Episode 012

How to be happier, less stressed, and more effective through mindfulness meditation

What does meditation and mindfulness have to do with success?

In today’s episode, you’ll hear from Sharon Salzberg, one of the first people to bring insight & mindfulness meditation to the US back in the 70s and 80s. She has since taught meditation to thousands of people, including at retreats alongside the Dalai Lama.

In this episode, we cover:

In today’s episode, you’ll hear from Sharon Salzberg, one of the first people to bring insight & mindfulness meditation to the US back in the 70s and 80s. She has since taught meditation to thousands of people, including at retreats alongside the Dalai Lama.

So why meditation?

Because I’ve experienced & seen first-hand how meditation has helped me and others to develop the traits that are essential to succeeding by putting people first:

Empathy, compassion, presence, peace, decreased stress & anxiety, increased self-control, focus, and discipline, increased levels of energy, a heightened sense of well-being.

And the list goes on and on.

In fact, if there was only ONE thing that I would recommend others do if they want to succeed by putting people first, it would be making some kind of mindfulness or meditation practice a regular part of your life.

But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s listen to Sharon talk about her own experiences in bringing mindfulness meditation to a skeptical audience, what got her hooked to meditation, the scientific evidence behind the benefits of meditation, and how to easily get started without a lot of fuss.

Show notes
  • [00:03:00] Whether Sharon has needed to hold another job during the 40 years that she’s been teaching meditation
  • [00:04:41] When Sharon realized she could teach meditation full time and make a living from it
  • [00:06:14] What led Sharon to get into meditation and make it her life’s work
  • [00:09:14] Sharon’s trip to India when she was in college
  • [00:09:39] What about meditation had such a strong impact on Sharon
  • [00:12:13] Why you should continue with meditation even when it brings up negative emotions
  • [00:15:53] Some of the scientific findings behind the benefits of meditation
  • [00:22:53] How people can get started with meditation and make it part of their daily lives
  • [00:25:59] Which styles of meditation are best to start with
  • [00:27:52] Why even Type-A personalities can benefit from meditation
  • [00:29:55] Sharon’s book, Real Happiness at Work
  • [00:32:10] Sharon’s experience with perfectionism
  • [00:35:11] What a Loving Kindness practice is
  • [00:37:16] Sharon’s experience with the Dalai Lama
  • [00:41:28] How Sharon would convince people to adopt a people-first mindset
  • [00:44:37] Resources that Sharon recommends
Transcript

[00:00:05] David: Welcome to The Humans Strike Back by Hotjar, the weekly podcast designed to help you succeed by putting people first. I’m David Peralta and today we’re talking with a very special guest, Sharon Salzberg. Sharon was one of the first teachers to bring insight and mindfulness meditation to the US back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s when people looked at you a little weird when you tell them that you meditated. She has since taught thousands of people, including at retreats alongside the Dalai Lama.

Why are we talking with a meditation teacher on a podcast that’s all about putting people first? Well, because I’ve seen from firsthand experience how meditation has helped me and others to develop the traits that are essential to succeeding by putting people first; empathy, compassion, presence, peace, decreased stress and anxiety, increased self-control, focus, discipline, increased levels of energy, a heightened sense of well-being, and the list goes on and on. In fact, if there was one thing that I would recommend to others to do if they want to succeed by putting people first, it would be making some kind of mindfulness or meditation practice a regular part of your life. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s listen to Sharon talk about her own experiences in bringing mindfulness meditation to a skeptical audience, what got her hooked to meditation and the scientific evidence behind the benefits of meditation, and how to easily get started with a daily practice without a lot of fuss.

For our listeners, I just want to reiterate why we chose you in particular to come on this show, because one of the core values that we have for the show is helping to redefine success and helping people to understand that success isn't the result of hard work; that it's not you work hard, you put everything else aside, you sacrifice and then you're going to be successful. Success is actually the result of being happy, that when you're happy and when you're centered, success naturally comes. It's a byproduct; it's a result.

There's actually research that shows this, and insight meditation is such a key part of discovering that process that you've got inside of yourself. As I mentioned to you earlier, as we were coming up with the concept of the show, I happened to be listening to the Tim Ferriss' show and you were on and I thought, "Okay, we have to have you on board." Thank you so much for coming.

[00:02:46] Sharon: No, thank you, really.

[00:02:47] David: One question that I had, actually, is you 've been teaching meditation for over 40 years now. Is that right?

[00:02:54] Sharon: Yes, I have, actually. It's outrageous. Time goes by.

