Welcome back to the Healing Pain Podcast with Sharon Salzberg
One way to define mindfulness is awareness of your experience in the present so that your perception of what is happening is not distorted by certain emotions. Being present in the moment of pain allows the mind to tell the body that healing is possible with mindfulness meditation. Sharon Salzberg believes that when you make peace with fear, you can start dealing with your pain. She shares how a world losing a sense of community and human connection can accept love and kindness into their lives leading the soul and the body to feel better.
If you want to meditate but have no idea where to begin, this podcast will help you. If you used to meditate and are looking for a way to re-enter your practice, this podcast is for you as well. If you want to try meditation, but are reluctant for any reason or you want to sign up maybe for a week‑long retreat, this podcast will help you to try it without risks, nervousness, or anxiety. I had the pleasure to interview Sharon Salzberg, who is a central figure in the world of meditation. She is a meditation teacher. She is the Co-Founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and the author of nine books, including The New York Times Best Seller, Real Happiness, as well as her most recent book, which we’ll be talking about called Real Love.
We’ll talk about mindfulness meditation, but we also talk specifically about a type of meditation practice called Loving Kindness, also known as metta. If you’re new to meditation, you’re not sure what meditation is about or you’d like to experience what meditation is like from Sharon Salzberg, I have a great free download for you of meditation guided by Sharon. You can download that by going to www.DrJoeTatta.com/78Download or on your cell phone or your smart phone, you can text the word ‘78Download’ to 44222.
Exploring Loving-Kindness Meditation To Heal The Body with Sharon Salzberg
Sharon, thanks for joining me on the podcast. It’s great to have you here.
It’s great to see you.
Meditation and mindfulness is experiencing such a rise to fame, which it deserves and we’re all excited because it has wonderful benefits for those with pain as well as those without any kind of pain. You’ve been doing this for quite a number of decades and I’d like to ask you what did it look like when you were first introduced to mindfulness many years ago?
I first heard the word ’mindfulness‘ when I was in college. I was going to the State University of New York in Buffalo. I was in my sophomore year when I did an Asian Philosophy course, which was a philosophy requirement. It is some philosophy course and honestly as far as I can tell, looking back, it almost happenstance, like “That fits nicely in my schedule.” It was the late ‘60s and was all in the air, so I did this course and it was when I first heard mindfulness. It was very much held within the concepts of Buddhist teaching. It was posited as the active ingredient in some techniques that you could use to be happier, and these techniques as an overall bundle were called meditation.
There I was in Buffalo, New York and I was ignited at the thought that, “There might be something I can do. There’s actually a how-to to putting my mind together and my life together in a different way.” I looked around Buffalo and I didn’t see it then because these things were very inaccessible and it was the beginning of a few Asian teachers who come here to Buffalo. I just didn’t know what to do because this yearning was so strong in me. There I was, I was eighteen years old as a junior, and I created an independent study project and presented it to the university and they accepted it. I said I want to go to India and study meditation, and they said yes, so off I went at the age of eighteen.
You left Buffalo. You traveled to India on your own or were you with other college friends?
I was with a few friends.
How did you begin the exploration of these types of things in the large world of India?
I didn’t know anything. There was a wave of people going at the time. I started out in Dharamsala, India because I knew the Dalai Lama lived there and I heard he was a Buddhist, I just didn’t know. It was an example, looking back, of needing to stay close to your intention and not lose sight of it even as you go through these obstacles and you meet these challenges because I didn’t know and I had a very practical yearning. I didn’t want to study the philosophy. I didn’t want to become a Buddhist at all. I didn’t want to assume a new identity or reject anything else. I wanted to know the how-to level. I started out in Dharamsala. There was a class. Then I went through the very esteemed and notable Tibetan teacher and it didn’t work. It was one of those things where I showed up in a class, and the translator left town to come back in two weeks. Dalai Lama had to go to the dentist, which is at the other end of India and then come back in another two weeks.
I overheard a conversation at a Tibetan restaurant in Dharamsala about an international yoga conference that was going to happen in New Delhi. I thought “Great! I’ll go there, I’ll meet my teacher there and finally learn how to do this stuff.” I went to New Delhi, and it was a pretty dispiriting experience where the low point was when these yogis and swamis were up on the stage, pushing and shoving against each other to be the first to grab the mic and speak. Nothing’s going to happen here, but at that very conference, Dan Goleman, who we know these days as the author of Emotional Intelligence mostly, was there. He was a graduate student in psychology and he was studying meditation for some reason.
