Introducer (00:00:02): Welcome to the Conversations on Healing Podcast, where host Shay speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.
Shay Beider (00:00:32): All right, well, here we go. Welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast. My guest today is Sharon Salzberg. Sharon is a meditation teacher, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, a podcast host, and a New York times best selling author. Her most recent book is called Real Change and in it, she looks at how we move through grief to resilience and anger to courage. Sharon focuses on bringing Asian meditation practices to the west as a world renowned teacher of Buddhism. Ever since her studies began in India in 1970, Sharon has become a teacher of this tradition. She offers retreats and guided meditation services to bring clarity and peace to overcome personal suffering, or at least to know how to be present with it. In today’s episode, Sharon and I explore the power of meditation and the tools of introspection that it can provide in our lives. She shares her philosophy of metabolizing, suffering, and pain to transform them into kindness and compassion, both towards our self, but also towards others. Sharon provides a really unique perspective on healing being fundamentally rooted in wholeness. She describes how we cannot disregard any aspect of ourselves you’ll want to stay tuned to the very end because Sharon will be leading a beautiful, loving, kindness meditation for all of our listeners at the end of this episode. So with that, let’s get rolling and get this conversation on healing started.
Shay (00:02:30): Well, thank you so much for joining me, Sharon. I’m delighted to have you on the Conversations on Healing Podcast.
Sharon Salzberg (00:02:36): I’m delighted to be here. Thank you.
Shay (00:02:39): Great! I was thinking about where I’d like to kick things off today and for whatever reason, the imagery that kept coming to me was this idea of a pressure cooker where sometimes in life we have an experience of things intensifying, like they would in a pressure cooker. I feel like for all of us, the last couple of years have certainly been that sort of an experience with COVID, with the pandemic. Then with a number of other things that have happened in the world including what we’re experiencing currently, that’s happening with Ukraine and internationally the response to that. So we’ve had a whole series of very intensifying types of events over these last couple of years in particular, and that creates something that is a bit like what you would experience in a pressure cooker where things intensify. And in my own life, I found that those times can actually be tremendously beneficial. They’re hard, but they also have a potency to them and a possibility for positive transformation, growth and change. I’m very curious to learn from you how you understand the times in our lives, when things intensify and what choices we can make in the context of those periods of intensification.
Sharon (00:04:16): Well, the first thing I usually say is try to give yourself a break. One of my favorite sayings, in fact, somebody, I don’t have the cup here with me now, somebody made me a cup with it on it. One of my favorite sayings is some things just hurt, and often we might have the idea, well, if I had a better attitude, if I was greeting this in a better fashion, it wouldn’t hurt, but I really believe some things just hurt. What we don’t want is sort of the extra suffering that comes from just habits of isolation. For example, rather than feeling we are part of a community, I am the only one experiencing this or a tremendous amount of blame and vitriol against ourselves, or shame. I mean, there’s so many things that we might add on to a really terrible feeling or a situation. So even as we work to see as you referencing what growth can come out of this, what possibility can emerge right here in this pretty bad situation, still, we have to forgive ourselves. I think for all of the desolation, we may feel it’s so common just to kind of mind our helplessness rather than our agency in these times and that’s a whole learning.
Shay (00:05:57): Yeah, it certainly is. I thought it was fascinating that just before the pandemic, you had completed a book that was set to be released, a book called Real Change. A lot of it is about how we move through grief into resilience and anger into courage. It was little did you know that was actually going to be really applicable as things, altered themselves in our world. I know one of the things that you had said to me when we spoke previously, was that when you knew you were going to be releasing that book now into kind of a different world than you thought you were going to be releasing it into that, one of the things that you thought about is what is still true in times of tremendous upheaval. So I’d like to hear what you think is still true in those times.