[00:03:00] David: One thing I was wondering is that since you started teaching meditation, did you ever have to hold down a job or have you always kind of been officially a meditation teacher?

[00:03:11] Sharon: I have never held down a job. I did go to nursing school because when we started teaching, we came back, both Joseph Goldstein and actually Jack Kornfield as well. He was in Thailand while Joseph and I were in India, but we all came back to the US in 1974. In those days, I'd be at a party or some social situation and someone would say, "What do you do?" This is what we say: "I teach meditation," and they were kind of "Ugh, that's so weird." It was considered so esoteric and so strange.

We opened up the retreat center. We all co-founded the Insight Meditation Study in 1976, and we had no money. Well, first of all, we couldn't get a bank mortgage. Certain people had to go to the bank to get personal loans and somebody's father gave him a car. That's why we got a car. We had no idea how many people are ever going to show up here. If we got 30 people, we were so grateful, and it was a whole other world.

Somewhere in there, I thought, "I probably need a livelihood," and I actually went to nursing school for two years. I graduated, I did the program to get an RN and never practiced for a second in my life. Every once in a while, somebody who knew me then will ask me looking like a boo-boo or something and I say, "You don't want me. I don't know how to do anything," but I did do that. I have never actually functioned as anything other than a meditation teacher.

[00:04:41] David: At what point did things start to switch and you realized, "Hey, we can actually do this full-time. We're earning a living doing this," or, "At least it's taking care of our needs."

[00:04:54] Sharon: Somewhere in the '80s. I mean, in the '70s, we were slipping on people's living room couches and doing all that. For some partial chunk of that anyway, I had the thought I was going to get back to India, that this was just temporary, but it became clear that this was my life and it wasn't just a for-now kind of thing. I'd say somewhere in the '80s, it did start to grow. First, Joseph wrote a book and then Jack wrote a book. My first book, Living Kindness, came out 1995. Certainly by the '90s, it was clear. Now, if I'm in a party or some social situation and somebody says, "What do you do?" I say, "I teach meditation," and they usually say, "I'm so stressed out. I could use some of that." It's a whole other world now.

[00:05:45] David: It's kind of a long, long way in the last 30 to 40 years.

[00:05:48] Sharon: Definitely, and in an ongoing way. It's still happening. There's so much more research and scientific examination or exploration of mindfulness, compassion and practices that deepen those qualities. That's just the beginning. That's really in the first baby pioneering stages.

[00:06:14] David: I do want to get back to that. I do want to touch on the scientific backing of meditation but I also want to know this: How did you get into meditation and what was it that led you to want to make this your life's work?

[00:06:28] Sharon: I got into meditation, really, because I was suffering tremendously. I went to college when I was 16. When I was a sophomore in college, I took an Asian philosophy course because there was a philosophy requirement, and there were a couple of things about that course that were just life-changing. One was the Buddha saying right out loud here's suffering in life. I had many people through very traumatic difficult childhoods.

For many people, mine was a family system where this was never, ever spoken about, but in order to deal with this experience and all the things I was feeling, he was a Buddhist saying, in effect, "No need to be ashamed. You don't need to feel other. This is a part of life. Everybody goes through some amount of this." It's almost like, "You still belong. You don't have to feel marginalized and rejected by life," so that was hugely important.

Then, I heard in that same class that there were techniques. There were practical methods you could engage in that would change the way your mind approached things, and that was called meditation. It wasn't like life was going to flatten out and there'd be no more problems because, obviously, life is life, but the way we hold things. We can all probably see it today, how when something joyous and wonderful and great happened, did we accept it or did we kind of shy away from it in some way?

When something really difficult and painful happened, did we add fear, and aloneness, and isolation and blame to it or did we hold it in compassion and have it lead us to one another because really, we all share this. How we relate to our experience is really crucially important. I heard in that class you can learn how to meditate. This doesn't have to involve a belief system, becoming a Buddhist or rejecting anything else. It has nothing to do with dogma. It's about the power of the human mind and cultivating the power of awareness to have these different strengths.

I was going to college in Buffalo, New York at the time. I looked around Buffalo. I just didn't see it anywhere. It was the '70s. The university had an independent study program where if you created a project that they liked, you could go anywhere in the world, theoretically, for a year and do an independent study and come back at the end of the year and do a kind of cross-cultural exploration so I created I project. I said, "I want to go to India and study meditation," and they said, "Okay," so off I went. That is literally how I got into meditation.

[00:09:13] David: How long did you spend in India?

