You are a person worthy of love. You don’t have to do anything to deserve all the love in the world.
Real Love is a creative tool kit of mindfulness exercises and meditation techniques that help you to truly engage with your present experience and create deeper love relationships with yourself, your partner, friends and family, and with life itself.
Sharon Salzberg, a leading expert in Lovingkindness meditation, encourages us to strip away layers of negative habits and obstacles, helping us to experience authentic love based on direct experience, rather than preconceptions. Across three sections, Sharon explains how to dispel cultural and emotional habits, and direct focused care and attention to recapture the essence of what it is to love and be loved.
With positive reflections and practices, Sharon teaches us how to shift the responsibilities of the love that we give and receive to rekindle the powerful healing force of true connection. By challenging myths perpetuated by popular culture, we can undo the limited definitions that reduce love to simply romance or passion, and give the heart a much needed tune-up to connect ourselves to the truest experience of love in our daily lives.
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About the Author
SHARON SALZBERG is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and the author of several books including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness, and Real Happiness At Work. 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 Huffington Post, and the host of her own podcast: The Metta Hour.
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The Art of Mindful Connection
By Sharon Salzberg
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2017 Sharon Salzberg
All rights reserved.
Beyond the Cliché
YOU ARE A PERSON WORTHY of love. You don't have to do anything to prove that. You don't have to climb Mt. Everest, write a catchy tune that goes viral on YouTube, or be the CEO of a tech start-up who cooks every meal from scratch using ingredients plucked from your organic garden. If you've never received an award and there are no plaques proclaiming your exceptional gifts hanging on your walls, you still deserve all the love in the world. You do not have to earn love. You simply have to exist. When we see ourselves and see life more clearly, we come to rely on that. We remember that we do deserve the blessing of love.
A lack of real love for ourselves is one of the most constricting, painful conditions we can know. It cuts us off from our deepest potential for connecting and caring; it is enslavement to powerful — but surmountable — conditioning.
And yet, no matter what bravery we show to the world, most of us have recurring doubts about our worth. We worry that we're not desirable enough, good enough, successful enough. We fear we're not enough, period. Intellectually, we may appreciate that loving ourselves would give us a firm foundation, one from which we could extend love out into the world. But for most of us this is a leap of logic, not a leap of the heart. We don't easily leap toward things we don't trust, and most of us don't trust that we are worth loving.
Nora expresses her confusion: "You always hear that you need to practice self-love in order to love others. But no one tells you how to love yourself. On the one hand, it feels like a cure-all: I need to love myself to find a lover. On the other hand, I think a lot of people seek out romance as a way of not loving themselves. In some sense, self-love is the most difficult. You're also the most convenient person to hate."
Michelle describes a wake-up call: "One day, when I was in my late twenties, a dear platonic friend said to me, 'Do you know how much I love you?' I instantly felt a wave of sadness. 'No,' I said, 'I don't know how much you love me.' 'I know,' he replied gently. At that moment, I became aware that I had never even thought of myself as being lovable. And I realized that it was not possible for me to receive love either."
Why is it so difficult for us to love ourselves? Why is it so much harder to offer ourselves the same sort of care and kindness that we readily dispense to our friends?
For one thing, the notion of loving oneself has gotten an undeservedly bad rap, which goes something like this: self-love is narcissistic, selfish, self-indulgent, the supreme delusion of a runaway ego looking out for "number one."
In fact, just the opposite is true. When the airplane cabin pressure is dropping, no one would call it selfish when a father secures his own oxygen mask before turning to help his child. More broadly, to love oneself genuinely is to come into harmony with life itself — including all others. Psychotherapist and meditator Linda Carroll explained the difference to me this way: "Loving yourself is holding yourself accountable to be the best you can be in your life. Narcissistic love has nothing to do with accountability." In other words, when we cultivate tenderness and compassion for the whole of our experiences — the difficult and hurtful parts, in addition to the triumphs — we naturally behave more kindly and responsibly toward others. Our hearts soften and we see that each of us is, in our own way, grappling with this human life that Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe" — replete with wonder and sorrow.
And so we begin with ourselves.
We are born ready to love and be loved. It is our birthright. Our ability to connect with others is innate, wired into our nervous systems, and we need connection as much as we need physical nourishment. But we're also born to learn, and from our earliest days, we begin to create our map of the world and our place in it. We form simple expectations: if I cry, someone will come — or not. Soon we start to weave fragments of our experiences into stories to explain what is happening to us and in the world around us. When we're very young, most of these expectations and stories are implicit, encoded in our bodies and nervous systems. But as we grow older, they become more explicit, and we may be able to recall where and when we first received a particular message about our worth and about our ability to love and be loved.