Sharon (00:06:56): I think first of all, asking oneself, the question is an extremely powerful exercise. I ask myself the question, because as you say, every word of that book was written before the pandemic, and then publication was postponed because of the pandemic. A friend of mine was reading it in order it to excerpt it somewhere and he said to me I really like the book, but I keep reading those examples and thinking, that’s what made you anxious, wait till you see what’s coming. So then I thought, whoa and that’s when I went to the publisher and asked if I might write a new preface to try to contextualize the book. They said yes and that was the fundamental question I asked myself, which brought me to some very interesting reflections, what’s still true. Like, what am I counting on? What’s holding me up in a time of such enormous disruption. I was back in Massachusetts is where I thought I went up there for two weeks in March of 2020 and was there for a year and a half and so much loss and so much difficulty in pain in a circle of people that I care about. It was all different. So what’s still true? What am I leaning on in a way? And that I think is something we should ask ourselves many times doesn’t have to be that extreme a situation because sometimes we really have tools of resilience. We have things that we cherish that have been holding us up and we’ve actually kind of forgotten about them or we’ve begun to neglect them. When I was writing the preface in going through that investigation, I thought of course of my meditation practice, which has been holding me up for 50 years now and, low and behold it was still working like I was interviewed once for a magazine and my comment never got into the interview, but the question was, how might mindfulness or meditation help you in a time of total crisis? My comment was, I wouldn’t wait, do it when it’s boring do it when your life is like lacking drama. It’s like strength training, because then when you really need it, it will be there. Of course, some people wait and that’s okay because they still certainly could get some benefit. But I realized I was so glad I hadn’t made it that I was just practicing very regularly. So I could rely on those tools to re-center to get perspective, of course, one of the really painful things that happens in a time of such disruption is that we projected into the future. It will never be better or the worst of this will be one endures. We actually don’t know. So that was part of it and part of it I kept coming back to kind of philosophical statements that are difficult or have been difficult for me at any rate. I think in general to trust, but nonetheless may still be so I kept coming back to the statements of the Buddha which was later echoed hundreds of years later by Martin Luther king Jr. When the Buddha said, hatred will never cease by hatred, hatred will only cease by love. This is an eternal law. There’s many circumstances in life where you think not here like surely not here. Yet I actually kind of do believe it’s true, nonetheless. So I’m looked at a lot of things like that, about what gives me perspective. That’s bigger than the immediate situation.
Shay (00:11:08): Yeah. I love that. I read and learned a little bit that your early years were challenging that there wasn’t, it sounds like a lot of stability in your home life and that you were kind of moved around quite a bit from place to place. I would imagine that that experience taught you quite a bit about resilience and how to navigate hard things, or even just how to get through hard things. So I would be interested to hear how you feel those formative years have helped to shape the work that you do today.
Sharon (00:11:53): Well I mean, I went to India at the age of 18. I was a junior in college and I wrote this book later on about my early life called Faith and I realized just looking at it from many years later, of course, that by the time I went to college, I lived in five different family configurations, each of which had changed because of somebody dying or some terrible thing happening, some real trauma. So it was no accident. I am sure that I went to India the age of 18 to learn how to meditate. I had taken an Asian philosophy course as a sophomore in college. It was there that the prospect of learning to meditate kind of came up. I heard that there were methods, there were techniques that people it could use. If you did use them, you could be a whole lot happier. So that’s the first way it influenced my life was that. I look at that so often there was something in me that just intuitively felt this could really help me cause of course I was everything, I think if I was going to describe myself in one word at the age of 18, it would be fragmented but I knew it. So something about hearing about meditation convinced me this could really help me. So I was going to college in Buffalo, New York, I looked around in Buffalo, did not see it anywhere. This is 1970. The university had an independent study program. So I applied and they accepted the project of having me go off to India, learn how to meditate. So I went I know you’ve had Dan Goleman as a guest on your podcast. He actually in fact brought me to my first meditation retreat in India. I met him that long ago in India.
Shay (00:14:09): How did that happen?
Sharon (00:14:11): Well I went to India with a, a small group of friends and I was, I had a very specific desire set which was, I wanted to learn the practicalities, something very pragmatic nothing woo, woo, I would say now. I wanted I wasn’t that intrigued by the philosophy. I certainly didn’t want to belief system. I had to adhere to who I didn’t want to become anything or reject anything else I wanted the straight how to, and I kind of wandered around India. We wandered around India a bit, cause it was very hard to find that. I ended up overhearing a conversation in a Tibetan restaurant in Dharmshala that there was going to be an international yoga conference in New Delhi. I thought, oh, I’ll go there and that’s where I’ll find a teacher and finally learn how to meditate. So I went there and honestly it was a very dismal sort of experience. The low point was when these yogis and swamis were up on the stage, like pushing and shoving against each other to be the first to grab the mic and speak. So I thought this will never work, but for some reason, Danny, as we call him, Dan was delivering a talk at that conference. He was a graduate student studying psychology, studying meditation as a field of study and he gave a talk and at the end of the talk, he said he was on his way to this town, India called Bhagaya, where there was going to be an intensive 10 day immersion retreat. He described it and it was exactly what I was looking for, something practical. You didn’t have to swear allegiance, you didn’t have to join anything very direct, very how to, and I thought that’s it and it was it.
Shay (00:16:22): How fantastic. So that helped to orient you in the right place where you could then go from there.
