For over 45 years, Sharon Salzberg has been a prominent figure in bringing mindfulness and meditation into mainstream Western culture. She is the New York Times bestselling author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, and Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, and a contributing writer for outlets like Oprah’s O Magazine, Time Magazine, and On Being.
With her relatable, secular, and often lighthearted approach to classic Buddhist teachings, Sharon has guided millions of practitioners in living and leading happier, more fulfilling lives.
Sharon bases many teachings around the concept of loving-kindness, or the mindful practice of love, empathy, understanding, and being kind to others without judgment. Here are a few of her favorite insights on embracing loving-kindness in everyday life—and how it will help you lead with genuine care.
1. Don’t Let Fear or Anger Win
“Anger is like swallowing poison and hoping it kills the other guy.” — Unknown
Anger is nothing new. However, with the uncertainty of today, more people than ever appear to let anger take control. “There is so much burnout,” says Sharon. “There is incredible empathy and compassion, but something else is going on. Something is off-balance.”
That’s not to say anger is never warranted. Anger is a genuine—and sometimes necessary—human emotion. Sharon encourages accepting these intense feelings that inevitably come up in our lives. “But if we’re enveloped and overcome by it, we lose perspective,” she says.
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By losing perspective and letting anger take hold of us, situations too often arise that are significantly worse than whatever initially made you angry.
“You send that email in a flash of rage, and it’s so regrettable,” Sharon says. “The consequences are beyond what we might have even intended. Anger is often likened to a forest fire. It leaves us very far from where we want to be.”
Soothing those anger impulses takes consistent practice, but it is possible. “The main tool that we have is meditation and mindfulness,” says Sharon. “It’s knowing what we are feeling as we are feeling it—and not after sending the email.”
More specifically, Sharon recommends meditation on the emotion of anger itself—not on the actual circumstance causing those feelings. Instead, explore anger with a curious mind. While meditating, think about what the emotion of anger actually is. Where does anger really come from?
“If we can sit and be with the feeling, we find at the heart of it a sense of helplessness,” Sharon says. “We pick up the anger because it’s so energized and strong.”
In essence, we gravitate towards the emotion viewed as more powerful (in this instance, anger) to cover up the one seen as weak. “I find that if I recognize the place of helplessness, I can resolve it with some action—even if it feels very small,” Sharon says. “It gives the energy a place to go.”
2. Practice Kindness Towards Everyone
It’s not always easy to be kind. Maybe with our family and friends. But what about that always irritable co-worker or the guy behind the cash register at your local grocery store? Often, a lack of kindness isn’t due to true apathy. Instead, it’s exhaustion. After all, we’re busy!
To get to a place of genuine loving-kindness, we need to find space to explore and accept every person’s humanity. “We don’t stop to think, ‘that’s a human being who wants to be happy just like me,’” Sharon says. “It takes a real exploration.”
Who knows what’s going on in that problematic co-worker’s life. Maybe all they need is compassion and a smile. “To wish that someone be free from that space would only make for a better world,” Sharon says. “If only that person were happier. They would create less misery around them.”
And for the too-often overlooked grocery worker? Just acknowledging them and offering genuine gratitude for their work could mean everything. “One of the strengths of kindness, generosity, and action is that it returns us to a place of feeling whole and intact,” says Sharon. They are just simple acts of loving-kindness.
After all, as humans, we ultimately crave connection. It doesn’t mean we have to become best friends with everyone. But by embracing other’s humanity, we’ll find ourselves living with more personal fulfillment.
“We have to learn how to be with one another,” says Sharon. “Or, we sink.”
3. What It Really Means to Love Fully
Most of us see or hear the word “love” countless times a day. But how often do we sit and contemplate what this ubiquitous word really means?
“We tend to think of love in romantic terms,” says Sharon. “But there is another way of understanding love. It’s the profound ability to have a sense of belonging within ourselves or with one another.”
Love means breaking out of an us vs. them mentality. It’s accepting every individual’s totality instead of rigid senses of self for ourselves and for others.
“If we see love as not just a feeling or commodity, but as a capacity, then it’s very different,” Sharon says. “If it’s a commodity, then it’s in someone else’s hands to bestow or take away from me. But if it’s a capacity within me, then it’s up to me to grow, nurture, steady, inspire, or ignite. But ultimately, it’s mine.”
Sharon recalls a personal story to describe this sentiment. She and a friend were stuck in terrible traffic. After groaning about how too many people were crowding the highway, Sharon’s friend paused and said, “We’re the traffic too, you know.”
Immediately, she stopped seeing a mass of cars blocking her way home. Instead, she saw thousands of humans all stuck in the same predicament. Traffic is never fun. But by going through life with compassion, love, and understanding towards other’s experiences, we can head down that stretch of road together—even if it’s slowly.
4. Realize That We’re All Connected
When we interact with others through a lens of loving-kindness, it’s infinitely easier to understand that we are all interconnected. “The more we pay attention,” Sharon says, “the more we realize that we live in an interconnected world.”
Consider how the driver ahead of you in rush hour traffic led an entire day before this moment—just like you. Now, you’re both stuck on the same stretch of highway wishing you were home. “Any “thing” in life is not just a thing,” says Sharon. “It’s a network of relationships.”
Just take a look at a tree outside your window. Is it simply a tree? Or, do you see the leaves catching the sun’s rays? The soil collecting nourishment? The rain providing sustenance? “It’s a network of connections and relationships,” Sharon says. Without those elements working harmoniously, the entire system would collapse.
“Loving-kindness is so powerful because it reflects the truth of interconnection,” says Sharon. “If we don’t necessarily like somebody, we don’t need to spend time with them. But fundamentally, our lives are linked because all life is linked.
“We are part of an interconnected universe. We are all the traffic.”
The conversation with Sharon Salzberg continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. In our chat, we talk about the difference between empathy vs. compassion, her advice on mindful living, leading in business with kindness and more! Don’t miss an article or episode of the podcast by signing up for my mailing list. You’ll also get a free guide to my favorite mindful resources. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne.