Bringing insight meditation to America: An interview with Sharon Salzberg

By Robert Wright, Nov 22 2020

I was lucky enough to do my first meditation retreat—back in 2003—at a landmark of American Buddhism: the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. As much as any institution, IMS was responsible for bringing to America a kind of meditation known as vipassana—which is usually translated as “insight” and can be thought of, for practical purposes, as roughly the same thing as mindfulness. I was also lucky to have already met, at this point, two of IMS’s co-founders—Joseph Goldstein (who has previously appeared in the newsletter) and Sharon Salzberg, who is now world-famous for her teachings not only on mindfulness but also on lovingkindness meditation. Recently I had a conversation on The Wright Show podcast with Sharon about her latest book, Real Change, and we wound up talking both about the book and about the 1970s, when she and Joseph and Jack Kornfield co-founded IMS after sojourns in Asia.

BOB: I'm so glad I'm going to get to talk to you. We're old friends, for one thing. But also, you've got a new book out. It's the latest in a series of Real books. You've written a book called Real Happiness, you've written a book called Real Love, and this book is called Real Change

SHARON: That's right. I somehow got on the Real train. I don't know how that happened. People are teasing me, like "maybe your next book is Real Life." 

Or, you could fool them and just go with a series of Fake books. Fake Change. Fake Love. Fake Happiness. Actually, we're all pretty good at fake happiness already. You don't need to write that one.

You’re very well known in the American Buddhist community. You co-founded a very important institution, the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which I would say is as responsible as any institution for bringing mindfulness meditation to the attention of the American public. 

I mean, there had been waves of Buddhism. The first was Zen in California, then Tibetan in Colorado. Neither of those is so associated with mindfulness per se as the Theravada (and, specifically, Vipassana) tradition that you brought in. 

Yeah, I think that's fair to say. We started IMS on Valentine's day of 1976. Joseph Goldstein and I (who had met in India) had been back for a couple of years teaching. Jack Kornfield was having a parallel life in Thailand while we were in India, and he was also back. And the three of us, and some other friends, would just teach in these different cohorts as an invitation came in and somebody suggested to us, "Why don't you start a center?" 

We were young and naive. I was 23 years old, I'm not sure I knew what a mortgage was in those days. And we said, "Sure." I thought we could get a mortgage. We had three friends who went to the bank, and personally got out loans so that we could open up. 

Is that right, couldn't get a mortgage? 

Couldn't get a mortgage. 

They were bad judges of potential, I would say. So you'd been to India at a very young age. I think you were what, 18? 

I was 18, yeah. 

18 when you went to India. As one did in those days, I guess, if one was looking for a certain kind of thing. 

Your book is called Real Change, the subtitle is Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. I think some people think of meditators as people who aren't really out to change the world, and in fact there's people who are using meditation to kind of insulate themselves from the world.

I wanted to start out by asking: what was the spirit of the times in the 70s? I mean, there was very much a sense that it was time to change the world. You would've been in India in the early 70s, is that right? 

Yeah, I left in 1970. 

So yeah, that's like, you know, hippie city, and everyone wants to change the world. Was the idea explicit that, if you were going East to seek wisdom and learn about meditation and contemplative traditions, that was part of transforming the world? 

Well, first, I just want to say that I was actually at Woodstock. If we're talking about hippies, I have some authenticity I can lay claim to!  

That's impressive! Let me ask a Woodstock question. Is it true that it looks better in retrospect than it felt at the time? I mean, there was a lot of rain and stuff, right? 

Yeah, we were all sleeping in mud, in the pouring rain. But it was incredible, of course. And the fact that there were people feeding us, and taking care of us, was I think a model for what a lot of people were longing for. 

I don't think that there was necessarily that big a drive to change the world in the people who went East. There was actually a sort of a split in my college years between the political activists and the people who were seeking meditation and so on. And I'd say that I'm probably a good example of somebody who was in so much personal pain, just from my childhood and things like that, that I wasn't really thinking that much about other people or the world.

And when you really reflect on it… You know, I had to go to India to find teachings! What I was interested in was the real, direct, practical, how-to stuff. And I was going to college in Buffalo, NY. I looked around Buffalo, did not see it anywhere, and devised this independent study program for the university so I could go to India. And I had never even been to California when I went to India! 

So the intensity of the motivation for most people—unless you were just like a wild adventurer—you had to have intense motivation to find it and be able to practice it. And so, almost by definition, those were not casual seekers, because it was so hard to find. 

I think that personal suffering really guided many, many of us. For me, it was only later that some of those clouds cleared, and I felt freer as a person. 

I think one of the odd consequences of meditation—odd because it doesn't make sense on the face of it—is that you have a tremendous developing sense of connection to others. It looks odd, because you may be all alone. You may have your eyes closed. It looks like the most shut-off thing you can imagine, but it actually functions to reinforce that sense of connection. So, for me, it was later that that actually developed. 

You referred to your own suffering. Your mother had died when you were very young, I think, and then your father had mental health problems. Is that right? 

