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We’re living in difficult and uncertain times. Meditation can help us cope with the enormity of the world’s grief, but is it ultimately self-serving, or can it influence real change? In this episode, Sean Fargo of Mindfulness Exercises interviews meditation expert and New York Times best-selling author Sharon Salzberg to tackle this question and more.
Topics include using mindfulness to harness the powerful energy of anger, what compassion really means, how equanimity can help us sustain hope, and why it’s acceptable to rest, even while the world is suffering and every issue seems urgent and overwhelming. Sean interviews Sharon Salzberg and guides us through some of the most pertinent aspects of her new book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World.
Why anger can be a good thing
Sharon makes it clear it's ok to be angry. Anger, jealousy, fear and other states of suffering can be quite useful if we’re able to feel into it without being overcome or responding reactively. Anger has an important cutting-through clarity to it and can be a tool for motivating wise action. Mindfulness helps us harness this powerful energy without being consumed by it.
“Feeling something is very different than being overcome by it, defined by it, led around by it, and that’s where we have a lot of power and choice. Just through being able to pay attention in a different way.”
Compassion doesn’t mean we don’t fight, it means we don’t hate
Compassion is often misunderstood as meaning we’re soft, we don’t fight, or that we condone or allow everything. Yet we can be compassionate and fight for change, too. Sharon discusses why understanding that our lives are connected helps us hold a sense of love for others, even those we disagree with, or those we see harming others in some way.
“Our lives are interconnected, so you might not like somebody at all, but there’s a kind of bone deep recognition that our lives have something to do with one another and it’s moving from self and other to more a sense of we. And that is actually an interesting place to be looking at problem solving.”
The intersection between equanimity and compassion
Sharon differentiates between compassion, a sense of feeling for someone and empathy, feeling with someone. The latter can lead to burnout if we take on the pain of others. It’s equanimity that helps us care for others in a sustainable way. She explains how equanimity, the ability to equally hold seemingly contradictory feelings and emotions at once, helps us avoid burnout and continue to serve.
“It’s being able to hold many things at once. Like the joy and the sorrow and the devastation and the possibility. And being able to be in touch with, acknowledge fully, both. And I think that is the reality, we don’t get over it, and we don’t only see the bright side. There’s such tremendous suffering…and we need to be able to acknowledge that, but if that’s the only place we see…then we will despair. But if we only look at - oh, things can work out this way… then we’re so ungrounded. So we need to learn to hold both, and we can learn to hold both.”
Hopelessness as the most corrosive feeling of all
Some of the world’s problems, such as climate change, are so expansive and enormous, they can quickly feel overwhelming. In addition to equanimity, Sharon offers us tools that can move us from a feeling of overwhelm, to a feeling of empowerment through action. In the enormity of any issue, there are smaller, specific activities that we can really engage in.
“We can’t take everything into our heart, we just can’t. Like the immensity, the enormity of climate change, but we can take in that which we feel passionate enough about to act on.”
What good can we do with meditation? How to link meditation to real change?
When offering guided meditation in response to tragedy, teachers often get a lot of pushback. Like #thoughtsandprayers, meditation is sometimes seen as bypassing real action. Meditation can remind us not to disconnect from what is happening, and can help us connect to something greater than ourselves, to give us the energy to take action for real change.
“It is hard to really bear witness to suffering and have enough energy to want to do something about it.”
“If you are engaged in that way, then I think we really do need practices that will sustain us and that will help us keep going.”
Why it’s acceptable to rest
Spending time on self-care, meditating or just resting while there’s so much suffering in the world oftentimes feels wrong. But these practices are vital for sustaining our energy. They also boost our sense of community and belonging.
“It’s some place of awareness where we’re not trying to manipulate our experience and we’re not trying to fabricate anything. We can just rest. And there we find a sense of home. And it’s a very powerful thing to do.”
About Sharon Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg was instrumental in bringing mindfulness, meditation and Buddhist teachings to the West. In 1971, she traveled to India motivated by “an intuition that the methods of meditation would bring me some clarity and peace.”
Upon her return to the United States in 1976, she founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. The center now ranks as one of the most prominent and active meditation centers in the Western world. Sharon and Joseph Goldstein expanded their vision in 1989 by co-founding the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS).
She is the author of eleven books including Lovingkindness, the NY Times best seller Real Happiness, and her 2017 work, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. Her newest book is Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.
Sharon is the host of her own podcast, The Metta Hour, featuring hundreds of interviews with the top leaders and voices in the meditation and mindfulness movement.