Sharon (00:16:29): Yeah. It’s always the case that, I mean, we, we work with what we’ve got and I’m just so grateful for those tools. I mean, one kind of famous story about me amongst the people I’ve known since my first retreat in January of 1971, where many is my once marching up to the teacher who was S.N. Goenka and looking at him and saying, I never used to be an angry person if I started meditating. Which of course I was laying blame where I thought it belonged, which was on him clearly, but of course I’d been hugely angry and I hadn’t ever really seen it so clearly. So meditation gave me the tools, first of all, of introspection and there are many ways we might practice introspection, but that self-knowledge was so important. Then it gave me away back to what we were talking about to forgive myself for what I was feeling, to have some compassion for myself, instead of judgment, to sort of see the building blocks, cause something like that level of anger, for example, is not just one thing. It’s sadness and fear and helplessness. So many things kind of joined together and it’s also changing. It comes and it goes, and so I didn’t need to be so stricken by it. Like I am a terrible person. I should never feel this. So I learned all of that in the context of the meditation.
Shay (00:18:08): As I recall your thinking at the time was that then you were going to stay on and live in India and that was kind of going to be the course of your life. But I remember you telling me that you met with a very well known Buddhist teacher Dipa Ma, who said to you that you would be, you were going back to the states for your visa and that you would become a teacher and you were like, what you didn’t see. It sounds like at that time you didn’t see yourself as a teacher. How did you see yourself and how did that transition into becoming a teacher happen for you?
Sharon (00:18:49): Well, I stayed longer than my allotted year in India to be totally truthful. I went back to Buffalo. I did what I needed to do to get two years of independent study credit, which I did. Then I went back to India and after some time in India studying with various teachers including this woman Dipa Ma. I thought I’m just going to, I’m so happy. I felt coherent like everything I had longed for had actually really begun to happen. I thought I just should stay forever because I’m so happy here and I did need to come back to the states for things, as you say, like a visa. So I went to see this teacher Deepamura who was living in Calcutta to say goodbye and get her blessing for my very, very short journey back to the states to like came back to India forever. She’s said to me, when you go back, you’ll be teaching. And I said, no, I won’t. And she said, yes, you will. And I said, no, I won’t. And she said, yes, you will. And I said, no, I won’t. I mean, it was, it was ludicrous to me that I could actually do that. Finally she said two things that were really important. One was you really understand suffering, that’s why you should teach and that brings us back to your question about my childhood. It had never really occurred to me that going through so much could be a value in maybe being able to help somebody else or understand somebody else’s situation she said, you really understand suffering. That’s why you should teach. Then she said, you can do anything you want to do. It’s you’re thinking you can’t do it. That’s going to stop you. She lived up in a little room, what we would call a tenement and this really dank horrible staircase, four flights, and I remember walking down that staircase thinking, no, I won’t, it’s ridiculous. I’m not going to teach. Then I came back to the states and did what I needed to do. One of the friends I had met back in my first retreat was Joseph Goldstein. He at the time was he’d come back maybe six months before I had, he was in Boulder, Colorado. It was the opening of Naropa Institute. It was the first summer and he was teaching. He was actually kind of Ramadan his teaching assistant. So a small group of us who had met in India said, well, let’s go visit Joseph in Boulder before we do anything else. So we went to Boulder and Jack Kornfield was living down the hall. So the three of us started talking and then Joseph was invited to stay on for the second session. I stayed on with him and, and then Joseph and I were invited to teach a month long retreat, which we did. Then we’d get a letter Jack, Joseph or I, or the small group of people in addition. They’d say, oh, could you come teach a retreat? So we’d go teach a retreat. Then that would be over. We were sleeping in people’s couches literally. We had no stability whatsoever and one day somebody said to us, why are you start a center? It could be like a sacred site in this country. It could be a place where that energy that gets generated, where people come together with such good purpose, it can gather it doesn’t have to dissipate. So we ended up starting the retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. One day I just kind of woke up and I thought she was right. Like I don’t live there anymore. I live here and this is my life and it’s incredible. I’ll go back and study and practice, which I have, but I’m not going to live there anymore, said we brought her to the states, which was really wonderful.
Shay (00:23:14): It’s incredible that there was a convergence of all of you when you think about it. I mean, in your story, like prior to that, bringing you to your first sort of solid meditation retreat, Daniel Goleman, and then you’re teaching with Jack Kornfield and with Ram Das and like just the company you were keeping, all of those people went on to become so well known in their respective fields. It’s just fascinating that there was sort of this convergence that was occurring. I also think about that in terms of the exchange of ideas that happens whenever there’s a convergence, both verbally and non-verbally, but just the things that kind of allow existence through a co-creative kind of experience or state. That’s fascinating to me that all of you like, and as I know it to be that kind of coming and going in one another’s lives has had also continued, like I first met you and saw you at a Ram Dass retreat some years ago. That was a at the very end part of his life and yet, you were still intersecting with him, right. So these have been enduring relationships. So I wonder about how some of those relationships that you had in your early years, that you had the good fortune to kind of continue throughout your life, how you feel they’ve shaped you?