[00:09:14] Sharon: Longer than a year. My joke is usually in big Buffalo, New York, many people went and not that many people came back, but I did go back. I spent about almost a year and a half and then I went back. I did what I needed to do to finish school, which I ended up getting two years of independent study credit, and then I went back to India for another year and a half. I finally came back in 1974.

[00:09:39] David: What was it about meditation that created such a pull that made you know you want to go back to India, you want to go deeper to this, this isn't just a hobby, this isn't just a side-project or an independent study project that you're going to drop after college? What was it about meditation that had that impact on you?

[00:09:59] Sharon: First, experience of it although that was quite difficult in many ways. I just felt there's truth here. There's integrity here. This is something that can be onward-leading for me. I've never doubted that in all these years.

[00:10:12] David: What do you mean by, "There's truth here"?

[00:10:16] Sharon: People describe it, I feel like I'd come home. I felt like I just was already here. There was an instructor and he was guiding and creating a context for our efforts, like this is not about a belief system. First, we're going to practice concentration and be able to have awareness that's a little more stable, and then we're going to open up that awareness and pay attention to the variety of experiences that come and go and how we relate to them.

The more I got into the experience of it, the more I saw, "Wow." First of all, a tremendous amount was being revealed to me about what I was feeling and what I was thinking. That usually very pleasant. In the beginning, I was pretty unkind to myself and blaming the teacher. His name was S.N. Goenka. That was my first teacher, and I'm somewhat famous for having marched up to him once and looking him in the eye and saying, "I never used to be an angry person before I started meditating." By laying blame exactly where I felt a plunge, which was clearly on him. It's all his fault.

Certainly, I'd been hugely angry but I haven't seen it. Suddenly, I was seeing these things and the context that kept getting created was, you can have compassion for yourself. You can be kind. You don't have to judge yourself. This is not your fault. Conditions come together for something to arise. Our power's in what we do with it. Now, what are you going to do with it? If you blow it and you get completely lost in some crazy reactive state, as usual, you start over. Nothing had been ruined. You haven't destroyed anything, and the whole process is actually a process of resilience, of starting over, and starting over, and starting over. I felt like muscle memory or something that I was cultivating, and I just honored that. I just instinctively felt, "This is important."

[00:12:13] David: During practice, you mean as you were developing this awareness and this concentration, you were starting to become aware of inner states and inner motions that had always been there but you just hadn't been aware of them; you hadn't been listening to them and, suddenly, they were coming to the surface. A question I have for you–I've been through this experience myself. I know exactly what it's like. I was in a meditation center and also incredible amounts of anger coming up and just feeling like I just wanted to tear the place down–if so many negative emotions are coming up, why would you want to continue doing it?

[00:12:52] Sharon: First of all, that's not the only thing that comes out. There are beautiful moments of connection, and clarity, and understanding, and love, and that's what I meant by, "I sensed there was truth there," as much as I complained–and I did complain–because the message was constantly this is like a purification process. This is like getting to know the whole of who you were, and also your awareness is strong enough to hang in there with these things. You don't have to be so afraid. You don't have to be so compulsively afraid because look at how much people live, like something difficult comes up and we run and hide, and it just doesn't work.

[00:13:34] David: Right, or we distract ourselves, turn to our phones, to the TV, turn to snacks or turn to anything else.

[00:13:42] Sharon: If those methods were effective and we were happier people and we're giving and more available to ourselves and others, that'd be one thing, but time tells us it just doesn't work.

[00:13:57] David: I just want to corroborate what you're saying. One of the most profound takeaways I've had from my meditation practice over the year is the awareness that I am not my thoughts and that I'm not my emotions, that when they come up, that's not who I am; that's what I'm experiencing, that the thoughts that I have are the thoughts are the same. They're what's coming up but that's not who I am, that there' a deeper awareness; there's a deeper self underlying all of that.

When I started to tap into that, that's when I started to realize, "Holy shit, I have so much more potential than I ever realized!" and that's what got me hooked to meditation, was like, "How can I uncover that potential? How can I live that potential?" and, at the same time, "How can I ride the waves of these emotions that just bring me up and down so that I can express that potential?" That was something that was really important for me. I definitely second with what you have to say.

You took the time to go to India. I also did something very similar. I spent six months in the San Francisco Zen Center at Green Gulch Farm and then I also spent a total of two years in India, but a lot of our audiences are maybe not going to have that opportunity to take such a deep dive into meditation, at least not right from the start. I think it may be helpful for them to understand. You mentioned the scientific backing behind meditation, and that really helps convince a lot of people at least open the door or keep an open mind to it. What are some of those findings or those studies that have been done that have shown that, "Hey, meditation actually has concrete benefits." Can you tell us a little bit about that?

