Sharon Salzberg is a cofounder of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and the Insight Meditation Society. Ms. Salzberg leads meditation retreats throughout the United States and abroad, and has written “Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness,” “A Heart As Wide As the World: Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness,” and “Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.” On December 30, 2004, Ms. Salzberg spoke with Linda Lazarus, the Spirituality Editor of Mediate.Com, about spirituality, conflict and the healing power of mediation.
Linda Lazarus (LL): What is spirituality?
Sharon Salzberg (SS): Spirituality is one of those words, like faith, that is very hard to define. Spirituality has a lot to do with connection – it means connecting to inner strength and inner qualities that are innate to people but not necessarily cultivated. They might be qualities like love and compassion that we are out of touch with but that we have the capacity for. It also means connecting to a bigger picture of life that is more than our immediate circumstance. It may not be having all the answers about the bigger picture of life, but it is having a sense that there is more than what we are facing each day.
LL: So you are saying that spirituality is a connection to something within us and to something larger than ourselves?
LL: Do you have a view of human nature?
SS: I have a shifting view of human nature. The Dalai Lama might say that human nature is essentially good, but I’m not quite there. I think human nature includes the innate capacity for good that is in all of us. We may overlook this capacity, or not trust it, or ignore it, or cover it over — but I think it is actually there. From the point of view of Buddhist teaching, our goodness is never destroyed. No matter what we go through we always have the capacity to understand our lives, to grow, to change and to love. The foundation is within us, and we can build on our capacity for goodness through practices such as meditation, loving-kindness and generosity. Unfortunately, I also believe that some of the things that we do as human beings reflect the fact that we have disconnected from our innate capacity for good.
LL: Do you think people want to connect to the goodness within them?
SS: If people understood happiness, they would want to connect to the goodness within. The problem is ignorance – or, as a friend of mine puts it, bad aim. According to Buddhist teaching, everyone wants to be happy, but very few know how. Were we to actually understand more deeply what would bring us a steadier happiness, we would choose to want to connect to that goodness and actually have a better life
LL: What keeps us from understanding happiness?
SS: The components of ignorance, distorted view, blunted aspiration, not daring to imagine that we could be happy, not seeing the greed, and getting lost in the cycle of greed and revenge.
LL: What in your view causes conflict between people and between nations?
SS: There are several different causes. It is very complicated and intricate. One is just bad habits. The habits of not listening, fear, not understanding that we live in an adversarial way, not understanding that we sometimes benefit from others’ benefits. We have a rigid view of self and other and competition. We also assume that we have to fight all the time to get what we want or that we have to have exactly what we want and that there are no other options that would also be satisfying or gratifying.
LL: Do you think it is possible to resolve conflict on a global level?
SS: Yes – global conflicts seem intractable at times because of the degree of hatred and the cycles of revenge that just go round and round. Nobody seems to step away from these paradigms. It can seem really hopeless, but I don’t think it is hopeless. The world has shown us again and again that when people make the effort, which is hard to make, things can change. There are people in Israel who are working with Palestinians and really people everywhere who are trying. South Africa is an example of that kind of possibility.
LL : Can people reduce conflicts in their everyday lives and if so how?
SS: Yes, people can learn to reduce conflict in their lives. Some of it is learning how to listen more deeply. Some of it is learning how to recognize what we are feeling as we are feeling it, and that we have a choice. For example, if someone is proposing a solution to an incident, and we have a lot of fear or anger in response but we don’t realize it, that fear or anger governs our reaction and we say “no that is impossible.” If we learn how to recognize what we are feeling through being more mindful, than we have a choice – do I want fear or anger to be governing my decision or not– if we don’t know what we are feeling than we never have that choice.
LL: Are you saying that mindfulness practice can help people reduce conflict in their lives?
SS: Yes, that is just what I am saying.
LL: How can people increase their mindfulness? SS: Mindfulness is actually a practice – a practice of attention. It is learning how to pay attention to a whole range of experiences that we have, just simple sensate experiences like hearing sounds, feeling our body, feeling out breath, being more in touch with our emotion and our thought process. It is really a training in awareness.
LL: Is there a mechanism for doing that training?
SS: There are many books and tapes on mindfulness meditation. You can do mindfulness training in a very secular way or embedded in the philosophical tenets of Buddhist teaching. There are also many, many teachers all over the world who introduce mindfulness meditation either in classes or during retreats. For example, there is the retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, the Insight Meditation Society, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. In terms of more secular resources, there is Jon Kabat Zinn’s program on mindfulness-based stress reduction and the Contemplative Mind Program.
LL: Many of the people who read Mediate.Com are mediators and would be interested in your views of how a mediator helps to resolve conflicts. I would also like to know if you can explain the profound changes that can occur in people and situations as a result of the mediation process. (I often think of this as the magic of mediation.)
SS: I believe very strongly in the power of detachment. We think of detachment sometimes as coldness or indifference. That doesn’t really ring true to me. I think of detachment as a state of honor – a detached individual does not have an agenda, is not trying to prove anything, is not acting out of their own desires or distorting anything. A detached individual is just trying to see things clearly. I think there is a power and a truthfulness in that. A neutral mediator would have the voice of detachment, and could serve as a mirror to help people see the limitations that they hold. For example, sometimes people feel that there is only one answer that will bring them happiness or sometimes two people involved in a conflict fail to see that they really want the same thing. It takes a detached voice to reveal such things. So that is one very great power. I can well believe that there is a kind of magic to mediation – the magic that occurs when people are being listened to and not being judged. I also think that the mediator can help people in conflict because he or she can model detachment, and help bring out that quality within the people who are involved in the conflict. There is huge strength in that.
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