learn from you and certainly it's central to this book is nuance and discernment, right? You talk about acceptance and what it means to accept how things are, with one's self or with the conditions that we live in. Then there's the fighting to change them. How do we navigate that? Because I think you were just getting at the before when you were saying that it's not about being resigned but there is a tension there between we can't tolerate how things are and we do still need to accept how things are. It's almost like a simultaneous contradiction.
SS: Well, it's the complexity of using the word acceptance, which can mean a lot of different things. You don't want to be obsessed with Your disagreement, like fighting life all the time because then you're just obsessed. It's like when you get obsessed with someone's faults or a particular person's faults and we go through the list again and again and we never even think of new faults.
KK: Or with ourselves.
SS: Or with ourselves. We just do it again and again and again. A friend of mine who is very involved in AA so I kind of suspect it's AA saying was when he's talking about his basic obsession with somebody else's faults and he said, "I've let him live right free in my brain too long."
KK: Oh wow.
SS: So we want to free our energy. The more we are entangled and obsessed and fixated on what's wrong and we don't let in the light, the more tired we get.
KK: Burnt out.
SS: Burnt out, the more overwhelmed we get.
KK: It’s like an epidemic in the movement.
SS: So we're just talking about balance. I'm never kind of totally got behind the word accept anyway, even as the definition of mindfulness which it often is used as. If you're mindful, you're going to accept things the way that they are because it does sound kind of inert. Once someone asked me when I was talking about being mindful of sounds which is a particular sort of meditation, he said, "What if it is the sound of the smoke alarm? Am I supposed to sit here mindfully knowing the smoke alarm is going or should I get up?" I said, "I'd get up, actually. I think it's a good idea," but it sounds that way.
KK: It doesn't mean inaction, right?
SS: It doesn't mean inaction. But maybe we're not coming from the usual place of reaction. Some people, in trying to hit that nuance will say, "Well, we're responding instead of reacting. Maybe we're not driven to the same kind of reaction." It's interesting to look at the consequences of certain mind states that we might nurse or develop. It's like I first met Mallika Dutt who was by that time, she'd founded Breakthrough which was an organization working against violence against women. We sat on a panel together, that's how we met. She said that she had first sort of woken up in that political sense, social justice sense, when a friend of hers was in a hospital in India and, as it happens when someone is in the hospital, you kind of need to take care of them or at least supplement their care. So she was spending an awful lot of time in the hospital with her friend and her friend just coincidentally had been put on the burn unit because that's where the empty bed was. A lot of the women on the burn unit have been burned by their husbands or burned by their in-laws or something that so she was horrified and changed her whole life to become an advocate, a powerful and incredible advocate out of that outrage. Then she said on the panel, "But I don't know how to dial it down. I don't know how to turn it off." She said, interestingly enough she said, "My whole organization is like that, so we just turn on one another."
KK: Wow. That's deep.
SS: It was amazing. She's done a lot of searching since that point and she's actually no longer there but she's doing great work and she's practicing all kinds of things. She's amazing. So I always, I try to listen deeply to my friends who are the most ... Who are like the strongest activists because they know what the experience is and I just learn from them.
KK: Well and it's like what are the things that inspire us and activate us and what are the things that take us too far. Sometimes, they're just two sides of the same coin. I remember, I saw that interview with you and Bell Hooks up on the Upper West Side and I remember her talking about your book and saying that she often contemplates the ways in which action, the action that she's taking reflects love. And I do think to your point, we are seeing a lot of people, sort of, take their meditation off their cushion these days especially right since the election...there is more of that. But there does seem to be still a gap between well intentioned, contemplative and wellness communities and then those on the other side of the spectrum to your point that are hard core activists who don't know when to say no.
How do you think we can bridge that gap? How do we integrate? Because I think that's one of the challenges. I mean, I'm one of those people that, like your friend, just goes all the way until I burn out and then I have to put myself back together again and it's hard for me to say no.
SS: I'm not sure, I mean, there is a problem, we all have to say no. But I think there's also a problem a saying yes, like more, so in a way. I remember early on, I hadn't been back from India all that long in the States and I was talking to an activist trying to remind me, he says, "I can't even let myself enjoy a banana." I said, "Really?" He said, "Well, you know the conditions." He also happened to be an extremely depressed person. I thought, "Well, maybe if he let himself enjoy more, he'd have more energy to try to make this world different." So what do we have to be grateful for? Many people think that's just an excuse for doing nothing or but can we appreciate. It's kind of a interesting consideration.
