Faith, Love and Resilience with Sharon Salzberg

Aug 19, 2020

Or, listen on Spotify

Self-compassion is a muscle that we have to remind ourselves to flex, and Sharon Salzberg is one of the most experienced trainer for that exercise. In this episode, Jeff sits down with Sharon to discuss faith, resilience, joy, and community -- all in the face of great adversity.

Sharon's course on Commune, "Compassionate Resilience" is available FREE till August 21st. Learn more here:

Jeff: How are you doing? 

Sharon: I’m doing pretty good. I'm way busy. It's like crazy busy. Everyone's struggling everyone. 

Jeff: Yeah. That’s true.

Sharon: A book coming out September first.

Jeff: Well, you're needed, you're in great need. You're in great demand. 

Sharon: Yeah. No, I'm so happy to do this and thank you for everything you're doing for the world and for me.

Jeff: Yeah. We're all playing our little role, uh, against the backdrop of great uncertainty, which I suppose is something that we can talk about a little bit. I have a laundry list of items that I would love to explore, um, including faith, distraction, resilience, joy community. Um, but I suppose before we jump into these components of the human experience, maybe you could scaffold the conversation with a little background. Vis-a-vis your relationship with Buddhism given that many of your foundational beliefs have been developed through that lens? Um, and I think that would help, um, create a bit of a framework for our discussion. So maybe you could help define how you understand and practice Buddhism. And if you also want to, uh, you know, give us a little window into how that practice and belief developed. I think that would be very helpful.

Sharon: Well, I went to college when I was 16 years old. I grew up in New York City and I'm a product of the New York City public school system, which meant I skipped two grades. And when I was a sophomore in college, really, honestly, as far as I can tell, it was kind of happenstance. I took an Asian philosophy course. It was kind of a situation where it was ... I looked at the schedule all I thought, "Oh, this sounded convenient data it's good. I'll take that one." And it completely changed my life, totally. They were two ways primarily, one was in discussing the Buddha and they talked about statements that there's suffering in life. This is a part of life. And I like many people had a very traumatic, difficult childhood. And for many people, my family was one where this was never, ever spoken about. They just did not bring it up.

Sharon: And so all of the pain that I felt within, we kind of had nowhere to go and no external affirmation. I felt very isolated and very different, very apart in some ways. And here was the Buddha saying, right out loud, "You belong. This is a part of life. You're not weird. After all, it's not just you, you're not so different." And that was like a [inaudible 00:01:27] liberating. And then I heard in the context of that class, that there were tools there are actually methods that people could use called meditation.

Sharon: And the statement was that when people practice meditation, they get happier. And I think if I was going to use one word to describe myself at the age of that point 17, I would say fragmented. I was just fragmented. Somehow in hearing that thing about meditation and that message, I look back at this moments more often, like why was my content just to think, "I'll study some more about this, or I'll read a few more books or I got into graduate school." I just thought, "I've got to learn how to meditate." It was so powerful and so passionate. It was like part of the same process. I think it was stepping off the sidelines right into the center of possibility. And I was going to school in Buffalo, New York. I looked around Buffalo I did not see it anywhere.

Sharon: And then the university had an independent study program where if you created a project, if they [inaudible 00:02:38], you could go anywhere in the world, theoretically three years. So I created a project. So I wanted to go to India and study meditation. And they said, "Okay." So I left in the fall, the beginning of [inaudible 00:02:53] fall of 1970. And that was it. That was really the journey to finding my life.

Jeff: Yeah, it's an interesting thing about Buddhism. And I will raise my hand quickly to admit that I'm a lay person. But from my relationship with it versus I suppose my somewhat Abrahamic upbringing, which I believe we were both raised Jewish. That I don't interpret Buddhism as a religion in the same way that I look at Judaism or Christianity or Islam, I suppose in many senses. But in one sense, I feel that Buddhism is more of an empirical handbook, almost. Not to take away some of the more mystical elements of it. But it basically gives you a path that says, "Okay, there's suffering and you're clinging to the impermanent state of things. And guess what? There's some liberation for that suffering, and here's how you do it." It appeals, I suppose to the more empirical part of me. And did you have the same relationship to it, and do you feel also that there is a more mystical component of it?

