Taming the Chaos: The Promise of Real Change

Bestselling author Sharon Salzberg on the power of authenticity in action.

Posted Oct 26, 2020

What does it mean to make real change in times when you feel most powerless? In her important new book, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World, meditation pioneer, world-renowned teacher, and New York Times bestselling author, Sharon Salzberg, provides a guidebook to bringing positive change—and time-honored wisdom—to this challenging moment in history. As one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago, Salzberg is known for her relatable, demystifying approach to self-mastery, and has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers as a thought leader for our time.

She is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of 11 books, including Real Happiness (now in its second edition), Real Work, and Lovingkindness. Her secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings is sought after at schools, conferences, and retreat centers around the world, and is the focus of her own podcast, The Metta Hour, as well as her writing on Medium, On Being, the Maria Shriver blog, and Huffington Post. We talked about what real change promises in times of crisis and how paying attention can heal the world.

Mark Matousek: You’ve published a book called Real Change at a moment of massive global upheaval. The timing seems prescient. Did this surprise you? 

Sharon Salzberg: The publication was postponed from June to September, which provided the opportunity to write a new preface. The delay made me question everything I wrote before—what a friend of mine calls the “great before.” What’s still fundamental and what holds true in the middle of massive disruption and uncertainty, change, and loss? I realized that part of what’s still true for me is a real conviction around the power of love and connection. I’ve been surprised by the beauty of people reaching out to other people. Small acts that have been so meaningful and impactful.

I have a friend in New York City who’s 85 years old and he told me, “I got the numbers of the elderly people in my building and I just call them to see how they’re doing.” I love the fact he didn’t say the other elderly people. An organizer of one of my retreats is opening it up to be an online event and inviting first responders and ambulance drivers and EMT people to join the conversation. When I asked her what would be helpful for that audience, she said, “I talked to those ambulance drivers and they see these people walking around without masks and they are so angry and they don’t know what to do with it.” 

I try to help people navigate the delicate dance of not putting down what they’re actually feeling, but to see the intelligence in it. We’re grieving, we’re anxious—we’re all of those things—but we need to learn how to be with those feelings without them taking over our lives.

MM: I love what you said in the book about the difference between actual social isolation and perceived social isolation. How can mindfulness shift our perceptions around loneliness?

SS: Even before the pandemic there seemed to be an epidemic of loneliness as it was being described in the States, Japan, England, and other places. Some people put that down to the dissolution of our normal gathering spots, as pointed out in books like Bowling Alone. Places like bowling alleys and houses of organized religion were traditional gathering spots for a lot of people at one time. We’ve lost touch with each other in a lot of ways and social support can be such a strong factor in healing if you’ve got an illness, disease, or have been in an accident. But it’s also healthier to have an inner sense of connection. This can be affirmed in thanking somebody or recognizing that the food we are eating is produced by many hands.

I had a really interesting experience the other day because I was recording one of the meditations from the book and reading it out loud. It was a loving-kindness meditation where we silently repeat certain phrases of offering goodwill to somebody, either ourselves or somebody else. The particular passage that I had chosen was about a person we have neutral feelings toward. The kind of person who plays some role in our lives, but we’re kind of indifferent to them. For 35 or 40 years, we’ve been saying, “like the checkout person in the supermarket” but this time when I read it, I stopped myself and I thought, “Oh my God, we are so disconnected.” These are frontline people that we’re now applauding when they leave work. 

MM: Many people have a misconception that spirituality is a selfish pursuit that pushes us to become floaty and detached. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience. 

SS: A lot of times this misconception comes from someone you’ve known for a long time. You’re different and they wonder what happened to you. But spiritual life, at its essence, is about connection. The irony is that it looks like the most solitary activity ever, but in connecting that deeply to yourself, you inevitably connect to others. You see the world differently through insight and wisdom.

We live in an interdependent universe and the centrality we may hold about ourselves or our people or tribe—to the exclusion of others—is just a construct. What happens over there doesn’t necessarily stay over there. Just look at where we are today. I use an example of driving with friends in the car and being stuck in this terrible traffic. We were complaining bitterly and then my friend said to me, “Well, we’re the traffic too, you know.” Suddenly that sense of the centrality of me dropped and I realized we were all annoying each other, which is a true picture of life. In meditation practice, that solidified, reified, isolated sense of self does start to dissolve and there’s more of an understanding of how connected our lives are. With that, comes genuine caring and compassion, and there’s nothing detached about that.

MM: Do you think people can use this pandemic as an opportunity for spiritual retreat and enrichment? 

SS: Definitely. A lot of people I hear from have more recognition of their true needs and time to reflect on how much effort they put into acquiring things or being promoted. It’s a good time for that type of contemplation, but that’s not to say these times are not hard or really scary. But for some people, there’s a new sense of meaning and for many, a new sense of connection with others. We may not be able to connect in exactly the old ways for a while, especially if you’re a senior citizen. I share a duplex with my friend and colleague, Joseph Goldstein. The other day, we both went into the entryway at the same time to get our food, surprised each other, and then leaped back a few feet. Then we just had a normal conversation. We could be with one another, just with new habits. I think we’ll have to connect in other ways because this virus may come and go. But look at how much is falling away for people who are willing to let it go. Then what are you left with? You’re left with pondering what’s still true, what still matters, what still counts. What myths did I believe that I’ve now dissolved? It’s a powerful, powerful time.