KK: Well, the ways in which that practice allows us to be more effective in service and in action, right? I don't know that they're separate. I'm learning that the hard way. As I want to be of service, especially as white privileged woman with access to wellness, it's not about me excluding myself from that mission. It's about me including myself so that I can be of service and I think that's a really hard balance to strike.
KK: In the book, you said, "One does not have to completely self loving to love others.
SS: Bell and I got into a disagreement about that.
KK: I remember this but I feel you in this question because I think a lot of the ways in which I don't take care of myself and I don't say no has to do with my relationship to myself and I how I feel about myself and what I think I'm worth and what's enough, right? So what does that mean? How do we reconcile those two things at the same time?
SS: I think the point there is trying to make this up, we don't need to love ourselves completely.
KK: Like perfectly.
KK: You don't have to wait till you graduate from perfect self love.
SS: That's right. That's right. Yeah, because then it becomes a project and it's all we do. It's all we think about. But there is a certain way in which we forget that there's a balance that we're looking for and there's got to be a balance for it to be a sustained effort and you can't leave yourself out totally because in the end, I think the motivational fields in the whole field of intention from which one is acting will get distorted, it will get weird.
SS: It's like if you give someone a gift and it's a freely given gift, that's one thing and I think it brings us a lot of joy in the giving. If you give someone a gift because you feel you don't deserve to have anything yourself, that's a whole other thing. It just won't be that kind of source of joy. No matter how they respond.
KK: Well, and there's another quote that you have in here that says, "To truly love ourselves, we must challenge our beliefs that we need to be different or better," right? Which to me is the culture that we're swimming in, right? Even the self help community, we're going to talk about the one billion dollar mindfulness community in a moment.
SS: Where are they?
KK: Where's the money? But it's tricky, right? Because even within the context of our community, we're swimming in a storyline of you're not good enough by this, that, by this workshop and we're a part of that dynamic too. So, what does that look like to be invested, right, in taking care of ourselves but also not buy into the sales pitch of “you're not good enough” and you need to do all these things to be whole?
SS: I think one of the most subtle refinements of mindfulness is looking at your motivation before a conversation, before you sign up for that workshop, before you buy something. Just take a look so that you know.
KK: Like why are you doing that?
SS: Yeah, where am I coming from? Even just hanging out with that, whatever you discover for a while because it will be very, no doubt, a nuance. But it's very interesting to discover that and kind of keep an eye on that as we evolve. What do you expect? What do you think has to happen from this workshop or retreat that you're doing? Where's the disappointment coming from? Was you're expectation reasonable? We have some remodels of self perfection and nothing is good enough even if it's great. It's just not enough.
KK: Yeah. I think about the role of attachment in that practice...If we're attached to the idea, the body image idea or the intelligence idea or the perfect meditation idea then I think something has gone sideways and so how do we dance with the destination but be on the path?
Well, I mean, some of it I think is just reminding one's self of wisdom we already have which is that perfection is unreal. It's like a piece of fruit that's perfect for like a second and a half then it's decaying. Or I bought a new car and it was not long before this bird pooped on it which I thought was outrageous, "How dare you?"
KK: This is my car and it's perfectly shiny.
SS: In the course of really - exploring loving kindness as an example and loving kindness for one's self - you begin to see that, "Oh, isn't that odd? It's hardest for me, even harder than the enemy. What's that about?" We see all kind of things in which we kind of discount ourselves or leave ourselves out. There's certain meditations where you're actually receiving the loving kindness of others and you might see, "Oh, I would rather not be in this scene after all with those two, loving kindness to one another." It's kind of amazing the sort of things that we discover but it's just conditioning.
KK: Well, in going back to the first question, I asked you the doozy, when I think about sometimes my relationship to self love, it looks a lot like my relationship to number 45, there are times where I really have self loathing and instead of projecting my like, "I must love the enemy," maybe I should stay in a practice that I must love myself and then the-
SS: Well, I mean, it's a process. I was just recently talking to somebody who said, "My meditation is not working." I said, "Why do you think it's not working." He said, "Because I sit and have all these negative emotions." I said, "Did you think about not calling them negative and calling them painful?" I said, "I have this sort of goal in my whole life." We all use the language kind of recklessly anyway but every time I say I have a bad knee, I try to correct myself and say, "It’s not bad. It just hurts." It's like you shouldn't be ashamed.
