Sharon Salzberg + Robert Thurman
Meeting Our Enemies and Our Suffering
Sharon Salzberg is a Buddhist teacher and author — and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. She is the author of 11 books, including Real Happiness, Lovingkindness, and most recently, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.
December 15, 2016
MS. SHARON SALZBERG: The word “love” is so loaded, and what does it mean? Our fear, of course, is that it means something very passive and complacent and — “I’m gonna let people hurt me, and I’m gonna let them oppress other people, and I’m gonna be a doormat.” It’s a very nuanced and subtle quality. It’s very hard to see love as a force, as a power rather than as a weakness, but that is its reality.
MR. ROBERT THURMAN: The hopeful thing for some people who like their anger — and some people do like their anger. The hopeful thing is that that energy, a strong, powerful energy of heat force can be ridden in a different way and can be used to heal yourself. It can be used to develop inner strength and determination.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Robert Thurman was the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama. Sharon Salzberg is one of the original circle of young Americans who traveled to India in the 1960s and ‘70s and literally imported Buddhism into the West. When I spoke with them in 2013, they were teaching and writing together, bringing the lofty ideal of loving your enemies down to earth. How can that be realistic, and what do we have to do inside ourselves to make it more possible? Our conversation was filled with laughter, their long friendship, and much practical wisdom.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Sharon Salzberg is based at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which she helped found in 1975. This has become a center of classic Theravada meditation in the West. She’s widely known for her teachings and her many books, including Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
After his early stint as a monk, Robert Thurman married and had children, including the actress Uma Thurman. Now a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, he is rooted in the Mahajana school, which shaped more esoteric and culturally-influenced traditions like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
MS. TIPPETT: What I want to focus on with you as we speak is this teaching and thinking you’re doing about enemies in the broadest sense of how we approach that. But I’d like to start with just a little bit about whether there was a spiritual background to your childhood, and also whether, in your earliest life, how language and a sense of enemies was present for you, spiritually or otherwise.
MS. SALZBERG: Well, that’s very interesting. I don’t know that there was a spiritual presence in my earliest life. There was certainly the presence of a lot of suffering and confusion. And out of that, I really reached for something that — and I actually did sense always — not that it was given unto me — but I always had a sense there was something other, there was something bigger than the situations I found myself in.
My childhood was marked by a lot of disruption, a lot of loss. My mother died when I was very young. And all of this was surrounded by a very strange kind of silence. No one would ever actually talk about anything. And so it was when I went to college and I first encountered the Buddhist teaching in an Asian philosophy course, ironically, which I honestly think I chose just ‘cause it was on Tuesday or something. “Oh, I’ll do that one.”
MS. SALZBERG: That’s where I first heard the Buddha saying, “There’s suffering in life. It’s not just you. You don’t have to feel abhorrent and alone and weird. It’s a part of life, and you belong.” And that was an enormous opening for me. And then I heard that you can do something about that suffering, not the kind of suffering of circumstance. It doesn’t mean everything’s always going to be pleasant or it’s going to level off into this delightful place, but we can be different with everything. We can approach everything in a different way with a full heart and with wisdom. And that possibility is what sent me off to India.
MS. TIPPETT: And Bob, how about you? Was there a spiritual background to your childhood? And was there a sense or a vocabulary of enemies?
MR. THURMAN: Well, I’m not sure. I didn’t have quite such a dramatic situation as Sharon did. My parents survived, although they both died fairly young, 50s and 60s, which to me is fairly young now. [laughs] But my mother’s spiritual thing was Shakespeare, and she felt Shakespeare was the Buddha. And my father did have a little bit mystical side in relation to some of the French and Italian and Spanish Catholic thinkers, but he was not a Catholic. And we weren’t church-going particularly.
And I didn’t like God much. I liked Jesus. I thought he was very sweet, and his whole thing about every bird, and the lilies of the valley, and the Sermon on the Mount — I liked that. But then God was behind the scenes there, like, sacrificing him. I mean, I just thought that was weird. And I didn’t believe in his omnipotent creatorship at all. And that put me into a debate mode with the pastor in the place where I went to play basketball and sing, the brick church on Park Avenue.
But it was really the Buddha who really got to me in the Tibetan forum, when I finally found the Tibetans that really did shape — although, one funny thing, I wasn’t that into Tibet per se. I was really into India. But the thing is that the Indian Buddhist great revolution in the world, great manifestation in the world, is preserved in Tibet very powerfully and lost in India. So that was, I think, why I was so captivated by the Tibetans, not to mention the Dalai Lama’s personality and so on.
