Confronting the confusion of modern culture, world-renowned meditation teacher, and author Sharon Salzberg cuts to the core of what it means to love and be loved.
Waiting impatiently for enlightenment in Burma, a young Sharon Salzberg was struck by a radical truth that would reverberate through her life forever. At this moment, she was captivated by the idea that real love is not an abstraction, a commodity, or an emotion, but an ability within our selves. The love she describes isn’t saccharine or sentimental, coerced or feigned, it’s a deep connection that runs a thread between us and sustains us.
Salzberg calls for our liberation, from the manufactured limitations that limit our ability to love. She asks us to break away from the fragments of ourselves that are coloured by past heartbreaks, cut through the myth of romantic love and the stories our minds play on repeat. Drawing on the decades spent, mending wounded hearts, the world-renowned meditation figure, wades through the confusion and drives straight to the core of ‘real love’. In conversation, Salzberg speaks about the rocky terrain of modern dating and the redemptive power of recognising that we are worthy of love.
TBE: What prompted you to explore the concept of “real love”?
Sharon Salzberg: I heard this one line in a movie, ‘love is not a feeling, it’s an ability’. When I think of love as a commodity, it’s in the hands of somebody else. They can give it to me or take it away and leave me with nothing. But, if I think of it as an ability, as a capacity inside myself, then everything changes. My love is my own. Other people might enliven it or threaten it, but it’s mine to tend, to grow and no one can take it away. I wanted to explore love in that way.
TBE: So what does real love look like?
S: It’s having a sense of belonging, it’s a profound sense of connection. We can feel so distant from our own lives, almost as if we are observing them rather than inhabiting. Life really is about connection, that’s not romanticised or sentimental it’s how things actually are. To find love, not as liking somebody or approving of them, or even wanting to spend time with them but as a profound sense of connection. That’s something that I think we can all cultivate. We all depend on someone, and, we are all, in effect, part of this network whether we realise it or not.
TBE: And yet we are constantly reminded of the fact that we should “go it alone”
S: Yeah well it’s a myth.
TBE: And what about romantic love?
S: Romantically we have an image of what we think we need, that will make us happy. We live in a cultured time, where we are looking for that intoxication, the fairytale that’s lived happily ever after. But, not everything depends on having a partner. It doesn’t even have to be romantic love. It’s about acknowledging connection on other levels, knowing that we all inhabiting this planet and that we all belong, in a way. We get so confused by everything that we are taught. We end up telling ourselves things like, ‘I can only love myself if I learn to be super accomplished and never make mistakes’.
TBE: I guess our ideas of love and connection are bound by the stories we tell ourselves?
S: The powerful thing to realise is that they are stories. Stories we tell ourselves, stories that others tell about us that we tend to believe. A very common story is of personal unworthiness and feeling that we need someone else to complete us or make us whole. Or, that love has to be romantic, or that if we hold on tight to somebody it will keep them from leaving… which never works.
TBE: Why do you think it is that people struggle to come to terms with the fact that they are worthy of love?
S: I’ll speak for the US, there’s an awful lot of conditioning around control. You need to be in control. If you’re very sad, you have a physical illness, a disability, or you’re getting older, it’s all a seen as a sign of having lost control. It’s a really shame-based culture that teaches us that our thoughts and actions are wrong. But when we are cut off from more and more of our own personal experience, what do we have to share? We just have the surface.
TBE: So what are your thoughts on modern dating culture?
S: Haha I’m a little old for it. But, I think it’s strange. Sometimes we speed up the search for love out of incredible loneliness or to alienate ourselves from our own lives. I have had friends who have had great relationships come out of it but then I’ve had friends for whom it’s been pretty bad! Somebody just told me they arranged to meet a man they corresponded with online, he was at least twenty years older than he had described. That’s sad to me because if anything love … real love is being seen and accepted, And if we cannot disclose who we are, and what, the further it is from that.
TBE: Contending with the stories we tell ourselves, is the relationship we have with our own voice one of the hardest?
S: I do actually because it seems so like instinct and yet so much of it is a product of what we are taught, by culture, past experience. Yet we can become free. If you have a persistent negative voice within, not a useful one that is correcting in a useful way, just this sort of nagging, nasty voice that says you’re unlovable, that says you can’t do anything that kind of voice. Maybe give it a name, give it a wardrobe, give it a persona because everything depends on how you relate to it. You’re not trying to destroy it, you can’t, but also you don’t want to let it run your life. If you have a personification of the voice, you learn when it’s speaking or when your hearing something more useful. You learn the difference.
TBE: And, does your “inner critic” have a name?
S: I named ‘My Inner Critic Lucy’ after a character in the Peanut comic strip. She speaks to Kevin Brown and says, “You know Kevin Brown, the problem with you is that you are you” and I knew that was her name. When she spoke, I just greeted her with, “Hi Lucy” or, “Chill out Lucy’’. You don’t have to be so afraid or upset that Lucy has arrived, you’re stronger than that voice really. And whilst you have to treat her nicely, sometimes you just have to sit her down.
TBE: And finally, can you share your own love story?
S: Well, one of my love stories… I’ve had a succession of meditation teachers who have played a powerful role of pointing out to me that I am worthy of love, through their unconditional love, their lack of judgment, and their encouragement. In 1974, I went to see one of my own teachers, Dipa Ma, or ‘The Mother of Light’ as she’s known, to tell her I planned on spending the rest of my life in India and she told me to teach here in the States. She told me “you can do anything, it’s you thinking you can’t that is stopping you.” And, I came back to the States and my life evolved in such a way that my path became clear. That sense of faith in me, confidence in me and that’s what I mean by when I say we need each other. We really all are playing different roles with one another and often, it’s just helping another person take another step.
Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation and a world-renowned teacher and author. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and is the author of nine books including the New York Times bestseller ‘Real Happiness’. Acclaimed for her down to earth teaching style, Sharon offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings. Divided into three sections, her new work ‘Real Love’ explores love in three arenas of life: for oneself, love for another, and love for all of life.
Follow her story @SharonSalzberg