KK: You're not judging your knee.
SS: Dreadful knee or bad.
KK: Well, and you have a chapter in your book called “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” and I think it's the same thing. I have many of those. But how we catch ourselves into the ones that are particularly in loop?
SS: Well, it's a result of mindfulness and not just noticing that they're happening but kind of playing with our attitude towards it. So another thing I have in the book is a suggestion that if you have a persistent critical voice that's sort of useless, not a useful one.
KK: Like an unproductive one.
SS: Yeah, an unproductive, nasty voice that keeps coming back again and again, give it a name. Give it a wardrobe.
KK: Like befriend it.
SS: Yeah, give it a wardrobe. Give it a persona and then see how you relate to it and in effect that's exactly right. We want to befriend it, not let it take over. That's something else. But not have so much hostility and fear toward it.
KK: This is what I love about this book. There's another quote that you have which says that “real love is not about letting yourself off the hook”, right? So you're not saying like, Let's let ourselves off the hook entirely. “Real love does not encourage you to ignore your problems or deny your mistakes or imperfections. You see them clearly and you still opt for love,". So there's so much. I just feel like everything about what I would read in your book, it was like reading between the lines about love and about showing up and about forgiveness and about radical acceptance. It's not about the obvious, right? It's not about the binary. I think as I've practiced with you and others, that to me is when the practice gets really juicy, what is in between? What is the messy, uncertain, unpredictable truth of what is. So I'm super grateful to you for that.
KK: Okay, let's talk about the one billion dollar meditation business? When I asked you about this before, you're like, "Where's the money?"
SS: Well, I keep hearing that. I think, "Really?" I literally don't know where the money is.
KK: Well, and globally - because we do this research all the time to try and get a sense of how much "power" this community has - this collective wellness community. The global wellness market is like a $4 trillion market which is like a lot of money.
SS: So that's yoga, meditation, vitamins.
KK: Yoga, ecotourism, vitamins, healthy food, right? So it's like the whole healthy, sustainable, mindful conglomerate if you will. But meditation its own right is now a billion dollar business. We've politicians meditating, our dead friend, congressman Tim Ryan. We've got celebrities, many celebrities swearing by meditation. CEOs now, there is an article a couple of months back that Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter did the Vipassana. People, this is really becoming mainstream. Big companies are getting in the game. Ford Motor Company, Google, Goldman Sachs, General Mills. Is there a danger do you think in the mainstreaming of this practice?
SS: Well, many dangers. But I don't mind. I'm kind of a big advocate of the movement and when I-
KK: Yeah, because of access?
SS: Because of access. People complain about people who teach in corporations for example, which I've done and do, I said, "I've never got into a corporation and had an employee say, 'I'd like to be more soulless so I can work harder and be more productive.' It's like everybody talks about their alcoholic brother or their teenage kid or their own sleeplessness." People are just people. So I don't get the sort of ideological...Although some people have it for sure, but I just don't ... I'm not there. But there are lots of dangers. I mean, there's a big emphasis because of access and I think it's well motivated and by good hearted people who ... What they talk about is how do we scale this, how do we get this in the hands of more and more and more and more and more people? I always say, I just said this in Virginia the other day, "I don't know that the world will be more radically changed by 15 people going deep than a 100,000 people just having a casual acquaintance”.
KK: Well, why does it need to be a trade off?
SS: Yeah. That should too. But part of the problem - well it's a personal decision about where you're going to devote your own energy - but part of the issue is in order for something to scale. Either you have more and more and more teachers with less and less and less training or somehow technology steps in and takes the place of the in-person relationship with the teacher.
KK: There are consequences to that obviously.
SS: Yeah, yeah.
KK: Its evolution.
SS: Yeah, and some people are trying for sure. Which I think if also great. But by the time friends of mine ... Because part of what happens is that in many institutions and organizations, they kind of want their own people trained up so they can deliver the service and...
KK: Like performance base? Oh, I see what you're saying.