[00:15:53] Sharon: Sure. I'm not a scientist but I can say a little bit about it since I do know so many neuroscientists who are my friends. I just want to say, again, the science is in its infancy. Somebody suggested to me that I do a Google alert on the word, mindfulness, which I did, the way you do movie stars or sports stars or something. I just have this alert on mindfulness. Every day, I get all these articles about mindfulness including the pushback. Now, there's all of that and a lot of that centers around the studies.

Many studies are quite rigorous, actually. There are all kinds of uncertainties because of the interests of science are really about replication and knowing the active ingredient. It's like early, early studies would often have a weightless control so that maybe it was an eight-week course once a week in meditation, and the people who were the control group were not going to take it the first day of the weeks. They had to wait a few months and then they could take it.

These days, a lot of those studies are being scrutinized and people are saying, "Well, how do you know that it isn't getting out of the house to go to a class once a week?" That's the active ingredient. You can't have a control group that's saying, "You have to have somebody doing a class with an enthusiastic instructor, somebody who's as enthused about knitting or whatever it is as you are about meditation. You have to try to approximate a lot of conditions." Then, you could say, "Look, meditation did this and the other class maybe didn't," so then you know that's the active ingredient.

It's very complicated and it's their world, but what studies seem to indicate is that there are changes in brain structure and function. Parts of the brain that have to do with executive function like decision-making and clarity, they actually grow. Parts of the brain that have to do with emotional hijack, fight or flight or freeze, they seem to actually shrink. There's a different kind of connectivity that's happening. You can almost say integration, and, certainly, there are a lot of studies about different clinical conditions, things like social anxiety, recurrent depression, different stress, experiences, having a diagnosis and what helps you go through treatment with less stress and things like that.

They really seem to indicate that meditation could be a really big help. I don't rely in the science for that because I've been practicing for a million years and I've been teaching for almost a million years, so I've just seen all kinds of people. One thing that I find interesting is that neuroscientists are very passionate about is finding kind of a dose is response is what they call it. The way it really is, is, "What's the minimum amount of time I have to do this thing in order to get those results?"

[00:19:17] David: I'm sure a lot of people are very interested in the results of that.

[00:19:19] Sharon: A lot of people want to do that. Why my neuroscientist friends said to me because they have different styles and different types of meditation even within the school that I was trained or the tradition I was trained it. There are techniques that really emphasize mindfulness and techniques that really emphasize love, kindness and compassion as the main process. Since I've written so much about love and kindness and teach that so much, I had friends say to me that, "You know, the latest finding is that nine minutes of mindfulness a day and only seven minutes of love and kindness a day will change your day so I'm winning."

It's that small a period. I always say in response, "I know if it's that smart to go for the bare minimum," but it's fascinating because no one is saying if this is like eight hours a day in order to get a measurable result, if you care about those particular measurements, seven minutes or nine minutes, let's extrapolate and say 15. It's not very much and it really does seem to bring those results, but you have to have to do it. You can't think about it like, like," I figured my cousin would benefit from this. I'll buy her a book," or, "Next year, I'll start when I retire." It's the doing of it that actually makes it happen.

[00:20:47] David: I want to tie this back for our listeners so it's really clear why we're talking about meditation because what you said, increased executive function, I mean, there's also increase in creativity, it increases empathy, it increases compassion, concentration. The list goes on and on. It's really more than you can possibly list at a single time, and because this show is about putting people first and this community is all about putting people first, developing all those qualities are essential to succeeding with a people-first mindset.

If there was one resource that could be recommended to help you develop a people-first mindset and succeed with a people-first mindset, I don't see anything else besides meditation that has that laundry list of results. Actually, Tim Ferriss who interviewed you also, he came out with a book called Tools of Titans where I think he interviewed about 140 peak performances, top performers in their fields, from surfers, to cryptocurrency experts, to actors, to politicians and he said that 90% of them had some form of mindfulness or meditation practice. People who are succeeding clearly understand that this is something that's helping them get to the top of their game.

I just want to mention that because it's not just like, "Hey, this was something nice." There are really concrete, like you said, measurable benefits that come out of this. Another important question is, for people who are maybe interested and want to give it a shot, how could they get started right away? What's the easiest in for people to make this a part of their daily ritual, a part of their daily life because, like you said, you have to do it and it's not enough to just maybe two, three, four times or once a month. How can people turn this into something that they start doing right away on a regular basis?