Sharon: I definitely have the same relationship to it. And I think when I went to India, my aspiration was to find something very practical, very direct. I wanted to know the how to. It wasn't just in the philosophy or the cosmology or anything like that. And I did find it. I did find the how to. And my first introduction to meditation was in the context of an intensive 10-day retreat, taught by S. N. Goenka. And the first night of that retreat Goenka said, "The Buddha did not teach Buddhism. The Buddha taught a way of life." And instead of methods, that this is a set of methods that is available to anybody of any faith tradition or no faith tradition, this is not about becoming a Buddhist. And in fact, we look at the Buddha as a symbol of a human being. He's always described as a human being who had some very deep questions about life, like where is happiness to be found after all.

Sharon: What about all this suffering and all that kind of thing and whatever answers he found, he found through the power of his own awareness and so can we. We really look at the Buddha to see ourselves. So that was my first night and it was really the foundation of my understanding. And when I co-founded the Insight Meditation Society with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein we had no models actually. It's funny looking back on it because we were very young. I was 23, Joseph and I had met in India. We spent a lot of time there. Jack was having a parallel life in Thailand at the same time.

Sharon: And we're kind of fresh back to the States. Every other center, as far as I know in existence at that point in the West was really ... It was not being run or created by Westerners. It might've been run by Westerners, but everything was referring back to a very particular Asian monastery or a monk. And we kept saying, "Well, how should I happen here? What does it look like here?" Wanting to keep absolutely the essence of what we had learned in the integrity of the methods and not to really mess with that at all. But at the same time, how does it translate here? So we'd have these endless debates, for example, should we have Buddhists out? On the one hand when we look at a Buddha we see ourselves. And so there's a kind of culture of respect about our own potential as manifest in the Buddha and he was a great teacher and an important historical figure. So that would argue to having them.

Sharon: And on the other hand nobody was gathering to become a Buddhist. That wasn't the point. And so maybe we shouldn't have them. And somebody once said to me years later when I was teaching Lovingkindness retreats somewhere, she said, "This stuff is so incredible. When did you make it up?" And I said, "Well I didn't make it up, I didn't anything up and you're lucky I didn't make it up." And so that [inaudible 00:08:00] that kind of mentality argued. Oh, yeah, we should have Buddha statues. And then on the other hand people didn't have a history of ritual bowing, it was anything relating to [inaudible 00:08:16] it's so awkward.

Sharon: So back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Should we have Buddhists or not? And I think we should. No, we shouldn't. And then finally it turned out when Jack Kornfield was in Thailand, in the Peace Corps, he'd done a lot of shopping and he bought a lot of Buddha statues. One day this year all arrived with all his Buddha statues that had been in his mother's attic. And we put it out. And so they're still there.

Jeff: I get. That solves that, that you're always here.

Sharon: Of that, but it was just sort of like everything was like that because ... And the tradition anyway it's not like a monument. It's like a river, it's always being recreated and moving and our immersion in it and our manifestation of it is what's most important. I will also say those certainly living in Asia for all those years India, Burma, Nepal in a culture where life is viewed differently in a way that what we would call a mystical experience or even a paranormal experience, it's just kind of normal. It's just a different view. And so I would say yes, I don't just believe in those things at all, but my practice and my teaching is not centered on them. It's not really the most relevant consideration.

Jeff: Right. Yeah, I suppose this brings up something that I wanted to ask you about regarding faith and what faith means within the Buddhist context. And you bring up that notion of icon. Certainly in the Christian faith, for example, you're not going to walk into a Christian place of worship without a cross affixed somewhere. And the icon takes paramount importance. And certainly faith, as I understand it in Christianity, for example, is really an unwavering fealty to God without a tremendous empirical evidence of His existence. So faith for me in that way, I suppose, is the belief without the existence of evidence. But I'm curious, how you think of faith within the Buddhist context. And I know that you wrote an article recently, I Believe in the Hill about faith. So could you talk a little bit about faith and Buddhism?

Sharon: Sure. I actually wrote a book called Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, which came out like 18 years ago.

Jeff: Oh, wow.

Sharon: And in these times of such incredible chaos and disruption and anxiety and grief, and so many things, one of the things I have been pondering for myself is like, what's still true? What can I rely on? What can I count on? And that was really the impetus to write that op-ed piece. So within the Buddhist tradition, faith is not considered a commodity where you either have the right kind or enough where you'll be condemned at all. The literal meaning of the term is to offer your heart, to give over your heart to something or someone. And it's considered a journey. The journey actually begins with what they call bright faith and that's likened to falling in love, it's inspiration.