Sharon (00:24:46): Well, I mean, they have totally because like at one point I was being interviewed by different magazine about Dipa Ma and she was extremely maternal and Jack Kornfield made this short film, which I just saw the other night of her, about five minutes of just like placing people’s head in her lap and stroking them like a mom. I was one of the people in the film and I was like, oh my God like that is so incredible. Or if you took a train journey to see her she would be very concerned about you. Did you have enough tea? Do you need this? Do you need anything? My mother had died when I was nine. That was one of the traumas of my childhood. So this journalist was saying to me, and she was very shy about it. She said to me, do you think you reparent yourself with Dipa Ma? I said, I reparented myself with all of them because I had a number of teachers who were extremely important to me and I was 18, and very kind of unsophisticated 18. So there were, those relationships which were really crucial. Then my friends really have become my family. So many, many of us are still very close and that’s, what’s so strange about the passage of time is that, I might be with Christian or Joseph or somebody in somebody will casually say, how long have you two known each other? You think, can I say 50 years? It’s outrageous.
Shay (00:26:44): Right? Yeah. The passage of time is mysterious. How it can feel like an instant and yet it’s a very long time Sharon, I’ve heard you say that you feel that like inner strength is super power that it, the capacity to have a strength within, inside oneself. There’s obviously many ways to cultivate that, but the importance of that in our lives. So I would love for you to share with our listeners, how you see that people really cultivate inner strength for themselves.
Sharon (00:27:29): I think it comes down to, for me some understanding of suffering and discord in life. It’s not that everyone has the same measure of suffering because we don’t, but there’s fragility, there’s an security and there’s sometimes there is some terrible thing that happens and to see how some people experience distress, distressing events and they get so bitter and alone they’re very isolated, they’re very self preoccupied, and it’s like a wound that when the blood rushes to that site then they’re not really open to others in some way. It seems so sad to have gone through whatever and then to be so cut off and so unhappy and, and other people in deep and while it was a prime example of that go through a lot. There’s some quality of caring about others that emerges or gets reinforced. It’s not like it’s all a pretty picture cause it’s not, but I’ve seen well, using that example of Dipa Ma her story was that she was put into an arranged marriage when she was 12 years old and she didn’t have children for about, I think it was 17 or 18 years and that was very difficult culturally in that society, in that situ she and her husband fell very deeply in love. Then she had three children, two of them died and then her husband died. They were in Burma by then because he was in the civil service and he wasn’t feeling well one day and he just came home early from work and he died that night. So she was completely grief stricken and just overwhelmed with sorrow. She developed a heart condition and she couldn’t get out of bed. She still had a daughter Dipa, Dipa mother’s nickname’s mother. She still had Dipa to raise, but she couldn’t function and the doctor came and they say, he said to her, you’re actually going to die of a broken heart. Unless you do something about your mind, you should learn how to meditate. So she got up and she went to the retreat center and they say she was so weak. She couldn’t walk up the flight of stairs to get into the meditation hall that she had to crawl and she did. Whatever happened to her in that retreat, it was like, she’d metabolize some of that terrible loss and grief into compassion. She emerged as that figure who cared about others and that was the thing that always blew me away with her. With Tibetan people I’d met, who’d been in prison for like 20 years and being with one nun Tibetan as another example for breakfast and she would say, did you have enough tea? I kept looking at her as I had looked at Dipa Ma thinking if I’ve been through what you’ve been through, I don’t know if I care about anyone else’s tea like, so to have care for others and compassion for others and this tremendous sense of connection I saw it was possible that one could do that. So it’s so much what I wanted to do and wanted to help others do because the suffering this is not to say we don’t try to change circumstance. Sometimes people feel that an emphasis on inner strength isn’t this going to be an excuse to not try to make the world a better place, but it’s not really an excuse at all. We do try to change circumstance, but fundamentally I think the bottom line is how we’re going to meet what’s going on. Cause we have so much capacity to meet it differently and then whatever we do we’re being in a way supported by that inner strength.
Shay (00:31:59): Yeah. You shared an idea there that I’d love to explore a little bit more with you, which is this idea that we metabolize our suffering and transform it into compassion. I would be curious to hear what or understand about that process of how we metabolize our suffering and transform it into compassion.
Sharon (00:32:26): I think the first thing is really some of the gift of mindfulness, which is we look for the add-ons there is genuine pain, which I think some things just hurt. Then perhaps there is, I should have been able to stop this whole thing. Why aren’t I in control of everything? It’s all my fault. That’s an add on, or this is the only thing I will ever feel. This will persist in exactly this way for the rest of my life. That’s an add-on or I am the only one who has ever suffered. So that’s an add-on and that’s not to blame oneself for those. These are habits of mind that are strongly conditioned and that take a difficult and make it worse. So that’s the first thing we look for. That is the gift of mindfulness. What is all going on here? There’s the pain at the loss or change and then we learn to let go, not to hate or blame ourselves for, but not to get lost in all of those add-ons. So then we have a situation where, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that what we’re feeling is not bad. It’s not wrong. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not, cause we can’t do better. It’s painful. Every time whatever it is, comes up, we recategorize, it, this is painful. This is painful and you will see constantly emerge. You don’t have to like force it or give yourself a lecture. It will emerge because one of the great hindrances is the way we speak to ourselves. This is terrible, I shouldn’t feel this I’ve been in therapy forever. Why is this still here? I’ve meditating for 50 years for God sake. Why is this still here? So it drains all our energy and we become very demoralized. Whereas if we can recognize, yes, some things just hurt. I also don’t need that extra suffering practice letting go, which we do all the time and meditation and then be kind to ourselves. Then I think it, it automatically extends to kindness to others.