[00:22:53] Sharon: I usually encourage people to think what's a realistic aspiration. One friend of mine who had never meditated before and was a little bit nervous about it, I said, "What do you think you can really do?" and she said, "10 minutes a day for a month." I said, "Fine," and it may be the last 10 minutes of the day, and it may be that you don't have 10 minutes left; you can only do 4, but do the 4. It's some resolve about every day. Then, I just really want people to have some amount of context or understanding about what to expect and what not to expect, whether that's an app, or a book–there are many.

[00:23:36] David: Like Headspace, for example?

[00:23:38] Sharon: Headspace is one.

[00:23:39] David: There's also guided meditations on CDs that you can buy.

[00:23:45] Sharon: Headspace is one app. 10% Happier is another app. There are books. It depends on how you like to learn because, for example—going back to being introduced as a meditation teacher at a party—aside from hearing him so stressed out, "I could use some of that," I often hear, "I tried that once. I failed at it," and we believe you cannot fail it; it's impossible because we're not concerned with what you're experiencing; we're concerned with how you are with that experience, how present, how balanced, how loving are you in the face of that anger, or sleepiness, or joy, or whatever it is, and that's the cultivation of that way of being torrid, whatever is arising. People have all kinds of ideas like people say, "I failed at it because I couldn't stop thinking. I couldn't make my mind blank. I couldn't just there in bliss. I couldn't keep the anxiety from coming back," and we believe you cannot fail it at because anything is okay.

[00:24:50] David: I just want to interject and share that for the first maybe, there, four or maybe six months of my meditation practice, the moment I would sit down and start to follow my breath and start to reach some kind of real awareness state, I had Simpson episodes coming up all the time, and that was it. I would just see Simpsons episodes and clips from the Simpsons would just come up and just play in my mind, and that's what I'd be watching, and it was my own personal TV show, and that happened for months.

Then, it was music that would be playing, like all kinds of things that would be happening and then, eventually, over time, those would drift away and turn into different experiences but it's just to reiterate the fact that you can't do it wrong. Whatever's coming up is what's coming up. To get a little bit more specific, what kind of practice would you recommend that people start with if they only have 10 or 15 minutes a day, or even 9, or 7? There's so many styles of meditation out there. Is there any, in particular, that you feel are very user-friendly?

[00:25:59] Sharon: I think there are many that are user-friendly. The first one that's kind of the standard foundational exercise is just sit in a comfortable position. You don't have to get into a pretzel-like pose. Sit in the couch or whatever you have. Close your eyes or not, however you feel most at ease. Settle your attention on the feeling of your breath, the actual sensation of your breath, and this is the normal and natural breath; it's not like a yogic exercise where you're breathing through one nostril or whatever.

Just breathe and notice where you feel that most strongly. Maybe it's the nostrils, or the chest, or the abdomen. When you find that place, bring your attention there and just rest. Then, you feel one breath, you feel another breath and you might, in a supportive way, add a mental note like, "In, out. In, out," but very quietly because you're aiming your attention towards the sensations, whatever they are.

Then, what happens is that your mind wanders a billion times. There's no doubt about it. It would go to the past. It'll go to the future, judgment, speculation. The real key is what happens next: You realize you've been gone maybe quite some time since you last felt a breath. This is where the practice really comes alive. We practice letting go, gently, of whatever's distracted us. One of my teachers called it "exercising the letting-go" muscle that's also used in life.

We practice letting go and we practice beginning again. We let go and we begin again. This is what I meant by resilience. It's really resilience training. We spend hours, and hours, and hours blaming ourselves and beating down on ourselves and being in despair because we're a failure rather than picking up and starting over. That, I think, is actually the main teaching of meditation practice, actually.

[00:27:52] David: As opposed to just the emotions that come up or the sensations that come up just automatically engaging us, there's a gap that starts to grow where you start to become aware of it, which allows you to move away from being reactive to the world, to really being able to consciously choose how you're going to respond instead of just flipping into your default mode, whether it's anger, or unworthiness, or whatever it is. I want to play devil's advocate for a little bit because I know that a lot of our listeners are really Type A, go-get-'em personalities. It's like, "Why should I sit for 10 minutes a day, doing nothing, when I could be doing something?"

[00:28:36] Sharon: In a way, that's why I mentioned the 10% Happier because it's Dan Harris. He wrote a book called 10% Happier and the subtitle is something like meditation practice for fidgety skeptics because he's an ABC news anchor, has a big life, an ambition and he thought meditators were stupid. It was fun. We're really good friends and I'm on his app. He had very important experiences for him in meditation.