Yeah. My father had left when I was four, when they got divorced, and I was living with my mother. 

She died when I was nine, and then I was living with my father's parents. 

He came back briefly when I was eleven, and then just sort of spun off into the mental health system for the rest of his life. 

And, even more corrosive, in a way, was the fact that, like many family systems, mine was one where this was never spoken about. 

And so I went to college at the age of 16 and only then began putting some of the pieces together: "Oh, maybe that wasn't an accidental overdose that sent him into the psychiatric hospital. That doesn't make sense. It was something else." 

And it was really, actually, honestly in an Asian philosophy course in my sophomore year in college, when I was hearing about the Buddha's teaching and the inclusion of suffering as an inevitable and natural part of life—that was the first moment in my life I felt like I belonged. I'm not so weird and different. You know, this is a part of life. 

That was before you went to India. 

Yeah. That was why I went to India. Because I heard this, and I heard that there were these things that you could do, these methods you could use called meditation. And that you could be a lot happier. 

I look at that moment so many times. Why wasn't I satisfied with reading a few more books, or saying "Maybe I'll go to grad school and study it there." It was like "I have to learn how to do this." 

And did you have a single kind of transformative moment that you remember from India where you just felt like, "Okay, I found what I need"? 

And also, how arduous was it along the way? I assume you didn't just sit down and find magic the first time. 

No. Even getting there was arduous in those days. So many of us went over land. Somebody asked me the other day something about flying into Delhi. And I said, no no no, I flew into Europe and took a plane and a series of buses and trains and who knows what to get to India. 

Were you with people? 

I was with a few friends. And we didn't really quite know where to go. That was a little difficult, but also interesting. 

And, because I had this great passion for the how-to, I wasn't really interested in starting somewhere else and getting there eventually. So that took a while to find, and I finally did in the context of this intensive 10-day retreat that S. N. Goenka was teaching in Bongai, India that began January 7th, 1971. 

And you and I had spoken privately a little bit about Ram Dass. Ram Dass was there as a student at that retreat. 

So your first retreat was a Goenka retreat. We can say, for people who don't recognize the name Goenka: that is one tradition of mindfulness meditation that emphasizes—well, all mindfulness meditation ultimately emphasizes paying attention to the body, but as far as the first thing you focus on, Goenka emphasizes these body scans, thinking about different parts of your body. 

At IMS, you're more likely to hear initially an emphasis on the breath. 

They both lead to each other potentially, and it can be all the same in the end, but that's one distinctive thing about him. And there's still these Goenka retreat centers around the world, where they show videos of Goenka. They're pretty spartan, I think, as a rule. But they've done a lot of good in the world. 

So that's interesting: he was a teacher of Joseph's, and he was a teacher of yours, Goenka himself. 

Yeah. Goenka had just left Burma just a little bit before that time. Joseph's primary teacher was somebody else who was there, this man named Manindra. But his courses were like these tremendous immersion experiences, and you see the model of it at IMS.

That's where I became a believer, in 2003 at a retreat at IMS. So was your first Goenka retreat transformative for you? 

I would say the first sitting of that retreat was a moment for me where there was no looking back from that. 

I mean, it was rough going after that. I had a lot of physical pain. There were no chairs, there were no zafus (meditation cushions—Nonzero). And I had a lot of emotional pain, because, after all, here I was—guided by seeking to resolve this pain, and I hadn't been looking at it or acknowledging it, which was a big shock to me. And I was extremely self-judgemental, despite all these recommendations to have equanimity and be kind to yourself. 

But from the beginning, I just felt "There's truth here. There's something here that is so essentially true, and it will help me." I never looked back from that. 

Maybe we could talk a little more, for people who haven't meditated, about the kind of thing you might feel on a retreat. 

How has your relationship to your suffering changed? What's different about experiencing it through meditation? 

From that time, I really saw meditation as a variety of different skills. 

One was to get a little more centered. You know, just those moments when you can simply be with the breath. And all this other stuff may be going on: thoughts, and chaos, and fears, and anxiety—whatever it is—but you're not sucked into it. You're also not rejecting it. There's just this peace right in that moment, just feeling your breath, kind of watching the show. It was life-changing for me to have that. 

And these are just moments. It may not be sustained for like seven hours, or even seven minutes, but it makes a big difference. 

And then there's actual training, and being with, say, a painful feeling—emotional feeling as well as physical pain—without adding onto them the things we normally do, like shame and a sense of futility at not having been able to control, or projection into the future: “What's it going to feel like tomorrow? What's it going to feel like next week?” 

So we're left more with the actual experience as it is, and that gives us the chance to look more deeply into anything. 

If it's physical pain, we see "Oh, look at that. It's actually coming and going. It's an alive system that's always changing." 

If it's emotional pain, first of all we call it "pain" rather than "Oh, God, I'm a horrible person because I'm angry," you know. We see the painful nature of certain feelings, and we learn a different relationship to them. 

