Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, looks at how mindfulness can be a catalyst for social action in Real Change (Flatiron, June).
What drew you to speak with some of the “social change agents” you feature in the book?
They’re the frontline people. Some of it started when I was part of a program through the Garrison Institute bringing tools of yoga and meditation to domestic violence and shelter workers. I became more aware of the people in society who work very hard, often without being heralded or paid enough and yet who are facing suffering and helping head-on. I became more aware of issues of burnout and vicarious trauma, and I just have a great respect for those who are working directly with populations that are really suffering. Finding people who either were meditators, practitioners, or who were just expressing those values and finding out what gave them resilience and what sustains them was very exciting for me.
Who do you see as the intended audience of this book?
First, I think there are many meditators who would like help in taking that step into action. We can so often feel that what we can contribute is meager, so I think a large element of my inspiration was saying, ‘Yes, you actually can find a sense of agency.’ Second, there are people who are, on any scale, trying to make a difference in this world. I think inevitably, in that kind of engagement, we go through a lot of anger and a lot of grief. How do we come through to something that’s more sustaining?
How would you describe how mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations motivate people towards acts of social change?
I think there’s a very genuine and authentic sense of interconnection that arises. We recognize ourselves and others as part of a whole. Oddly enough, I’ve always given the example of epidemiology. In epidemiology, what happens over there doesn’t nicely stay over there, it affects us here—and now look at what’s happening. There’s just a sense of recognizing through both mindfulness and loving-kindness how connected our lives are, and then we actually can take that step toward action if we realize that we can.
How do you see this book as being different from the rest of your work?
I think it’s different in that I use the wisdom and heartfulness of many people to express the principles I’m trying to convey. It really is the voice of many who are, every day, living love and care and exhaustion and all those things that we inevitably face as we try to make a difference. I hope it opens up people who are meditators to the realization that we can also start thinking about the bigger picture and how systems might change. And, for people who are already engaged in those ways, for them to realize that practices of meditation can be incredible tools toward resilience.