For one thing, he had a panic attack on the air and I think he looked up the Nielsen ratings and 30 million people watched it, and he knew had to do something. It's a whole story. It's a whole trajectory, but meditation is very, very important for him. I think with what he has seen, what he would say is that it's not making him dull, complacent and giving up standards of excellence and he's not giving up ambition, but it's being different all around, with himself, with his family, with success, with failure. It just opens the door to that difference.

[00:29:55] David: You wrote a book called Real Happiness at Work. Is that correct?

[00:29:59] Sharon: Yes.

[00:30:00] David: In that book, you mentioned something that was called the "toward" state of being. Am I getting that right? I had it written down in my notes.

[00:30:10] Sharon: Yeah.

[00:30:12] David: It's a state where we're open to new possibilities, it's a state where we're more creative and it's a state where we're able to make decisions more quickly, with better judgment, less reactive. I would also say that, in addition to what you're saying is cultivating that is one of the most important things a successful person can do, and meditation is one of the most effective ways to cultivate a state like that.

[00:30:42] Sharon: It's true. Many evolutionary biologists would say we're wired. We have a negativity bias. We're wired to notice threat and limitation, and things from the jungle like fear. We're wired for that and it takes intentionality just to open beyond that, not that there's nothing to be afraid of–that's not true either–but that kind of singularity of vision and the rigidity. We're all acquainted with going to a meeting and somebody is holding on tight to some agenda about how something needs to be resolved, and maybe 50 other interesting possible resolutions are presented and they cannot hear it because it's got to be that one thing.

We look at that state from the outside and we think, "Wow, how limiting is that," and you've used the word "creativity" quite a lot. We just like being alive. It's not creativity and possibility, and you look at it from the site when it's the opposite. You think, "That's really dead ends," it's so rote and it's so automatic. Where's the life there? Then, you look at it in the inside and you think, "It's the same thing. I held on in times I don't need to, and I limit my sense of possibility. I didn't even see that there were options here. Look at that, there are options here," as you say, once we can step back.

[00:32:10] David: One other thing that I think is really important is that I feel like in our culture, especially in the West, there is an obsession with perfectionism. In fact, this is actually where a lot of these people who are saying, "I'm messing up my meditation," because there's this expectation that it needs to be perfect. I want to ask you a little bit more about that but I know you actually have a story about how perfectionism played in your life even as a meditation teacher, and so I was wondering if you could share that with us and hear a little bit about your experience with perfectionism and overcoming perfectionism.

[00:32:45] Sharon: You actually asked me earlier how I knew meditation would be the center of my life, and I don't know if we went—the practice or the teaching. I didn't really realize the teaching would be.

In 1974, I went to visit one of my teachers, a woman named Dipa Ma,to say goodbye and get her blessing for what I was convinced was my very short trip back to the US before I went back to India forever.

She said to me, "When you go back to the US, you'll be teaching." I said, "No, I won't." She said, "Yes, you are." I said, "No, I won't." She said, "Yes, you will," and then it went on from there. That is its own story. I came back to the States and I had known Joseph and so we met Jack Kornfield and there was just this kind of evolution where people would start to invite us to teach. At the end of the retreat, we never knew if there'd be another retreat. We'd just go sleep in someone's living room couch and then another letter would come and we'd get another invitation.

In all this time, as we began teaching retreats, the format of our retreats was such that there's a lot of practice during the day and there's personal contact with the teachers and there's Q&A but, in the evening, there's a formal lecture. That's just the way it's done, and I couldn't give a lecture because I was too terrified. I was, "Okay, talking to people?" I was 21. Everyone's older than I was. It was a little intimidating, but I just could not speak publicly; I was terrified.

What I was most scared of was I was going to stand there and my mind was going to go blank and I was just going to be sitting there and everyone was going to know. This went on for a really long time, probably well more than a year, but these are courses that are happening and people used to go up. The first course I co-taught was with Joseph Goldstein. It was a month-long retreat and people were going up and yelling at Joseph. "Why won't you let her have a voice? Why won't you let her say anything?" He said, "I'd be ecstatic if she'd say something. Give me a night off, but she won't say anything. Talk to her." I was terrified, and there was that need to do it right and not make a fool of myself. One day, I thought, there's that one practice called loving kindness which I had not really dived into yet, but I knew about.

[00:35:11] David: Can you tell us in a line or two exactly what a loving kindness practice is?

