A conversation with Sharon Salzberg and Mallika Dutt

I am sharing excerpts from an interview with my friend Sharon Salzberg for her wonderful podcast, Metta Hour, the Real Change Series, where we talk about contemplative practice, social justice, intersectionality, and interconnectedness. I close with a guided meditation to deepen our connection with the earth.

I hope you’ll listen.

Sharon and I have been teaching a women’s leadership intensive at the Omega Institute for the past seven years. We have learned a great deal from one another, and we share some of that wisdom in our conversation.

Here’s an adapted version of the interview.

The journey to my practice and work

Sharon: As you, I’ve long looked at the role of qualities of awareness and love and compassion in changing the world and how the world changes us as we make those efforts. And this book is the culmination of that investigation. I was so delighted to be able to feature many things I have learned from you in the book, Real Change, and I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about how you came to your path of practice and, and your path of work.

Mallika: Well, Sharon, you were a very instrumental figure and person in my journey to this current path. I don’t know if you remember when we met many years ago at the Netroots conference, and we did a panel together, which was called Love, Compassion, and Other Forms of Activism. I joined that conversation at the invitation of Carla Goldstein, who was the president of Omega. I didn’t know you. I didn’t know Leslie Salmon Jones who’s with Afro Flow Yoga then either. I was very much a part of the human rights world and had spent many, many decades working on various forms of social justice from gender-based violence to racial justice, to immigrant rights, to LGBTQ+ rights. And in a little bit of a search, you know, feeling that that work was especially important, yet I was looking for something, searching for something.

When I met all of you, I began to be introduced to the world of contemplative practices of work within the self, as opposed to work within the world, which is where my focus of attention had been. That encounter and then through some of the other doors that started to open in my life took me into a deep, deep journey into myself. And it’s been a challenging one. In some ways, I would say that my rage at the world, the trauma that I had experienced in my family, as well as the trauma that I experienced in the work that I did around challenging different forms of violence, led me to constantly try and change the world. What I came to realize and understand from all of you was how important it was to bring some of that attention focus within.

I embarked on a deep journey, I would say over the last eight to nine years, that has had me doing some deep inner work, deep excavation, and now I feel like I’m in a place where I’m integrating the work within and the work outside and bringing all those different fragments of myself together.

Sharon: It’s really fantastic because the journey goes in both directions. I know so many people and I was like that certainly myself where my own personal healing was the motivation. I went to India at the age of 18 and I’m a New Yorker. I’d never even been to California before and there I was in India which I loved. But it was also overwhelming because my own suffering was so extreme. And, you know, in those days, even though I was practicing in a context where the ritual was to repeat “I’m practicing for the sake of all sentient beings or my practices, not just for myself alone”. And honestly, I didn’t care about anybody else because my own pain was pretty strong. And as that began healing, then I could look around in a different way. I see that pattern for many, many people, and your journey was almost the opposite. You were very in tune with others and wanting to serve and caring and wanting to make change that would help people. And it was later, it sounds like more of a journey inward.

My introduction to human rights activism

Mallika: The deep connections between us are so many. I came to the United States at age 18 to go to college at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. I came from a context where I grew up in a joint family where the boys were going to inherit everything. The whole idea was that I was supposed to get married and then go to “my own family” and just watching the gender patterns within my own family had me in such a sense of outrage. I swore as a kid that I was never going to be my mother or like any of the other women in my family and getting a scholarship to come to Mount Holyoke was part of this path that I chose to walk.

I arrived in the United States in 1980 and dropped into this language of feminism. I started to read all these different feminist writers and began to understand the politics of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, I had studied all of that when I was in India, but there was something about studying it outside of the country that created a bigger political framework.

There I was suddenly with language, a context, and vocabulary to explain many of the things that made me angry growing up, and I dove into political activism, right from the get-go. I became involved in protesting the U.S. involvement in Central America, divestment from South Africa, Take Back the Night marches, challenging sexual assault on campus, demanding that more people of color faculty be hired at Mount Holyoke college. It was this immersion into a political context at a time in my own development that was so incredibly exciting for me, and it was exactly what I needed at that time.