MS. TIPPETT: And how did the two of you come to be doing these workshops and teachings together on this subject?
MS. SALZBERG: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Is there a story there?
MR. THURMAN: How did it happen? How did it happen?
MS. SALZBERG: Well, Bob and I are old friends. Bob, before he was at Columbia, was at Amherst College. And the center that I co-founded, the Insight Meditation Society, is in Barre, Massachusetts, which is about, say, 40, 45 minutes away from Amherst. So I remember Bob living in this big yellow house. And these are the days when the Dalai Lama would come to visit and, as I’m told, wander around Bob’s house, opening up closet doors and saying things like, “Oh, very messy.”
MS. SALZBERG: So we got to be friends. Then Bob came to New York City, Columbia. And eventually, they established this gorgeous retreat center called Menla Mountain Center in Phoenicia, New York, and we began teaching there together. And we began teaching this particular workshop together because we come from two different strands of Buddhist tradition, and yet we enjoy — I think we both enjoy really exploring the relevance of these teachings to modern life really as we find it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. And I think what’s such an important starting point is this reality base that — I saw love in Buddhism, right? You’re talking about something as painful and contentious as enemies, and really starting with the fact that everything is always constantly changing, even things that are good, and that, in life, there will be suffering, and we will harmed. So this is a reality, not something that you begin by wishing away. Or, I mean, you have to work with it, right?
MR. THURMAN: Right.
MS. SALZBERG: Well, I think that’s exactly right. We face it. We find inner enemies. We find outer enemies. We make things of life like death or suffering enemies. Life is complicated. It’s challenging. It’s wonderful. It’s all of that. And sort of trying to pretend that that won’t happen, that we’re just gonna be perfectly content all of the time and not face these challenges is completely unreal. And I think it’s much more important, obviously, and much more powerful to start with what’s real.
MR. THURMAN: Absolutely. I always like to say, “Buddhism is engaged realism.” Because they say that Buddha himself discovered the nature of reality, completely understood it fully and totally, and also understood that other beings could do so, and also understood that only by such discovery can you find freedom from that suffering. “If you really know the reality, then you will be free of the suffering” was his real innovative teaching, which has lasted now for thousands of years. So realism, being realistic, is the key.
MS. TIPPETT: And I do want to kind of go through the way you unfold this subject of enemies. So in a sense, all of this thinking about enemies circles back to inner work. But let’s start with the reality of outer enemies, as you say, those others who make our lives difficult. One of the things, Bob, that you’ve written is, “It is highly rational for us to love our enemies.” [laughs]
MR. THURMAN: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Which I think puts two things together, rationality and love of enemies, which is an interesting juxtaposition. What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that?
MR. THURMAN: Well, Jesus is the one who used that phrase…
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but it’s the hardest teaching.
MR. THURMAN: …most prominently in our memory, although Buddha used the same phrase, actually, in a slightly different phrasing. Buddha said that hatred will never come to an end by hatred. Only love can overcome hatred is what he said. Although usually, in that tradition, the Burmese or Theravada tradition, the Buddhists have a midway station where they talk about hatred, and the next step is non-hatred. Then once you got non-hatred going, you can move over toward love and compassion.
MS. SALZBERG: [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: I think that’s useful. I think that’s really useful.
MR. THURMAN: Yeah, yeah. It is. They’re very psychologically astute about that sort of thing, I totally think. But the reason why it’s rational in a Buddhist sense is that the Buddhist world view is that we live in a much larger continuity than a single lifetime. We’ve all had infinite previous lifetimes, and we all will have infinite future lifetimes. Mahayana Buddhists, I think, would argue — and maybe ultimately Theravada would agree — that that will be endless also, the future.
And so even if you win one round in one life over one enemy, then you have become like that enemy by being violent, angry, whatever it may be. And then your rebirth will become something more appropriate to an inner state of anger and violence and hatred. And therefore, you’ll be more in conflict with your environment and with others. So therefore, to love the enemy is highly rational from your own inner perspective in that sense.
And actually in the outer perspective, if you take the definition of love as “wishing for the happiness of the beloved,” which is the Buddhist definition of it, then if your enemy was really happy, he or she might get tired of bothering to be your enemy. Like, why bother chasing that guy? I’m having a groovy time somewhere else. So in a way, it kind of makes sense to wish the enemy to be happy.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean, it’s very — it is reasonable when you put in that kind of framework. But something that I think about a lot is that — I think, say, in Christianity, this is often discussed as there’s the problem of evil or great enemies. And even maybe in our culture, we tend to focus on these dramatic, drama-sized enemies, the Bernie Madoff, or the bully, or the catastrophic danger, or the murderer.
