Quest for Truth: A Conversation with Sharon Salzberg

by Ben Painter and Jon Luke Tittmann

Motivated to learn what mindfulness really is, two iBme interns set out on a humble quest for truth and deeper understanding. In this series, they share what they learn along the way through encounters with leading mindfulness teachers.

We left our meeting with Joseph Goldstein with a newfound sense of curiosity and hunger for more perspectives. The next stop on our mindfulness expert tour was with Sharon Salzberg, one of the most influential meditation guides in America, renowned for her teachings on lovingkindness (a translation of the Pali word “metta,” which embodies a sense of benevolence, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others). Sharon co-founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in 1974 (with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield) and is a New York Times best-selling author (her most recent book is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection).

May you be happy, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.

We were beyond excited to be meeting Sharon in person. In addition to being mindfulness nerds, we were both introduced to lovingkindness on our first iBme retreat and have both benefited immensely from the practice. The practice involves visualizing certain people — loved ones, yourself, neutral people, difficult people, and sometimes all beings — and sending them well wishes. Usually, these well wishes come in the forms of phrases that one repeats silently in their head. Phrases vary depending on the teacher, but a simple one is: “May you be happy, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.”

Both of us have spent many hours listening to recordings of Sharon guiding lovingkindness practices, and in a sense, she is a personal hero of ours. We use lovingkindness as a means to feel more connected to our loved ones, forgive people when we’re angry or annoyed at them, and cultivate compassion for all of humanity. Furthermore, we both love the idea that compassion can be viewed as a skill that you can get better at — or at least get in the habit of doing.

On a hot summer day, we arrived at Sharon’s apartment in the middle of downtown Manhattan with a few specific things that we wanted to get her take on, including what mindfulness really is. And how would she describe what lovingkindness is? How does she distinguish lovingkindness from mindfulness? And, perhaps most pressing, we realized as we stepped out into the urban heat and chaos, why does Sharon live part-time in New York City?

Sharon welcomed us to her apartment with a smile. Before even taking a seat, I just had to ask: “Why New York?” Sharon chuckled, shrugged, and explained that in addition to growing up in New York, she likes it. She likes hanging out with writers, artists, and other creatives. For her, it is a refreshing change of pace from the stillness of Barre, Massachusetts (where IMS is located). She said this with the kind honesty of a longtime friend. The fact that such a prolific, influential figure such as Sharon could give an answer that was so simple and relatable calmed our nerves and we felt ready to dive right in.

What is mindfulness really?

Before long, we began a rich discussion on what mindfulness is. In the modern discourse, mindfulness is often described as a tool to more fully inhabit our lives. A common way of explaining mindfulness to a person new to the concept might go something like, with mindfulness you can … “really taste your tea when you’re drinking it, or really taste the apple when you’re eating it.”

Sharon urged us to look further than just this aspect of mindfulness, saying, “the practice was designed not only to help us inhabit our lives but to understand our lives. It’s really about wisdom.” With this in mind, Sharon provided us with her definition of mindfulness: “a quality of awareness where our perception of what is happening in the present moment is not distorted by bias.”

In other words, we are seeing things clearly. Mindfulness helps us to make distracting biases, such as projecting into the future, attachment, aversion, etc., become less “overwhelming so we can see more clearly and cleanly what our experience really is.”

The goals of lovingkindness practice

Sharon went on to explain to us that to mindfulness and lovingkindness are two distinct things. Whereas mindfulness was “designed for wisdom,” the emphasis of lovingkindness practices are “fearlessness, connection, and concentration.” It is certainly possible to gain insight/wisdom while doing a lovingkindness practice, but that isn’t the emphasis.

Sharon views lovingkindness practices as a form of stretching. For a lot of us, the practice of directing our loving attention toward ourselves and others can feel forced. As Sharon describes, “a lot of people dismiss lovingkindness, or they fear it, because they think that it is moving from a true place to a phoney place…but it’s not.” And, like stretching of the physical body, this form of stretching (especially when made a habit) can have profound effects.

Giving air time to the good within you and others is an act of stretching, of broadening our capacity for compassion, and changing our ingrained habits.

From criticism to connection

Sharon has observed a shift in thousands of her students that is similar to one that she herself experienced — away from a self-critical and judgmental internal narrator toward one that is more compassionate for self and others. In relationship, it is a shift away from divided, distraction attention and taking loved ones for granted toward more genuine listening, connection, and mutuality.

To illustrate this shift, Sharon told us a simple story from her personal experience. After doing a month of lovingkindness practice, she accidentally knocked a jar off of a table, shattering it. Her first thought was, “Wow, you really are a klutz. But, I love you.” In that moment, Sharon knew that “something was happening.” Indeed, lovingkindness can create the circumstances for our habitual thoughts to change.

Everything Sharon said made sense and resonated with us. She impressed us with her wonderful combination of relatability and vast wisdom. We left our meeting with her having gained more clarity about what mindfulness is and an understanding of the different emphases of mindfulness and lovingkindness. We also took away even more inspiration to keep going with our own practices.

Sharon herself puts it best: “Mindfulness and lovingkindness are two wonderful things. So, do both!”

*****

Follow Ben and Jon’s Quest for Truth series — Stay tuned for the next post!

Jon Luke Tittmann is a senior majoring in English at Bowdoin college. He began practicing meditation as a highschool student under the guidance of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School.

Ben Painter began practicing mindfulness in his high school years under the direction of Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness at Middlesex School. Ben, a senior at Bowdoin College studying government and visual arts, is passionate about spreading meditation and is co-founder of the mindfulness club at Bowdoin.