by Sharon Salzberg: We all yearn for connection, yet often feel trapped by our sense of isolation, anger, or envy. In her new book ‘Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection’…
bestselling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explores how to redefine our limited definitions of “love” to connect more deeply with ourselves, others and life itself.
Some years ago, a good friend was in extreme psychological distress, punctuated by lengthy psychiatric hospitalizations. I wanted so badly to help him but felt powerless. I asked one of my tibetan teachers for guidance. He advised me to “stop trying”—an extremely subtle teaching. He wasn’t suggesting that I withdraw or stop caring, but was telling me to just “be with” my friend, without needing to fix him. And that’s what I did.
I’d sit in his hospital room and see other friends offer advice.
Just take fifteen drops of this tincture and you won’t be depressed anymore. Or see this healer or try that supplement and you’ll be cured. Their advice was given out of love, but my sense was that my friend felt somewhat pressured by it. What if I don’t take their advice? What if it doesn’t work? I could imagine him wondering. Will they stop showing up or caring about me?
When Ram Dass had a stroke, it took focused intention for me to apply my tibetan teacher’s wisdom and simply be with my friend. We’d been close for decades, and I felt devastated. I could see the impulse to fix things arising in my mind; I wanted him to get better and recover fully. But then I’d visit and see his living room piled high with gifts from concerned friends. Just take this tincture—and so on.
It was genuinely beautiful that so many people cared, but I could tell that Ram Dass did feel pressured by it all. I wondered if he would be abandoned by those whose tinctures didn’t have him walking and talking fluently again. One day a package arrived while I was there, containing a bottle of Ganges water with a note assuring him that if he drank it, he would walk again. “Don’t drink that!” I said. “It will give you cholera!” That was one instance in which I couldn’t help but put in my two cents.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t offer our loved ones help in the spirit of generosity; of course we should—and it’s most loving if our offerings are made freely, without strings attached. Letting go is the opposite of clinging to our hopes or ideas about how things should be and allowing them to be just as they are.
For me, it was invaluable to see the difference between wanting to help out of my own need to make things better and simply being with. I came to understand that healing has its own rhythm, as does any life transition. Of course, it’s not easy to step back and let go; it’s human nature to want to seize control when the people we love are suffering. But trying to impose our personal agenda on someone else’s experience is the shadow side of love, while real love recognizes that life unfolds at its own pace.