MESSAGES FROM OUR FAMILIES AND LIFE HISTORY
EACH OF US has our own individual histories, families, and life events that broadcast messages like a twenty-four-hour cable news channel. Some of these messages penetrate our conscious minds, while the majority are received by our unconscious and may take years to retrieve and articulate. Elliott recalls that, as a small boy, whenever he expressed sadness or fear, his father tried to talk him out of his feelings. "You're not sad," his dad would say. Or "You don't look like a chicken, so why are you acting so scared?" Without being aware of it, Elliott internalized the message that it was unsafe to reveal his emotions. It wasn't until the near breakup of his marriage — averted by a combination of psychotherapy and meditation — that he finally felt free enough to express his true feelings.
For most of us, life experiences are a rich mix of positive and negative, but evolutionary biologists tell us we have a "negativity bias" that makes us especially alert to danger and threat, lest we get eaten by a tiger (or so our nervous systems tell us). In order to ensure our survival, our brains remember negative events more strongly than positive ones (all the better to recall where the tiger was hiding). So when we're feeling lost or discouraged, it can be very hard to conjure up memories and feelings of happiness and ease.
While this default response is essential to our survival when we're in real danger, it can also be the source of great suffering when we're not. With meditation, however, we can actually retrain our nervous systems away from this fight-or-flight response. We learn to identify our thoughts and feelings for what they are, without getting swept away by them.
MESSAGES FROM OUR CULTURE
FRIENDS RAISED WITH a notion of original sin often tell me that guilt has shadowed them from the time they were very young. Common thoughts include things like, I was born bad; I was born broken; there is something fundamentally wrong with me. Even if such concepts weren't part of our religious or family backgrounds, they persist in our culture and can result in a pervasive sense of defeat: nothing I am or do will ever be good enough.
For some, the sin is being born the "wrong" gender, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation, all of which can lead to feelings of not belonging. These cultural messages not only impede our ability to love and care for ourselves but can inhibit our potential by causing us to lower our expectations and rein in our dreams. At the same time, the opportunities available to us may realistically be diminished because of society's projections onto us. We may even become the target of outright hatred and threats to our safety.
James Baldwin, the late, brilliant, gay African American author, described his process of coming to terms with such messages in his essay "They Can't Turn Back": "It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I'd been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here."
We may also be swamped by the pervasive messages of our materialistic culture, which stresses competition, status, and "success" over character and emotional intelligence. This makes it easy to fall into the lose-lose trap of comparing ourselves to others. But, as psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky points out in her book The How of Happiness, "The more social comparisons you make, the more likely you are to encounter unfavorable comparisons, and the more sensitive you are to social comparisons, the more likely you are to suffer their negative consequences ... No matter how successful, wealthy, or fortunate we become, there's always someone who can best us."
When we constantly hear that we should be smarter, better connected, more productive, wealthier — you name it — it takes real courage to claim the time and space to follow the currents of our talents, our aspirations, and our hearts, which may lead in a very different direction.
MESSAGES FROM THE MEDIA
HAVE YOU EVER wakened in the morning feeling contented and quiet, and then, within fifteen minutes of checking your phone, felt out of sorts and jealous? Longing for something more?
Many of us now spend as much time immersed in images on a screen as participating in the world outside our devices. Whether subtly or blatantly, ads tell us that our bodies need making over, our clothes just won't do, our living room is a mess, and we're not invited to the right parties — all as a way to sell us more and more. Along the way, what might be a source of pleasure becomes infused with anxiety.
Social activist Jerry Mander hypothesizes that media is deliberately designed to induce self-hatred, negative body image, and dejection, with advertising drummed up — and sold — to offer the cure.
Regardless of the source of these messages, we can become more aware of them. We can see which messages we've adopted as our own beliefs and learn instead to hold them more loosely; in time, we can even replace them with an inquiring mind, an open heart, an enhanced sense of vitality. We may not be able to make the messages disappear, but we can question them. The more we do so, the less intrusive and limiting they become. In turn, we become freer to connect more authentically with others, as well as to our own deepest yearnings.
START WHERE YOU ARE
I HAVE NEVER believed that you must completely love yourself first before you can love another. I know many people who are hard on themselves, yet love their friends and family deeply and are loved in return — though they might have difficulty in receiving that love. But it's hard to sustain love for others over the long haul until we have a sense of inner abundance and sufficiency.
When we experience inner impoverishment, love for another too easily becomes hunger: for reassurance, for acclaim, for affirmation of our worth. Feeling incomplete inside ourselves, we search for others to complete us. But the equation doesn't work that way: we can't gain from others what we're unable to give ourselves.
It's important to recognize that self-love is an unfolding process that gains strength over time, not a goal with a fixed end point. When we start to pay attention, we see that we're challenged daily to act lovingly on our own behalf. Simple gestures of respect — care of the body, rest for the mind, and beauty for the soul in the form of music and art or nature — are all ways of showing ourselves love. Really, all of our actions — from how we respond when we can't fit into our favorite pair of jeans to the choice of foods we eat — can signify self-love or self-sabotage. So can the way we react when a stranger cuts us off in line, a friend does something hurtful, or we get an unwelcome medical diagnosis.