Shay (00:35:07): Somebody said to me, years ago, no extra points for suffering meaning like you don’t get extra benefit by adding on like saying how much you’re suffering. It’s like those add-ons that you’re describing, which is such a natural human tendency, right? We all do it, we’ve all done it. But in awareness of that, you’re doing that or when you’re doing then being able to make a different choice, is so powerful. I’m really interested in the idea of how we metabolize hard things and move through hard things. I’m actually leaving tomorrow for my father’s Memorial service and that’s a hard thing, right? That’s a very hard thing and I have been reflecting on in my own life, the various ways that I have processed loss and grief and a variety of challenges that I have encountered. I was trying to look, kind of like from that lens of where, or we began our conversation of like, well, what’s still true? So when you are having to process really difficult things what still remains or what’s kind of the essence there. For me in that process of metabolizing something, I realized that the sort of tool might be a way to say it, but that has always been so valuable or salient is presence it’s being present with presencing like actually allowing my whole system to just simply be present with and that level of deep presencing using our entire inner and outer bodies to just really sit with something that is extremely painful and difficult and hard, that alone is an extraordinary tool and gift for helping us to metabolize and move through things that can be extremely painful. That’s actually not outside of anyone’s capacity. It might feel like it is in the moment and we might need some support and resource around us to figure out kind of how to be present with something that’s extremely difficult or painful, but it’s actually reassuring to me that fundamentally, that capacity lives inside of each one of us. I wonder how that touches you Sharon in terms of what you’ve learned about being present with and through difficult experiences.
Sharon (00:38:15): I mean, I couldn’t agree more and I think I’ve also learned a lot from looking at the different ways I’ve found it difficult to be present one way is fighting what’s going on and having a lot of hostility toward it. I shouldn’t feeling this and another way is just being overcome by it because then we don’t have quite the relationship to be learning and to be interested, we’re just a wash. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel things very intensely. We might feel very, very intensely, but still there’s an ability we cultivate to pay attention and that’s part of presencing. So you kind of see each reaction as taking us away from that full wholehearted being with, and that’s what we learned. We actually don’t need it’s so scary, like to think I’m going to be with this really difficult feeling, but so much of what we do to avoid it is so much worse than anything, but I’ve also learned that there’s a balance to use your language in being present with, because if you have that belief that you do get points for more suffering, then you want to just dive in there and break through it. It’s like being over heroic. I had one teacher a Burmese monastic teacher who came to the center. We co-founded the Insight Meditation Society. He came in 1984 and his name was Sayadaw U Pandita and he was fierce. He was like a fierce, intense, demanding teacher. We had never met him before. We invited him to teach this three month retreat, which we sat under his guidance. It was just really intense. One day in the meditation hall, he was doing questions and answers and somebody asked him if I’m sitting and I feel physical pain, how long should I pay attention to the pain before I move my attention to something that’s easier to be with maybe listening to sound or feeling something come elsewhere in your body, or and that’s a very profound question because we also use physical pain as the template for emotional pain for heartache, for grief, for whatever it might be, how long should I just be with it before I move my attention to something that’s easy year and then maybe go back. So it’s in a way it’s saying, do I need a break? Do I need relief? Do I need to just kind of chill and then go back to what’s so difficult. I thought, given U Pandita’s personality, he was going to say, you should be with the pain till you fall over. He like so strict and demanding, but to my amazement, he didn’t say that. He said, don’t be with it for very long. He said, be with the pain, move your attention to something that’s easier to be with and go back to the pain, but you’re going back kind of resourced, go back to the pain and then leave it again. He said, it’s not wrong to just like, be with the pain and be with the pain and be with the pain, but you’ll likely get exhausted. So he said, why not build in balance all along the way? So it’s that place in the middle. It’s so delicate and so precious where we’re not completely consumed by something and we’re also not pushing it away. That’s what we’re cultivating.