He was at this conference and he was giving a talk. I went to his talk as did many people whom I later met. He mentioned that at the end of the talk that he was on his way to this town called Bagaya to do this intensive ten-day meditation retreat. The style of which was famous for less cultural baggage and more of the straight how-to, and I thought, “That’s it,” and it was it. I often credit him with the beginning of my meditative life by speaking frankly about what he himself was doing.
If I fast forward you to today, after decades of teaching meditation, leading retreats for weeks, how do you describe or define mindfulness?
It is described in a lot of different ways. My common description would be a quality of awareness of your experience in the present moment so that your perception of what’s happening is not distorted by bias. Sometimes a certain emotion would arise and we don’t like it, we don’t want to admit we have it, so we try to shove it away a little bit. We might well have the habit of projecting into the future and especially around uncomfortable info, difficult emotions or physical sensations. I certainly have that habit. When a painful feeling arises, I see my mind right away saying, “What’s it going to feel like in five minutes? What’s it going to feel like in ten minutes?” I’m not being with what is, which may be difficult enough, but I’ve added a warm future and I try to bear it all at once and I feel overcome. That’s the habit that we all have one form or another of and will arise very commonly, but we can see it in mindfulness. We can see it and delve in so we’d come back to our original experience in a much cleaner way.
Meditation and mindfulness and somewhat of a version or offshoot mindfulness-based stress reduction has wonderful research in helping people with physical pain. Can you tell us when you first started meditating and you’re sitting, what were the physical sensations that you were experiencing and how did you deal with them? Because oftentimes when you take someone who has chronic pain, you say “You’re going to sit here for 10, 20, 30, 60 minutes, and just be present with what you’re experiencing.” It can be a shocking experience and revelation for them.
I am so much older. I was eighteen at that time, which I am far from now. Certainly in the way we teach, there’s a lot more flexibility. Maybe you can’t sit, maybe you need to lie down. Maybe walking is the best posture. This is very classical. It’s not some nouveau adaptation. Even they say, the Buddha said you can very well meditate in four postures: sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. When you enter a certain form, like an intensive ten-day retreat where there’s a teacher, there’s a protocol, and things like that, you may not be given all that flexibility perhaps. I didn’t have that in the beginning. We were sitting, we were told to sit without moving.
The powerful part of it was seeing those mind states. The question is not whether you move or not, it’s not pass/fail. The question is, “How are you relating to the pain?” There was a significant amount of pain. I was sitting on the floor. I wasn’t used to sitting on the floor. We didn’t have nice equipment in those days. We didn’t have zafus and cushions and things like that. We just rolled up our sleeping bags and plunked ourselves down on them. It was painful, plus for me, I had a very traumatic childhood. I had a very difficult upbringing and I had never done any significant introspection before. I never looked inside to understand what I was feeling. On top of the sheer physical discomfort of an unaccustomed posture, there was a tremendous amount of emotional upheaval which would often manifest itself physically through the body.
I had all these layers going on that we’re all uncomfortable. I always moved and that’s fine, but I began to see those patterns. “I’m not moving because it hurts so much. I’m moving because I’m thinking what was it going to feel like in fifteen minutes. I really want to do that.” The sense of isolation instead of realizing, “Life can hurt sometimes. We have bodies. This is not easy. Emotional states aren’t always easy. This is only me. This is shameful. This is terrible.” I added quite a bit of anguish on top of what was already hurting. It’s seeing those patterns that is the priceless gift of meditation because once we see them, we see, “I do that a lot. I don’t just do that sitting in a funny posture.” I do that but I don’t have to do that if I can spot it.
I want to talk about your latest book called Real Love. On page 116, you have a section that’s called Making Peace with Fear. Fear is often one of the things people with pain have problems with, and there’s a whole section of study into pain called fear avoidance. In your book you say, “When we pay attention to sensations in our bodies, we can feel that love is the energetic opposite of fear. Love seems to open and expand us right down to the cellular level where fear causes us to contract and withdraw into ourselves. Yet so often fear keeps us from being able to say yes to love, perhaps our greatest challenge as a human being.” When I read that and I think about it, what comes to mind first is how is it in a world where we’re losing the sense of community and that connection with each other, that human connection, that we are scared the most not of loneliness but of accepting love into our life?
