Sharon Salzberg Talks About Real Love

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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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.

  1.  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!

  1.  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.

Published by Linda Stone

I coined the phrases continuous partial attention, email apnea, and screen apnea. I write about attention and our relationship to technology.

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