I think that the other irony on the deep connections between us is that I was so angry with Hinduism, Indian religion and spiritual practices and how incredibly patriarchal they were and all of the ways in which they oppressed women, that I didn’t want to have anything to do with my own spiritual religious heritage or lineage. That turned into not wanting to have anything to do with any religious or spiritual lineage, because as far as I was concerned, they were all tools of the patriarchy.

Sharon: Well, there’s some truth. One of the things I always treasured about the teachings of the Buddha was the injunction, which I found breathtaking that you can find out the truth for yourself, and don’t just take on someone else’s dogma or belief. I wrote this book Faith many years ago, and in it, I described this dialogue between one of my colleagues, Sylvia Boorstein, and a woman in the audience of this class we were teaching. The woman was upset about what she had read about the Buddha’s treatment of women, which in one sense was quite revolutionary in that he allowed women to come into the order of monastics. On the other hand, he had certain extra rules they had to follow, and it seemed unfair. Sylvia said, “You know, well he did this extraordinary thing, he brought women in, and he said they have every right to be there. They have every capacity as a man could have for liberation.” The woman wasn’t happy. Then Sylvia said, “Well, you know, he really was facing the social stigma of the day, and he went as far as he could.” And the woman wasn’t happy. Then Sylvia said, “Well, maybe he was right about suffering and wrong about women.”

And I thought that was such a perfect expression of the spirit of don’t believe anything. Take what’s good and leave the rest, which is so empowering. I always found that with my teachers, maybe that’s why I chose them actually to be my teachers. I was able to use the methods, the techniques, the kind of understanding of behavior and things like that that were so revolutionary and important for me but didn’t feel like I had to be a spokesperson for the rest.

Mallika: That’s so important. I’m thinking back on the many decades of my human rights activism and the human rights structure is sort of built in this triangular way. There’s a victim. There’s an oppressor. And then there’s a remedy or a savior. It’s a little simplistic to frame it like that, but it is kind of set up like that. The victim can be an entire marginalized community. The oppressor can be the state, systems, certain groups that are imbued with certain kinds of power and privilege. Then there is an attempt to rectify the violence or the violations of the rights of the marginalized group by the oppressing entity, through some kind of remedy, laws, redress, something that would make whole, create restitution.

And there’s a way in which that framework, which really defined my political organizing for many decades, can get us stuck. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t really allow us to stay with complexity or paradox. It can often be a framework that puts us into a “this versus that.” Then we allocate human beings into one of those three categories and can get self-righteous. The rage that we have about how we need to change the system can be extremely antagonistic.

Intersectional analysis

When I got to law school in the mid-eighties was the first time that I encountered the idea of intersectionality. The idea that power and privilege systems intersected with one another in multiple ways, and we couldn’t have linear understandings of how power and privilege operated in the world. Kimberly Crenshaw, who was the author of intersectionality, was coming at it in a legal context where there were a bunch of Supreme Court decisions that did not give justice, particularly to Black women, because the judges said that you could not prove discrimination was based on race or on sex. So, the intersections of both and how they affected Black women were being kind of tossed out of court.

When I stepped into understanding intersectional analysis, it helped me to become more discerning and more complex in the ways in which I understood power and privilege. I paid more attention to how we were trying to create a different set of outcomes for people who are marginalized in multiple ways. Over the course of many decades, I first created an organization called Sakhi for South Asian Women that worked with battered South Asian women in New York City. The way intersectional perspective came into that was really understanding the ways in which immigrant status created a different set of complexities for battered women. It was not possible for them to reach out to the police or get to shelters or access the resources that might exist because they could either get deported or there were no language or cultural facilities that gave them the access that they needed for their safety or the safety of their children. For a long time, intersectional analysis became a particularly important way in which I understood how I did my human rights work.

It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I began to feel that intersectional analysis was an important analytical tool for us to understand power and privilege, but not enough. However, for me to step into a dream of the kind of world I wanted to create, there was still something else I needed to embrace. There was still something else that allowed for a new ground to get created. One, which brought us together as humans in a different kind of way, where we understood power and privilege, but then accessed different tools to engage and be with one another.

