Lovingkindness: A Practical Approach to Being Stuck on the Tarmac

Sharon Salzberg teaching at Minneapolis / St Paul October 2013
Sharon Salzberg teaching on Lovingkindness at Minneapolis / St Paul October 2013. Photo: Jon Gross

Over the weekend of October 4, 5, and 6, 2013, Sharon Salzberg presented a public talk titled Real Happiness and a two-day Workshop on Lovingkindness in Minneapolis / St. Paul, Minnesota.

I confess. I have never read a Sharon Salzberg book. Yes, I know. This is tantamount to heresy in modern American meditation circles. Out of the mass of dharma books, I haven’t read any of her classics, including Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

Of course, Sharon Salzberg’s name was very familiar to me before I spent the weekend listening to her teaching. I knew she was an early Western meditation teacher who had emerged from the cultural revolution of the sixties. I also knew she had spent a good portion of a meditation teaching legacy that stretches back to 1974, focusing on the practice of lovingkindness. So well read or not, I settled in for an exploration of lovingkindness from one of America’s most-loved meditation instructors.

At her Friday talk, it was quickly apparent to me why so many people are drawn to her: Sharon Salzberg is real. That is, tactile, direct, and without airs.

She peppered her teaching with personal anecdotes, such as the practical application of lovingkindness practice as a means to survive being stuck on an airplane tarmac for hours with unruly passengers. It didn’t mean she enjoyed the forced stay in the airplane – but it did mean she was able to shift her perspective from the me to the we.

Shaking hands with Sharon Salzberg. Photo Jon Gross.
Book signing with Sharon Salzberg. Photo Jon Gross.

Listening to her, I felt like I was with a wise aunt who was breaking down the ins and outs of life based on personal experience that didn’t spare the juice or the dirt. Her wisdom filled the room like an earthy gift bound up with humility, stories, and laughter. My wife, a woman not prone to gushy endorsements, turned to me a few minutes into the Friday night talk and exclaimed, “I like her!”

I did too. Sharon Salzberg came straight out with it: there is nothing wrong with transitory happiness. But the deeper question is how do we find sustainable happiness in our lives. By way of example, she chronicled how a difficult childhood and a random course on Buddhism led her to India at the age of 18 with the single agenda of learning how to meditate. The isolation she experienced through her pain growing up, fueled by a society that sees pain as somehow aberrant, caused her to be intrigued by the Buddha’s call to relate directly to that which is most often shunned and hidden from. I too could relate to her early appreciation that the Buddha straight up said there was suffering in this world. And that there was a way out of this suffering.

Weekend retreat with Sharon Salzberg. Photo Jon Gross.
Weekend retreat with Sharon Salzberg. Photo Jon Gross.

Her early practice in India taught her that the way we face and transform this suffering is through the skills training of meditation – no agenda or belief system required.

She spoke about the development of concentration and mindfulness and the cultivation of the Brahma Viharas (lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) by fusing classic Buddhist understandings into practical terms. She guided the workshop participants through formal meditation practices, which were simple and flexible enough to be used on and off the cushion.

As she chatted with the audience, she shared stories about her early travels and teachings with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, the nascent days of Naropa and the Insight Meditation Society, and meditating with Ram Dass long ago. I was filled with gratitude to be able to connect directly with one of the human beings that has been responsible for the turning of the wheel of dharma into the West. It will be interesting to see what history has to say about our time a few hundred years from now and Sharon Salzberg’s role in it.

“Life,” she said, “is full of surprises when we really pay attention.” Our task is to open up to the world and pay attention with an active discernment so we are present for these surprises. As we open, particularly through the practices of lovingkindness, we begin to develop a deep sense that our lives have something to do with one another. We live in an interdependent world. We live amongst strands and connections of life intertwined. That reality, she implored, is at the core of lovingkindness.

This does not mean we must adopt a saccharine stance towards the world. We may not like everyone and we may not approve of what others do – but regardless, we are woven together. At its core, lovingkindness is a skillful response to a shared fundamental reality that asks us to recognize that “our lives really do have something to do with each other” and to respond accordingly.

Audience with Sharon Salzberg. Photo John Gross.
Friday evening talk with Sharon Salzberg in Minneapolis / St. Paul. Photo Jon Gross.

Sharon Salzberg acknowledged that, of course, we fear we will have to give it all away if our hearts open. I know my heart contracts with this fear. But she reminded us that an open heart does not mean we throw out wisdom, discernment and experience. We do not become doormats and when we offer lovingkindness to our enemies there is no set dictate on how one should act. The practice of lovingkindness is ultimately “a journey, a terrain to explore.”

Lovingkindness asks us to stretch beyond the comfortable habit patterns that bind our hearts. As Sharon Salzberg reminded us, to do so we must formally train, and the most important moment of practice is when we sit on the cushion to do so. After all, life is full of surprises and if we look closely we’ll realize we are really all stuck on the tarmac together all of the time anyway.

-- John Tribbett, Tergar Minneapolis



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November 16, 2013

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