MR. THURMAN: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: But something that I’m aware in real life, day to day, I think so much pain and suffering is caused by — I don’t know what I would even call — maybe the near outer enemy, right? Not the villain out there, but the people close to us in workplaces or in families or in friendships.
I don’t know. Sharon, I think I remember that in your early life — you said that your mother died — that you were in different foster families. I mean, it’s like people are vulnerable, and it’s those people who have a power, such a destructive power, to do damage in those circumstances. And that’s where I feel, in the real life, as you say, Bob, in this lifetime, kind of the rubber meets the road. So I mean, where do these beautiful teachings start to speak there?
MS. SALZBERG: Well, actually, I wasn’t in foster families, but I was in different family configurations.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, OK. All right.
MS. SALZBERG: I tried to calculate it once, and I think I was in five different family configurations when I left for college at the age of 16.
MR. THURMAN: Wow.
MS. SALZBERG: But I think that’s so crucial. I want to say something about that middle place, learning to stop hating, because the word “love” is so loaded, and what does it mean? Our fear, of course, is that it means something very passive and complacent and — “I’m gonna let people hurt me, and I’m gonna let them oppress other people, and I’m gonna be a doormat.” It’s a very nuanced and subtle quality. It’s very hard to see love as a force, as a power rather than as a weakness, but that is its reality.
So that middle place is very compelling, whether it’s a colleague at work who’s sort of annoying, or it’s somebody who disappoints us just in the neighborhood or our community, or it’s the villain even, to have some recognition that the way we can be consumed by hatred. Or even just an obsession, that habit we can have of going over someone’s faults again and again and again — it’s the same list, but we’d like to go over it again a few more times. [laughs]
The way we give over so much of our energy to someone else in this kind of negative or destructive way, whether it’s a minor annoyance or a very grave injustice, there’s a way in which we want to be whole. And we don’t want to have lost so much of our life’s energy to someone else’s actions or problems. And we want that energy to return to us and for us to be able to go on in a more creative, generative way, and that’s the process. That’s why people engage in this process.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, so what do you mean? Tell me the process. Describe that.
MS. SALZBERG: Well, I think first being aware of how it actually feels to be frightened, to be so angry, to be so consumed with somebody else, to be able to see those states, to be able to have a little more distance or space from…
MS. TIPPETT: To just gain some self-awareness about the fact that you are going over and over that and letting it consume you in a way?
MS. SALZBERG: Yeah, exactly. And how it feels because then we want to let go out of the greatest compassion for ourselves, not ‘cause we’re trying to be a goody-goody or a certain kind of person, or meet a kind of image of how we’re supposed to be, or match someone else’s dictum for how we’re supposed to be, but out of the greatest love and compassion for ourselves. We just don’t want to do that anymore.
[music: “Paral.lel” by Near the Parenthesis]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with two old friends and icons of American Buddhism, teacher Sharon Salzberg and scholar Robert Thurman. They’re shining a Buddhist light on a classic Christian subject: love of enemies.
[music: “Paral.lel” by Near the Parenthesis]
MS. TIPPETT: Bob, what are you thinking about this?
MR. THURMAN: Well, my — and why I’m thrilled to imply a link between Buddha and Jesus, which is mainstream in our culture, showing their commonality, is that Jesus’s own statement of “love thine enemies” is negated, really, by our modern materialistic psychology.
In other words, the modern psychology says, “Oh, that’s unrealistic.” Freud said, “Oh, that’s unrealistic. You have to be more normal.” And so our sort of militaristic society’s working psychology is that you have to be ego competitive. You have to be aggressive. You have to do your thing — particularly with males, but I think in general with everybody. And Buddhism doesn’t want to interfere with the religious aspect in the West. It’s not trying to convert people to Buddhism. But it has a psychology, a kind of mind science, that is usable within whatever religious framework.
So I kind of — Jesus himself, because of the social circumstances in his culture, was only able to teach for four years. And the Buddha, poor guy, he had to slave away for 46 years after his enlightenment. So he had time to provide more practical methodologies to underlie these sort of high moral-sounding slogans like “love your enemy.”
And there can be such a thing — now the other thing, of course, that we haven’t mentioned yet, but both Sharon and I completely agree with, there is such a thing as tough love. Or the Tibetans might prefer maybe the expression “fierce compassion.” This is like where you don’t indulge another person in their evildoing or their nasty behavior, and sometimes you have to be forceful. But that forcefulness with them will have a different impact, and it will be subliminally sensed by them as coming from a different place when it doesn’t have that extra bite, that extra sting of hatred and vindictiveness in it. It’s just forceful opposition to whatever negative things they are doing.