Sharon: And we start there and it's a beautiful state. And yet it's also ... It leaves us very vulnerable. First of all, we can be quite fickly, let's say it's meeting a teacher that brings forth that quality of connection and care. And you meet one teacher one day and you think, "This is it." And then you meet another teacher another day and you think, "We'll forget that other one, I'm following this one." Because it's not grounded yet in ourselves, in our own experience of what's true.

Sharon: And even trickier is that it's such an incredible feeling that we don't want to do anything to rock the boat and maybe threaten our proximity to what seems the source of that feeling. So that's where people get afraid to question or something's making them money easy and they don't want to bring it up or something like that. And that's where what's called bright faith candy generate into what we conventionally call blind faith. And the antidote to that, the way to continue the faith journey is actually through doubt. It's the questioning, investigating, insisting on seeing the truth for yourself. And that's not considered an enemy of faith, that's considered really a great asset to faith.


Jeff: So I have a story I suppose this would be maybe considered sort of free psychotherapy, but I'll take advantage of it where ... And I've been living this out. And I think it speaks to some of the ways that you talk about distraction and living in the past and taking past experiences and projecting them into the future and then kind of living inside of that chatter box of future and past.

Jeff: So when I was in seventh grade in junior high school, I was thinking about this morning. So I thought you could help me with this. When I was in seventh grade, we were kind of engaged in regular seventh grade horseplay at my middle school. And a couple of kids pushed me into a locker and closed the locker door. And it was like a typical narrow hallway, municipal school, public school locker. And very, very tight, very dark and of course I reacted as a kid might react. I was absolutely apoplectically crazy. And I was screaming and I was pounding and I was out of control and I was so scared. And it's funny because I remember exactly where it was, exactly where the building is, exactly all et cetera.

Jeff: And they finally let me out. Of course it seemed like 20 minutes, but it was probably a minute. And I came out sort of flailing around and snots spraying everywhere you could imagine. And that experience then began to kind of play out in various other settings where anytime I was in a closed environment in which I had no control, I started to experience panic attacks. And then as I became an adult I would start to think about experiences that I might start having that echoed a setting that was similar to those experiences that had elicited a kind of a panic attack. So you can imagine being in an elevator, in a high rise or to some degree being in a very packed airplane, et cetera.

Jeff: And I started modifying my behavior out of a regulatory process to avoid those situations. And in some cases it really had a detrimental effect on my life because I was missing opportunities or skirting opportunities that just required the most simplest, basic function from me. Which was like going to the top of a skyscraper in Midtown. Now it wasn't to the point where it was like ridiculously debilitating and I didn't do that, but I would look for ways to avoid that. And I was always really, the point is, is that I was always thinking forward about like, "Oh God, am I going to have to do that or whatever." 

Jeff: But I'm not even sure. I mean, the story that I'm telling myself, that was the reason why I can't go and do this other thing next week. And I don't know if I am just basically created a story about the past, which I'm not even sure is 100% true, but I'm then identifying myself with that story and projecting that into the future. And it's honestly, has been debilitating somewhat in my life.

Sharon: Yeah. Well, I mean, you might be investing a lot in the story, but also possible and probably likely is that your body remembers. If not that experience, some experience which is being activated in these times. And I think part of it is being able to see in the light of some kindness toward yourself. What you're feeling to register that it's maybe old and to learn how to release things through your body, through your nervous system, even just simple tools of breathing. So for example, I taught a retreat last summer, actually for people who'd been affected by gun violence. They'd lost a child or they had been shot themselves, or they were teachers at a school shooting or something like that. And there were a number of people are there from Parkland, Florida, including this one teacher who later told me a story saying that ... Well, the big word during the retreat was tools. We're just going to offer you some tools and you can experiment with them, tools of mindfulness, of meditation, of Lovingkindness, yoga, experiment with them. See if something feels like it's going to be useful for you.

Sharon: So this teacher told me later that she had to leave at the end of the retreat, fly back to Florida. And the next day she was back at work at school and they had a drill, like a shooter drill. Which of course is a tremendously retraumatizing experience. And she said she was doubled over in a closet having a panic attack when she had the thought, "You know what? I have some tools."

