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How Kindness and Care Can Serve as a Vehicle for Positive Change

A continued discussion with Sharon Salzberg about the power of compassion.

Key points

  • Compassion can act as a sustaining intention even while making proactive and difficult choices.
  • Compassion is a response to suffering in others while staying open and resilient.
  • Self-compassion is a powerful tool towards changing habits and staying resilient.

Sharon Salzberg is a meditation pioneer, world-renowned teacher, and New York Times bestselling author. As one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago, her relatable, demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness. Her next book, Real Life: The Journey from Isolation to Openness and Freedom, releases on April 11, 2023. This is Part 2 of our discussion. You can read Part 1 here.

Working with our sense of self-criticism and perfectionism has also been linked to greater well-being and less burnout.

Artwork by Elizabeth McGoldrick, used with permission
Source: Artwork by Elizabeth McGoldrick, used with permission

Some people would say that they have a pretty persistent negative demeaning voice. I think there are lots of reasons for this, not only personal conditioning, family, past experience, or whatever. I think we actually live in a culture where we're taught to demean others in order to feel better about ourselves. And then, that leaks over into this kind of overly perfectionistic expectation.

To see that pattern and to recognize it is important because it is a way we're taught to be entertained. I often talk about it. I don't watch a lot of reality TV, but was at a friend's house and they had me watch a cooking show recently, and I was not really happy about what I saw.

The judge was assessing people's dishes and instead of saying, "That was a fairly good souffle, but I think you should get more adventurous with spicing. And I think that would make your cooking really a lot better," instead of that, they said, "Take your knives and go." Like you don't deserve to be alive.

I just thought, this is dreadful. But we're used to seeing that in entertainment, and then we apply it to ourselves, as well as to others.

What we say sometimes in meditation is if you have a persistent, negative, critical voice, you can tell through your own insight what would be a useful, even if painful, reassessment of a situation. Like, "Whoa. I really said that so awkwardly. I need to step up and be more careful," or something like that. That's not pleasant, but it’s useful to know the difference between that phrasing and the kind of critical voice that brings us down all the time.

So what can we do to start working with this inner critic?

My suggestion is that if you have that kind of inner critic, that's just like the nag and not really helpful, give it a name or give it a wardrobe. Give it a persona, because everything is going to depend on how we relate to that voice inside our heads.

It's not a question of annihilating that inner critic or forcing yourself not to give in. It's a question of a different relationship to that voice. I named my own inner critic Lucy, based on the character in the Peanuts comic strip. And I say this with total apologies to the Lucys who are reading this!

What happened was that a friend of ours rented a house for some of us to do a retreat in. When I went into my bedroom, I saw someone had left a Peanuts cartoon on the desk. In the first frame, Lucy says to Charlie Brown, "You know, Charlie Brown. The problem with you is that you're you." And poor Charlie Brown says, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?" And Lucy says, "I don't pretend to be able to give advice and merely point out the problem."

Somehow whenever I was walking by that desk, my eye would fall right on that line. "The problem with you, is that you're you." Because that Lucy voice had been so predominant to my earlier life.

By this point I'd been meditating quite a number of years and I saw the benefit of all of that training. I could recognize what was happening, not freak out about it, and was able to sometimes label it for what it was and have a different relationship to it. Very soon after seeing the cartoon, something great happened for me and my immediate internal response was, “This is a fluke, a mistake, and it will never happen again.” And to that thought I said, "Chill out Lucy."

That's very different than, "You're right Lucy. You're always right, I'm worth nothing." It's also different than, "I cannot believe Lucy is still here. I've meditated all this time. I spent all that money in therapy. Why is Lucy still here? I'm a loser."

It's more like thinking, "Oh hi Lucy, I see you." It's almost saying, "Awareness is bigger than you, stronger than you. I can afford to be a little tender. I don't have to be frightened of you, because I see you for what you are." You are a very conditioned voice that has a certain effect on limiting me in an unreasonable way. It's when we get more mindful that we actually see the voice or see the pattern much more clearly. And that's actually a good thing. It's painful often, but it's a very good thing.

Kristin Neff does all these interesting exercises, where people are asked to imagine their best friends in a chair next to them. And then they deliver a message to the friend and notice how different it is from the message they deliver to yourselves.

There's something in use so often in our thinking that believes this negativity is the way to go. This is the path to progress. This is going to make the difference we long for. And it just doesn't. It doesn't.

And remember self-compassion doesn't mean placating. It doesn't mean giving in. It can have an edge of intensity to it, for sure, but not meanness.

People have strong views, and things have to get taken care of in the real world. How does compassion or kindness as a practice impact our ability to be activists, or to influence the world around us for the better?

I’ve been exploring these topics for decades now, both with people who ask for my help and in dealing with the challenges in my own life. I wrote a book called Real Change to explore the intersection between the activity of working toward change in the world and the clarity and compassion arising from mindfulness and loving-kindness practice.

Real Change is organized to map out the journey we often take toward a more impactful and sustainable expression of our values: expanding our vision; embodying real efforts toward change; working with the anger and grief that accompany a clear-eyed look at pain; supporting ourselves and remembering joy in the midst of challenging realities; looking afresh at who counts, who matters; awakening discernment and insight; coming to balance and knowing peace.

I believe kindness and compassion can serve as the ground for moving through the world as a vehicle for positive change whether your medium is activism, parenting, creative arts, caregiving, or whatever your life path may be. Compassion and kindness can be the qualities we choose to steer our lives by.

Several of Sharon Salzberg’s guided meditations can be found on her website.

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