Sharon Salzberg on the Books That Brought Her Closer to Mindfulness
Naomi Shihab Nye, bell hooks, Judith Herman, and More
When I was writing my new book Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, I re-read many old favorites. These are the books, all of them published decades ago, that, when you are clearing out your bookshelf, make you think, “No, I’m hanging on to that one because I just might read it again.”
I now recognize why I held on to them, as they contributed ideas or roused feelings that were at the foundation of my thinking as I explored social change and mindfulness. In re-reading them together, I see how they collaborated on defining the role of mindfulness in creating a more expansive view of change, seeing it not as an event or an outcome, but as a process that begins with an awakening that leads to action. A change in a policy starts with a change in attitudes, transformations within relationships and families, and through art that brings these ideas to the heart without lecturing or trying to persuade. Change through mindfulness is the movement from anger to courage, from grief to resilience; it is also in the attempt to maintain balance, in remembering to take joy in life so that we can summon the energy to keep engaged with creating a world that reflects good values.
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Social change begins from within, with a look into the heart, into what’s behind the emotions of anger, grief and sorrow before you know what you can do. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a place to start this examination. What was important to me about this book is that it is incredibly simple; in it, I saw how something simple could be profound. Through his light and joyful voice, Suzuki Roshi explains the importance of the breath and the posture, encouraging us not to be hard on ourselves when our posture slumps, or our minds wander, but simply to begin again. In this way, through this simple practice, he increases our tremendous capacity for compassion and, day by day, shows us in our actions how we expand it further. Roshi does not offer up an outcome as a reward for practice, saying simply that we practice not to attain Buddha nature but to express it. I read this book very early in my study of Buddhism and, in re-reading it today, it still gives me hope.
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
Judith Herman’s book is a landmark in understanding the impact of trauma on society and giving readers tools to address it. The part of it that informed my thinking for Real Change was Herman’s exploration of how our ability to address traumatic experiences is linked to the world’s consciousness of social issues. To acknowledge trauma and name it, to find that there are others like you, and to begin to share that experience, is the personal journey for those who have suffered.
In Trauma and Recovery, Herman shows how an interior journey is reinforced as society changes. She describes how issues of sexual abuse came to the forefront with the rise of the women’s movement, giving women a greater platform to speak. Herman also explores how research into Post-traumatic stress disorder emerged as a societal concern as the country recognized the difficulties of war veterans re-integrating into society. With both issues, there was resistance and denial, as this inner state borne of trauma came forward. Herman portrays how these steps are part of the process of movement from inner to outer that creates the context for change.
bell hooks, All About Love
All About Love came out in 2001, but already bell hooks described us as a nation turning against love. She saw it in the writing of millennials who expressed cynicism about the ideal of love and the inevitability of it ending, as well as in songs like “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” She is the person who really opened my eyes to art as an agent of social change, how images, movement, and music, can express sentiments and yearnings beyond what words describe. Her message is always to look for love, to cherish the moments you live love as a verb and not a noun. Love as a verb, she showed me, is an agent of social change.
Naomi Shihab Nye, Words under the Words
(Eight Mountain Press)
I love Words Under Words so much that I can recite some of the poems by memory. It’s a book I always have close at hand because I so honor Naomi’s words, I want to check my memory of them so as not to miss even a whiff of their beauty and precision. I was drawn to her when I read her poem “Kindness” and this unforgettable line, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” Her words weave together life as a tapestry with wit, grace and powerful imagery. She is an example of what bell hooks pointed to when she encouraged her readers to find signs of change in art.
The Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium
A fundamental precept in Buddhist philosophy is to do no harm. Wise speech, Wise thoughts, Wise actions. Do not cause harm by stealing, or killing. The Buddhist sincerely held belief, chanted in the lovingkindness phrases, is for all beings to be safe, happy, healthy and at ease. In Ethics for the New Millennium the Dalai Lama expands that definition of not doing harm to the realm of income inequality, care for the earth, and other social justice movements. He notes that in centuries before, the popular notion of ethics was to follow the precepts of your religion in order to align with your God. Today, those ideas must broaden to form a universal ethics of what a good person should be. He uses these ideas to describe a common ground of decency and mutual respect that can be the foundation for social change.
Real Change by Sharon Salzberg is available via Flatiron Books.