SS: Yeah, no. They want in-house yoga teachers. They want in-house meditation teachers. From my point of view, as I'm sure your point of view, I asked somebody once in one of these situations where there were the person having the conversation with this massive organization and would that organization really take meditation to heart? There could be huge implications for that. She said, "But they really want some kind of train the trainers program." So I said, "Well, how long is the training to be a meditation teacher?" She said, "Eight hours." I said, "You cannot do that. You just cannot do that. Don't let that happen." I said, the very, very least, don't have people feel like done at the end of eight hours of training.
KK: Yeah, like this is just a taste.
SS: Yeah, have them form a community and help one another and share best practices with one another. Just don't have them do something for eight hours and then [inaudible 00:31:36] and say, "I'm there." Because it's so dangerous. It's dangerous to the person and who knows what they're really going to say.
KK: What might come up, right? Right. Well, and it's a powerful position to be in, right? To facilitate a transformational experience. But I agree with you. I mean, like all things, these practices are evolving. I often say from a yoga perspective, like I don't care how they get to the mat, I just want them to get to the mat. I also do think that there's the pendulum swings often too far and I think about the intention for a lot of these sort of big companies to democratize these practices might be good but the impact might not, right? I'm even thinking about corporations that are leveraging mindfulness and wellness practice for performance and retention and, right, is like ... I know you speak often from a personal standpoint around our attachment to those things, right, backfire on us often. So are we going to miss the point? Will the message you think get lost when we start to translate these tools and practices into just another tool of capitalism? Do we miss the point?
SS: Perhaps. But that doesn't mean that state is forever.
SS: I mean, I guess one fear is that it is forever because you have certain intention or goal and you've met it and you stop or you dismiss it, something like that. But I think, at least just as often and probably it's just much more often somebody gets a taste of something and then thinks to themselves, "I want to see where this can take me. It doesn't have to stop here."
KK: Yeah, I mean, I'm sort of amazed at the proliferation of these practices and I even do think that there's a role that they're playing in the movement, whether we can see it or not or point to it or not, the fact that people are grounded and centered and curious and compassionate, I think is a testament to the fact that these practices have become, have been seated, they've kind of infiltrated the culture in ways that we can't even identify anymore.
SS: Yeah, well, back to your earlier point about loving one's self, it's like, I think, to stand up to the stories, it's not just stories we tell ourselves, it's stories other tell about us to us, like your life is worth, was it a dollar and five cents or a dollar and 50?
KK: Yeah. From the march.
SS: From the march, yeah. It's like if you're a kid going to school in Florida where your senator receives money from the NRA, they divided the amount of money you see from the NRA divided by the number of school children.
KK: That's right.
SS: My life is worth, I think it was a dollar, five cents. You've got to step away from the stories others tell about you and realize how much you're worth. Then you fight.
KK: Then you can change the story.
SS: One that's funny as I think about maybe the impact of these practices on our culture, I think about the Emma’s, I think about these kids and what they pulled off with march for our lives. It was so skilled and sophisticated and intersectional and inclusive and compassionate, things that it took me 40 years to understand. So I'm like there's something about the youth that are coming up that have already been programmed with some of these real tools. Do you think, of all of the things that we practice, loving kindness, compassion, empathy, courage, love, is there one ingredient that you think is the thing we need to center right now given this moment that we're in? Is it compassion? Is that the thing we really need to keep coming back to as we fight?
SS: I think it's wisdom actually. I mean, it's everything of course. It's not just one thing but I think it's wisdom, it's perspective. There are times I've seen, I mean, I get afraid. I don't like being in New York city and realizing that swastikas are being painted two blocks away. I have very visceral reactions to that and probably genetic reactions to that. In the fear, you just perspective and you make all kind of crazy decisions because you don't realize there are options and there-
KK: What affects your nervous system...
SS: Yeah, totally and everything shuts down and you just don't see clearly. It's kind of the nature of being overwhelmed by those states. So all those remind us we're true of ourselves and we offer one another because sometimes we really need someone, we need it to come from someone else, and that everything changes and that we don't know the answer right now or we see it's in front of us, it doesn't mean it's the end of the story and even the good that we do that seems very small is important to do.
SS: Because we don't know where it's going to go and that we're not in control of the universe because, that things take time.
KK: How do we source that wisdom? Is it meditation and listening or is it being exposed to one another in relationship? Is it seeking teachers? If someone was like, "I want more of that thing, wisdom, that Sharon's telling me to get more of," where do they find it? Do we want to find them to books? Do we point them to teachers? Do we point them to themselves?