So the psychology of “love your enemies” does not just mean, “Come and trample us. Come kill me, my enemy. Oh, yes, I want you to shoot me,” or something. It means, “I want you to be happy. I’m gonna be happy no matter what, and it’s better. You’ll be more happy if you don’t kill me, actually. And I might be more happier if you don’t kill me. But I’m gonna be happy, whatever you do to me. But on that basis, I might take your weapon away. I might be kung fu master or whatever. I might shoot you, actually, if you’re about to shoot 150 other people. I might be forced. I try not to kill you, but I might be forced to do something forceful.”
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder, as the two of you live with these teachings, as exacting as that kind of life drama is, there’s also — it may be hardest of all to put these kinds of things into practice, say, in your most intimate relationships, right? Do you find that as you work with these teachings — and I know you both have longtime meditation practices — do you become more able to modulate your responses like that?
MS. TIPPETT: There you go.
MR. THURMAN: One thing I would say about — when Sharon and I — this gives me a chance to backtrack a little and tell about when Sharon and I got together, why I love working with Sharon and why I still love working with Sharon.
I was, in my Buddhist studies, on a different path. And in the Tibetan tradition, traditionally, they do not encourage people to meditate right away, actually. So they press you to learn things. And my original teacher, this wonderful old Mongolian gentleman named Geshe Wangyal, who was a Mongolian who’d been in Tibet for 35 years and was a good friend of the Dalai Lama and his relatives, he kept interrupting me when I would try to meditate. And I was having some kind of really good altered states. And the guy had like radar and he would show up and he would interrupt me.
At 3:00 in the morning, he’d come and knock on the door of my room and say, “You’re not sleeping. Why are you wasting your time? What are you doing? Meditating? That’s a waste of time. Come have some yogurt in the kitchen,” this kind of thing. He would tend to do that. So then I became a scholar, of course, and a professor, etc. And so I really envied Sharon and Jack and Joseph and those guys who had this — they were professionally meditating. They could meditate all the time. And I think Sharon is more calm than I am, and more stabilized, and more enlightened, so I like being around her.
MS. SALZBERG: [laughs]
MR. THURMAN: It makes me more calm and more stabilized, more in the moment. Although meditation is so much in demand in our society now that they’re all becoming these terribly busy meditating — and they’re doing a lot of their work on planes and trains and…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s now competitive meditation. [laughs]
MR. THURMAN: [laughs] That’s right. But anyway, they are like that. So that’s what I wanted to bring up. So then, in my own case about the anger thing, it was always a big problem for me in my life. I tended to have an explosive temper. So definitely Buddhism has helped me, but I don’t claim to be enlightened, so I’m not saying that I’m totally 100 percent cured.
But like the Dalai Lama likes to say — he also loses his temper, he says. And he likes to say that, well, nowadays it only lasts for a second, and he doesn’t hold the bitterness about it, and it sometimes very often doesn’t last. So I think I still have a harder time with it, but I’m still working on it. And I like being with Sharon because she encourages me to be more mindful and tries to interrupt the mechanism of the anger explosion, which then I have the danger of rationalizing and saying, “Oh, it’s tough love or fierce compassion.”
MS. SALZBERG: [laughs]
MR. THURMAN: Actually, I’m just mad.
[music: “Never Stop” by Gonzales]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen to this show again and share it, or find my entire unedited conversation with Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg at onbeing.org.
[music: “Never Stop” by Gonzales]
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up: the practical psychology behind forgiveness and the enduring necessity of “fierce compassion.”
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Piccadilly” by Robert Grawi]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and teacher Sharon Salzberg — two people who literally brought Buddhism to the West in the 1960s and ‘70s.
They’ve taught and written together about love of enemies. They’re honoring this as a Christian virtue and opening it up with Buddhism’s practical psychology. We’ve been discussing how a more vigorous healthy approach to that which makes us feel embattled stretches us both outside and within.
MS. TIPPETT: So talking about dealing with outer enemies ultimately always leads back to inner work, doesn’t it?
MS. SALZBERG: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, there’s that tremendous irony and poignancy of life that we can’t look — even if we do see somebody’s wrong actions and malevolent speech or whatever is coming from a place of suffering, which we do believe it is, and even if we see that, even if we perceive that, the great poignancy of life is that you can’t look at somebody else and say, “Poof! Your suffering’s gone. You’re a better person now.” We don’t have that kind of control. We don’t have that kind of dominance. I usually say, when I’m teaching, I think it would likely be a better world if I did, if any one of us did, but we don’t.