Shay (00:42:12): Yeah. It’s interesting. As Sharon the work I do through Integrative Touch, we’re working with a lot of caregivers, a lot of parents who are supporting a child who’s seriously ill or terminally ill. The thing that I have really both witnessed and learned from those parents who are in extraordinary caregiving situations, like honestly, caregiving situations that I often can’t even imagine how myself, how I would get through it, cause it’s just at a level that’s so difficult and what I see is there’s this titration that can be really effective where you give yourself these little mini breaks just kind of, as you were just describing, it’s like you don’t sit with the pain all the time, because as you said, that will exhaust you, that there’s a real wisdom to almost the more difficulty that one has in their life. The more they have to understand how to back off from that periodically in small doses it might be a one minute meditation that you get for yourself or a one minute moment to do something else that just feels totally joyful and pleasurable or a one minute phone call with somebody who can give you support or, cause very often it’s in these like little micro-dosing opportunities that the people that we work with are given a chance to try to restore just a bit in the face of something that’s so hard, but there is extraordinary value to that, to those little micro moments of taking care of yourself when you’re in the midst of something hard. I think that’s actually how you can get through it and not completely burn yourself out. I know that caregiving is an area that you’ve carried a lot of passion for in your life and you’ve done a number of retreats and things to help people that are caregivers. So I would be interested to hear what you feel that you’ve learned about caregiving and kind of how to support caregivers.
Sharon (00:44:36): I think very much what you were just saying, what I thought you were going to say when you said something like there’s extraordinary value or something I thought you were going to say, and there’s extraordinary resistance to that idea because that’s what I found in terms of meditation instruction. Like give yourself a break, don’t be with it, over and over and over and over and over and over again, just listen to sounds. It’s not like so extreme, it’s not going to cost you anything? And yet it’s so hard for people to feel it’s okay. Just like if you’re in a caregiving situation, feeling that it’s okay to take care of yourself is extremely hard and the need is so immense and the support from society can be so minimal if existent and yet we have to be realistic about how we sustain an effort because it’s not short it’s like really a longer time and I have done some really precious work to me with caregivers through this place the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York. I began working first with domestic violence shelter workers, frontline workers in domestic violence shelters and then directors and supervisors of shelters and that became an international program working with international humanitarian aid workers, like the kind of people, for example, who work in the Syrian refugee camps. Then in the beginning of the pandemic, that program came back domestically and to the US. It was really for frontline medical personnel. I mean, it’s as a distinct program, it’s moving to a lot of places where people have experienced trauma. So then just for me, since I teach independently of that program all the time, I find I’m often working with people who are caregivers in their personal lives and their families. It’s such a tender place for me because it is often so unsupported by society in general and people really on the front lines of suffering, it’s really like deepen wells everywhere. Seeing so many people blame themselves for burning out as though were their fault. I couldn’t hack it or I couldn’t make it work or why am I so weak? Instead of realizing that some greater compassion for ourselves all along the way would really stand us in good stead and, and there would be perhaps less burnout and more sustained effort it’s even like you had mentioned a while ago, remembering the joy and not feeling guilty about taking these moments of enjoyment because they restore us. That’s what resilience is having the sheer energy to come back, start over or move on. We can’t do that with no energy.
Shay (00:48:18): That tenderness, I was just thinking about this story. Somehow, when we got into this part of our conversation. Years ago, I was asked to come work in a domestic violence shelter just for very brief period as a volunteer to do very gentle touch and massage with women in the shelter who had been severely battered. There was this mother know she was trying to take care of her children and she was obviously trying to hide in this facility so that she wouldn’t be harmed or killed. When I touched her and I remember how I touched her, cause I could feel that her system needed like the most gentle touch that I could possibly offer. So I worked very carefully with her to make sure everything felt right and that it could be as basically gentle as I had the capacity to do. So I did a session and until I felt like her system said that was enough. I’ll never forget it afterwards. She turned to me and she was completely crying and she actually hugged me and grabbed me and she said, no has ever touched me like that before. I realized in that moment that she had never had that frame of reference very much like what you’re describing with Dipa Ma, like that deep motherly, just sweet, loving touch that is gentle and so loving and that her whole system, her whole life, she’d never had an opportunity to experience that. My goodness, what a world it would be if we all had an experience of that, right. In one form or another, whether we got it from our mother or not, there are many opportunities, like you said, everybody was reparenting you along your path. Right. There’s not, we don’t have only one opportunity for that. But it was very moving also how open she was to receiving that in that moment because we all, because I think we all, we fundamentally need that, we fundamentally need that to move through light, to survive, it’s so core.
Sharon (00:51:15): Yeah, we do and it’s so hard as I’m sure you’ve seen with many people, you feel so guilty and I can’t take the time. It’s too indulgent. Look at everything I have to do, look at how other people are so much worse off and yet it’s not indulgent it’s so fundamental that without that kind of balance, we just can’t sustain that effort in such difficult circumstances.