Sharon: And she began using her breath or using Lovingkindness in some way. The thing with the idea of tools is that it can't be pass, fail. It has to be, well, let me try this. So when this isn't working that's okay, let me try that. And not really being down on yourself or in a hurry. But it's a very different reality to face these things which are in your nervous system, they're inscribed in your body with the sense of I have some tools. Which doesn't mean that you will necessarily eradicate the feeling or the memory or the body memory, but you will be experiencing it in a different environment, with a lot more spaciousness and a lot more ease of heart and a lot more forgiveness of yourself for what you're going through. And that's really where the work is.

Jeff: Yeah. I heard you describe once the tool of breath as recognizing a friend in a crowded room or something like that. And I thought it was a visualization that I could really understand I don't know if I did a justice.

Sharon: You did. I mean, it's actually a meditation instruction be with the breath. As though you're spotting a friend in crowded street, you don't have to shove aside everyone else and say, "Get out of my way, you're bothering me." But your interest, your enthusiasm is going, "Hey, there's my friend, there's the path." So it does become like a refuge for us.

Jeff: Speaking of refuge, the word that I hear right now that most broadly defines what I might call the current human experience is exhaustion. And there's myriad reasons for this. I think I read a Coretta Scott King quote or at least that was circulating on some social media platform, which I generally assiduously avoid, but ... And she was talking about what activists must do right now. And one of the thing, one of the kind of bullet points on this relatively short list was self-care. And I think on the surface, this idea, or even the word self-care can ring up some kind of self-indulgence. But I don't think that's true at all. So I think you talk and obviously we made a course about resilience. So can you talk a little bit about what resilience is and how to maintain it?

Sharon: Well, self-care is a term that especially if you're very busy like taking care of a family or you're an activist, or you're working or you're ... It's easy to feel that that's selfish and self-centered or self-preoccupied. But it's really not. It's about replenishing oneself and the recognition that we get depleted and going back to that stress dynamic. There has to be some sense of resource with which we're meeting adversity and challenge. Otherwise we're not really meeting it, we're enduring it maybe. And I agree, I think people are exhausted. I felt you can just see the waves from anxiety to grief, to exhaustion. And part of it is the way we inevitably project it into the future, like how much longer? And we try to bear it all at once, and it's just impossible.

Sharon: So I see resilience really as a way of strengthening and nurturing that sense of resource. Usually it's described as bouncing back, being able to come back and there's something about that that's true, but it's not just coming back to status quo, it's to be continually generating that sense of resource. So we can meet what is, and it's made up of self-care as well as care for others. And it's made up of taking in the joy and not just having a kind of singular view of what's wrong and what's painful. I mean, we need honesty about that for sure. But the point isn't to drown in it, because then nobody is served. But to have some greater sense of compassion for ourselves, as well as for others in some sense of inner sufficiency that we can meet this moment. And we really can develop that. That's a capacity just like love is a capacity or an ability within us.

Sharon: And so that's really what resilience is. It's the ability to grow and generate and return to. I always hesitate with the word maintain I of course use it as a human being. But I think it implies that you failed if you lose it, it's really not true. If you go back to the most fundamental or foundational meditation instruction, which would be choose an object of awareness, let's say the feeling of your breath, rest your attention on that object. And when you find your mind has wandered, see if you can gently let go and come back.

Sharon: And people tend to think, "Well, I could be with three breaths yesterday, before my mind wanders. So today it's going to be [inaudible 00:50:13] and tomorrow it's going to be 40." And then, but that's not the point. The point is in the letting go and in the coming back. And even if you have to do that a billion times in a sitting, that's what the training really is, to let go gently and to be able to return, it's like a practice of recovery. And that's why we call meditation and training and resilience. Because we're always practicing, letting go and starting over.

Jeff: Yeah. You mentioned joy in there as a component of resilience. And I don't know if this is true, but I know that some evolutionary biologists might maintain that for purposes of self preservation, we are wired for negative emotions. And just through observational study of three daughters in their teenage years. I might back that theory up. So if there is truth to that how do we ... And we have a propensity for negativity or pessimism, how do we cultivate the ability to experience joy?

Sharon: Well, I think the hardest part in a way is wanting to. It's feeling like it's okay, it's what you were talking about before that it's okay. This is not selfish. This is not self-centered. This is not superficial. It's really restoring oneself to a greater state of balance. And I think many, maybe all evolutionary biologists would say, "We have a negativity bias." And so it takes intentionality to take in the good, to take in the joy. And so I think the hardest part is wanting to. And then it's seeing the difference between forcing yourself and putting on a veneer of good cheer when you're really miserable. Compared to, I'm going to turn my attention to terrain where it might not go automatically. I'm going to see what it's like.