So we understand that, and we do what we can, obviously, to change conditions and be helpful, be restorative work to try to make things different. But it’s not gonna be in our hands ultimately, what we can mold much more successfully. Although, that is also not a case of, “Poof! Now I’m better.” But we can work with ourselves, with our own minds and hearts, and become really actually transformed in a real way.
MS. TIPPETT: So just — how do you start at the most basic level of talking about where that work begins?
MS. SALZBERG: Well, for me, it would begin with mindfulness. It would begin with what we were talking about earlier, just a sense of looking because we actually don’t know. We know what we’ve been taught, that maybe vengefulness is good, that love is weak, whatever it might be.
The assumptions we carry, the concepts, and we need to take a direct look at the entire range of our emotional landscape to know for ourselves. Is vulnerability always wrong? Is that kind of defensiveness always right? What is the strength of anger? It does have energy, which is fantastic. It’s a great attribute, but look at that brittleness, look at that sense of tunnel vision.
If you think about the last time you were really, really, really angry at yourself, it’s probably not also a time where you think, “I did that great thing that very same morning I said that really stupid thing.” It’s like that’s gone.
Our whole sense of who we are and all that we will ever be just collapses around that stupid thing we said. So we look at the whole nature, the flavor, the texture of all of these states, and we then use the mindfulness to really work with letting go, with what we feel is bringing us down and making our lives smaller and more filled with suffering, and enhancing and enriching those qualities that really bring us to the reality, which is that we’re all connected and that we need to care about one another and ourselves.
MR. THURMAN: That’s marvelous, marvelous.
MS. TIPPETT: I think, physically as well as emotionally, we instinctively — I can certainly speak for myself in this — recoil from the reality of feeling vulnerable or afraid, right? And so we layer — I mean, anger gets layered on top of that because it feels like a more powerful response. But then we stop being able to tell the difference ourselves, right? You stop knowing, “I’m scared.” You say, “I’m angry.”
Sharon, I know one thing that you’ve said in different ways at different times, and I just found this. These were words, I think, from another interview you gave as I was getting ready to talk to you again. “It’s one of life’s big mysteries to me,” you said, “that we don’t talk to each other about the most common things, like the fact that we wake up in the morning feeling confused and scared and full of self-doubt. The miracle is, when someone finally names it, that’s so liberating.” I mean, really what you’re talking about is being honest. And it’s the most frightening thing to admit that you’re afraid, but what a relief. What a relief when we can do that.
MS. SALZBERG: Oh, absolutely. Well, it’s like me as a 15-year-old or 16-year-old — or I guess I was maybe 16 or 17 at that point — in college at that Asian philosophy course to hear that the Buddha said right out loud, “There’s suffering in life. Guess what. It’s not just you. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to hide, or sort of seek others who are suffering to be hidden from you. It’s not like that. This is part of the nature of things.” And, if we could just be open and truthful, as you say, and admit that, then we would find one another in that vulnerability instead of feeling so cut off and so apart.
MS. TIPPETT: Bob, what are you thinking?
MR. THURMAN: What am I thinking? [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, as you’re listening to that. Do you want to add anything?
MR. THURMAN: Yeah. What I was thinking was that there’s a word in Buddhism called kleshas, or kleśa in Pali, kleshas in Sanskrit, which comes from a verb root that means “to twist, something to be twisted.” And it’s translated “defilement” or “affliction” by some people. I used to translate it “affliction.” But the best word for it actually is “addiction.”
So anger and obsession, lust, these things are said to be addictions, and that merely gets the point across. In other words, it’s something that people think is helping them because it gives them a momentary relief from something else. But actually, it’s leading them into a worse and worse place where they’re getting more and more dependent and less and less free. And so where…
MS. TIPPETT: Dependent because the way you’re handling it is then all entangled with the other person?
MR. THURMAN: Yes, right. And partly because you believe when anger comes to you, meaning in the form of an impulse that you have internally, “this is intolerable, that person did this, this is like something.” it’s sort of the inner thought that comes and it seems to come in a way that is undeniable. You have to act on it.
It mobilizes your adrenalin, your solar plexus, your arms, your body, heat flushes up into your face. It sort of goes along with the whole complex of things and you just charge ahead or say something awful or whatever you do. Or you put away in your mind some nasty scheme that you’re going to implement later and for some reason you can’t do it right away.