Shay (00:51:48): And that is caregivers. That is exactly how we need to take care of ourselves. Like we need to receive at that level and actually I wanted to talk to you about this Sharon, because I know this was one of the insights that Ram Dass had towards the end of his life that he shared with you about how really one of the most difficult transitions for him was going from having always been a teacher who was always giving to suddenly being someone who had a massive stroke and needed to receive. So I’m interested about how you understood what that process was for him, that major transition in his life.
Sharon (00:52:34): Yeah. So Ram Dass was one of the people who was actually present at my first meditation retreat. So I’d known him since January 7th, 1971. He was there as a student. He’d already been to India and met his guru since the name Ram Dass , rather than Richard Alpert. He had come back to the states and was now back in India. Remember this is all pre-internet days and no one knew where his, his teacher, his guru was, so it was all like it’s mysterious things. So he was undertaking these me and retreats in the meantime. So he was there as just another student and I remember the first copy of Be Here Now arrived in India when we were there together and it was not a book, as you may recall, it was a box with all these loose things in it. So we had just been friends and that maintained through all those years. I also knew because they knew him quite well. He was always giving, he was sometimes we’d be visiting his house and he would would say, I’m not going to talk to anybody. This was also a long time ago with answering machines that you could hear the message. He’d say, I’m not going to answer the phone. I’m just going to and then somebody would call and in the midst of their message, you a total stranger you’d realize how bad off they were and he’d pick up that phone? And yet it was very hard for him to receive a compliment. It was very hard for him to be praised. It was very hard for him to get a birthday present. It was just his way of being and then he had this very severe stroke. After some time he was living in a wheelchair, he was, he had very strong aphasia, although he was back to teaching and if you were teaching with him, you just had abide through the silences until he found the word. It was totally different his life and yet, so much the same in some ways. So he was teaching that particular retreat. I was sitting in the back of about 300 people as he was speaking with somebody else. He said the hardest thing of all after the stroke, harder than physical pain, harder than living in a wheelchair, harder than the, what was really a radical difference in his ability to speak, harder than all of that was being able to receive help. He said it was the hardest thing of all and the most liberating. He went on to say, one of my famous books was called, How Can I Help? He said, now I feel like writing a book called how can you help me and I thought, knowing him for all those years I thought, oh, wow, how great is that. I literally felt like there had been a barrier inside him removed. It’s like beforehand, all that energy could go out and I saw him do extraordinary service for others, but it was so hard for him to admit it back in the love or the appreciation and, it was like the barrier was gone. I think the word most people used to describe him in his last years was transparent. He was just transparent. It’s like he was made of light, cause there was no barrier and all the love in the world could come in and go out. It was really a big lesson.
Shay (00:56:37): How beautiful that, that is in some way a fundamental intelligence of the design of the universe that things must come and go, that it moves in. We can’t just give, right? Like that would be a total fantasy that any human being would have the capacity to just give. That’s fundamentally not true, it’s just, it’s simply not compatible with the design of life. That we’re always having to understand both how to give and to receive. What wisdom, when you realize that on such a profound level is he did and allowed himself to open to that. I mean, and that also takes a lot of courage coming from where he came from and who he was as a teacher and that takes a lot of courage to receive at that level. It was extraordinary to witness him. I remember watching he loved to swim in the ocean, but of course, once he was in a wheelchair, that’s more complex process. He could still do it, but I remember we all went out swimming together in the ocean, in Hawaii with him and there was maybe a dozen of us or so, and just watching the vulnerability of that process because he had to be carried. He had to be held, he had to be attended to, everyone around him had to make sure that he could breathe, that he was safe and the amount of trust that he had to internally like accept and allow, I just thought, whew, that’s extraordinary. Like that’s not an easy thing. You’re literally putting your life in the hands of those around you and trusting that they’ll be there for you. So he gave himself into a very high level of vulnerability at the end of his life. That was beautiful, really beautiful. I, to witness, I felt. So Sharon, we like to ask, given that this is a conversation on healing and growth and learning and spirituality and health. We like to ask all of our listeners to reflect on at this point in your life, what have you come to understand what it means to heal?
Sharon (00:59:10): I would say that for me right now it’s back to the sense of healing as wholeness, not leaving a part of myself out of some process and it may be facing an illness, it may be facing a difficulty, it may be looking back and wishing things had been different, especially my own behavior in some cases or whatever it was. But when I said I was fragmented early on, I meant that like and so having the opposite sense that all of me is here in this process, whatever the process is how I would see healing.
Shay (01:00:05): It’s beautiful. I love that. Well, we wanted to take a little time in concluding our conversation to do a brief meditation. I know you and I had discussed the idea of maybe doing a brief loving kindness meditation. So I would be so honored if you would lead our listeners who would like to partake in a loving kindness meditation.