[00:35:16] Sharon: In contrast to settling your attention on the feeling of the breath, you would settle your attention on certain phrases much like an offering, like, "May you be happy. May you be peaceful." It's a very relational practice. I thought there is that guided meditation because you'd make an offering in a certain set of sequence. I thought, "That's it. If I give a talk on loving kindness and my mind goes completely blank, I can launch into the guided meditation and maybe know when I'll know as just this giant blooper."

Then, I have piles, and piles, and piles of cassette tapes because that's what they were at home in Massachusetts of me giving one talk. I can only give one talk for the loving kindness talk because it's the only thing I had any confidence in. Another whole period of time went by–let's say another year. Then, I had this thought, "You know, in a way, they're all loving kindness talks because they're all really that connection. No one is sitting there, waiting for me to impart my expertise or be perfect or not stumble over a word or not be quiet for a moment while I collect my thoughts. It's just connecting with people as if they're all loving kindness talks. From that moment on, I could actually do public speaking.

[00:36:38] David: Even though it's directly related to your experience as a meditation teacher, I feel like it's a very universal story because what you're saying is that, ultimately, it's about connecting with your audience and, ultimately, what any of us do as entrepreneurs, business owners or employees, is ultimately about connecting with other people. That's what putting people first is all about. You connect with your customers. You connect with your team members, and the more you connect, the more you open up, the more they open up to you and the more potential is there. Going back to that story, there's another part to it, though, involving the Dalai Lama. Can you tell us about that?

[00:37:16] Sharon: Quite a number of years later, the Dalai Lama was teaching in Tucson, and the format of that particular time, the organizers decided that the Dalai Lama was going to teach in the morning and in the afternoon, and they wanted different Western teachers to teach in the evening. Mine was the first evening. There was about 1,200 or so people which was the largest group at that point I'd ever spoken to. Unfortunately, the Dalai Lama was there but his throne behind me so I was really nervous.

[00:37:51] David: You mean he wasn't there during the talk at that particular time?

[00:37:53] Sharon: Yeah, he was there in the evening so that was good, but his throne was there and there was a certain kind of feeling. I got through it. It was fine. It was over. Then, I was so glad it was the first night because I thought, "It's over. Now, I can just enjoy what comes next." The Dalai Lama's teaching in the morning and in the afternoon, days go by, and what he would do would be [....] rectangular loose papers. He'd be reading from the text and then doing some commentary and then, as that was being translated, he would flip ahead to the next passage that he wanted to read.

One day, something just caught his attention and he said to the translator, "That's not what I said," and the translator said, "Yes, it is." Then, he said, "No, it's not," and the translator said, "Yes, it is." The Dalai Lama flipped back to the pages that were in dispute and he burst into this hysterical laugh. He went, "Oh, ha, ha, ha. I made a mistake," and I thought, "Look at that. If I had a mistake in front of those same 1,200 people some nights before, first of all, would I have disclosed it? Second of all, would I be laughing about it? I don't think so." It's such an incredible of humanity. It was really what you're describing. It's just like, here we are together; we're all just people, actually. I've studied this stuff since I was two or whatever, and hopefully I can offer you something, and we all mistakes. That's just how it is.

[00:39:34] David: The Dalai Lama makes mistakes because I think when we look up to role models, people who are successful, whether it's the Dalai Lama or a successful startup founder, there's just this expectation that they know exactly what they're doing and they don’t mistakes, that every action that they take is pre-planned and premeditated and then they just put it into place and then success is just inevitable for them, and that's just not true; that's just a myth.

They are just as human as we are. They make mistakes just the same way we do and, like you said, the difference in the way that the Dalai Lama responded to his mistakes was not by whipping himself or telling himself that he's so stupid or that he shouldn't have gotten up there in the first place to do it; he just laughed, acknowledged it and moved on.

[00:40:18] Sharon: That's right.

[00:40:19] David: I think that's something that's really important for a lot of us to learn. I'm going to say I just blanked on my thought.

[00:40:28] Sharon: See? It's okay.

[00:40:32] David: Actually, as I was thinking, "I'm just going to edit this out, but you know what? I'll probably just leave it in," because these are part of the interviews. It's actually not that big of a deal. My colleague, Fio, I share this story with her because you had shared this story prior to this call, and she was actually going to give a talk at a conference in front of other marketers and product people. She had the exact same experience you did where she was ready to go up there and she had this perfectionism in mind, then after reading your story and realizing that, "Wait a minute, it's about connection," and that she actually has something to share, that she has some knowledge or some wisdom to share with the groups, suddenly, it just completely changed her relationship the way that she was going to relate to the audience. Your story already had an impact before we even had this call so thanks for sharing it with us.

