The Power of Lovingkindness: An Interview with Sharon Salzberg

For those of you who don’t know Sharon Salzberg, she is one of America’s leading mindfulness teachers and authors and has played a significant role in bringing mindfulness and the practice of lovingkindness to all of us in the Western world.  She is co-founder of one of America’s premier meditation centers, Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and is the author of many books and CDs, including her classic Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and her newest work, “Real Happiness.”

Today Sharon talks to us about the power of Lovingkindness, how to relate to difficult people, and some thoughts moving forward.

Elisha: Sharon, in your classic book ”Lovingkindness,” you begin by saying, “Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and to feel connected with others. Instead, we often contract, fear intimacy, and suffer a bewildering sense of separation. We crave love, and yet we are lonely. Our delusion of being separate from one another, of being apart from all that is around us, gives rise to all of this pain. What is the way out of this?” Sharon, can you give us a glimpse into how you guide people out of their loneliness?

Sharon: Often we begin by generating some compassion for ourselves in the face of our feeling of loneliness. It is not something bad, or weak to feel. It is however very painful, and so instead of disliking ourselves for it, we can have some tenderness and kindness for ourselves. Then we use the base of that self-understanding and compassion to look at others. We know all of us at times act to automatically avoid feelings like loneliness, sometimes in quite destructive ways. We know that it takes some skill to hang in there with a feeling like loneliness, and to develop greater kindness from it.

We do reflections like, “All beings want to be happy,” to reinforce the understanding that there are many things we all share – we want to be happy, we very often don’t know where genuine happiness is to be found, and we are vulnerable to change. Each of us actually knows that life is so fragile – we can be walking down the street, and answer our cell phones, and by the time we’ve hung up it’s a different life.

We reflect on how much we do share, our yearnings and our vulnerability, and generate lovingkindness and compassion for others. We might do this through meditation practice, or through volunteering or serving in some way to try to be of help to others. The result of each path is that we start to feel much more connected, both to ourselves and to others.

Elisha: In another book, The Kindness Handbook: A Practical Companion,” you explore how something as simple as kindness can be powerful to living a better life.  Can you give us some key examples on how people can bring kindness into every day living?

Sharon: I think kindness in many ways is an overlooked force. Culturally it might be considered a secondary virtue, as though to say, “Well, if you can’t be brilliant and you can’t be wonderful, be kind. At least it is something.” Yet the reality in our lives is that kindness is a powerful transformative tool.

Kindness is often a consequence of attention – how we pay attention, what we pay attention to, who we pay attention to.

Often we are distracted or fragmented in conversation. For example, we might be talking to someone and secretly consumed with thinking about the phone call we need to make, or the next person we need to talk to. It wouldn’t take that much to gather our wandering energy and actually listen to the person who is speaking to us. That is an act of kindness.

And all too often we fixate on the negative, whether viewing ourselves or others. If we have the habit at the end of the day, of looking back at ourselves as though to evaluate, “How did I do today?” we may also have the habit of fixating on what we did wrong, say the stupid thing we said at that meeting at lunch. Our whole sense of who we are and all that we will ever be collapses into that unskillful statement. We practice to broaden and open our attention, as though to say, “Anything else happen today? Is there good within me?”

This is not a question of make believe, as though to insist that what we said at that meeting was brilliant and witty – perhaps it was quite stupid and there might be consequences for that. But that’s not all that we are, ever. To broaden our attention and include the good is also an act of kindness.

Another example is considering who makes up the “other” for us, not even necessarily because of antipathy, but just through indifference. How many people do we encounter each day where we don’t consider that this is a living, breathing, human being who wants to be happy just as we do? How many do we overlook, or disregard as we objectify them? When we make a point of trying to pay attention rather than look right through someone as though they don’t count, it creates the foundation for a natural, unfeigned and very expansive kindness to manifest.

Elisha: What about being kind to those who give us a hard time or even our enemies? How can that benefit us?

Sharon: Here it is important to understand that kindness doesn’t mean wimpiness. We can be forceful, even fierce, and have clear boundaries, and say no, all coming from a place of kindness rather than rejection or corrosive anger. Here I think of an example the Dalai Lama used, where he said, “If you have an enemy, and you think all of the time about how they harmed you, and your grievance, you won’t be able to eat, you won’t be able to sleep, you won’t be bale to enjoy anything. Why give them that satisfaction?”

So here kindness needs to include kindness towards oneself, and the understanding that if we are consumed by the negative actions of others, it consumes our lives.

We also look critically at where strength actually lies. We might think that seeking revenge will strengthen us. There is a power there because there is a lot of energy – we are not passive or complacent. But it is an unreliable and destructive kind of power when we really look at it. There’s a lot more strength in feeling ourselves not enslaved by the unkind actions of others,  and having confidence we haven’t acted in a way that will eventually bring regret to us. But none of this means we allow ourselves or others to be abused or harmed, and we just meekly accept it. With kindness in our hearts, for ourselves and others, we can take very decisive action.

Elisha: Sharon, I noticed you’re on Twitter! Can you give us a glimpse as to what some of your posts are?

Sharon: I’m just learning how to use Twitter. Sometimes I tweet quotations that have inspired me, like “Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman.

Sometimes I have written posts for blogs like the Huffington Post, and I want to try to get the word out, like a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post on trauma in the past

Or I announce programs that I’m offering. It’s a new world!

Elisha: If you have any advice for the readers of The Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog to relieve their distress in daily life, what would that be?

Sharon: Mindfulness itself is a very powerful tool in relieving distress. We say that mindfulness doesn’t take the shape of what it is watching. In other words, we can be mindful of beautiful, welcome experiences, difficult and challenging experiences, and everything in between. The first thing we look for is what we might be adding to the experience, especially if it is difficult. One example would be future projection, “What’s this pain going to feel like tomorrow?” along with a presumption of permanence, “It will never change for the better.” In that case, we are not only experiencing the present moment’s difficulty, but all of that anticipated difficulty, as though we knew it would never end or move or shift.

Sometimes I simply remind myself, “This is what’s happening right now.” If we can relinquish some of the add-ons, we can look into the heart of the challenging experience. There we tend to find layers of nuance, like seeing our anger is also made up of fear, and sadness, and a sense of helplessness. It is not just one thing. And we see the constantly changing nature of all inner and outer experience, and in that seeing of movement and flow we don’t feel so trapped by what is happening.

Thank you so much Sharon for your time and insight. We are grateful.

As always, please share your thoughts, questions, and stories below. Your interactions provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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