It is a world, certainly in American society, where a lot of the structures that have brought us together have crumbled. I quoted a book in that book, Real Love, which is startlingly fantastic for its title, which was Bowling Alone, which is a sociological survey of the erosion of things like bowling leagues in America. Let alone religious institutions perhaps where people used to come together in a significant way, and so we are left as pioneers needing to recreate or create a new some sense of belonging so that we can come together. In the absence of that and in a pretty pervasive loneliness and tremendous amount of self condemnation, which is another thread, another psychological thread, it can be very hard to receive and yet that’s its own generosity. It is like taking a breath and letting it in is hard to receive from ourselves as well and maybe that’s the beginning.
Where does loving-kindness and compassion meditation start to fit in there?
My first introduction in that ten-day retreat was a mindfulness practice which is very similar to what we now know as the body scan through mindfulness-based stress reduction, moving your attention through your body and attention to all those sensations. At the very end of that retreat, the teacher who was S. N. Goenka led a very short, almost like a ceremonial ending to the retreat, which was loving-kindness meditation, and that’s when I realized, “There’s another whole form.” That was January 1971 when I started. I became very intrigued to that. It is a separate technique. It’s a very supportive technique to mindfulness. It is not so much designed to help us see the difference between our actual experience and the story we may be making about it. It is more designed to change our default story. If the most common story we tell is about being afraid, for example, or not having a capacity to meet an experience by being afraid, it starts to change through the force of the practice to be a story about connection.
That’s how we tend to hold things, that’s how we tend to respond. My favorite New York City example, a stranger starts talking to you in an elevator, which is weird, and you find yourself responding much more quickly and naturally with a sense of care. Maybe they have no one else to talk to and it’s not going to cost me anything to say hello. Whatever whereas you’re more conditioned response might be, “Hello,” just starts getting replaced and that’s what you find. I always played around with the technique of loving-kindness, but I didn’t have a teacher until 1985 when I went to Burma and I did three months of loving-kindness practice. Then began, often writing about it and teaching it.
Three months of loving-kindness practice is a lot longer than most people are going to ever delve into. What was the transformation that you experienced after three months? Every day for three months, you did loving-kindness meditation, all day long for three months.
Yes, because this was a retreat.
What’s fascinating to me about that is for those who are familiar with loving-kindness meditation. I wish that I can speak to this better than I can, but you’re working with loving-kindness of yourself, which can be challenging for people. You’re also working with loving-kindness of those that you are not fond of, shall we say, or have problems around. Can you talk about what goes through those three months of working with yourself and others?
Most people do it for longer than three months but not all day. You can undertake it for however long you want, maybe you do it fifteen minutes a day. It’s quite a fascinating experiment to make. It’s considered a practice of generosity, generosity of the spirit or offering. Instead of looking at somebody on the street and thinking, “Why aren’t you dressed more warmly? You should take more care and wear a hat.” You might think all that, but then you cap it with little like “May you be happy, may you be peaceful” silently. The classic trajectory is the experiment, that’s how we keep stretching. The basis of the experiment, the underlying principle, is to do it in the easiest way possible.
It goes to start with what’s absolutely easiest and then make your way over to what’s more and more and more difficult. Maybe a stranger after a friend, and then a difficult person, and then finally all beings everywhere. Not in one session. It’s not all meant to be crammed in one session, but over time this is what we keep doing. What we usually say these days is if you’re going to do fifteen minutes, you need some basic bookends. Starting with what’s easy and you end with all beings, and then maybe you have time for one person. Maybe you have a friend having surgery today or you have a friend getting an award today. We intuit what goes in the middle.
Apparently 2,600 years ago, offering loving kindness to yourself is the easiest thing imaginable, so that’s classically where you start, and for many, many people, it’s not so; it’s pretty difficult. We go back to the original principle, we say start with what’s easy. Maybe it’s someone who’s been a mentor to you or they’ve helped you directly or you’ve never met them, they just inspired you from afar, or someone that lifts your spirit. The text says this is the one whom when you think of, you smile. Some people it’s their grandchild with some sense of like, “I’m so glad that I can have you or I can know you,” but you have to put yourself in somewhere. Let’s say you start with this being a benefactor, maybe you come on a little later or a lot later, but you have to be in there somewhere.
Many people, especially those with chronic pain, have some challenges around loving their own body because there at times living in a body that they want to change, and therein lies the struggle. There’s an acceptance that has to happen there. There is willingness for certain things that have to happen. You can start off with self-love. I’m not even close to that, so I love that you mentioned that you can approach that in a different way. If someone were to come to you and say, “I can’t meditate at all, what else could I do?”