Then another layer that started to emerge very strongly for me was our relationship to the earth and all beings, all sentient beings. Where was that analysis or where was that understanding in my own political work or even how I understood myself in relation to other people and the world? That was when my introduction to different contemplative practices to shamanism and energy medicine, a reconnection to some of the traditions that I grew up with, my studies with a Zen Buddhism and really more, most deeply, I think connecting to earth-based practices started to transform my political and personal understanding of the relationship between what we needed to do within and what we needed to do without.

That’s why my current frame around the world and the ground on which I choose to stand is that of interconnectedness. That ground of interconnectedness Sharon has been deeply informed by what I have learned from you about loving kindness meditation. I want to honor the seven years that we have taught together and worked together and how much your teachings have taught me about how to frame my intersectional analysis within this broader framework of interconnectedness.

The impact of contemplative practice on people

Sharon: I realized one of the powerful things I’ve learned from you refers back to something I’ve often pondered and kind of wrestled with, in especially my teaching, which is that I’ve seen, and I think science really proves that if one does contemplative practice, there’s a kind of good heartedness that can emerge. So many people have said to me, for example, I was out on the street, I was taking a walk and this person came up and asked me for a dollar and it’s my habit to give them a dollar. And this was the first time I looked that person in the eye and realized that was another human being, you know. There is a kind of generosity of the spirit and good heartedness that I think many, many times comes out of contemplative practice, but what doesn’t come is a kind of systems analysis. Does anybody think what’s the housing policy of this city? Why are there so many people on the street? I think not. I think that’s a separate kind of engagement and understanding and even training and how to look.

I use this example in the book of scientist David DeSteno, who did an experiment, which is often used as an example of how mindfulness can bring compassion, where he had people who had done eight weeks of meditation practice and then people who had done none. He then told people one by one to come back to the lab for the final bit of research. What they didn’t know is that the final bit of research was happening in the waiting room of the lab, where there were very few chairs and he’d hired a bunch of actors to sit. Most of them were all on their phones and not paying any attention. Then an actor who he had hired came in using crutches and looked like they were in terrible pain. The question was who is more likely to get up and offer their chair to this person who looks like they’re in terrible pain? He found a resounding difference between the meditators and the non-meditators. And that’s why he came to the conclusion that mindfulness practice will lead to a kind of compassion. And it was considered especially significant because everyone else was on their phone, and you had to be the first one to get up and offer your chair. I really appreciated that experiment, and then my addendum was – did anybody ask why there are so few chairs. Where does this lab use its resources, which they don’t? I really do believe it’s its own kind of effort to see the world in a bigger way.

Mallika: That’s true, and that’s why for me, the connection between an intersectional analysis that allows you to really understand how power and privilege and oppression play out at the level of yourself and to personal relationships, organizational structures, systems structures is so important. For me, interconnectedness, which really is a deep, deep understanding of the incredible interwoven fabric of all of us as human beings, of us as one sentient being, one species on this planet of everything on this planet, the element, that understanding of interconnectedness also comes with accountability. If you understand interconnectedness, then contemplative practice also needs to be about then how do you step into accountability? Having inhabited many contemplative practice communities in the last couple of years as I have begun to study some of these different approaches and do my own inner work, one of the things I realized is that I wish my political communities had more contemplative practice orientations and understanding, and I wish my contemplative communities had more political understanding and analysis. What I often experience in contemplative communities is this belief that somehow if you have a mindfulness practice and are compassionate, that somehow that’s enough. And it isn’t.

It’s also been the case that in many of the communities that I’ve been a part of, particularly male founders of those contemplative practices have seriously abused their power. So that makes me wonder what is the level of self-realization that we’re talking about? Where is the place of accountability? Many of the same kinds of abuse of power and privilege that are happening in some other domains are also playing out in the contemplative community.

There’s nothing intrinsic about a contemplative practice, as far as I’ve come to understand it, that stops abuse of power necessarily, which is why the integration of all of this is something that I feel really strongly about. I also feel like this moment, this pandemic moment is the great unveiling and the great awakening across everything. We’re seeing all of the ways in which, whatever it is that we are doing needs to be reexamined, whether we’re in the domain of self-inquiry and really working on contemplative practices to do deep healing work within ourselves, or whether we’re in the realm of political or economic or external social activity. We’re seeing laid bare all of the dilemmas, challenges and dimensions that need for us to take another look, to take another step, to take another way of beingness to emerge into this new world that this little virus is ushering in.

