Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?

A conversation with meditation pioneer Sharon Salzberg.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

 Ginger Graziano, used with permission
North Star (2019) by Ginger Graziano, gingergraziano.com
Source: Ginger Graziano, used with permission

A meditation pioneer and world-renowned teacher, Sharon Salzberg was one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition; Lovingkindness, her seminal work; and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, coming in September 2020.

 Photo by Tawni Bannister, used with permission
Sharon Salzberg.
Source: Photo by Tawni Bannister, used with permission

Sharon has been my friend and teacher for over a decade. On my very first retreat with her, I fell in love. Using stories from her own life as well as others, she imbues our poignant earthly suffering with compassionate laughter. Over the years, her talks and books have inspired a new understanding of what it means to be human. Sharon has many gifts as a teacher. One of them is to instill faith and courage in her students, and I am one of the millions around the world who deeply admire her wisdom. It is a great pleasure to interview her for Psychology Today.

Dale Kushner: For any readers who don’t already know you, your illuminating work, and before we talk about your new book, Real Change, would you tell everyone a bit about your background and about lovingkindness meditation?

Sharon Salzberg: I went to India to study meditation as a junior in college, on an independent study program. As a sophomore, I had taken an Asian philosophy course which inspired me to look for meditation training. I wanted to learn how to utilize direct, practical skills, rather than simply learn the philosophy, to see if they could help me be happier. My first immersion into meditation practice was an intensive 10-day retreat in January 1971. It was a mindfulness retreat, using tools like focus on the breath and awareness of the body as the main trainings. It was like a revolution for me, to connect more deeply with myself and with kindness. Right at the end of that retreat, S.N. Goenka, who was the teacher, introduced lovingkindness meditation, which is very related to mindfulness but is also a distinct technique. Through that, I saw the possibility of connecting much more deeply with others.

D.K.: It’s been helpful for me to sit quietly and focus on the questions I’d like to ask you today. Like so many others, my inbox is flooded with links from friends and from various groups offering opinions, invitations, strategies, and messages of equal amounts of hope and despair. Sorting through all this material is overwhelming, and yet I’m inspired that so many unheard voices are now being heard.

In one of my favorite books of yours, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, you encourage readers to rely less on outside authorities, gurus, or abstract principles and to trust our own insights and lived experience. Today, many of us live with doubt and confusion that our insights have been in error or inadequate in addressing issues of social justice. We wonder how to affect transformational change without falling into guilt, doubt, fear, or anger. From a Buddhist perspective, how best might we uncover the true nature of our biases that distort our ability to see how our actions shape the collective? Are there particular practices that can help us?

 Lynne Adams, used with permission
Covid Compassion (2020) by Lynne Adams.
Source: Lynne Adams, used with permission

S.S.: One of the fundamentals of mindfulness practice is that it enables us to see our thoughts as thoughts before we say or do something on the basis of the thought that has arisen. The illuminating and ultimately empowering aspect of this is that we can see our assumptions as they come up, so they are not unconscious. Not all of our assumptions are wrong of course, but many of them are, and grievously so. My friends have a daughter who was born in China. Two blond Caucasians, they adopted her at a young age and formed a very happy family. When the little girl was in the first or second grade, her teacher presented this assignment to the class: “Name a physical characteristic you have in common with one of your parents.” The little girl started sobbing and kept on sobbing at home. Her whole sense of family, and belonging, was suddenly ripped away. The teacher was making an assumption about what makes a family. It’s unlikely that she intended to cause harm, but not seeing her assumption as a thought and carrying it into action did in fact hurt someone.

D.K.: Your new book, which was to be released this month but will be launched in September, is presciently titled Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. What prompted you to write this book?

S.S.: I encounter so many people who inspire me through their dedication to their work in the world, some of whom function in very tough situations. I have a lot of respect for people who have a vision of the world that is inclusive, who navigate the world with love and care as their north star, and who try every day to make it real. 

D.K.: In writing Real Change, you consulted with veteran activists and agents of social change. Were there common threads among the consultants that aligned with your own experience of Buddhist teachings? Could you give us three or four brief examples of the principles that emerged from your conversations?

S.S.: There are many Buddhist principles that emerged for me out of the lives of the people I interviewed, even though they weren’t all Buddhists or even formal meditation practitioners. One was a belief in the innate dignity and worth of everybody. I think of Shantel Walker, one of the leaders of Fight for $15, a nationwide movement for a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize for fast-food workers. I’ve met several of the striking workers. They work very hard, at times are homeless because even with a full-time job they cannot afford rent, and in many cases, they are denied the wages owed to them. Some would recount how even their parents would tell them “don’t make waves.” But Shantel is an exemplar of someone who realized she (and not only she) was worth being treated with respect—because everyone is.

 Pixabay/Creative Commons
Meditation Bowl (2015).
Source: Pixabay/Creative Commons

This brings to mind the fundamental truth of interconnection the Buddha talked about. It doesn’t mean we like everyone or want to spend time with them, but there is a deep realization that our lives are intertwined. The corollary to this is that everyone counts, everyone matters. Everyone I talked to had this worldview. That’s why they do the work they do.

And a third principle is the conviction that love is stronger than hate. No one I talked to believed that meeting hatred with hatred was the way forward. They derived their energy from a sense of justice and a vision of what could be possible. This certainly echoed the Buddha, “hatred will never cease by hatred. It can only cease by love. This is an eternal law.”

D.K.: Does practicing mindfulness always involve meditation or are there other ways to achieve it?

S.S.: I think there are countless ways to cultivate mindfulness. Life gives us many opportunities every day, really every hour. Meditation is a little like strength training—a dedicated period of immersion where your focus is on cultivating the different facets of mindfulness—awareness, balance, and connection. It then becomes easier to apply mindfulness in conversations, at work, commuting, whatever we might be doing.