I would approach it in two different ways. One is I’d find out what they think meditation is because almost always somebody will say, “I can’t make my mind blank. I can’t get rid of my thoughts. I can’t have this totally open, empty space instead of all these thoughts.” We always say, “That’s okay.” The purpose of meditation is not to have a blank mind or push away all your thoughts. You’re not going to be able to do that in reality. Why do that? It’s to have a different relationship to thoughts. Sometimes a thought can come up in your hand and you would take it to heart and you feel horrible and ruins the whole thing, and you look back and you think, “It was just a thought. It was the way I’m related to it that made it stick.” As one of my teacher said, “It’s not the thought that’s the problem. It’s the glue.”
That’s the way certain thoughts can take us over and a lot of those thoughts are damaging. Some thoughts are wonderful and they’re worth living and they remind us of what we know and to be true, but a lot of thoughts are old tapes that just come up. “You can’t do that. You are not capable,” or whatever it is, and then we hold back and it changes our whole course of action, but it’s really just a thought. We can learn to have a very different relationship. The other thing I would do to that person or with that person is look at our options. There is walking meditation or drink a cup of tea mindfully, that might be a place to begin. I know people who began with washing dishes mindfully. Choose an activity and do it a whole different way. Eyes open and much more engaged in movement. It just depends.
I love the point that you bring up walking meditation, because especially for people with chronic pain, it’s difficult for them to sit for long periods of time. There’s a lot of research about combining the mindfulness with some type of gentle activity works best. If you’re in a great city like New York or you live in a place where there’s beautiful nature around you, walking meditation can be a wonderful thing. When we look at loving-kindness, what are the qualities that are in loving-kindness that we can start to be aware of that make it successful for people?
There other qualities that are associated with loving kindness like compassion. Compassion in that tradition is defined as the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to seeing pain or suffering. It’s a movement toward to see if we can be of help and that’s for someone else’s pain. That’s contrasted to a movement into to burn up ourselves, right? It’s not being destroyed ourselves in confronting pain or suffering, which is easy to do. It’s like we burn out. It’s exhausting. We feel helpless. It’s not easy and yet compassion is considered almost like a restorative, like resilience.
It’s a way of being with without being overcome by a difficult situation. With ourselves, the compassion that we feel is the replacement for what’s often condemnation. Sometimes when I teach, I talk about the time I tried to school myself to not say, “I have a bad knee.” It’s not bad, it just hurts. Even watching the languaging, “I’m a terrible person. I was angry.” “What if we didn’t think your anger is terrible? What if we thought of it as painful,” which it is. The whole grid from which we assess is what’s going to lead to more suffering and what’s going to lead to freedom from suffering and that’s really significant.
In your book Real Love, you talked about taking refuge inside and you say, “Mindfulness meditation can be a refuge, but it is not a practice in which real life is ever excluded. The strength of mindfulness enables us to hold difficult thoughts and feelings in a different way. This rather than trying to annihilate painful feelings or eradicate negative patterns of thinking is what heals us,” The last part that this is what heals us, for so many people, what they want to ask is “How is my holding onto or sitting with these negative thoughts and feelings going to heal me when most people want to detach and run from them?
The first consideration is does detaching and running actually work. It doesn’t seem to. It makes sense that that’s what we want to do. That is a very forgivable tendency, but it doesn’t work. In very practical terms, we’re looking for something that works, not that the pain will go away because we can’t mandate that, so that we’re not adding on to through the force of our own habit. We’re not adding onto what’s already difficult in a way that makes it that much more difficult. I look back at myself, even that simple stylized example of trying to sit on the floor in India, it was not the physical pain that had feeling defeated. It was that constant habit of adding the future. That in fact, as I look back, was a lot more significant than the actual physical sensation. It’s not always the case, but it could be the case that are our own fear or habit of projecting into the future or holding things in isolation is adding significantly to our suffering, so that we don’t need.
We work with gentleness in being able to let go of these things as we see them and that’s some kind of healing. First of all, not being subject just to the force of habit. There is freedom. It’s creative. It’s interesting to be developing a new relationship or experience. It brings us back to one another because compassion is also a very unifying experience. You don’t feel so alone. We understand this is part of the human condition. It sparks for a lot of people an impulse to help somebody else, because pain can be so isolating and so inward preoccupied. It’s draining and it’s dragging a lot of our attention with it and energy, but as some of that energy returns because we find we’re not adding to what’s already difficult, people find they want to help one another because we’re all in some way vulnerable.
