An Interview With Sharon Salzberg
--by Joey, posted Aug 27, 2006
What does kindness mean to you?
I think the associations people have with kindness are often things like meekness and sweetness and maybe sickly sweetness; whereas I do think of kindness as a force, as a power. When I look back over the instances, the encounters of my life, even when I just look around at the world, there's something that moves me so strongly that really is inspiring and uplifting about people just taking the time to pay attention to somebody or going a little bit out of their way to seek to help them. I can almost feel the palpable force of that. It reminds us of our own inner strength and our capacity to give, and it also reminds us of how connected we all are.
In what way can kindness be a spiritual practice?
It's both an internal spiritual practice and it's an external practice. I think one doesn't have to have a kind of classically spiritual word for it, to define it or access it, but it's like a commitment. It's remembering what we care about.
Mostly, I think it has to do with attention. You're rushing down the street and somebody asks you for directions, and the first thing you feel is annoyance. Like, I'm in a hurry, can't you see? But then you stop and you look at them and they look a little forlorn maybe, certainly a little bit lost and uneasy. And you think, they trusted me, that's why they asked me. They have that kind of inclination and you stop and you talk to them and there's just that little moment of connection. If we pay attention to what's around us then I think that leads us - or that's a form itself, a form of kindness.
You refer to the Dalai Lama's phrase, "enlightened self-interest." What do we gain by being kind?
I think it's a source of great happiness. The Dalai Lama also says, "I've never met anyone I consider a stranger." I was just in Tucson for his teachings and many of us were staying at the same hotel that he was. And the teachings were in the hotel. (It was really phenomenal seeing this resort turn into an ashram!)
Anyway, yesterday morning I went downstairs to meet some friends for breakfast and I saw these people lining up with katas, with scarves, and I realized that the Dalai Lama was just about to leave. So my friends and I lined up instead of having breakfast and in a little while he left the hotel. But he went down the line and recognized every single person on that line and wished us well. There were children and hotel workers and certainly students. It was such a beautiful moment that reminded me that sometimes it can be very simple, but it gives other people so much joy. He could have just rushed out, but he stopped and he paid attention to everybody.
I think that joy is also something that fills us when we're able to offer something to somebody else. It's something that satisfies us or fulfills us. I think even the research people are doing these days into meditation - like when they put someone into an MRI machine and tell them, "Ok. Now do your compassion meditation," one of the parts of the brain that lights up is the pleasure center. It's joy. Compassion isn't morose; it's something replenishing and opening, that's why it makes us happy.
If it makes us happy, why doesn't kindness come more easily to us?
I think there are a number of reasons. Sometimes people don't trust the force of kindness. They think love or compassion or kindness will make you weak and kind of stupid and people will take advantage of you, you won't stand up for other people. So I think that's just a basic misunderstanding. If we really look at the quality, like when people have stopped for us and helped us out or paid attention to us or listen to our story of unhappiness for the hundredth time, there's such a sense of appreciation for that ability. We don't consider those people stupid or foolish with their head in the clouds. There's a great energy there. We can clear up that misunderstanding.
Sometimes it's just the force of habit. We think if we give to others there's not going to be enough for us or we're afraid. We have this sense of being in competition with the entire universe and we don't want to help anyone else out. Maybe no one else helped us out, it seems. We think we'll lose something from taking time or giving care or concern, so that's also a misunderstanding that through clear seeing can be avoided or transformed.
And then there's just the question of mindfulness and the moment. We tend to be in a hurry; we're going a lot of places. We're conceptualizing and thinking about the next 15 conversations we need to have or things we need to do. It takes a moment just to notice somebody's needs us or just to breathe and stop and pay attention fully to that person and see if there's something that we can do. It takes a good degree of mindfulness; so it's a cultivation, it's like training.
How do you draw the line between protecting yourself and being a kind person?
Well there's always a balance. I don't know that kindness leaves us unprotected, but I notice that when I walk down the street sometimes I'm in my own world and sometimes I'm actually paying attention. It's kind of interesting paying attention: there's that woman with a baby in the stroller... there's that guy and he looks really intense. I don't stare at them or anything!
Maybe one can make the distinction between kindness as a kind of force and the specific actions that you take in a specific circumstance based on what context you're in and what seems most skillful or appropriate.