So in other words, it takes you over. And that’s where mindfulness can interfere with that by being aware of how your mind works and realizing that it’s just one impulse and it’s one voice within you. And there’s another questioning voice and an awareness voice that can say, “well, actually, would this be a good idea to blow your top now?” I always like to say it’s like — otherwise you’re like a TV set that has one channel only and no clicker.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t remember what that’s like. [laughs]
MR. THURMAN: If you have the horror show rising up from your solar plexus, then you’re gonna have a horror show. Whereas, you can click to the nature show. You can watch the minnows frolicking in the lake in the summer. So I’m saying we are very clickable. We’re very switchable in our moods and minds.
And then the key is, the hopeful thing for some people who like their anger — and some people do like their anger. The hopeful thing is that that energy of heat, kind of like a heat — and actually in Buddhist psychology, anger is connected to intelligence, to analytic and critical intelligence, and so that energy, a strong, powerful energy of heat force can be ridden in a different way and can be used to heal yourself. It can be used to develop inner strength and determination and that is really something much to be ambitious for. That is a great, great goal.
MS. TIPPETT: I think, also, that kind of transmutation is connected to this particular Buddhist notion of metta, lovingkindness, which holds not just some kind of compassion towards others, which can be hard to muster, but compassion towards one’s self, which makes compassion…
MS. SALZBERG: Can be harder. [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: Can be harder, yeah. It can be harder, right. It can be harder. But makes all kinds of things possible.
MR. THURMAN: One should not confuse compassion for one’s self with self-indulgence. That’s difficult.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
MS. SALZBERG: I mean, metta — that struck me so strongly when I first began practicing metta or lovingkindness. I was in Burma in 1985 when I first practiced it intensively in a structured way. I always knew how it was done. I always knew that classically you began with yourself, which I found kind of confusing ‘cause I felt, well, surely the higher path, the more spiritual way would be denying yourself, and some kind of self-abnegation, and then just focusing completely on others, and that would be the way, but going back to what is realistic or not.
They also say that metta or lovingkindness is a practice of generosity. It’s like generosity of the spirit. And the best kind of generosity comes from a sense of inner abundance, because if we feel depleted and overcome and exhausted and just burnt out, we’re not gonna have the wherewithal inside, the sense of resourcefulness, to care about anybody, even to notice them all that much.
It’s not only a kind of self-indulgence, but it’s a self-preoccupation that happens when we feel so undone, so unworthy, so incapable of giving or whatever it might be, however it might manifest. So I really do see that factor of lovingkindness for one’s self is this tremendous sense of strength and resourcefulness in terms of connecting to others.
MS. TIPPETT: And of softness with one’s self making that possible, which — I don’t know — even when we’re trying to be altruistic or generous, we’re hard on ourselves, right? We push ourselves. And this is a different attitude.
MS. SALZBERG: Oh, it’s very different. I mean, I guess the one question that’s very interesting to reflect on is, how do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow? Is it through that kind of belittling myself and berating myself and humiliating myself? Or is it through something else, some other quality like self-compassion and recognizing the pain or unskillfulness of something I’ve done or said and having the energy to actually move on?
So where does that energy come from? It comes from not being stuck. And how do we get unstuck? In fact, it’s from forgiving ourselves and realizing, yeah, it happened. It was wrong. I’m gonna go on now in a different way ‘cause I’m capable of that. I am capable of change.
[music: “Your First Light My Eventide” by The Echelon Effect]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with legendary Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman.
[music: “Your First Light My Eventide” by The Echelon Effect]
MS. TIPPETT: One of the disciplines, the spiritual disciplines, that you describe towards towards living in this healthier way with the reality of our lives and of enemies in them inside and without, is this notion, this discipline of looking for the good in others. I mean, which really in our culture we’re trained to, well, at a really basic level to see what has gone wrong today as the news, right? That’s what we look at. That’s what our eyes and our attention is trained to see.
This notion of looking for the good in others, even and especially people who we may identify as enemies — and one of the principles of that that’s so liberating to think about is that just as we are all changing every day, both on a cellular level and psychological level as we move through life, so are the people who it’s difficult for us to share the planet with.
MS. TIPPETT: Right? And sort of acknowledging that possibility in others as well.
MS. SALZBERG: Well, that’s really true. I first was given that as a meditation instruction when I went to Burma in 1985, and I was doing that period of intensive lovingkindness practice. One of the first suggestions my meditation teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, gave to me was, “Think of different people you have different feelings for, different kind of relationships with, and see if you can find one good thing about them.” My very first thought was, “I’m not gonna do that.” I thought, “That’s what stupid people do, going around looking for the good in people.
