“You do not have to earn love. You simply have to exist.”

SHARON SALZBERG has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and the author of ten books, including the New York Times bestseller Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness, and her new book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. Renowned for her down-to-earth teaching style, Sharon offers a secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings, making them instantly accessible. She is a regular columnist for On Being, a contributor to The Huffington, and the host of her own podcast: Metta Hour.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
In my early teaching career I was too petrified to give lectures. The structure of our intensive meditation retreats is one where people meditate throughout the day, with question-and-answer sessions, small group and individual teacher contact, and a formal lecture each night. The first retreats I taught in this country, I couldn’t give a single talk—my colleagues had to do them all. This lasted for well over a year. I was afraid that in the middle of speaking, my mind would just go blank, and I would sit there, looking stunned, disappointing everyone. After a long time, I realized that people weren’t sitting out there waiting to cruelly judge me. They also weren’t sitting out there waiting to hear me expound on my incredible expertise. What they wanted more than anything else was a sense of connection, and I could provide that by being genuine and present. I realized that what I also wanted was connection, and I didn’t need to be a perfect speaker for that to happen. If it hadn’t been for my initial fear, I wouldn’t have looked deeper, and I might not have learned as much about authenticity.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki greatly influenced my life. There is a line in there something like, “We practice (meditation) not to attain Buddhahood but to express it.” Even though I first read it over 40 years ago, I still feel a thrill move through my body as I think about that line. I’ve often thought the best kind of teaching is an articulation of what we already know, but don’t know how to put into words or, most crucially, how to live. From the first time I read it, I sensed the vital difference between practicing to get something you think you lack, and practicing to express the fullness of who you are.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“You are a person worthy of love. You don’t have to do anything to prove that. You do not have to earn love. You simply have to exist.” It’s easy for us to confuse real love for ourselves with narcissism or conceit, but I think they are very different. Instead of the inner bleakness or hollowness narcissism is designed to conceal, I’ve seen that real love for myself comes from a sense of inner abundance or inner sufficiency. It comes from feeling whole, which is innate to us, hidden underneath our fears and cultural conditioning and self- judgments. So it’s not going to take learning tennis or creating a video that goes viral or becoming a world-class chef to be worthy of love. Those are all great things, but we are worthy whether or not we accomplish them.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips? I’ve gotten better at saying no to invitations, though I still have a ways to go! I picked up this tip from a friend, who felt she could hardly ever say no when she really needed to. In her meditation, she consciously brought up situations where she might have better said no, and she looked at what was happening in her body as she replayed the questioning. She tuned into the sensations spiraling through her stomach up into her chest, restricting her breathing. It was almost a kind of panic, a visceral expression of “maybe they won’t like me anymore.” She learned the feeling of those sensations, and the next time she was at work, or with her family, and that very kind of question was asked and she felt those sensations beginning, she used that as her feedback to say, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” With a little space, she could then say no. Awareness of the emotional expression in her body was key. I’m trying to follow in her footsteps.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I stop and ask myself, “What do you need right now in order to be happy? Do you need anything other than what is happening right now in order to be happy?” That orients me right away toward what I care about. I also try to remember to breathe. I’ve seen that if I feel overwhelmed, I freeze, and my breath gets quite shallow. “Just breathe” is also something I say to myself if I feel chaotic. Or I shift my attention to feel my feet against the ground. Mostly we tend to think of our consciousness residing up in our heads, behind our eyes. What I’ve learned I have to do is start by gently bringing my energy down, so I’m feeling my feet from my feet. Try it! It’s a little weird at first, but consciousness doesn’t have to be seen as limited to our heads, peering out at the world, disconnected. The more my awareness can pervade my body, the more I remember to breathe, the more focused I naturally become.

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