My blog frequently discusses attention and also embodiment. And these themes play an important role in Sharon Salzberg’s newest book, Real Love. I found this to be a particularly lovely and comforting read, filled with stories and sweet practices.
1. What prompted you to write a book on love? In your wildest dreams, what impact might it have, for those who read it?
I’ve always been moved by love. I also, looking back on my writing, seem to have a fascination with reclaiming words that have, in my view, become something other than what I’ve always taken them to be, thereby losing some of their transformative power. I’ve long said I feel we are living in a time with a degraded understanding of love, and a blunted sense of aspiration in imagining what might be possible. But it hasn’t been that long. Look at photos of freedom riders in the civil rights movement praying before getting up and going to register black people to vote in the south – and getting beaten and tormented. They are connecting to a power of love so that they can remain non violent. That movement didn’t describe love as sentimentality, or over romanticized. In my wildest dreams I’d like the book to seriously help redeem the word, and return it to us as an enormous strength. I’d of course like people who read the book to find greater love for themselves and a greater sense of connection to others. It would be a far less lonely, more united world.
- You write about embodiment and love. How does embodiment contribute to our sense of safety and our capacity to love ourselves and others?
An area of research I’m trying to investigate more is the relationship between interoception (perceiving your inner state through awareness of body sensations) and empathy. I’ve seen studies with conflicting results, but it makes sense to me that we are far more attuned to our own emotional landscape if we can experience it through our bodies, and the more we are attuned to ourselves the more we can attune to others. I also keep coming back to love as connection – not as liking, or adoring, or approving of but connecting to. The first connection we need in order to live more fully is with our bodies.
- A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and has completed chemo, and is now getting radiation. She’s often ashamed of being ill and angry with her body, feeling limited and betrayed due to this illness. Her mind knows that being more loving to her body would be best, but she struggles with this. What do you suggest?
It takes a lot of awareness to look at the often cruel conditioning of this society which says we should be in control of all things at all times and if we’re sick or afraid, we blew it. We need to look at that conditioning, step back from it, and look honestly and rigorously at what is strength, really, and is love actually as often portrayed — simpering and ineffectual? Because that’s what we’re taught.
If you feel bold enough to experiment, you can send lovingkindness throughout your body…which doesn’t mean you are pleased with your diagnosis or you want it to triumph, at all. It’s recognizing that integrating all of one’s experience into a whole, seeing life working through us even in an illness, might well be the healing note we need.
- The election has been hard on families and friends when there are strongly held differing political views. Fear, pride, anger, and a host of emotions overwhelm any feelings of love. What advice do you have for people in these situations?
Something that is very hard to believe, or remember, is that we can love someone without at all liking them. And love, the generosity of the spirit that wishes that someone could have a happier, more connected life, doesn’t mandate any specific action: smiling, saying yes, giving in, trying to please, or having Thanksgiving dinner together. There is such a thing as tough love, or fierce compassion. In times of great division, and fear, it is very important to also take care of oneself. So we are looking for a really exquisite balance: love and compassion for ourselves and others; love for someone alongside the determination to do all we can to counter their views and not accede power to them if we believe they are really wrong, or harmful. We are not just living in a time of hyper -partisan views, we are also living in a time where you might wake up in NYC and go to get on the subway and the subway car walls are covered in swastikas, your mosque may be a terrorist target, or your African American son or daughter might be stopped by the police and become our latest, shameful tragedy. Adding more hatred to the mix doesn’t seem like it will get us anywhere.
- Many of us live with densely packed schedules day in and day out. What can we do with short patches of time, time during a commute, time in rush hour traffic, etc, to cultivate love?
We can remember to breathe, first of all. We can use awareness of our breath as a vehicle to return to ourselves, return to the moment, instead of being lost in rumination about the past or anxiety about the future. When we return in this way, we also return to our values, to remembering what we really care about most in any situation. If we have set an aspiration for that to be love, we will return to love.
We can also look around any conference table, subway car, or room, silently recalling, “Oh, you want to be happy too.” “And you want to be happy too.” It’s quite useful to reflect that everyone actually does want to be happy, we want a sense of belonging…. somewhere, in this body, on this earth. We all want connection. It’s the force of ignorance, believing so many myths and mistaken notions, that leads us astray. But remembering that we all do want to be happy is another way to return to love and compassion.
- What are the obstacles to forgiveness? How can embodiment contribute to forgiveness?