MS. SALZBERG: “I don’t even like people who do that. I’m not gonna do that.” But as I usually tell the story, I was very far from home. I was in a Burmese monastery. And the nature of the teacher-student relationship in a very traditional culture like that is not one where the teacher suggests you do something, and you say, “I don’t feel like it.” And so you do it.
So I did it, and it was so interesting because of course my fear had been that I was gonna overlook the things that were really wrong, and I was gonna become conflict-avoidant, and it wasn’t at all like that. I realized that if I just obsessed about everything that was wrong one more time, it wasn’t onward leading in any way.
But if I could find one good thing about somebody, I actually felt a sense of connection to them or kinship with them so that I could directly and honestly look at what was difficult, but it was almost like from a different place instead of across this huge gulf of separation. I even thought of somebody I really found incredibly obnoxious, I think, in a very reasonable way. I think he was pretty obnoxious, not just to me.
MS. SALZBERG: But I have this memory that came up in my mind of once having seen him do this incredibly gracious, kind thing for somebody else that we both know. He did this act in the best possible way, so she didn’t feel condescended to or put down or pitied in any way. He just did it so beautifully. So this memory came up in my mind, and then I thought, “I don’t want to think about that.”
MS. SALZBERG: That complicates things. It was easier when he was, like, all bad all the time. But life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. We are complicated too.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I think this also gets at something else that really intrigues me in the way the two of you talk about our whole life with enemies and with suffering, and that is this very intriguing idea of healing our relationship with time, befriending time. And in that way, also tapping into a spaciousness and a perspective. Could you talk a little bit more about that? And how to — I mean, it’s such a wonderful idea. What do you offer in terms of teaching, in terms of helping people draw close to that idea as a reality?
MR. THURMAN: Well, I missed…
MS. SALZBERG: Well, the question was about healing our relationship with time.
MR. THURMAN: Oh, right.
MS. SALZBERG: Which is really fascinating because it’s like the tyranny of time. I don’t have enough time. There’s damn never enough time. And whatever happened to my life? You know? It’s passed by like a dream.
MR. THURMAN: It goes faster and faster, believe me, as you reach this eighth decade. Trust me.
MS. SALZBERG: I’m not that much younger, really. [laughs] That was nice of you to say, but…
MS. TIPPETT: But this notion of the infinite in each moment and somehow…
MR. THURMAN: Oh, that’s great.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, which is not — it’s not something we learn anywhere in our lives now. And so how to apprehend that knowledge, how to really claim that knowledge.
MS. SALZBERG: Well, I think that there’s so much power we potentially have when we realize how our interpretation and our assumptions and our perception affects our experience, and that we don’t have to be mired in old ways of seeing that. We don’t have to feel stuck even if we start out there. That’s part of what happens through the meditative process is that you realize you have a kind of flexibility around things. And it’s not again to be sort of in the realm of wishful thinking or being a goody-goody, but to realize I don’t need to be stuck.
If I’m in the habit of seeing, at the end of the day, looking back at the day and pretty well only remembering what went wrong, I can actually move my attention very consciously and intentionally to what went right, not to pretend that was the only thing that happened, but to kind of fill in the picture to be more inclusive. And we can do that with time as well.
MR. THURMAN: I very much admire the contemporary teacher, Eckhart Tolle, and how his concept of “the power of now” and all that, and how he gets away from time helps people do that, leads them back to the present moment and unfolding the richness of the present moment.
So then, not only do you enjoy the richness of that moment, but if in that moment you can make something a tiny bit better — I mean, the color could be, instead of this drab beige, it could be more like a rich beige, a little more yellow tone. Whatever tiny thing it is, you’re growing it for the infinite future and that little infinite positive change.
If you’re a little depressed or something, you’re sad about something in the past, then you do a little tiny change. You can live within that moment so that moment is connected to the infinite future. Then that’s a much richer moment. It relates to what we call in Buddhist philosophy and psychology “non-dualist” or “non-duality” where each moment is, of course, contains all — like a hologram. Each moment contains all the other moments infinitely.
But also, each future moment contains this moment and all the past moments. And therefore, the richness also connects to good will, to love and compassion. It isn’t just an escape into a kind of null state.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, that’s wonderful.
MR. THURMAN: There is a positive sense of time. For example, Buddha had a vow. As a bodhisattva, he would not achieve Nirvana or perfect blissfulness until all beings had achieved it. Then he achieved Nirvana 2500 years ago, and what about us?