Sharon: So for example, in thinking of yourself many of us at the end of the day would do a kind of evaluation like how did I do today. And many of us would pretty well just obsess or fixate on the things we did wrong and how we didn't measure up and what we failed at. And so the task is to ask yourself, "Anything else happened today? Anything good in me, in my life?" And it takes intentionality. It's like a gratitude practice. And I often say as many researchers and therapists would say, one of the most powerful things any of us could do is write down three things each night that we're grateful for from the day. Although, somebody said to me, not too long ago, that they were going to try to find one thing a month. And I said, "That's not enough."

Sharon: Because one could be that you're breathing and it doesn't have to be so grandiose. But I also say, as it's true, this doesn't come automatically to me. My personal conditioning, my familial conditioning, my cultural conditioning is such that I'm so much more likely to come to the end of the day and think about what disappointed me. What I can complain about, how I didn't show up, or this person didn't show up. Or there always was an airline in the life of constant travel or phone service or my internet connection, or that's just where my mind would tend to go. And so it takes intentionality, like what else happened today? It's not denying the difficult or trying to cover it over, but it's not the whole story. And it tends to become the whole story for us. And so we need that kind of flexibility of intention and the willingness to make that experiment.

Jeff: Yeah. One of the recurring thoughts that I've been having over the last number of months certainly as it pertains to the fight for racial justice and Black Lives Matter but also the prospects of environmental catastrophe and virtually any kind of modern societal salient issue that as I try to unpack the root causes of a lot of these symptoms I come back to systems and structures like capitalism for example, or in some ways ascendancy of fundamentalism or there's other systems and structures that contain these stories of separation.

Jeff: And I am trying to find one thing that I consistently land on within the examination of these systems and structures is that they lack an ethical and moral framework. So some people just say, "Well, free markets, capitalism, let it do its thing." I'm like, "Yeah, well, but doing its thing creates unprecedented income inequality." Or many people argue that the genesis of slavery was rooted in capitalism before it was rooted in racism. Or environmental catastrophe which is generally rooted in maximizing corporate profits. So I wonder if you have thoughts on how humanity can potentially lean on Buddhism, but maybe there are other ways to develop a core set of axioms around ethics and morality such that we can use those as lenses through which to build some of these systems and structures that govern our lives. So if you'd help talk about that for a second.

Sharon: Well, I don't think it has to be Buddhism. I think that love thy neighbor as thyself is really the point. I have a friend who is British and he grew up in the Church of England and he said from the time he was a young child, maybe nine years old, he would hear that, love thy neighbor as thyself. And he said like, he get goosebumps. Even as a child, he would just feel thrilled, and he quickly began getting into trouble because he would say, "Wow, how do we do that?" He'd say, "We don't like our neighbor or [inaudible 00:58:29] our neighbor, or we don't like ourselves very much. We fight all the time." I think the tenets are there we know, but the question is, how do we live it? How do we realize it from within? And that's the process of seeing ourselves and one another, understanding what assumptions we're making, being able to let go of them.

Sharon: And even as basic in terms of introspection, whether it's through meditation or some other way of seeing, wow I thought this pursuit of so much money, it was going to make me really happy, and it kind of didn't. Or I thought vengeance was the way to be strong. And look at that, I'm enslaved to the thought of this other person. Or I felt compassion was the stupidest thing in the world, and you're a sucker and you end up just being taken advantage of and look at that. Look at what it feels like to actually help out somebody in this incredibly strange situation. I saw so many times when I was in New York City which is where I have an apartment although I have a house here in Massachusetts and I left New York, March 14th, having just gotten there in March 2nd.

Sharon: I'm from California. I came up here because I thought it was very tense, very anxious there. And it was before everything shut down and I thought, "I'll come up, I'll go up to Massachusetts for a couple of weeks." So I came up with my snow boots here I am, still, but in that anxiety as I was teaching and I could just feel it all around me as well as within me. And the one thing I could say to people that would actually bring them some relief would be, "Is there someone you can help?" I would offer suggestions about breathing or it's not to say those things are ineffectual, but it wasn't working and that's sort of I mean by it's not pass, fail, it's like an experiment. But the one thing that was tried and true was, is there someone you can help? And I saw how just forging and reinforcing that sense of connection can get us through a lot.