One of the strongest obstacles to forgiveness I’ve seen is a distorted notion of what forgiveness is. As my friend Sylvia Boorstein would say, “Forgiveness is not amnesia.” But we kind of think it is, often, that it is the same thing as saying what happened doesn’t matter. But maybe it matters quite a lot. Forgiveness is more like connection to something other than the incident – the truth of change, or a bigger picture of life.
I’ve also heard many inspiring stories of what I would call forgiveness, which end with the statement, “But I’ll never forgive.” Once I was teaching with a colleague, who gave a talk on forgiveness. One of the retreat participants, who clearly was struggling with lots of physical discomfort, came up to me to complain about what she, my colleague, had said. He then told me the story of surviving a terrorist attack but being in continual pain. He said, “I will never forgive, but I have learned that what is absolutely essential is to stop hating.” I’d call stopping hating forgiveness, but if he didn’t want to, that was ok with me!
Embodiment helps in that we can be sensitive enough to feel the burden chronic hatred is adding to what is already hard to bear – chronic pain. We can feel the difference, and make a choice for less suffering.
- Let’s talk about social media and real love. We spend so much time on our phones, laptops, Facebook, Twitter, and email. How does the time and attention we spend online effect our ability to love, and to cultivate the capacity for loving?
I think it depends on what you do on social media. Are you crafting a highly curated life, so much so that you feel inauthentic, or are you learning things about types of people, say those living in another country, you might not otherwise ever have known?
A professor friend of mine told me once he was worried about his students, who seemed to largely use their social media platforms to impress others with their, oh so perfect lives, and have them feel badly about their own lesser attempts at a life. As he put it, “no one posts a photo of their mediocre lunch.” I told him that might be an age thing, as most of my people seemed to post about their shoulder surgery etc. If your experience online is that you feel lonelier than before you signed on, there is something important to look at there. And of course we all need to look at how often we are glued to our devices…or we might actually not connect to the people we’re actually having lunch with at all!
- How does our time online contribute or take away from our sense of embodiment? What do you recommend we do about this?
Some people describe almost a kind of dissociative state if they stay online for a long time. I call it my fugue state. It’s definitely not embodied. Linda, you described email apnea, which seems part of the same bundle of tendencies. I think people confuse this with a flow state, which might feel as spacious as the fugue, but not as spacey. For every level of our well being, physical, mental etc, I’m told it is good to stand up every half an hour…so I’m about to do that right now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Sharon’s new book. Feel free to comment.
At the Near Future Summit 2017, I organized and moderated a capsule on Cycles and Rhythms. After years of studying the psychophysiology of our relationship to technology (how our attention, emotions, and physiology (breathing, etc.) are impacted by the way we use technology today), I realized that, at a deeper level, this all relates to the rhythms of the body. And the body is all about rhythm!
For starters: our gait, pulse, respiration, heart rate variability, organs, cranial rhythms, and our circadian rhythms, play a significant role in our health. Just as our bodies are all about rhythm, our planet, too, is all about cycles and rhythms.
Here’s my blog post from Medium.com on the session.
A few more words (and links!) on the Near Future Summit…
For me, attending this event, was one of the most uplifting and optimistic experiences ever. Presenter after presenter shared break through technologies from CleanTech and urban farming to medicine, and from the treatment of PTSD to anti-recidivism.
If you have a moment to look up any of the following speakers, you’re likely to discover some extraordinary projects and startups:
Food/Urban Farming: Tobias Peggs
PSTD: Rick Doblin
Our lust for analytics sometimes divorces us from our humanity.
We have “superpowers” that are mysterious and challenging to quantify, and, that are at the heart of who we are as human beings.
Only with mutual respect for both the metrics and the mysteries will we thrive as a species.
This is all top of mind for me, at the moment, as I engage with the education non-profits I work with, and also with a few health projects.
In education, how do we “measure” (or even document) curiosity, engagement, passion? These are qualities that strongly contribute to success.
For health, what are the qualities that contribute to being able to maintain a positive attitude and persist toward positive behavior change as needed?
Please feel free to offer your own thoughts and experiences.
A young woman was quite burned out after many years in a job to which she had given her heart and soul. A colleague described the work as, “Throwing toothpicks at dragons.”
I began to mentor her as she stepped into her transition out of the job and into, she knew not what. She could hardly imagine what she wanted to do next.
