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Real Love is an Ability

An Interview with Sharon Salzberg

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Illustration of tree growing from heart

What Love Endures by Peter Sandker

Real love is love that is no longer dependent on another person. Instead, love comes from a sense of inner abundance. It’s the natural overflow from a capacity you’ve developed within.

In her new book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, the beloved meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explores love in three sections that begin with the self, expand out to include friends and family, and conclude with all beings, including enemies. Salzberg recently spoke with S&H about her techniques for developing the capacity to love and signposts that tell us when love is flowing through our lives.

SM: What is love?

Sharon Salzberg: I think of love as a capacity within us to connect and to care, to have a sense of belonging, and to affirm the belonging of others. Love is not the same as liking somebody. Love is not the same as approving of somebody’s actions. Love is this inner sense that our lives have something to do with each another—that we are capable, each one of us, of experiencing this sense of connection. 

You’ve described our common understanding of love as being impoverished in some important ways. What do we get wrong about love?

The common misunderstanding is that love is a kind of commodity. When we make love a commodity, we put it in the hands of someone else to either deliver it to us or take it away. When it gets taken away we feel like, Oh, I have nothing left. Whereas, if we realize that love is a capacity within us, then we can treasure the fact that other people might help awaken it or we can recognize the fact that other people might try to threaten it. But it’s always in us as a capacity. This is an empowered stance, rather than always feeling dependent on someone else for love. 

In Real Love you write about different manifestations of love in widening circles: love for ourselves, love for our friends and family, and love for people we’re not as close to or even consider enemies. There is familial love, romantic love, and so on. With all these very different manifestations, what are some of the common qualities of love? 

A sense of connection. It’s about seeing and being seen. It’s a sense of the fluid movement of energy rather than its being frozen in one particular old, habitual way. I think it’s the ability to let go of assumptions and be in the moment, to actually be alive in the moment of connection. I think it’s about being able to differentiate between the various thoughts that arise in our minds, to be able to see which ones are really just old habits—like thinking about ourselves as totally incapable or unable to change.

I think real love has a facility for perspective shifting. Maybe what we’re thinking is true right now—we don’t need to deny that—is not the only truth. What’s the bigger picture? Real love encourages this kind of growth.

When you talk about love as a capacity that exists inside each one of us, it seems to diminish the importance of other people when it comes to love. Some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had with love are when it’s simply given as a gift from another.

Even though the capacity is always in us, it’s often awakened as a gift from another. We definitely have particular relationships and connections to certain people, or doggies, or whoever that sparks and enlivens the flame, but I do think it’s within us to begin with. You can see this in the way people can get totally dependent on being praised by others, which leaves them feeling incredibly lost. They aren’t just vulnerable; they are really lost because maybe this person they’re counting on is in a really bad mood for some reason that has nothing to do with them. Then it’s like all the love in the universe has been withdrawn, and it doesn’t need to be that way. 

Even though love is something that begins within us, you write that you have never believed that you needed to love yourself completely before loving another. However, at a recent Real Love event that you did with author and feminist bell hooks, she praised the book but took issue with this point. Do you still think that you can love others without first loving yourself?

I have been thinking about this ever since bell brought it up. She said you can care about others, but not really love them unless you love yourself. When I wrote that, the examples that kept coming to my mind were people who spend a lot of time caring about others—humanitarian aid workers, domestic violence shelter workers, and so on. They are unstintingly working on behalf of others and have tremendous empathy for others, and I called that love. However, one of the reasons they burn out so often is this lack of balance they have; they don’t care for themselves. So maybe bell is right. 

But I don’t like the way loving oneself can become the central project. People think, Well, I’ve got to finish this before I start anything else. What signs are you looking for? When you’re busy critiquing yourself and thinking you’re not there yet, are you also telling yourself that you’d better not love anybody else? 

That said, the first third of Real Love focuses on loving ourselves. You write, “A lack of love for ourselves is one of the most constricting, painful conditions we can have.” Can you say more about this?

Not loving ourselves is a fairly common experience in our culture. Even when we’re kind to others—say, by giving them a gift—we might just start harping on ourselves afterward. We might think, I didn’t give enough. I gave it too late. I should’ve wrapped it differently. Or whatever it is. You can just feel the joy withering away.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can live in a balanced, realistic world where we think, Yeah, sometimes I make mistakes, because everybody does. Then that’s a time for self-compassion, which isn’t the same thing as being lazy or giving up. It means that we figured out the best way to make progress, which is by being kind to ourselves and moving on with some resolve. 