Jeff: That's beautiful. Yeah. I agree. It's hard to hold that clarity all the time that when one feels a sense of anxiety, that the best way to direct their energy is out to someone else. But inevitably that does triggers a sensation of happiness and joy and whether or not that's just your biochemistry or something potentially more cosmic, I don't know or both. But I think that that is sound advice. I think about some of when you described those early days of being in Asia and sitting around the table with Jack Kornfield and going to visit Ram Dass.

Jeff: And I mean, for us just kind of making our way along this journey. Boy, do I wish I could be ... I've been a fly on the wall and [inaudible 01:02:20] discussions to them I'm sure that you reminisce about those with great fondness. Because you've been so instrumental in creating that community here in the United States from those early moments has really, really blossomed and flowered. And I hope that you have a sense for that and how important you've been in that journey to spreading a lot of these ideas and practices really to the mainstream. And this is not just an attempt to kind of blow up your ego and I actually have a point here that as you can tell, I slowly get to the point.

Jeff: Which is how, because you are for me kind of the distillation of humility that someone has accomplished as much as you've accomplished, been so important to a particular tradition. So influential for so many people, yet I feel that you among very, very few managed to maintain a humility and I guess a commitment to the Dharma that is very, very unique. So I wonder what is your secret there, Mr. [inaudible 01:04:09] is one, and maybe sometimes you're in the shower and you're like, "Well, actually I am pretty fucking big shit, whatever." And that's cool. You don't have to admit that if you don't want. But because that is I think difficult, we're looking for the approval of others in the things that we do often. But maybe you don't care about that.

Sharon: Well, thank you. That's all really beautiful. It's really beautiful things for you to say. And there are things that I understand, like that my life evolves in such a way that I really did do some things. I mean, I have a legacy and I have a retreat center next door which at the moment is closed, but it's been here since February, 1976. And it's been I think a crucially important element of the spread of mindfulness and meditation in this country, and I've written now 11 books. But mostly I think my legacy centers around Lovingkindness meditation, I was ... I wrote the book Lovingkindness 25 years ago, it came out. And I had been teaching Lovingkindness for 10 years, before then I was a very slow writer. I also was using a typewriter. But it was not that popular meditation technique when I began teaching it here. It's grown so much in appreciation and importance. And I really feel like that's my legacy.

Sharon: So sometimes when I'm being introduced which happens a lot, people will say, "And she is the person who brought the teachings of Lovingkindness from that tradition into this country." And then people will sometimes turn to me and say, "I know you don't like to hear that." And I sit there and think, "But it's true. I don't mind that." That's not boasting, that's just the way it happened. And I do appreciate that if I'm extraordinary, I still have an extraordinary life. But maybe the deeper response to your question comes back to part of it was the sign of the times, like I began teaching because my teacher told me to teach, not because I wanted a career change or something like that. It was different then, it was very different.

Sharon: And I had gone to see this teacher of mine, this woman named [inaudible 01:06:53], in Calcutta, this was 1974. And I was ready to come back to the States, really for a brief visit in my mind that I was going to get a new visa and do some things. And I was going to go back to India for the rest of my life. And I went to see her in her house in Calcutta, her apartment in Calcutta. To say goodbye and get her blessing for my journey. And she said to me, "When you go back, you'll be teaching." And I said, "No." And she said, "Yes, you will." I said, "No." And she said, "Yes you will." I said, "No I won't. I mean, that's ridiculous. I'm not going to teach. I'm coming right back." And I can't teach anyway. It was unthinkable.

Sharon: And she said, "Yes, you will." And then she said two things. She said, "You really understand suffering. That's why you should teach". And it's true. I had had a really traumatic childhood and I'd never before ... I mean, I knew that's why I was in India at such a young age. But I never really thought that the things I had gone through might have some merits in my ability to give to others. And then she said to me, "You can do anything you want to do. It's your thinking, you can't do it. That's going to stop you." And I left her room, it was really like a kind of tenement room, walked down these four flights of stairs thinking, "No, I won't, that's so ridiculous."

Sharon: I came back to the States and things evolved so that I went out to Boulder to see Joseph who was teaching there with Ram Dass at Naropa Institute. It was the first summer and Jack Kornfield was living down the hall and we all got together. And then Joseph stayed on to teach second summer semester. And I stayed on with him. Then we got invited to teach a month long retreat, then we got invited to teach a 10-day retreat. And it just kept happening. And one day I woke up and I thought, "She was right." My life is here now. So my whole teaching is really based on the, I think truly great teachers I had who were not really into their ego or gratification or they really lived up to what is actually Zen, saying that every good teacher wants students who surpass them.