Sharon (01:00:29): I would be so honored to do that. So there are many ways, of course, of cultivating loving kindness. This one meditation relies on the silent repetition of phrases. The phrases are a different way of paying attention and it’s offering like blessing instead of, for example, thinking about ourselves and going through the list. One more time of all our faults and flaws and things we don’t do, right? We’re going to wish ourselves well, may I be safe? Be happy. The may I when we start with ourselves as a grammatical construct is sometimes a little confusing for people. They say, who am I asking? But we’re not asking anybody anything. We’re gift giving. We’re offering. Like you hand someone a birthday card and you say, may you have a great year. May you be happy. May I be happy. So we’re making offerings of the heart through these phrases, to ourselves, to others, and ultimately to all beings everywhere to all of life. So I’ll just guide you through one variation. The phrases need to be very general so you can offer it to yourselves onto others, common phrase which you don’t have to use. Except if you don’t, if you’ve never done this practice, I’d suggest use them this one time are beginning with ourselves. May I be safe. Be happy, be healthy. Live with ease. Live with ease means and the things of day to day life like livelihood and family may not be a struggle. May I live with ease. May you live with ease. May I be safe. Be happy, be healthy, live with ease. Remember it’s an offering of the heart, it’s gift giving. So start with making this offering to ourselves and I’ll guide you through various changes. You can sit comfortably, close your eyes are not just be at ease. Let your energies just kind of settle into your body and begin repeating your phrases for yourself. Like may I be safe, be happy, be healthy., live with ease. Can repeat them with enough space and enough silence so that it’s a rhythm that’s pleasing to you. This is like the song of the heart and you don’t have to struggle to make for any kind of special feeling or emotion. Just gather all your attention behind one phrase and then the next. When you find your attention has wandered, don’t worry about it. See if you can recognize it, like go gently and return. Come back to the phrases. May I be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease. See if you can think of a benefactor that someone who’s helped you, maybe they’ve helped pick you up when you’ve fallen down or maybe you’ve never met them. They’ve inspired you from afar. They say, this is the one who, when you think of them, you smile could be an adult, could be a child, could be a pet. Is there someone who you just smile when you think of them? If so, bring them here. You can get an image of them, say their name to yourself, get a feeling for their presence and offer the phrases of loving kindness to them. Even if the words don’t make total sense, they’re carrying the heart’s energy. So they’re serving us. May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease. I’d like to make an offering of loving kindness to the caregivers of the world. May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease. When you feel ready, you can open your eyes or lift your gaze and we end the meditation.
Shay (01:07:53): So beautiful. Sharon, thank you. I was thinking if you were looking at a clock that really wasn’t very much time and yet what a profound shift can happen in each one of us in just a few minutes, it really doesn’t take hours, hours. I’ve heard you say that a lot of the research now is showing that it’s like maybe 12 to 15 minutes or so three times a week. That’s a good dose of meditation that can have good impact in some of the research. I’m a big fan of Dr. Herbert Benson’s work, where he looked meditation. It was like a lot of his studies were 20 minutes a day. It wasn’t like 14 hours of meditation, in a retreat center around the clock. So I think that’s so nice for all of us to just hold this sense of it’s not about extraordinary amounts of time, but there is a discipline and a practice and a regularity that can be really beneficial and can just through those simple acts of intentionally dropping into these states that meditation can bring us into on a regular basis, like how sweet that can be.
Sharon (01:09:16): Absolutely. I mean, the hardest thing of all I found is moving from the abstraction. Oh, that would be a nice thing to do someday to actually doing it and it the science is not demanding 18 hours a day. It’s remarkable and very reassuring. I think self-knowledge figures into this a little bit, like one of the neuroscientists who maintains 12 minutes a day, three times a week will really bring you great benefit. She’s a friend of mine, Amishi Jha I said to her, I know myself like I can’t do three times a week because it would be Monday and I’d say, I’ll start on Wednesday, it’ll be Wednesday and I’ll think I’ll do it three times on Saturday. It’ll be done and I’d never do it, but every day is every day. So we can apply that self-knowledge to figuring out what would support us in making it real because that’s what’s most important.
Shay (01:10:13): That’s right. That customization is really key, cause we’re not all designed to exactly the same as we know. Well, I so appreciate your taking the time to be here with me and to have this conversation it’s really such a pleasure to learn from you and to actually have an opportunity to be with you at this stage in your career where you are just seasoned teacher from that young teacher who was like, what I’m going to be a teacher all the way to where you are many years into it. So I’m so grateful everything that you’re able to offer to our listeners, given what at this point in time. So thank you so much, Sharon.
Sharon (01:10:58): Well, thank you so much.
Shay (01:11:00): All right. Well thank you to everyone listening and we’ll have you stay tuned for the next conversation on healing.
Closer (01:11:09): We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Conversations on Healing Podcast. If you haven’t yet, please go to Apple podcast, Spotify or your preferred podcast platform and subscribe, rate and review this podcast. It helps so you won’t miss an episode. See you next time.