Sharon: Listening to you talk about abusive behavior, which is certainly true on the part of many leaders in spiritual communities. I thought of this time I went to see a doctor in New York City who I really liked a lot. She was asking me general questions, like, how do you deal with stress? I said, I’m a meditation teacher. And she said, but do you meditate yourself? And I said, Oh right, that’s the point. Are you doing a practice? Are you living up to what you’re espousing, or has it become a thing that is just a presentation in the world? That was a great question because the role is not the point, it’s actually that degree of honesty and sincerity and trying to uncover what your experience actually is. Interconnection and bringing together the force of contemplative practice with the wisdom and the dynamism and, and the relevance of political activism to the lens of interconnectedness. Can you talk about your initiative, INTER-CONNECTED?


Mallika: I’ll start with myself and share a little bit of my journey around some of the pivot points for me and how I came to this framing. About 10 years ago, my then husband and I separated and divorced. We had been together for two decades, and he started an affair with our housekeeper. I didn’t know about it because I was busy running around trying to save the world through Breakthrough, through the work that I was doing around culture change and changing norms around gender-based violence and immigrant rights and all of those things. I was so deeply immersed in my work that I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to what was happening in my own home. When all of this came to light and we ended up separating, it was devastating.

It was a moment of deep reckoning for me, and I found myself on my knees. I was hurt in a way that I was quite stunned by. I went into a huge amount of guilt, shame, and a lot of ego stuff. There I was this big human rights advocate out in the world. I had been the opening speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative, spoken at the World Economic Forum and won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and another gazillion awards and was this public figure in the field, and look what happened to me. I became this, this story. This story of men can’t be with powerful women and feel emasculated. These men leave said powerful women for women who are not so powerful. There’s this stereotype narrative around how men leave their wives for the nanny, or the housekeeper, or the secretary.

I was navigating this narrative and found myself having such deep shame around all of it. It would have been quite easy for me as a feminist and as a human rights advocate to adopt that narrative and then justify everything that was happening in my life by making him the perpetrator and myself, the victim. I could have easily gone into that place. Instead, I found myself in a deep place of shame, prostrating on the ground. I wasn’t on my knees. I was horizontal on the ground in complete brokenness. As I lay on the ground, it became a moment of getting up and really looking in the mirror, really turning all that inquiry and all that anger and betrayal and abandonment and all the triggers that this had created in my life and turning it within.

The first place of disconnection and rupture that I discovered was within myself, and so the first place of connection of even beginning in the tiniest way to understand interconnectedness was to realize how deeply disconnected I was from myself. This journey that I embarked on to reclaim me, all of the different parts of myself that had gotten abandoned, separated from along the way, then made me realize that my internal self was as fragmented as the world around me. The hierarchies that we had created, the power over paradigms, whether it was on the basis of race or sex or gender or ability or class, the economic systems we had created, the education systems we had created, certainly our relationship to the earth were all separating structures.They were all about disconnection. They were all about rupture, where you didn’t even have a self in a self. Everything was “other” including yourself.

When I talk about interconnectedness now and the work that I am now doing, one of the pivotal pieces of interconnectedness is first to understand how deeply disassociated we are from ourselves, from one another and from our planet. Then we can begin the contemplative work, the practice work, the love work, the loving kindness work of first beginning to heal some of those ruptures within and without, to really find where’s the connective tissue, where are the places where we can find those connections amongst ourselves. Then, because I am so deeply committed to an intersectional analysis, to start finding those places of connection with self, with community, with systems and with the earth.

I am now working with about a hundred leaders of social justice organizations around the world, primarily in the global South to create a leadership program that is about how we build interconnected leadership. A leadership where our analysis of the rupture caused by the hierarchies we’ve been combating in the context of patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, all of the isms for so many decades, is held while also starting to create the new paradigm, the new place of emergence from where we understand the deep webbing that ties us and all life together.

