Sharon Salzberg is a well-known Buddhist meditation teacher who, along with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., one of the most prominent meditation centers in the Western world. A New York Times best-selling author, this week Salzberg published “Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.” The book draws on Salzberg’s expertise in loving-kindness meditation, a type of meditation designed to cultivate feelings of kindness and friendliness, to encourage us to define “love” more expansively in a way that allows us to connect more fully with others, ourselves and life itself. She was interviewed for this article by Emma Seppala, science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

Seppala: How have your personal experiences informed your writings and insights?

Salzberg: I had a very challenging if not traumatic childhood. I went to college when I was 16. By that time, I had lived in five different family configurations which had all shifted from one to the other through death or some other tragedy. I had been through a lot when I first heard about meditation. I had an instinct from the confusion of my inner world that meditation would really help me. So I went to India through a university program and learned how to meditate. Out of all the elements of mindfulness, loving-kindness meditation became my particular focus.

Seppala: As one of the foremost instructors of loving-kindness meditation and after nine successful books on topics related to love and compassion, what prompted you to write this particular one?

Salzberg: In the past a lot of my books were written in the context of a particularly meditative tradition. I still really honor and utilize those methodologies but “Real Love” is like a very contemporary expression of some of these more ancient values. A lot of the initial inspiration came from a line from the (2007) movie “Dan in Real Life”: “Love is not a feeling, it’s an ability.” How empowering to think of it as an ability. It is no longer in the hands of another to give or take away from us. I can think of love as a package that needs to be delivered by the UPS guy. However, if the UPS guy changes his mind at the door and goes away with the package, there won’t be any love in my life. Or I can think of love as my own — it is fundamentally mine.

Seppala: There are arguably a lot of books on love out there. Why another love book?

Best-selling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Salzberg)

Salzberg: Someone in publishing said to me “the love market is saturated.” I think they meant the “relationship market.” “Real Love” is not about relationships. It’s about connection — starting with the connection to ourselves and then to close others (whether that’s a parent, child, colleague, pet) and then moves on to love for all beings and for life itself. These connections are all intricate and powerful. That last piece — connection for all others — is puzzling to a lot of people. It’s important to remember that just because you use “love” doesn’t mean that you like them, approve of them, would enjoy having dinner with them or stop challenging them. It’s a fundamental sense of connection, an understanding that our lives are interconnected with one another, that everybody counts and matters, and that strength, fierceness and intensity are all borne of that interconnected understanding of the world.

“Love” is one of those overused words whose meanings has been diminished. We say “I love my frozen yogurt.” It is a word whose essence we stand to recapture. It has such a power. That is the reason “Real Love” is not a relationship book. I felt that the topic is so much bigger than that. We don’t just focus us on ourselves, our kids, our partners or humanitarian tragedies in the world. It’s so much bigger and interconnected.

Seppala: Most people equate romantic love with “ecstasy and torment.” You make a powerful case for another kind of love — a more enduring and fulfilling one. 

Salzberg: In every intimate relationship there are three elements: ourselves, the other and the space between us. One person I quoted said he was moving toward a more liberated kind of love by not just sitting in the seat of privilege (i.e. thinking about only his needs in the relationship) but also considering hers even if that was not as convenient for him. Mutuality, a joint endeavor, is most important. A lot of people and women in particular renounce their needs, yet what’s most liberating and loving is using your voice. A friend of mine outlived her cancer prognosis by 40 years. When she first was diagnosed she closely examined every element of her life and said, “I used to be the kind of person who would be sitting with my husband in the car boiling hot and the most I could muster was ‘Are you warm, dear?’ ” For this woman, moving to a deeper form of love was to be more authentic and not to hide. It’s a movement away from our old ways of being and then the relationship really is an adventure.

Seppala: You dedicate a whole section of the book to self-love, a topic that is not typically addressed in books on love. Why include this topic? 

Salzberg: Self-love is important to include because it is often misunderstood. We confuse self-love with narcissism. Narcissism is what I think of as the opposite of self-love. It is a very bleak inner state. Self-love is a sense of inner sufficiency or abundance and has many facets. One facet is self-compassion, which doesn’t arise when we have learned a new skill like mastering tennis but when we’ve made a mistake, blundered or strayed from our aspiration. The way we treat ourselves at that moment of failure is very important for the question of resilience. If we make a mistake and are able to bounce back lesson-learned and move on that is a good sign — as opposed to staying stuck on that mistake. Having kindness towards ourselves is realizing that everybody blows it sometimes.

Self-compassion is not to be confused with laziness or complacency. Another facet of self-love is appreciation — sometimes we are in such a hurry or fixed on what we don’t have that we don’t notice what we do have and how we can find strength and wherewithal from that gratitude. If we feel exhausted and too burned out to care for others, for example, we can gain a sense of inner resourcefulness from that appreciative perspective. With regards to making a difference, we can also have a terrible problem with perfectionism — we don’t do the seemingly small thing we can do toward the greater good because we think we need to do big things. But change often comes from many, many small acts. If we don’t do those small acts, change for the greater good is actually less likely to come.

Seppala: Life can seem so overwhelming and stressful that the idea of spreading love beyond our loved ones can seem overwhelming and burdensome to some people. How would you address their concern?

Salzberg: I totally hear that. If our intention is simply to clean up our act with our family and to have a more loving presence in our family, that is great. When it’s not just a thought but becomes something real, it’s powerful. Sometimes others see the changes in you before you see them in yourself. I’ve seen people who, when they stopped meditating, had their kids tell them, “Please don’t stop. You’re much better after meditating.” We go on from there. The process itself will lead us to what the next steps might be.

Seppala: You describe meditation as a core practice for strengthening our relationship with ourselves and others throughout book. How does this solitary practice help us relate better?

Salzberg: For me, my background in meditation proved to be a very direct and clear way of deepening certain qualities and understanding myself better. It gives us a chance to become more aware. For example, it allows us to become aware of how we’re feeling when we’re feeling it — not after we’ve lashed out or sent the email. We have more spaciousness around things, so if an old story comes about ourselves about how incapable we are, we see that we have a choice: Do we want to take that old story to heart or let it go and move on?

Seppala: What is your greatest hope for readers of “Real Love”?

My greatest hope is that in these times which are so divided, in which people are very lonely and in which there is so much partisanship and sense of separation, that love can be a part of the conversation. My hope is that we don’t confuse love with weakness but that we understand that love can be a tremendous strength. And that whatever we are pursuing in terms of effectuating change, love is an element of that pursuit.