SS: Well, it's always one's self right in the end but I think it's a ... I mean, for me, of course it would be meditation because that's my background. That's how I formed this sense of integrity and clarity, about what was important to me. Now we're fed so many lies and myths about what strength is or what will make us happy. We're taught day in and day out, like vengefulness is the way. But you really look at your mind the last time you were consumed by vengefulness, it wasn't a very happy place.
KK: It wasn't pretty.
SS: It wasn't productive. It doesn't serve. And then in these experiments, we're always looking like how does it feel to be compassionate? Am I really just a sucker when I'm compassionate in the way I always believed or was told? So we get to decide for ourselves out of being able to pay attention.
KK: Is that what you mean by idiot compassion? I saw that referenced. Is that what it's called? Idiot compassion?
SS: Yeah, that's what Trungpa Rinpoche called it. Idiot compassion which was his phrase was really kind of like compassion without wisdom, without an understanding and the idea that compassion really needs to be accompanied by discernment and clarity and at the very least understanding the context in which you are standing right then. So maybe what is truly most compassionate in a certain situation for example is saying no, it's telling someone, "No, you can't move back," or, "I'm not going to give you any money if you just to do what you're doing with it."
KK: Or saying, "I don't know."
Or saying, "I'm sorry."
Yeah, and that's not the same as, "Oh, I'm compassionate. I must give them the money."
KK: What's the difference between compassion and empathy? Because I feel like those terms are sometimes conflated.
SS: Yeah, they must because conflated. I think, we would say empathy is like a necessary but not sufficient condition for compassion to arise. We need empathy. I'm glad for all the empathy training that seems to be happening.
KK: All the science. I mean, there's so much being invested in empathy right now.
SS: Yeah, which is great because it's a cold, cruel world, it really is. But empathy is just not enough because you might have a genuine sense of empathy for someone, like you see them or you witness them and you feel into the, "Ooh, that must really hurt. That must really be scary." But maybe you have a genuine moment of empathy and that frightens you and you just want to run away or maybe you're so tired. You're so fatigued and overcome anyway. You hear someone's story, you just want them to go away. Or maybe you blame them. I was talking to a therapist not too long ago and they said, I've gotten to this bad and kind of weird little loop where I'm blaming all my clients, like, "I told you six months ago." Not out loud but just...
KK: Get it together.
SS: Yeah. So maybe that's our response. So the empathy was genuine but the next response after that is something we would not call compassion.
KK: So empathy is the feeling and compassion is the response?
SS: Yeah, I mean, you could say that. Empathy is the resonance, it's like we're vibeing with somebody. Compassion is the potential response.
KK: That's great.
SS: Many, many possible responses.
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KK: You were just recently in Charlottesville.
KK: I imagine that that is a place, given what happened this past summer where empathy and compassion are needed to understand what went down there. What did you experience there? What amazed you? What surprised you? What did you learn?
SS: I find it pretty intense. I went specifically because of that, what happened last summer, and because I got invited and just barely fit into my schedule. It was a little set back by the snow but I flew from California to D.C. and a friend drove me down to Charlottesville.
I was there for a few days and then I had a car back to D.C. and then it was really complicated. It really kind of blew me. I mean, I went because I felt so much for those people and there's a really big insight meditation community there. My Life Institute, who are friends of mine, also moved back down there. So it's just like so much connection and it was intense. People had this charm. They kept calling it “events”...”the events last August”.
SS: I thought it was interesting, person after person.
KK: Like that was like a change moment.
SS: Yeah, and people talked about trauma a lot. Somebody drove me by the place where the girl had been mowed down. There was flowers. But people are shellshocked but it's really ongoing. It's not like it's over. They know that.
KK: Yeah. What is that? Did they say they needed something or what was the ... How does a community like that recover?
SS: I think they have to recover together ... I mean, there were several communities that I was with, different times. I think it's partly communities joining within their community. Like not feeling so solitary with one's own feelings.
KK: Like coming together.
SS: Yeah, coming together. Mostly, I think it's very difficult to do but I think there's a lot of recovery that happens to action. So one of the things I was trying to do there and I don't know how artfully I managed to do it really but I was trying to make a distinction between the kind of action I would encourage when you're thinking about having a more civil conversation with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner because they voted in a way that you did not really like. There's a lot of energy all around the country going toward that. I think that's great but I said, "This is different. These are people with Nazi flags."