I’ve also been leading sessions for organizations that work on journalism, presence, deep listening, and resilience. I’ve been working with other organizations on addressing racial justice. How do we hold places of accountability and go into the rupture from a place of understanding our deep interconnectedness so that we can hold space for accountability and deep healing, even as we shape shift in very painful ways into the new behaviors and practices that allow us to be together on this planet differently? That’s the approach and the work that I’ve stepped into.

Faith and despair

Sharon: I think that really is the healing, because as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking about this book I wrote, Faith, which came about 18 years ago. In the process of writing it, I was working with this freelance editor, and one day I was saying again, within the Buddhist context, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. Doubt can be a tremendous aid to faith. When you question, when you wonder, when you seek to know the truth for yourself, that is a powerful act of faith. And by faith, I don’t mean dogmatic adherence. I mean, having a sense of being able to offer your heart to something and honoring that gift, knowing that you have a heart, and that’s a tremendous gift as you align yourself with some vision. My friend who was working with me said, if doubt is not the enemy of faith, what’s the opposite or the enemy of faith. And I said, despair. And part of faith in the way I was using the word was very much about connection, connecting to inner resources and strengths within ourselves and connecting to this sense of belonging on this planet, with one another to a bigger picture of life. And so, the opposite of despair is really connection, and we certainly are in a time with plenty of despair to go around.

Mallika: That’s such a beautiful example. The opposite of faith is despair, and we’ve certainly created worlds where there is so much despair where there’s such pain, where there is so much trauma, where we’ve been responsible, even as a human species for creating so much pain with the other beings that we share this planet with and with the planet itself. And that despair was deeply embedded in me.

One of the most healing pieces of my interconnectedness journey has been to build relationships with parts of my inner child that literally killed themselves or this one child that killed herself that felt such deep despair about the pain that she experienced, that she died. That part of me became so deeply disassociated that I have had amnesia, about most of my childhood and it crept into a lot of my adult life. Tapping into that despair and developing a relationship with this part of myself has been some of my deepest practice. A lot of my contemplative practice training has brought me to spending a half an hour every day with this part of myself, with loving attention, with kindness, with presence and allowing this part of me to speak and act and articulate the rage and the pain and grief, the sheer despair.

This also makes me think about how some of my contemplative practices have been deeply influenced by tantra, which has been important for me since I find a lot of the spiritual practices that are all about focusing on getting calm end up only traumatizing me further or end up becoming like spiritual bypassing or not really enabling me or others in my community to do the healing that they need.

Having the contemplative practice of being able to sit and be present in that way, and then engage my rage and my pain and all the things that have fueled my political work for so many decades is allowing me to take that rage and that pain and turn it into life force, affirming energy, faith, if you will, rather than despair. Then I think about the dexterity of practice that is required to move between these kinds of polarities that we exist between: masculine and feminine, pain and pleasure, faith, and despair, if you will.

I’m also reminded of my somatic coaching training and one of the things that we hear over and over again is that what humans look for are three basic things: safety, connection or belonging, and a sense of dignity or self-worth. If I think about those three pillars, in conjunction with racial justice in the United States, or even the ways in which patriarchy plays itself out, we’ve created polarities between safety and belonging. It’s not safe to belong because you can be destroyed. You can be hurt. You can be killed. You can be harmed. Your dignity as a human on the planet is constantly being undermined by these constructs that we’ve created around race or gender or class where you are not even seen as human. You don’t even have dignity. If those three principles are the things that animate us, as human beings on the planet, and we’re living in relationship to those things almost as polarities, then, where does the polarity of life and death come and start playing out in terms of how we live or how we practice.

I find that for me, contemplative practice has really started to intersect very deeply with rage, with grief, with wrath, with this life force that exists around the outrageousness of what we have done as human beings to one another and to this earth. And I can hold all of that and infuse it with loving kindness, with compassion, with empathy, with a deep, deep, deep commitment to service to faith, if you will. And that there isn’t a contradiction between the two. I want to speak to that because I find in a lot of contemplative traditions that we’re taught to somehow overcome our rage or transcend it. And I think that it’s really important to first honor it, see it, recognize it, understand all of the ways in which it’s allowed so many of us to just simply stay alive in a societal context that would kill us and see us dead.