And then, there's actually—and I'm relying on this a lot these days, it's not just long ago—there's an emphasis on being able to take in the joy, actually being able to experience the wonderment or delightful moments, instead of being so distracted, or clinging so desperately to them that we don't even enjoy them, we just need them to stay somehow. 

It was all hugely life-changing in a very practical way. 

Let's talk about the current historical moment a little. There is a pandemic. These are, politically, very unsettled times. Has all this changed the way you relate to your students and people who come to you for guidance? Are you sensing more suffering? A different kind of suffering? Or different kinds of questions? 

Yeah, I think. It's been highlighted in the pandemic a lot because of physical isolation, for those who've been able to physically isolate, who aren't going to work every day—and I have a fair number of students who are going into work every day and facing a different kind of reality, too—some of it has to do with seeking some respite. People just want a break from their minds, from incessant anger, from chronic frustration. 

And even before the pandemic, there was what people described as an epidemic of loneliness. I think people have had to face that a lot. 

I turned in the book before the pandemic hit, and then a friend was reading the examples that I used in the book, and he thought "That's what made you anxious? Wait till you see what's coming down the pipe!" So then I went to the publisher, and I said, could I write a new preface? So the preface is post-pandemic, pre-protests. I mean, I couldn't just keep going back. 

I think you'd have to keep doing that every six weeks. At some point you've got to just draw the line. So far as I can tell, things are going to get stranger and stranger for a while. 

So when you refer to anger, you're referring to anger at the political situation, or…? 

I think that's largely what people were describing. 

Now, some things are very specific. I work a lot with caregivers, first responders, people who are really on the frontlines of suffering. I was going to do this program for EMT people and ambulance drivers and so on. So I asked the organizer, What do you think is really up for them, what would be helpful?” And she said, they see people walking around without masks, and they're so angry. 

And I thought, well, yeah. If I were an ambulance driver and I saw people walking around without masks, I'd think "10 more days. You could be in my hands, and my life could be in your hands.” Everything is so intensified.

Do people come to you often asking how they can cope with social media? Is that a common question? 

It's a very common question! I was interviewed in The New York Times not too long ago about "doomscrolling." I didn't even know the term. 

Yeah, I only heard that a few weeks ago for the first time. It’s going through your Twitter feed or whatever, seeing more and more reasons for despair, and yet being strangely addicted to it. 

That's right, and then seeing the same story from like ninety different sources, or repeats or retweets—just being stuck in that world of some particular dire situation. 

One thing I see on social media—and this may bring us back to anger—is people reacting to things they object to perhaps more strongly than is going to be productive. I mean, this seems to be almost the—aside from the coronavirus, maybe—epidemic of our time. I assume you've counselled people about this? 

I think it goes back to that double-edged sword. 

There's so much that wakes us up about anger, and it can also have a lot of cutting through energy. Everyone is so determined to look the other way, perhaps, and it's the angriest person in the room who's saying "No! Let's look at THAT!" So we rely on that quite a lot. 

But internally, if you are consumed by that state, even if the cause is righteous, it's devastating. It wreaks so much damage on yourself and your relationships—and I learned that from the activists that I got to interview, because that was their world. They would describe the outrageous, horrible, terrible circumstance that got them going to begin with, and maybe woke them up out of a life of complacency and to one of real caring and advocacy. 

And then this one woman, for example, (...), who's in my book, was talking about how she's worked for decades against violence against women. She and I met on a panel somewhere, and on that panel she talked about the horrible circumstance that sort of woke her up and made her fight, and how important that outrage was. 

And then she said, "But I don't know how to dial it down. I don't know how to be otherwise. And you can feel it in the organization. It infiltrates all our communication—and the backbiting, and the ways we don't really work together." 

This was years ago. I've known her for years, and I've watched her become a meditator and a shaman, and undertake all these things. And she's still an effective advocate, but it's coming from a different place. 

It is a tough balance. Anger can be a great motivator. Is it your view that, in general, anger is always a good thing to kind of meditate on? I mean, it can't hurt to look at your anger more mindfully.

I think it helps a lot, because then you're empowered by choice, rather than being driven. 

My favorite definition of mindfulness used to be, years ago, from an article I read in The New York Times about one of the first mindfulness programs in a school. It was a fourth grade classroom in Oakland, California. 

The journalist asked one of the kids, nine or ten years old, "What is mindfulness?" And the kid said, "Mindfulness means not hitting someone in the mouth." 

I thought, what a great definition! Because what does it imply? It’s knowing you're feeling angry when you're starting to feel angry—not after you've sent the email, not after you've lashed out at somebody. And it also means a certain balanced relationship to the anger, so you're not consumed by it and defined by it, but you're also not hating it and ashamed of it, trying to repress it—because then you'll just get tighter, and tighter, and tighter, and explode. 

So, in that particular way of relating, some space is created, and in that space maybe we see options. Maybe that kid can think, "I hit someone in the mouth last week. Didn't work out that well. Let me try this." There's a kind of clarity that is dawned when we're not lost in it. 

The interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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