by Geri Loizzo

Sharon Salzberg Contemplative Psychotherapy Program

Editor’s Note: For those who couldn’t attend the retreat with Sharon Salzberg, Nalanda Institute is pleased to announce that she’ll be speaking at our forthcoming Community Gathering on February 18th. This online event is freely offered. We hope you’ll join us….find out more here.

Find out more about the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program

I was quietly blow away at recent weekend retreat in the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program with core faculty Sharon Salzberg. Reflecting on exactly how the weekend hit home for me, I found myself thinking about the author Kurt Vonnegut. In describing the art of writing, Vonnegut often talked about the powerful impact of a well-placed short sentence. To me, Sharon is the Kurt Vonnegut of Mindfulness and Loving Kindness. In one short phrase, she can bend the mind and heart toward a whole new understanding.

My first mind-bender of the weekend came when she described concentrating the mind in mindfulness practice as “taking our power back,” gathering all our attention and energy back into ourselves, rather than frittering it away. The next phrase that struck me explained a technique for letting go of distractions by using the words, “not right now” to let go and set a gentle boundary with your clingy mind.

My next big “aha” came when Sharon started talking about using mindfulness as a basis for insight. Once we regain more of our mind-power by focusing on the breath, the body or sound, she taught, we can begin to open our awareness so we can “be with what comes up,” notice more about our experience, and even notice “how we are being with it.” As she described the practice of sharpening what we notice by naming it, her teaching took us to a whole new level. “When you name what you notice, don’t forget to pay attention to how you’re naming it,” Sharon said, “that’s an indicator of the quality of awareness you’re bringing to what arises.”

That’s when Sharon shared one of the secrets of her Burmese teaching lineage from Sayadaw U Pandita for bringing careful attention to the quality of “how we are with things.” The secret is to pay attention to whether we can be with things “without adding, without judging, without choosing, and without clinging,” or in other words, “without pushing away, without grabbing hold, without spacing out.” It turns out that the basis of these key qualities of attention is actually loving kindness, specifically in its wisest, most grounded form, equanimity. So in her lineage, Sharon explained, “mindfulness is relational,” it has the secret ingredient of equanimity built in to how we relate to what we’re being with. Maintaining this quality of not grabbing hold, not pushing away and not zoning out creates the space to access gentleness and compassion for ourselves, our experience, and for others.

This is where our journey together turned towards Sharon’s powerful teaching of loving kindness. We learned from Sharon that metta in Pali or maitri in Sanskrit means a quality of love and friendship that is not a demand for a certain kind of behavior but “a powerful sense of connection with ourselves and others.” She also described metta as “a loving presence that is more present than emotional.“ In describing this practice, Sharon came out with the pithy wisdom that for me distilled the whole weekend, “Love is not a feeling, it’s an ability.”

When I heard these words it was like a laser beam just went straight to my heart. Of course, I thought, this is something I know with all of my being to be true. I was grateful for the reminder. How many times do I judge my partner, my family, and the people in my life, based on their ability to love me? Opened up by this empowering perspective, I found myself wondering, what deeper possibilities lie within me to cultivate the ability to give love to the very people I expect it from?

A generosity of the heart with no strings attached. This is the way practice works through us, even if we’re not feeling it every moment on the cushion. If love is indeed an ability and not a feeling, Sharon Salzberg is an inspiration and role-model for all of us to keep practicing and gently cultivating our ability to make the love the world needs real.

May I, and everyone everywhere, be well, happy, experience joy, and live with ease.

Geri Loizzo is Nalanda Institute’s Director of Programming