As Maya Angelou said in her book Letter to My Daughter, "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them." I started meditation practice, as many do, with the need to turn around that tendency to feel reduced by life.
Still, it takes a special courage to challenge the rigid confines of our accustomed story. It's not that easy to radically alter our views about where happiness comes from, or what brings us joy. But it's eminently possible. We truly can reconfigure how we see ourselves and reclaim the love for ourselves that we're innately capable of. That's why I invite students to set out on this path in the spirit of adventure, instead of feeling that real love is a pass/fail exam that they're scared to take.
Although love is often depicted as starry-eyed and sweet, love for the self is made of tougher stuff. It's not a sappy form of denial. You might still feel rage, desire, and shame like everyone else in the world, but you can learn to hold these emotions in a context of caring.
Real love allows for failure and suffering. All of us have made mistakes, and some of those mistakes were consequential, but you can find a way to relate to them with kindness. No matter what troubles have befallen you or what difficulties you have caused yourself or others, with love for yourself you can change, grow, make amends, and learn. Real love is not about letting yourself off the hook. Real love does not encourage you to ignore your problems or deny your mistakes and imperfections. You see them clearly and still opt to love.
THE COMPASSION MUSCLE
WE BEGIN TO cultivate real love for ourselves when we treat ourselves with compassion. In a sense, self-compassion is like a muscle. The more we practice flexing it, especially when life doesn't go exactly according to plan (a frequent scenario for most of us), the stronger and more resilient our compassion muscle becomes.
Katherine says: "The hardest part of this practice for me has been listening to, feeling, and grieving the intense pain of my childhood and teen years. Avoiding this pain gradually closed down my life and awareness, but my heart has begun to warm back to life. I'm able to be present in new ways for myself, my husband, my children, and my grandchildren."
When Katherine says her heart has warmed, it's not just a metaphor. As psychologist Kristin Neff (Self-Compassion.org) writes in one of her blog posts, "When we soothe our painful feelings with the healing balm of self-compassion, not only are we changing our mental and emotional experience, we're also changing our body chemistry." She reports on research that suggests while self-criticism triggers increases in blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol — all results of the fight-or-flight response — self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, the "bonding hormone," which increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, and generosity.
The starting place for this radical reimagining of love is mindfulness. By sitting quietly and focusing on the steady rhythm of the breath as you draw it in and release it, you create room to relate to yourself with compassion. The breath is the first tool for opening the space between the story you tell yourself about love and your capacity to tap into the deep well of love inside you and all around you.
Nina grew up with rigid parents who thought play was frivolous, so they kept her busy with assigned tasks. And though Nina loved to sing, her mom and dad shamed her because she had less-than-perfect pitch. When I first met Nina at a meditation class, she reported that her life was all demanding work, with no time for play, including singing, her passion. But over many months, she began to experiment with the very things that she'd once been told not to do. She recently wrote me: "I am here to stretch a toe into an area of fear ... Singing has become a joy — I am learning to play."
Admonishment for play is a message that would cause anyone to approach any feelings of love with fists readied and a clenched heart. It creates fear. It blocks your voice, your life force, and prevents you from showing yourself to the world as you truly are — off-key notes and all.
FOR MANY OF us, real love for ourselves may be a possibility we pretty much gave up on long ago. So as we explore new ways of thinking, we need to be willing to investigate, experiment, take some risks with our attention, and stretch. We are going to try a new approach to this matter of love we may have been closed to, assuming we already know it inside and out.
The practice of lovingkindness is about cultivating love as a transformative strength, enabling us to feel love that is not attached to the illusion of people (including ourselves) being static, frozen, disconnected. As a result, lovingkindness challenges those states that tend to arise when we think of ourselves as isolated from everyone else — fear, a sense of deficiency, alienation, loneliness. This practice forcefully penetrates these states, and it begins, in fact, with befriending — rather than making an enemy out of — ourselves.
Unlike our pop-cultural ideas of love as mushy, related to wanting, owning, and possessing, lovingkindness is open, free, unconditional, and abundant. Lovingkindness is the practice of offering to oneself and others wishes to be happy, peaceful, healthy, strong.
Excerpted from Real Love by Sharon Salzberg. Copyright © 2017 Sharon Salzberg. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Looking for Love
Introduction: Beyond the Cliché
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
The Stories Others Tell About Us
Welcoming Our Emotions
Meeting the Inner Critic
Letting Go of Perfection
Moving Beyond Shame
Taking a Stand on Happiness
Following Your Ethical Compass
Introduction: Love as a Verb
Barriers to Finding Real Love
Cultivate Curiosity and Awe
Playing Fair: A Win-Win Proposition
Navigate the Space Between
Healing, Not Victory
The Heart is a Generous Muscle
Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Introduction: The Wide Lens of Compassion
Priming the Pump
Challenging Our Assumptions
From Anger to Love
Say Yes to Life
Takeaways from Each Section
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Such an excellent book!