I gave her an assignment:
Every day, text me about something you notice or learn that is interesting to you. Write as much as you like.
She sent me daily texts and she started to notice a few things. She noticed that she was most likely to notice human behavior. When she realized that, she made a point of working to notice design, objects, and how things worked. She went from noticing people’s attitudes and behavior around Zika in Miami, to how escalators worked. She realized that, after a few days, she shifted from worrying about her future, to being in the present, curious about the world around her, and curious about the sentient beings in that world.
To give credit where credit is due, I first learned about this exercise from friends who required each of their children, every night at dinner, to share something interesting. The penalty for not doing so? A quarter in the jar.
What are you noticing?
Note from a Second Grader
Between 1978-1986, I was a teacher and, later, a children’s librarian. I wrote the children notes and they wrote back to me.
A devastating fire wiped out most everything in my apartment in January 2016. I’ve been working through smoky documents that were salvaged, and found notes from the children that I had saved.
Bullying today seems nastier and more viral due, in part, to social media. When I discovered this note, I asked a few people, if Karla had taken their pencil, what would they have done? What would they recommend to Rachel, the sweet second grader who wrote this note.
What would you have done (as a second grader)? What would you suggest to Rachel?
I am at the airport, in conversation with a man who is deaf. He is speaking, and I’m struggling to understand his speech. I’m distracted. My flight will board soon, and I’ve injured my knee, so I’ll need extra time to board and don’t want to miss the announcement.
He is telling me that he is going to see his 95 year old mother. I notice my distraction and make a decision to shift into paying full attention to this man who seems so interested in social contact. Over the years, I’ve come up with a simple tool to help me tune in to a conversation when I might otherwise be distracted.
I look at the man, noticing his eyes, his facial expressions, his gestures, and his strong desire to connect. I start noticing what I like about this man. As I do this, everything in the background falls away, and I see and hear him. He is an acupuncturist. He loves his mother who is very frail. He struggles with back pain and will also be boarding early.
Before I started using this tool of noticing what I like about a person with whom I’m in conversation, when I felt distracted, my Bossy Mind would direct my distracted mind to FOCUS! This process didn’t bring me into the moment, and into connection, in the same sweet way as noticing what I liked. Bossy Mind nearly always made me feel more anxious and more distracted.
Have you noticed that Bossy Mind is directing the current conversation about attention? “I’m distracted! I’ll never get it all done! I’m addicted to my phone!” This is Bossy Mind talk. Those newspaper headlines announcing: Addicted to Distraction; that’s Global Bossy Mind talking.
Attention, emotion, and breathing are very strongly related. When Bossy Mind owns the conversation and takes us into fear: “I’ll never get it done;” and distraction: “Why have you started ten emails and finished NO emails?!,” our breathing often becomes much shallower. When Bossy Mind revs up its internal dialog, the negativity and judgment often prompts negative emotions, making it more challenging for us focus and attend.
If athletes had a steady stream of Bossy Mind telling them they were distracted, needed to go faster, needed to focus, they would lose the race, drop the ball, and lose the game.
It turns out that with positive emotions, liking and loving, our breathing slows and can become deeper. Further, feelings of gratitude, felt in the whole body — embodied gratitude – can also slow and deepen our breathing, and bring our attention back to the present moment.
I used to think Bossy Mind, the wizard of distraction and overwhelm in my head, needed to be killed, or, at least silenced. Instead of raising a sword to slay Bossy Mind — because I guarantee you, Bossy Mind has a much bigger sword than you have – just, graciously, give Bossy Mind a seat at the table, then gently turn your attention in the direction of the noticing exercise below.
There is a Bossy Mind in every one of us. It needs a seat at the table and it will demand a seat whether you like it or not. But it does not need to be dancing ON the table, stealing the show. Making peace with Bossy Mind is a step toward being an “Attention Genius.”
Here are some things to notice when Bossy Mind is trying to take over:
- Notice what you like about another person, about your day, or about where you are.
- Notice beauty around you.
- Notice how you are safe.
- Notice the way your feet feel on the floor, the way the chair supporting you feels.
This might take 10 seconds. It might take a minute.
Bossy Mind is the Frito Bandito, the Hamburglar of our Attention. Bossy Mind is also part of who we are, and in accepting that graciously, and turning toward our liking, loving, appreciating, safe selves, our attention is ours to channel as we choose.