How can we develop a greater capacity to love ourselves? From the meditative point of view, there are two main tools: mindfulness and lovingkindness. These are different but supportive methodologies for developing the capacity to love ourselves. As we practice mindfulness, we can see our negative thoughts—I messed up again, or whatever it is—much more quickly, before it’s crushed you and sent you to bed. You can see it as it’s arising. You also develop a lighter touch with your inner critic. You can even name it. My inner critic is Lucy, after the character in the “Peanuts” comic strip. These days, when I hear the voice of Lucy come up, I say, “Hi, Lucy. Would you like a cup of tea?” Mindfulness really teaches us to have a much easier relationship with all the things that come up. 

Lovingkindness as a meditation practice changes our default story. If the story that most often tends to rush in right away is in Lucy’s voice—“You don’t deserve to be happy, you should be ashamed and afraid”—that ready, immediate story instead increasingly becomes one of connection and caring. 

With both mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation, it sounds like cultivating a spirit of curiosity is very important for encouraging love to arise. 

We do need to be curious about ourselves, so that we can let go of the rigid sense that everything is all bad, or whatever. Instead of lamenting the appearance of our inner critic—“Oh, my God. I’ve been meditating all these years, and Lucy is back!”—we can have a compassionate relationship with it. Lucy is a little forlorn, too, you know? She just keeps repeating the same things over and over. 

Let’s broaden this conversation out to include others, such as friends, family, and romantic lovers. When I mentioned to people I was reading a book called Real Love, most people assumed it was a book about romantic love. Obviously, it isn’t, but how does romantic love fit into this? 

I think romantic love, in the sense of partnering, is a big yearning, for a couple of different reasons: Part of it is constructed by cultural messaging and part of it is simply human nature. It might just be that we don’t want to be alone. I also feel that we do have special karma with certain people. You might say, “I want to be like the Dalai Lama and love everyone, but I still want to love my husband.” I don’t want to bring everyone home with me, because they’re not all the same. And it’s true, they’re not all the same in terms of how they manifest in our lives. We have special relationships with certain people. 

To say that the person I feel compassion for in the elevator and never see again is the same as my partner is just not true. But, then again, there’s a kind of purity in that elevator connection in that moment. And I think the same principles and skills of romantic relationships hold true across the board with close friends and family members.

Can you give us a couple of examples of those principles and skills?

One is a sense of mutuality. It’s not that we’re keeping a scorecard, but are we supporting each other in both directions? Another is authentic communication, which helps us deepen and open up our relationships by supporting a kind of loving energy.

These aspects of loving relationships strike me as especially difficult to perform if we broaden the circle out even further, to include people we disagree with, or people we feel are potentially harmful to ourselves or to those in our inner circles. How do we love our enemies?

It’s always been a hard question. They say the Buddha taught lovingkindness as the antidote to fear, which is an interesting idea to reflect on. If you think of lovingkindness as the antidote to fear, how is that different from when you think of it as supporting or giving in? If I think of lovingkindness as a way to make nice with someone I strongly disagree with, it’s, like, “Why would I do that?” But if I think of it as a way to have a different relationship with fear, then I think it’s worth the experiment. 

To understand interconnectedness is not always comforting, but it’s always true. So the challenge and opportunity for each of us is to ask, How might I live in a way that reflects that understanding? 

What are some of the signposts that we can look out for as evidence that real love is flowing through our lives?

One signpost, I think, is a different sense of balance between how we think of ourselves and how we think of others. There’s an interesting moment when we realize, I count, too—and it’s not a selfish statement. We’ll see it because we might not feel so depleted after an act of giving.

There might also be a lightness or flexibility of attention. There can be a spirit of experimentation, a willingness to try new things, because you realize that your relationships are not set in stone. Our relationships are living entities, so we can keep stretching our love out—and that goes for both giving and receiving.


Someone Else’s Story?

Are you living someone else’s story? What would happen if you declared independence? Are you fighting someone else’s fight? Does loyalty to that person keep you from choosing happiness now? 

Try retelling your story as a hero’s journey, where you survived hard times and failures to become the stronger and wiser person you are now. Try telling it as a series of random events over which you had no control. Then rewrite the story. How did your choices shape who you are now? 

Does the situation bring up parts of your story? Does your story help you in the present, or does it make things harder?

The section just above was adapted from the book REAL LOVE by Sharon Salzberg. Copyright © 2017 by Sharon Salzberg. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.


Sam Mowe is the editor at the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit in New York that supports those who practice contemplation to catalyze personal and social transformation. garrisoninstitute.org


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