Jeff: Okay. Do you feel like you have been awakened? And obviously, I guess the literal definition of the Buddha's awakened one. And the attainment of, I suppose, Nirvana or more maybe Vipassana, sort of the ability to have insight into the true nature of things. Do you feel like you get glimpses into that or can you sit in that space on a consistent basis or working for yourself [inaudible 01:10:08] relationship to that?

Sharon: I think that we all have glimpses and some glimpses that are so powerful that there's no returning from them, not in the sense of dwelling in them all the time. But in so deeply knowing this is true. And I think certainly I've had experiences like that and I feel I'm really fortunate to have them and so say like I won't get overwhelmed or we don't get overwhelmed and forget in the moment. But if somebody were to ask me, there's nothing in me that can say the opposite, things don't change or holding on, it's going to do you good. Or one of the things I've been reflecting on in this really difficult time is the saying of the Buddhists that Martin Luther King Jr. later reflected where the Buddha said, "Hatred will never cease by hatred. Hatred will only cease by love."

Sharon: This is an eternal law. And I always thought it was kind of quirky because it's like, this is Mr. Impermanent saying, "This is an eternal law." But there's nothing in me that actually if you looked at me and said, "Do you think hatred can vanquish hatred?" And sometimes we really wish it could because it's more near at hand than love. But I know so fully that no, it's not. So I think we all have those experiences and they grow and that's what it is. That's what awakening is. And am I awakened like the Buddha was awakened? No, I doubt it.

Jeff: Yeah, I suppose, it's interesting because I've had certain peak experiences, I suppose, that have poked my life over time some naturally generated and some not. And I've wondered if kind of peak experience it's a window into I think some of the kinds of connections that we had talked about earlier and perhaps the most embodied and perhaps hyperbolized way. But it's very hard, well, impossible to live within by definition of peak experience. But I suppose that just by having them, it sort of keeps you closer down the hallway to that room. Do you feel like that's a description that you can live with? 

Sharon: Yeah. I mean does it keep you down the hallway? I think it ... Or it maybe it introduces us and some people would say then the work starts. I'm not, honestly, I believe there's always a practice, whatever you want to describe it as there's always some practice that then ensues to live more frequently and more at ease in the deepest experiences we have known.

Jeff: And would you say that it's like the Eightfold Path is the roadmap there for keeping one's works and actions in close alignment to the principles?

Sharon: I mean, it's certainly a great roadmap because it encompasses how we speak to one another and how we live and what are questions of integrity and how do you have really deep self-respect, and self-love. It's probably not, if you're telling a lot of lies. Because then you're all paranoid and weird and so it encompasses action and behavior and speech and even livelihood and the arts of concentration and mindfulness and wisdom and intentionality. And it's pretty thorough. 

Jeff: Yeah. Well, are you ready for an event for fall?

Sharon: I think so. I mean, I have realized through my meditation quite some time ago I get into the most trouble when I just dwell in anticipation. Like how can I do this for three more months? Or what will it be like when I go back to New York. And it was just my birthday the other day, last week. And Facebook, it was three years ago my goddaughter got me all these heart shaped helium balloons. And they were in my apartment in New York and Facebook put up that photo from three years ago and I looked at it, I said, "That's my apartment. Oh my God, look, that's inside my apartment." And I like, "Oh." I was like, "Really there." And then I wasn't there for months, like now. And I think, "What will it be like and how it would be, can I manage well." I think you can't go there, you can't live now and then.

Sharon: I think we're going to have to ... Well, I also have a great, great conviction that everybody needs to vote and engage. And I think everything leading up to the election will be about in terms of my efforts will include something of that. I really believe it's the clearest civic analogy to the Buddha's teaching about the innate worth of everybody. Innate dignity of everybody, it's like you have a voice, you have the right to use it, to express it. And after that, I think I'm taking the week after the election off. I will see.

Leading teachers, life-changing courses...

Your path to a happier, healthier life

Get access to our library of over 100 courses on health and nutrition, spirituality, creativity, breathwork and meditation, relationships, personal growth, sustainability, social impact and leadership.

Try Membership Free for 14 Days

Stay connected with Commune

Receive our weekly Commusings newsletter + free course announcements!