Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection

Sharon Salzberg
New York: Flatiron, 2017. 305 pp., hardcover, $24.99.

For forty years, New York Times–best-selling author and renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has been helping people learn the technique of mindfulness to focus the attention and deepen the experience of love. She is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of nine previous books.

 In her newest book, Salzberg takes us on a guided tour of love’s inner landscape. With her affable and easygoing style, she brings the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness into everyday life, offering astute observations on how love enriches human behavior.

Salzberg emphasizes that in the heart of every human being is the innate but latent capacity to love without conditions or judgment. We are made to love and to be loved, whether we realize it or not. She puts it this way: “I believe there is only one kind of love—real love—trying to come alive in us despite our limiting assumptions, the distortions of our culture, and habits of fear, self-condemnation, and isolation that we tend to acquire just by living a life.”

The one “real love” Salzberg describes is not sentimental or romantic. It’s a love that reaches into the substratum of our being and takes many forms of expression. It may be kindness to a stranger; a friendly smile to a stressed cashier in a grocery store; serving food in a homeless shelter; rescuing a lost animal; showing unselfish love for a child; or feeling empathy for people trapped in a war zone. On a larger scale, the world’s mystics, sages, and poets have pointed to one underlying love at the root of the universe. In The Divine Comedy, Dante referred to it as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Salzberg brings this love down to earth by suggesting it is our birthright to experience the beauty of love in all of its forms.

Salzberg views the daily practice of lovingkindness as essential to living a joyful and fulfilling life. She skillfully explores how ordinary but authentic interactions with others can form relationships grounded in lovingkindness. The book is filled with mindfulness techniques and exercises that have been helpful to her and to those she has worked with.

Moreover, Salzberg is passionate about the necessity of expressing lovingkindness to oneself. To illustrate this point, she quotes the Buddha: “If you truly loved yourself, you’d never harm another.” Without the capacity to be kind and loving to oneself, the ability to sustain lasting loving relationships is constrained. Obstacles include discomforting memories of the past and a mind conditioned by race, culture, gender, religion, violence, abuse, or other factors that generate fear, anger, guilt, or resentment, and over which we have little or no control. She also devotes a great deal of attention to self-worth issues, which inhibit the expression of lovingkindness in many people.

Whatever the past may be, it is the story we tell ourselves about it that is often most important. In Salzberg’s view, this is where mindfulness practices and lovingkindness to oneself can be healing and liberating. “Living in a story of a limited self—to any degree—is not love . . . You are a person worthy of love. You don’t have to do anything to prove that.” She makes it clear she is not advocating an egoic or narcissistic self-love. Rather she stresses that by having compassion for the entirety of our life experience, the pain and the joy, we can learn to integrate the disparate parts of our psyche and become whole. From within this interior wholeness, compassion flows naturally to all other beings, even in the midst of conflict and strife. It may not be a state of consciousness that is realized in every moment, but the daily practice of lovingkindness opens the heart to what is possible. Salzberg’s book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in living a fuller and more meaningful life.

Cynthia Overweg

Cynthia Overweg is a writer and educator. Her latest contribution to Quest was “Hildegard of Bingen: The Nun Who Loved the Earth” in the summer 2017 issue. Her website is www.cynthiaoverweg.com.


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