Loving kindness to ourselves

Sharon Salzberg

Transcript

 NOTE: This transcript may have been automatically generated using software and, as such, may not be completely accurate.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s lovely to see all of you here. I’d like to extend a warm welcome to our host, Kristine Claghorn, and in a moment, we’ll be hearing from Sharon Salzburg, our teacher. Before we begin, I invite each of us to arrive in this space fully—arrive in ourselves, in our bodies, in our minds, and in the present moment. Let’s embrace everything that we are experiencing and extend a warm welcome to others who are also joining this Zoom meeting. Take a moment to arrive and welcome yourself and others.

Please note that this session is being recorded. Now, let’s dive into the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, who beautifully teaches meditation. In harmony with our inhaling and exhaling, let’s practice the art of arriving—I am arriving, I am home. Repeat these phrases as we take a minute to arrive within ourselves while others also arrive in this meeting.

Wonderful. A big welcome to all of you who are arriving, both within yourselves and as we witness the arrival of other participants in this meeting. I am Rick Hanson, and it’s my pleasure to be here with you. If you’d like, you can share where you are located in the chat. I see that Maturi is joining us from Kenya, even though they are currently experiencing an electricity blackout. Unfortunately, it’s a reminder of the unpredictable nature of life. Feel free to ignore the chat and focus solely on the session by clicking the chat button at the bottom of your Zoom window.

Now, it gives me great joy to introduce my friend and teacher, Sharon Salzburg. When I first met Sharon some years ago, I had the honor of experiencing her genuine presence. Unlike some superficially polite individuals who are constantly aware of the line of people behind you, Sharon made me feel held in the space of her attention. She truly embodies what it means to be a real teacher, and you can sense it immediately when you meet her.

Sharon has dedicated her life to the cultivation of the heart, compassion, and kindness. As one of the key teachers who introduced meditation practice to the West, she has made a significant impact. Sharon’s home Practice Center is Spirit Rock Meditation Center, nestled in the rolling foothills of Northern California. One of my favorite spots there is the Gratitude Hut, where you can find pictures of remarkable teachers, including a young Sharon Salzburg alongside Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and others. These pictures capture their youth as monastics in Southeast Asia, some even riding elephants with their heads shaved. It’s a testament to Sharon’s longstanding commitment to this path and her instrumental role in bringing the wisdom traditions of the East to the West over the past fifty years.

Sharon is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Berry, Massachusetts, a place where the town motto, “tranquil and alert,” perfectly aligns with the ancient Buddhist practices of vipassana, mindfulness, and loving-kindness that form the foundation of her teachings. She is also the author of several fantastic books, one of which, titled “Real Life: The Journey from Isolation to Openness and Freedom,” was recently released. Today, we will explore the themes of that book, knowing Sharon’s ability to freestyle and offer profound insights in any direction we go.

Our basic schedule for today is as follows: Sharon will lead us in roughly 25 minutes of guided practice, after which we will engage in a brief discussion. As we proceed with the practices, I will be participating alongside you.

Thank you all for being here and for that wonderful introduction. It’s truly amazing to see so many people gathered together in this virtual space from all around the world. Good morning to everyone, regardless of which time zone you’re in. I’m grateful to be here and to discuss this topic that is close to my heart. Today, I will guide you through a loving-kindness meditation, particularly focusing on cultivating kindness towards oneself.

Loving-kindness is often considered the secret ingredient in many other practices, such as mindfulness. Sometimes people perceive mindfulness as a clinical practice, detached from emotions. However, I believe that kindness and compassion are integral components of mindfulness. By incorporating kindness into our practice, we create a space that is open, balanced, and filled with clarity.

To begin this practice, find a comfortable sitting position and relax both physically and emotionally. Remember that this is not about striving for something extraordinary or fabricating specific states. Instead, we are connecting with the natural space within us.

Loving-kindness meditation involves the silent repetition of certain phrases. While there are various ways to approach this practice, I will share the method I personally use and teach. Choose three or four phrases that express what you deeply wish for yourself and others. These phrases should reflect your genuine desires. For now, you can use the following common phrases: “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe, may I live with ease.” However, feel free to modify them or use your own phrases that hold personal meaning for you.

As we begin the meditation, remember that it’s not about manufacturing a special feeling. The power of this practice lies in wholeheartedly repeating the phrases and bringing our attention to ourselves and others in truthful and less habitual ways. If you usually focus on your imperfections or mistakes, try to give some airtime to other aspects of yourself. This doesn’t mean pretending everything is perfect, but rather including what we typically exclude. If you fear sentimentality or phoniness, remember that this practice is an act of generosity, a gift of kindness and blessing to ourselves and ultimately to others.

Throughout the meditation, if you notice your attention wandering, gently let go of the distraction and return to the repetition of the phrases. Don’t worry if this happens frequently; it’s common. You can always begin again, no matter how far your mind has wandered.

Let’s start by actively acknowledging and taking delight in our own goodness. Instead of dwelling on mistakes or negative actions, consciously direct your attention towards something good you have done, no matter how small. It could be expressing gratitude or offering help to someone. If no particular action comes to mind, focus on a positive quality that is alive within you.

Now, let’s repeat the phrases silently, emphasizing what we most deeply wish for ourselves and ultimately for all beings. Find a rhythm that is pleasing to you, gathering your attention behind each phrase one at a time.

[Pause for silent practice]

If you find it helpful, bring to mind someone you consider a benefactor—a person who represents the power of love in your life. It could be someone you’ve met or someone who has inspired you from afar, even a pet. Visualize their presence and offer the phrases of loving-kindness to them. Feel the sense of rejoicing in their existence and their impact on your life.

Now, imagine that this benefactor is offering loving-kindness back to you. Put yourself in the position of receiving their well-wishes. As you continue to repeat the phrases, notice any emotions or feelings that arise. Allow them to wash through you without judgment.

Visualize yourself sitting in the center of a circle composed of the most loving beings you have encountered in your life. These beings can be real or imaginary, from the present or the past. They are all offering loving-kindness to you, wishing you well and blessing you with their loving energy. Experience what it’s like to be the recipient of their attention and care.

Stay connected to the phrases and repeat them as you bask in the love and kindness surrounding you.

They’re all offering loving kindness to you, wishing you well, offering this sense of blessing. And here, in a somewhat more heightened way, we can experience what it’s like to be the recipient of that quality of attention, of care, as you gently stay in touch and repeat the phrases of loving-kindness for yourself, phrases coming from them for you: ‘May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.’

Really, many, many emotions may arise. You may feel joyous, grateful. I remember feeling embarrassed, like I just wanted to duck down and have all these beings offer loving-kindness to one another, forgetting about me. Whatever emotion it is, you can let it come and let it pass as though it was washing through you.

The touchstone is the repetition of the phrases. And here too, whenever you find your attention wandering, it’s fine, realizing that you’ve been gone. That’s the magic moment of the whole meditative process.

We practice letting go, we practice being kind to ourselves, we practice beginning again. For all the time we usually spend judging ourselves and putting ourselves down, we’re recapturing the energy, the force of love in this universe.

Let it fill your body, if you can, let it fill your being. (laughs) As soon as you receive this energy coming towards you, be in touch with this truth: It’s okay to want to be happy and to be safe. Our wish is that all beings, including ourselves, be happy, be safe.

You can let go of the visualization, dissolve the circle, we’ll go back to where we began, with repeating phrases of loving-kindness for ourselves, for a few more minutes: ‘May I be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.’ We can search the entire universe for someone who’s more deserving of our love and affection than we are ourselves, and we won’t find that person anywhere. We ourselves deserve our own love and affection more than anybody.

Alright, okay. You can open your eyes or lift your gaze, we’ll end the meditation.

So thank you. That was beautiful, Sharon. And um, I am minded of instructions I have received to protect what everyone has cultivated in practice, rather than just suddenly checking your phone for the most recent chats that have come through or turning on the television or something like that. Just stay with it, allow it to resonate. And as someone who is, as you know, very interested in neurobavana, you know, the deliberate internalization of wholesome experiences to grow important inner resources like loving-kindness, generally and loving-kindness for oneself in particular, just staying with it, keeping those neurons firing together so they wire these wholesome qualities into our, literally, our physical bodies, notably our nervous system.

It’s really a good thing. If I may, I have a comment and maybe two questions for you that others might have, and then we can open it up to everybody. So, my first comment was, as I was doing this practice with you, I felt a movement through me, of… It was simply a movement towards safety, toward health, toward happiness, toward ease that felt very beyond me. It was the calling of life altogether, and it reminded me of the ways in which practices like this remind us of what is actually true, is that what most living, all sentient beings, what they mostly want is to be safe, healthy, happy, and at ease in their human, monkey, lizard, mouse, goldfish, worm kind of ways.

And it’s easy to lose sight of that movement toward the good, I’ll call it, that you know.

And I’m thinking of the sky, which we don’t really notice. We notice the clouds in it, and yet the sky is vast. We notice the clouds of conflict and frustration and conflict, but we don’t really notice the larger frame that’s so natural to us, the movement toward the good and the longing for the good in others as well, which is so important to foreground, which you’ve done in that practice. So, maybe I’ll just pause there and wonder if you have a comment or reflection about that.

Well, I mean, we do seem so highly conditioned, don’t we? And I would love to ask you about that kind of conditioning and what it’s all about. Like, people continually ask me why, like why is it so hard, or why is it? And I don’t, and partly it’s the exhortation of some of my teachers. It’s like, rather than emphasize why, they would always emphasize what, like what’s happening, what’s my experience of this, what’s that, how is it changing? And why brings in different systems of thought, so depending on which system you’re exploring, there’ll be a different explanation.

But I am fascinated at the same time, of course, about that kind of conditioning. It doesn’t seem like it has to be that we’re conditioned so largely toward endless accumulation and kind of a harsh self-criticism.

And, you know, I count on you, Rick, to be a lot of my science source, and I remember talking to you years ago about self-compassion and how people were so off and equating it with laziness.

And you told me that performance studies of many kinds show that a harsh punitive environment will spike your performance but briefly, and then you’ll crash.

And if you’re interested in something sustained, learning something new or changing a habit or making progress in something, you would do well to cultivate self-compassion as the engine for making that change.

And it’s so different from what people tend to believe. That’s so true. You know, as you well know, our ancestors, through 600 million years of evolution of the nervous system, developed a so-called negativity bias, which I summarize as having a brain that’s like velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones.

And that bias is really good for survival in an environment in which most animals, including our hunter-gatherer ancestors, lived in a state of healthy equilibrium most of the time, with brief spikes of stress that, as Robert Sapolsky put it, usually ended quickly one way or another, alright? And so, the natural resting state is equilibrium that’s healthy, that’s safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease. So, when something bad does happen, it’s okay to have the negativity bias. The problem in modern life is we don’t live in that home base of a natural healthy equilibrium. We’re continually jostled with information and opportunities

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