[00:41:22] Sharon: Please don't edit that out. Those are perfect.

[00:41:28] David: A lot of people are really on the fence about embracing people-first mindset, a human-first mindset, putting people before profit. What would you say to them to help them understand that, "No, people first," and focusing on people and connecting with people. That really is the most sustainable way to succeed.

[00:41:53] Sharon: Well, I like to think of it as an experiment and I like to think of it as stepping out of our conditioning because our condition's really strong. I tell the story in my most recent book. I kind of semi-ruined this young woman's life. I was co-teaching a six-day seminar and she was one of the attendees. The first night, I started talking about the phrase, "It's a dog eat dog world." It was like, "Don't let anyone count on you because you can't count on them, and you crush them on the way up if you have to because no one's here to help you."

I was talking about that phrase, how ludicrous it is, and she got up to the microphone and she said, "My whole life, I thought the phrase was, 'It's a doggy dog world,' something like puppies in meadows, jumping up and down." She said, "What a ghastly phrase. It's a dog-eat-dog world." Six days went by, we had a thing and on closing morning, the closing circle, she got up to the microphone again and she said, "I refuse to live in a dog-eats-dog world. I'm going to live in a doggy dog world."

[00:43:10] David: Actually, I love when that phrase comes up because I listened to an interview with Terry Cruz, also on the Tim Ferriss show, and he said this phrase is ridiculous because I've never seen a dog eat another dog, like that does not reflect the reality of the world; that's just something that we've created ourselves. You don't walk around and see dogs eating other dogs; that's just now how it is. I think that's a great story and, exactly, it speaks to the fact that, actually, we have a choice. We have a choice in how we perceive the world and we have a choice in how we respond to the world, and are we going to respond to it from the perspective that it's a dog-eat-dog world and we have to be just as ruthless or are we going to respond from the perspective that it's a doggy dog world and that we're going to respond with positive intention and a different way of being.

[00:44:08] Sharon: Exactly.

[00:44:09] David: The last question that we typically give guests is, if there's any resource that you can think of that would help people succeed by putting people first, what would that be? In this case, I feel like that's what this last 45 minutes was all about. I feel like meditation is the best resource, but, in your opinion, what do you think is the best resource or something that people could turn to that would really help them to succeed by putting people first?

[00:44:37] Sharon: Well, I agree about meditation and then the particular book that came to my mind actually was written by a friend of mine named George Mumford who's a sports psychologist. He's worked with a lot of teams of all kinds but he's certainly worked with the LA Lakers, for example, and the Chicago Bulls before them. He's close to Phil Jackson and he's been with a lot of the teams that Phil's been involved in.

He said two things because we're really old friends and that are then in the book. The book is called The Mindful Athlete. He said two things that came up in my mind during this conversation. One was he redefines success so it's not you against the other guy; it's you against your previous record. He's got a situation there where–these people are superstars. They're brilliant–the whole ethic is be out for yourself; be a bigger superstar.

Phil Jackson's whole philosophy is you've got to work like a team. A lot of what he did, through mindfulness practices, was really trying to change that focus for people so that, as an individual, you could strive for excellence but, really, everything is about the team. People always ask George, "How in the world do you convince these people to think that way?" and then he responds by saying, "Because that's how you win. That's how you actually win," and he's got all these championships that he feels to prove that. That also came up in my mind in our conversation. That's the people. That's the team.

[00:46:18] David: Right, that's the real resource. That's how you succeed. Where can people find out more about you and your teachings and what it is that you do?

[00:46:28] Sharon: Well, my website is www.sharonsalzberg.com. You just have to keep spell check from changing the "e" in "Salzberg" to a "u". It's not like the city. That's probably the best resource.

[00:46:41] David: Great. Well, Sharon, thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate having you here.

[00:46:46] Sharon: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

[00:46:56] Louis: Thanks for listening, my fellow human. We know how fast paced life is. If you're listening to this on your daily commute, while running, or even cooking, you can always go to Hotjar.com/humans and look for today's episode. That's where you'll find access to all the resources and humans we talked about, the full transcript of the conversation, and even links to really see the episodes.

[00:47:18] David: If you like today's episode, please help us out by leaving your honest rating and review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. The more honest feedback we get, the more we can improve the show for you, and the more this podcast will be discovered by other humans. It's a win-win situation. Until next time, take care and be human.

 

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