MR. THURMAN: What did he do with us? So technically speaking, in order to not accuse Buddha of abandoning us in this flow of time filled with suffering, we have to somehow imagine that it’s possible that, in that moment, he found our future liberation moment. And that’s in the Buddha’s story. That’s there in the Buddha’s story, how he saw everybody else’s future life and past life in the moment just as he was attaining a light meditation. It says so in all the versions of his story, so it’s really fascinating.
MS. TIPPETT: This makes me think of Einstein saying that our physical perception of time is a linear thing of past, present, and future in some kind of — as an arrow is a stubbornly persistent illusion, right?
MR. THURMAN: Exactly, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: But our five senses conspire in that illusion.
MR. THURMAN: Of course.
MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you this: here in the 21st century, so many people in the West — I mean, this is so interesting ‘cause I know the two of you were among the groups of people who, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, really kind of imported Buddhism in Eastern religions to the West for the first time. And now, at this point, it really feels to me like there’s this critical mass of people exploring meditation, taking up meditation, yoga. Just, I think, even in the last five years, it’s on every corner.
I know obviously there’s a real variety in the quality of all of that. But there it is. It’s there, and so many people are finding something in it. I just want to ask the two of you about, let’s say, one of the most kind of counter-cultural pieces of the ethos of that, and it’s this kind of mystical idea that you can get in an ordinary yoga class or an ordinary meditation session in some inner city that, when you sit there and do this inward work of breathing and planting yourself in something, that infinite goodness or dedicating your hour of yoga to other people, that somehow that act, that what looks like a private act, does send something out into the world, does have an effect on the world.
I think that that’s a pretty mysterious idea that a lot of people are just kind of taking in now and taking in seriously. So I’m curious about how you would — how you understand that. Does that make sense?
MR. THURMAN: Do you want to say something?
MS. SALZBERG: Sure, I’ll try. Well, I think, of course, one of the main ways that we send a different kind of energy out into the world is through our own actions and as we make different choices and we speak differently to one another. We brought one of our teachers to America pretty soon after we had come back ourselves, this man named Manindra. It was maybe a year or two after.
There was nothing compared to what’s happening now, but there were some groups of people interested in meditation coming around as we went around the country. And we brought him around to see them, and we were kind of proud like, “Isn’t it exciting?” There were, like, 40 people in the country who were meditating or something like that. [laughs] “Isn’t it wonderful?”
And he said, “Oh, it is wonderful. There’s just this one thing,” he said. “Sometimes people in the West remind me of people sitting in a rowboat, and with great sincerity and earnestness, they’re rowing and rowing and rowing, but they refuse to untie the boat from the dock.” He said, “Sometimes I think people are mostly interested in these great transcendent experiences and altered states of consciousness, but they’re not all that interested in how they speak to their neighbor or how they are with their children.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, right.
MR. THURMAN: [laughs]
MS. SALZBERG: So the most profound transformation happens within us and then ripples out because of how we are. It’s like we want spirituality in our lives, and we want peace.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. It’s still who you are when you walk out of the room, you’re saying.
MS. SALZBERG: Right, right. But I do think, I mean, certainly again in a traditional culture like Burma, if you do metta or lovingkindness practice, they will say the most important transformation is within your own mind, and it’s an energy. It is like an energy, but it’s like a gift, that energy. It’s like you can’t insist someone like your gift. You can’t insist that they put it on right away or say, “That’s the best book I’ve ever been given. Thank you.” All we can do is extend it, and there are times when it can make for some changes.
MS. TIPPETT: We need to finish. I feel like this has been just such a great wide-ranging conversation. Is there anything either of you would want to add?
MR. THURMAN: I want Sharon to have the last word.
MS. SALZBERG: I feel like I should praise Bob after he lavishly praised me and say I love being with Bob. [laughs]
MR. THURMAN: Oh, well, that’s nice.
MS. SALZBERG: He loves being with me.
MR. THURMAN: Thank you, Sharon. That’s good. That’s really nice.
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MS. TIPPETT: Robert Thurman is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. He’s also the president of the Tibet House U.S.. His books include Inner Revolution and the book he co-wrote with Sharon Salzberg, Love Your Enemies.
Sharon Salzberg is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Her books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace. Sharon Salzberg is also a beloved monthly columnist on the On Being blog — read her at onbeing.org.
[music: “Bowen Island” by Kaki King]
STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Brendan Stermer, and Ross Feehan.
MS. TIPPETT: On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners are:
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