I said, "For me, trying to have a conversation and understand where they're coming from is a fraction of what I would feel moved to do," which in part what I'd feel moved to do would be doing everything I can to engage in the political process so those particular people who are waving Nazi flags don't have the power to legislate because the consequences are very severe. I said, "This is not hatred and it's not out of some kind of corrosive, demeaning of them but I think it's enough."
KK: Well, it's wisdom? It's like choose your actions wisely. Right after the election, I heard a similar thing. I was traveling around doing house parties. People were inviting me to just help facilitate where to go, where we go from here, which is kind of the thing people were asking for. I was hearing the same thing, like people were disturbed about the people in their life that had voted for Trump and how the yearning to reconcile that, like they were determined to have some kind of transformational conversation with that person. I heard this over and over and over and over again and finally I was like, "Hold up." I said, "Make a list of the number of people in your life who voted for Trump and it would be like, one, my cousin from blah, blah, blah, my aunt from ... Three, two or three depending on where people were from." Then I said, make a list of everyone in your life that have gone back to sleep and it was like 40 people. I was like, "Where do you think our problem is?"
It's sort of like what you were saying to me before. It's like you have to pick the furthest person to love. Just how about love all the people around you first and start there? It was like a real awakening for me around how do we organize. Because we tend to go for the hardest thing. Like if I fix the hardest thing then things will be right. Where we're trying to fix the thing that we just can't accept within ourselves. But really, it was about engagement. Like “what's going on that our peers and our coworkers and our family members are all going back to business as usual”? What do we do with that?
KK: So I want to ask you about voting and civic engagement.. because that's really what this podcast is about, it's about not citizenship as defined by papers or where you're from and also not citizenship as defined by an election every two to four years or a crisis like in Charlottesville. It's citizenship as defined by practice. Like what would it look like if we engaged everyday in public service the way that we engage everyday in meditation or yoga or drinking green juice or the one billion dollar mindfulness movement? But one of the things I have admired about you and we've known each other for a long time is that you have been an outspoken teacher for civic engagement, for political engagement, certainly for voting.
KK: I mean, you have an election time meditation. You give election resources when the time comes and you've been such an ally to our work in the way in which we're kind of mobilizing this community. But there is like a gap, right, in how we show up, right? It's like either because we have to or because social media just blew up or because the election is around the corner, because we're responding to something like Charlottesville. What do you think it looks like to transform our culture so that citizenship is as synonymous as meditation, right? So that citizenship is as frequent as eating healthy or these things that we buy into so frequently within the wellness culture but politics is thing that we do only occasionally when we have to. How do we close that gap?
SS: I suspect it's going to be small circles of people who find not only joy but meaning in those kind of common actions, like somebody said to me they have this idea that maybe people should meditate together, some group of people would meditate together and then just go phone bank, just like whip out their phones and then talk about, because this is the interesting part, talk about what came up in their minds. Because we have that capacity because presumably as meditators, we were cultivating that very thing and to be able to share that and not just sit with the hear and think, "Oh, I humiliated myself. I'm never doing this again," to really engage even on that level because I think we will find a lot of support in one another.
So of course, when I was in Charlottesville. We've talked about voting and everybody looked stunned. I don't think they were expecting that because I think a lot, in their hearts, they're really trying to come to terms with their own fear and hatred and everything inevitably would arise in a situation like that. But I think it was always in terms of their minds and their personal efforts. I don't think it was, it had nothing to do with voting, but because one of my things was that maybe having civil dialog, first of all, it's not going to happen but, with some people, but maybe it's not enough. It's kind of not the point.
KK: Well, I'm with you. Like how do we bridge civil discourse with action in a way that reflects our practice, in a way that reflects our values. I think what I love about what you're saying to bridge that gap and we think about this all the time, right, and we facilitate small circles and I do love the idea of civil discourse and I think for meditators and yoga practitioners, they're predisposed to a compassionate practice that might allow for a more productive exchange sometimes, I think, when we're centered and resourced. But I agree that conversation without action is limiting, the same way that action without consciousness and compassion can be harmful. So there's a way in which I really want to see all of those things come together in some kind of civic expression.
