Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg finished her newest book before the pandemic swept across the world, and before the killing of George Floyd sparked renewed energy around issues of social and racial injustice. Fitting, then, that the book—her eleventh—should be called Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. In it, Salzberg, one of the three Buddhist teachers who founded the Insight Meditation Society in 1975, uses nearly fifty years of studying and teaching “to explore the intersection between the activity of working toward change in the world and the clarity and compassion arising from mindfulness and lovingkindness practice.”
Of course, when we think of the tremendous efforts it takes to change—let alone heal—the world, practicing mindfulness might not seem like much of a solution. (As Salzberg writes in the book, “Sometimes these practices are seen as promoting the opposite of a commitment to social change; they’re regarded as a sort of soporific we can imbibe so that we can feel good no matter what’s going on around us.”) But Salzberg, wisely, is not advocating for mindfulness in place of action. Instead, she suggests that being mindful is a prerequisite for reclaiming a sense of agency during difficult or strenuous times—and that it’s only with that agency that we can work to enact meaningful, sustainable change.
For instance, there are varying levels of anger right now: anger at our government’s response to the pandemic, anger at people who won’t wear masks, anger that racial equality is still not a reality. “You have to honor that anger,” Salzberg says. “It has a certain wisdom in it.” To Salzberg, that wisdom can serve as an alarm, signaling what’s wrong and what must be changed—but, if you’re completely lost in or blinded by your anger, you won’t be able to hear that wisdom at all.
Mindfulness can provide the clarifying lens, Salzberg believes, allowing us to feel what we feel without becoming overwhelmed by it. It can show us what we can control and what we can’t, sustain us throughout the long arc of change, and help us “bring courage out of rage and resilience out of grief.” It’s acceptance without resignation: understanding how things are in order to respond most constructively.
GQ asked Salzberg to bring her deep reservoir of Buddhist wisdom to bear on some of our current anxieties. Here she talks about dealing with people who won’t wear masks, reckoning with guilt, privilege, and accountability, and understanding why mindfulness doesn’t have to be some hifalutin concept but can mean, simply, “not hitting someone in the mouth.”
GQ: In the Western conception of mindfulness, I think we often think of meditation as an escape from suffering. In the book, though, you talk about meditation as a way to better know our suffering. Why is it a window into suffering?
Sharon Salzberg: Well, there are lots of ways of meditating, and lots of different kinds of experiences. To some degree, we can certainly experience greater rest. That doesn’t mean blanking out thoughts or getting rid of feelings. It means having some space. So as the thoughts and feelings are happening, we’re not so entangled in them. I’ve seen so many people through the years feel they’ve failed [at meditation] because they’re still thinking, or they have tons of thoughts or painful feelings. We don’t believe you can fail because the point isn’t to get rid of that stuff, but to develop a different relationship to it. We don’t have to take everything to heart. We don’t have to be haunted by everything.
There’s a common tendency where if something is difficult physically or emotionally—heartache, disappointment—we start adding right away. What’s it going to feel like tomorrow? What’s it going to feel like next week? So now not only do we have the actual difficulty, we have all that anticipation, too. There are lots of habits of mind that don’t serve us. That’s partly what we’re trying to undo in meditation.
So there is a quality of rest that does come, but there’s also a lot of insight that comes. Mindfulness is really about being with what’s predominant in our experience. It might start with something like the feeling of the breath. And then if something else becomes predominant, we pay attention to that. If we have a strong emotion, we usually are fascinated by the object of that emotion. If I’m angry, it’s the provocation. If we’re filled with longing, it’s the object. We don’t so often turn our attention around and say: What does it feel like to want something so badly? What does it feel like to be so angry? What does it feel like to have so much fear? That’s the first step.
And then if we can be with the state without so much judgment—“I should be beyond this, I’ve been meditating all these years; why is this still here?”—if I can just be with it, then it opens the door to learning. These emotions are usually pretty complex. It’s not just one thing. It’s strands of this and strands of that. We may see the feeling of helplessness or resignation in the fear… That’s why we say the ultimate goal of mindfulness is insight. It’s understanding. But we can only get there if we’re not freaked out by our experience.
As you point out in the book, meditation allows us to look at what is without any of those additional stories. Why is that helpful when it comes to change, social action, and building a better, more hopeful world?
When we see our own conditioning, some of the patterns that emerge will be a sense of, “I can never do enough. Anything I can contribute is so meager so small.” And so there’s a certain sense of [lack of] agency that really holds us back. Sometimes our most common add ons are things around that. “I won’t say it right, so I won’t say anything.” Or: “What I have to contribute is so nothing. How could I make a difference?” That just holds us back.
I think when a lot of people hear “equanimity” and “non-attachment,” those phrases often translate to resignation and indifference. I’m curious to hear you respond, or explain why that’s maybe a misunderstanding.
It is a misunderstanding, and it’s so common. It’s natural in a way. Because I think that’s the way we use the words. Equanimity sounds like indifference to us. It takes a real interest in exploring it for it to be different.
I wrote the book inspired by two different groups. One was the people I was just talking about: maybe they’re meditating or they have some quality of compassion, but they don’t feel like doing anything meaningful. The other group is people we’d call caregivers: someone taking care of an elderly parent at home or a child; domestic violence shelter workers; international and humanitarian aid workers; people going to the Syrian refugee camps; and, these days, frontline medical personnel. These are people with enormous caring and empathy—and they’re burning out. Maybe they have compassion for others way more than themselves. Or they have compassion in doing all this work, but they don’t have a balanced sense of limits. They feel they have to do everything or they’ve failed.