You are the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. It’s a wonderful retreat in Massachusetts, and there are some long retreats that people can take there. When we think of retreat, some people think of vacation, like a Mai Tai around the pool and beach volleyball. That’s not it. Can you explain to us what the retreats are like that you lead? And some of the success stories and transformations that people have had from that type of retreat.
The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, we moved in on Valentine’s Day 1976. It’s still there. It’s still flourishing. It hosts retreats of varying lengths; two days, three days, seven days, nine days, anything can seem long depending on where you are. There’s one very long retreat that happens every fall that’s either six weeks or three months, depending on whether you do half of it or the whole thing. The retreats tend to be in silence, which means you speak to the teacher and there’s always ample opportunity for questions, and if you need to talk to staff person or something like that, but there’s no real social chatter. Meals are silent, no talking to your fellow retreatants. Most people, however long the retreat is going to be, when they go for the first time, the silence is the most daunting. People come and they say, “I don’t know if I can be silent for three days,” or, “My partner is somebody who can be silent for three days.” One woman came in my office, “I don’t think I can be silent for three days.”
Almost always it’s the part of the retreat people point to at the end as having been the most beautiful. This is like for once in our lives, we can just be with our own experience, not trying to prove anything to anybody else, or reveal ourselves to be funny, or pride or anything. We’re just with ourselves and it’s such a relief. It’s alternating days of usually sitting and walking meditation, but we feed you. There’s really good food. At the end of the day, sometimes in the evening, usually there’s a discourse with the teacher, whoever they are, but usually it’s a team of people. Somebody will give like a formal lecture and that’s always fun because you can listen to somebody other than your own mind. We also meet with the meditators in small groups or individually, so there’s a lot of contact, but just with the teachers.
What do people come out with? People go in, they say, “I have to shut my cell phone off for three days or seven days and this thing’s in my back pocket all day long.” What experience happens with them?
It’s such a range of experience because it’s an intensifier. I say it’s good and you go through periods of incredible peace and you think, “I’m not entertaining myself. I’m not watching TV or Netflix or something like that. Why am I feeling so content?” I remember myself as a brand-new meditator who had not done all that introspection, who had a very traumatic childhood, who was eighteen. I once went marching up to my first meditation teacher, S. N. Goenka, looked him in the eye and said, “I never used to be an angry person before I started meditating,” thereby laying blame exactly where I felt the plug which was on him, and of course I’ve been usually angry and hadn’t seen it. You can have some uncomfortable experiences as well, but you’re being held in the guidance of people who had been there and know the context of it all.
I have a couple of phrases I’d like you to complete. They’re very short. You can complete them either with one word or a short phrase. The first one is thoughts are?
Real love is?
I want to thank you for joining me on this podcast and it’s a pleasure to say to you, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, and may you live life with ease.”
Thank you so much.
I enjoyed that podcast with Sharon Salzberg. We need more of this type of conversation, not only in spaces like this online, but starting to bring this information into clinical practice. That there is a place for loving-kindness, and of course, at the root of loving-kindness is compassion. When you look at the other qualities that accompany loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, these are things that many practitioners who work in the pain space are not taught. Some of us have this naturally from our own life experiences and others of us need to start to hone these types of skills because they’re important for us as far as practitioners to prevent burnout. Compassion is our response to caring for another human who is suffering. Nowhere is that more important than perhaps treating them and helping those with chronic pain in a world where we have yet to develop a full support network and structure for them.
If you like to download our free meditation for this week, you can go to www.DrJoeTatta.com/78Download or you can text the word ‘78Download’ to 44222. At the end of every podcast I ask you to share this information with your friends and family on social media. This is an important podcast and a podcast that I particularly happen to love, so share it out with your friends and family and colleagues. Make sure you hop onto iTunes and give us a five star review and a couple of nice words.
About Sharon Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and NY Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and the author of ten books including NY Times bestseller, Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness and, Real Love, her latest release by Flatiron Books. Acclaimed for her humorous, down-to-earth teaching style, Sharon offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings, making them instantly accessible. She is a regular columnist for On Being, a contributor to Huffington Post, and the host of her own podcast: The Metta Hour. For more information, visit www.SharonSalzberg.com.
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