What Buddhism Says About Finding And Sustaining Love
An interview with meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of ‘Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.’
When Sharon Salzberg was doing research for her new book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, the celebrated meditation teacher met with lots of groups of everyday people to talk about what love meant to them. In the first of those sessions, a woman talked about her complicated relationship with her son: he was troubled in lots of ways, and though she loved him very much, she didn’t know how to help him. Laughing as she recalled the story to Thrive Global, Salzberg says that her friend then offered a fitting alternate subtitle to the book: It’s simple, but not easy.
The way Salzberg frames it, love really is pretty simple: it’s a moment of connection that spontaneously arises when you’re gently attending to something or someone, whether it’s your partner at home, your colleague at work, a flower in a garden, pasta in a dish, or the rhythm of your breath as it moves in and out. But maintaining that compassionate mindfulness isn’t exactly easy: relationships — whether professional or personal — are complicated and laden with assumptions, the beauty of nature or food is easy to miss if you’re distracted, and anyone who’s meditated knows that the mind starts jumping all over the place as soon as your butt hits the cushion.
Salzberg has become one of the leading figures in American Buddhism. Born in New York in 1952, she first encountered Buddhism in an Asian philosophy course in college, and then made her first trip to India in 1970. She came back to the US in 1974 and started teaching. In 1976, she cofounded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Joseph Goldstein, now one of the world’s foremost meditation centers. She’s the author of ten books, including Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Real Happiness: Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. She recently spoke with Thrive Global about whether you need to love yourself to love someone else, what healthy vulnerability looks like, and how to fish yourself a boyfriend or girlfriend.
The below interview has been condensed and edited.
THRIVE GLOBAL: What kind of “love” are you talking about in Real Love?
SHARON SALZBERG: It’s rather hard to define — it’s an experience in a moment of very profound connection. It involves presence and also a kind of generosity of attention and generosity of spirit, that the moment itself is coming together. It’s a recognition that our lives are interconnected.
You may not at all like somebody. You may decide you don’t want to spend any time with them. You may decide you’re going to fight their agenda, whatever it might be. But we don’t have to feel imprisoned by the rigidness of self and other, or us and them.
It’s training in how we pay attention. Or you think about the people we encounter casually, when shopping or something like that — we objectify. We look through rather than look at. We have to train ourselves to remember that they’re also a person.
TG: I have a true or false question I’d like to ask you: do you have to love yourself first before you can love someone else?
SS: Oh that’s so hard! The more balanced state is having love for yourself as well as for others. I don’t think you can never include yourself, but I don’t think you have to be perfect at it before you include others. It’s like the extreme of thinking you have to kind of perfect that so you can give love to anyone else — that’s not going to work. Because then what’s the metric? How do you know, “I did it?”
TG: There’s almost a perfectionistic quality to that perspective.
SS: I was talking to somebody not long ago and they were saying their measure for spiritual attainment was to be completely unafraid to die. And I said, “could 90% do?”
TG: How does the real love that you’re talking about here connect with the loving-kindness that so much of your writing is about?
SS: The real love that I write about here is articulated in a lot of real life situations. I think that we often struggle with love for ourselves, and we struggle with what it means to have love for another.
I met with a lot of people to hear their stories and their experiences. In the first group, a man raised his hand and he said, “Most people think that a good relationship is 50/50… my dog and I, we’re 100/100.” I love that story.
TG: What do you make of that? The 100/100?
SS: It wasn’t like a negotiation where I give you this much and you give me that much, but a kind of sense of being unrestricted and unrestrained.
TG: When I brought up this interview subject to friends, lots of people asked “how can I find a boyfriend?” or “how can I find a girlfriend”? How would you advise going about that?
SS: I should sell little “this is how you get a boyfriend” pamphlets. I think it has a lot to do with self-respect, actually. If you’re trying to persuade someone to spend time with you and you don’t think you’re awfully interesting, that’s a hard sell, you know.
We’re able to be generous when we’re not constantly second-guessing ourselves. “Is that too much” or “how did this appear” or “I didn’t have a good childhood,” or whatever — “no one ever did that for me.” I think the more we have a sense of the resources inside us, the more wherewithal we have within us and the more magnetic we become.
There are an awful lot of people who can‘t express themselves and instead give over the decision to the other. I have a friend who said to me, “I was the kind of woman who would sit in the car with my husband and I’d be boiling hot, and the most I could ever bring myself to say is ‘are you warm in here?’” She said she had to learn to say, “I’m really hot, how about you?” Not to be mean or nasty or whatever, but she had to be present in who she was and how she was. If you get a boyfriend and you can never reveal yourself, it’s not actually fulfilling anyway.
TG: Brené Brown and her embrace of vulnerability come to mind.
SS: Vulnerability is part of it. It doesn’t feel appropriate to be completely vulnerable in every single contact we have with everybody, you know, every colleague at work.
It’s one thing to say to somebody “you’re an unthinking, unfeeling, insensitive idiot.” It’s another thing to say “I was really hoping to be your friend, and when you never said yes to my lunch invitation I was really hurt.” And which one is more true?
TG: I’ve certainly tried both.
So from a Real Love perspective, what does skillful communication look like? What does it sound like?
SS: It’s trying to sense where you are and who you’re talking to and what seems most skillful or appropriate in that situation.
Some of it depends on seeing your motives, understanding your intentions: What do I really want most to happen? Do I want to be helpful? Or do I want to grind this other person into dust? You just kind of know where you’re coming from and recognize, This is my motivation right now. You see that motivation and you think, that’s cool, or you think, well, I could use a little adjustment. With mindfulness, we really have a choice.