KK: But I love what you're saying around we're called to meditate because we value it, because it makes us feel good, because we see the way it's transforming our lives. I do think that people don't believe or aren't sure whether that will translate for them politically. Often, people, we hear people say, "My vote doesn't count." We hear that all the time around why they're so passive about voting. So I'm wondering, as you're describing what you experienced, I'm wondering what are the ways in which we can help people realize that their vote, their voice, their small circle meditating and phone banking actually does in fact make a difference.
SS: Well, it does. I mean, look at these elections that are being decided by 62 votes or something.
KK: Well, we've got the blue wave happening, right? Like there is something shifting in the way in which people are showing up. As we kind of end this conversation, is there ... What is the call to action? I feel like that's one of the things that I love about you is you rarely leave a meditation without a context. There's always like, "This is what it looks like in your life." Given that we're in front of a midterm election, given that we're coming out of a year of rollbacks and resistance, what is the thing that you want to remind people of in addition to their practice that we can do that can move us in the direction of progress?
SS: Well, I think whether it's a question of affirming your love for yourself, like "I'm worth something. I'm worth decent treatment, decent opportunity," or love for another whether it's your grandchild, someone's going to be trying to breathe long after we're not here anymore.
SS: Hopefully. Yeah, maybe not. Or it's this kind of more general sense of love for life. We're moved to try to do something whether it's the small good that's in front of us or kind of helping put more systemic change in place.
KK: That reflects love.
SSL Yeah, that would never be just one person but it's like a collective effort. It's over and, not or, but and voting. It's like we've got to participate in this system as it is.
KK: Democracy is love.
SS: Yeah, it's engagement.
It's how we take care of each other.
That's right. No, it's true. I was once talking to a person who was kind of a new friend and his son was going to be turning 18 just before the presidential election. There are different members of the family where there are three voters and I just assumed they voted and at one point, he said, "We don't vote." I said, "No, you have to vote." It's like, "You have to vote."
Basically, his commentary was more like, "Well, they're really kind of the same, these two candidates," which turns out not to be true, "but they're really kind of the same except the margins." I said, "People live at those margins." If you're talking about the difference between a $10 an hour minimum wage and a $15 an hour minimum wage, that's a big difference in someone's life. You've got to vote for them. I think it's true. I mean, won't be true for long but I think as life is fairly apart from the kinds of things, they're not endangered of being deported. They're not ... There's all kinds of stuff that we are all-
KK: They're insulated.
SS: Yeah, they're insulated. But that won't be true forever. It's just won't.
KK: Well, and I love that we're ending on this note of real love is voting. Real love is loving the people on the margins enough to fight for them and vote for them and advocate for them. I know that you have said, I think, “voting is our commitment to ourselves, to one another and to the whole society”. We like to say voting is collective care, right? It's how we voice our love for each other. So I love that being sort of the end note for this conversation. We started with love. We started with the big question of how do we love the hard things and now we end with how do we embody and vote love and voice love and so thank you for being a commitment to that and for fiercely advocating and stewarding the democratic process.
KK: I'm so grateful to have had you in my life for the last couple of years especially when politics and meditation weren't very popular. It was always nice that I could turn to you and be like, "We've got to get this community to the polls," and you'd be like, "Hell, yeah." So anyway, thank you Sharon for always being out front and pushing us to stretch our practice to the next level.
SS: Thank you so much.
KK: We are re-imagining a citizenship where everyone belongs and that calls us to fight for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US. Among them, 800,000 young people are living in fear because of the DACA crisis. An attack on immigrants is an attack on all of us. We need to fight to keep our families together and ensure the wellbeing of everyone. Please make it a practice of your citizenship to demand permanent protection, dignity and respect for our undocumented communities. You can learn more about how to engage at fairimmigration.org and unitedwaydream.org.
While this podcast is coming to an end, our work in the world is just beginning. This week call to action is practice meta or loving kindness, not just when it's easy but all of the time. Tune into Sharon's podcast, Meta Hour and check out her teaching schedule at Sharonsalzberg.com. Special thanks to our producer Trevor Exter and DJ Drez for the amazing soundtrack. You can check out his music at Djdrez.com. Thank you for being here today. You can stay in the know and engage by subscribing to our weekly newsletter well read at CTZNwell.org. CTZN Podcast is community inspired and crowd sourced. That's how we keep it real. Join our community on Patreon for as little as $1 per month so that we can keep doing the work of curating content that matters for citizens who care. Don't forget to rate us on iTunes and share the love by telling your friends to check us out.