So equanimity means balance. It doesn’t mean indifference. It’s a balanced understanding: “I will do everything I can to try to make your situation better” and “I’m not in control.” It doesn’t actually make us stop or give up. It actually gives us the ability to go through frustration. You can’t make your friends change that terrible or self-destructive habit, as much as you would like to. You can’t make the system crumble as quickly as you think it should. But we do what we can do. The equanimity is realizing things may take time or I need to take care of myself as well as others. That’s not selfish. That’s the way one has an ability to sustain an effort.
There’s a woman in the book named Samantha, from the Parkland, Florida community. The first time I went down there, which was some months after the school shooting, and taught for that community, Samantha raised her hand and she said, “I feel really weird because I’m having this incredible day and I’m loving learning these tools and being with you. But I know the only reason it’s happening is because that horrible thing happened. And I don’t know how to get over it in order to appreciate this.” And I said, “I don’t know if we get over it ever so much as we hold the both at once.” And we call that equanimity.
To have a big enough consciousness or heart to hold the joy and sorrow and to see they don’t negate one another. We hold the reality of how much suffering there is and also the sense of possibility that things don’t always have to be this way. If you’re only with the suffering, you’ll get exhausted. If you’re only with a sense of possibility, you’re like totally in la la land. [laughs]… So my current favorite description of equanimity is we learn to hold many things at once with some balance. I’m going to try to do everything I can to help you. It may not happen by tonight, or it may not happen in the way I want to see it happen.
One of the things that’s happening right now with regard to social justice is that a lot of people are thinking about their privilege, and recognizing ways in which they’ve been complicit in systems of oppression. How do things like accountability and guilt fit with Buddhist teachings?
I was in California for the month of February, doing a program, and a psychologist in the program said, “The brain filled with shame cannot learn.” We need a kind of moral reckoning, even if it’s a personal thing in one’s past. An acknowledgement of pain caused, and a commitment to do better. And that’s a painful understanding. So there’s a kind of shame. But then if we’re awash in shame, and we feel fixed in that dreadful feeling—”I am that person, I’m only that person who said that stupid thing or made that assumption”—then we actually don’t have the energy to make a change. And what we need is change.
When I think of privilege, on a personal level, I usually think about assumptions. Where do I assume I belong, just as a matter of course? Where do I get lost in a stereotype? That’s a place where I think mindfulness really does a great service. Things that are implicit or unconscious can become conscious. It’s not even that all the assumptions are incorrect. But you don’t actually know, you’re just riding on it. If we can slow down the process and see what we’re thinking and see what we’re assuming, then we can at least ask or recognize, “That’s just an assumption.”
We find ourselves in one another, if we can be that honest. That’s the place where we can genuinely come together and realize how connected we all are.
On that point of coming together, I have an example I wanted to ask you about. I was on a plane in September and the guy in front of me wasn’t wearing a mask, and I found myself really angry, and I’m wondering if you have thoughts on ways to constructively use that anger.
You have to honor the anger. It has a certain wisdom in it. It has a message that is true.
I was about to teach a group of EMT people and ambulance drivers, and I asked the organizer, “What’s happening in the community? What would be of most help?” This was some months ago. And she said, “They are so angry. They see people walking around without masks and they’re freaking out.” No wonder! There’s a rightfulness to that anger. But there’s also a kind of destructiveness to being lost in the anger. So we make a distinction between feeling anger and being overwhelmed by it.
We can have compassion. I’m going to make an assumption now having just decried assumption, but [imagine] the amount of disconnection someone has to feel from others to walk around these days without a mask. The sense of belittling and aloneness. And I think, “That is not a pleasant state. That’s not a happy place.” Maybe it’s a sweeping sense, but I think, “What are people’s lives about? What do they think it’s about?” And I do feel a kind of compassion for that.
I think the statement I’ve made on Twitter that went the most viral was the quotation for the book: “Compassion doesn’t mean we don’t fight. It means we don’t hate.” So love or compassion doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of principle or we’re not taking a stand. It’s just the place we’re coming from is different.
I’ve heard you use a great metaphor about not letting emotions take over our house. How, when we feel things strongly, it’s like emotions are showing up at our house, and we can let them in, but we make clear we’re still the owner and running the show. But sometimes it can feel like those emotions aren’t just showing up on the doorstep, but coming with a battering ram and staging a mutiny. How do you instruct someone to handle that situation, if they feel like they’re just being completely overwhelmed by grief or anger?
An important foundation for that is letting yourself feel what you feel. In fact, that’s one of my sayings. “We feel what we feel.” Somebody made me a cup with that on it. There’s a difference between feeling it and taking action completely immersed in it. It’s almost letting it wash through you like a weather storm, as intense and overwhelming as it might be. That’s different than sending that email. Or severing ties with your difficult uncle. Because we may well regret that particular action. We recognize we’re really angry, and we might have enough space to think, what’s the most skillful way I can present this?
One of my favorite definitions of mindfulness came from an article in The New York Times, many years ago, about a mindfulness pilot program in a fourth grade classroom in Oakland. They asked one of the kids—he was nine or 10 years old—what is mindfulness? And he said, “Mindfulness means not hitting someone in the mouth.” I thought that was a great definition of mindfulness.
What does it imply? It implies you know you’re feeling angry when you’re starting to feel angry. Not after it’s gotten so intense and explosive. It also implies a certain balanced relationship to anger because if we get overcome and we’re completely swamped or defined by it, then we hit a lot of people in the mouth. At the same time, if you hate what you’re feeling and you can’t stand it and you push it away, you get tighter and tighter and tighter until you explode. Mindfulness is that place in the middle where you can fully be with what’s happening, but you’re not kind of leaning into it so much that you’re gonna pick up the phone or hit that person in the mouth.
This interview has been edited and condensed.