If I take the context of India, for example, and the way that people refer to the non-violent teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism and yet, in Burma they are killing and demonizing the Rohingya in ways that we cannot even fathom. Where these and other contradictions like that exist, there’s a way in which I am learning to hold the essence of the teaching and see how it might be applied while also understanding the deeply destructive ways in which these religions or these faith-based traditions have played out and caused enormous harm and have continued to cause enormous harm. I feel like this is some of the reckoning I am dealing with from a place of interconnectedness. How does one learn how to hold polarity and complexity, so that we can be more whole in coming into the creation of what it is, whatever it is that is emerging in these pandemic times?

Sharon: The fundamental virtue is energy and, and to somehow harness the energy without the burning and the self-destructiveness and the other things that can happen when we’re lost in it or overcome by it to such a degree that it becomes everything. Maybe that’s the combination with that sense of dignity in our rightfulness of one’s being alive and being on the earth.

Like one of the people I interviewed for the book was a woman who’s really a leader in New York city in the striking fast food worker movement, striking for $15 an hour and the right to unionize. And one of the things I really felt from her and other colleagues of hers that I met was the sense of dignity. Even their families would say to them, don’t rock the boat. Don’t do anything. You’ve got almost nothing, and you’ll have nothing if you stand up and demand more. And they just could not do that. They could not accept that story about themselves, that they were only worth the way they were being treated. I felt the amount of self-respect it takes to go up in those very fearful circumstances and to successfully lead a movement was extraordinary. Were they fueled by anger, of course, that was part of it, but they weren’t just about that. They were reaching into this well of the rightfulness of their being. It was so awesome. And the people who brought us together, were friends of mine, who never said it would really be helpful to these people. If they learned how to meditate, they kept saying, you should meet these people, your community should meet these people. These are incredible people,

Mallika: Wouldn’t it just be so incredible if the worlds of contemplative practice brought all of that incredible energy to fueling and feeding the emergence of an interconnected paradigm? A paradigm where we stepped in with courage to do self-reflection around the ways in which we may have continued to benefit from, or abuse power, and privilege? To really step into the healing that we need to do within and across communities and create rituals of atonement, of healing, of reconciliation and transformation? To take all of the juiciness that exists in these worlds and infusing this emergence that we are into usher in this world that we all kind of see and dream about?

Guided Meditation (19 minutes)

I’d like to invite you to find a comfortable position and just settle in with yourself.

And bring your attention to your breath, and just feel that air entering your nostrils, moving through your whole body, nourishing your bloodstream and then exhale.

And just stay focused on your breath for a few moments.

Now bring your attention to any sensations that you might have in your body: pressure, temperature, any kind of movement.

Start with your head and scan down. Just notice. Nothing to change, nothing to shift yet. Just becoming aware of sensations in our body is such a beautiful relationship to self.

And as you move down from your head to your face, your neck, your shoulders, down your arms, your back, your diaphragm, your chest, your belly, your hips noticing as you move through this miraculous body of yours, any sensations.

Move down your legs, your muscles, your buttocks, your knees, down your calves, into your feet, coming into presence with yourself and notice your length from this place of presence and sensation.

Just notice your feet on the ground with deep connection to the earth as gravity holds you to this planet, extending up through your vertebrae, feel your length, move up, as you sit, as you stand in your dignity, your place of presence, your place of connection to yourself, your dignity, your self-worth.

And just feel what it is like to be in your dignity. Do the sensations shift when you claim that for yourself?

Just take a couple of deep breaths to anchor into this place of yourself, this incredible body, this incredible being that you are.

Just notice from this place of dignity, the dignity of all others in your life, around you, of all of us in the human species.

And now the dignity of all other beings on this planet, the ones that are four legged, that swim, that crawl that fly, the furred, the finned, the plant beings, the stone beings, the dignity of all beings that we are interconnected with.

Just take a couple of breaths into that and gather up all of that shared interconnected dignity and bring that again within your own, your dignity connected to that of all that is.

I invite you back into yourself, into wakefulness.

Thank you for going on this journey with me. I send my love and gratitude.