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Salzberg met two female teachers in India during that first trip who became examples to her of people who had transformed their misfortune into abundant generosity and love. The first teacher was Dipa Ma, a tiny Indian housewife living with her daughter in the slums of Calcutta. Dipa Ma had gotten so sick she nearly died of grief after losing her husband and two of her three children. According to Salzberg, when someone told Dipa Ma that meditation might save her life, she crawled—because that’s the best she could do—up the steps of the meditation center to receive instruction. Salzberg related to this story—to the way Dipa Ma used her pain as motivation to liberate herself, and then to liberate others who suffer. The intensity of Dipa Ma’s motivation, Salzberg understood, was the key.

“Dipa Ma modeled the ability to transform one’s suffering—even immense suffering—into loving compassion.” Salzberg looks at you impishly—“I always knew I wanted to be that kind of person when I grew up.”

Then Salzberg tells the story of meeting a friend of Dipa Ma’s—another female Indian teacher whose father-in-law had forbidden her to meditate. “I asked her, ‘How did you accomplish what you needed to accomplish to be a teacher?’ and she said, ‘I was very mindful when I stirred the rice.’” Salzberg looks at you with soft green eyes, raises her eyebrows and smiles. She says, “I think we have the ability to seize that possibility for ourselves, and we don’t do it.”

Salzberg came back to the States in 1974, finished school, and—because Dipa Ma told her to, saying that Salzberg “really understood suffering”—she helped Joseph Goldstein teach a class in meditation at the Naropa Institute, which had just opened its doors in Boulder, Colorado. Though Salzberg was practicing, and now beginning to teach—and even starting to lead retreats—she was still incredibly hard on herself, full of self-judgment, “straining,” she says, all the time to change herself, be better, get somewhere with her practice. Ram Dass says of Salzberg in those years, “She was quite lost.”

Ram Dass agrees, however, with others who say that Salzberg must have built up stores of merit in other lifetimes, because, though lost, straining, self-critical and at first all for herself, she worked diligently to stay on a difficult path that would eventually have a huge impact on a lot of people. When she was only 23, she and Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, joining with a group of friends, bought, with very little money, an old building from the Catholic Diocese, and started the now well-respected and very successful Insight Meditation Society.

It wasn’t until 1984 that Salzberg and Goldstein met Sayadaw U Pandita, the Theravadan teacher from Burma who would turn Salzberg’s life around once again. U Pandita had a reputation for being very, very difficult.

“Oh, boy—he was a tough guy,” says Ram Dass, who met U Pandita in Burma during an early retreat with Salzberg and Goldstein. Ram Dass laughs. “I was happy to leave there. I felt like I escaped.” Ram Dass says it was at this time, 1985, that Salzberg started doing metta intensively. “I watched her change,” he says. “She went from being in her mind, to being very soft, loving, sensual, actually. Because she was coming into herself.”

Between 1985 and 1991, U Pandita worked with Salzberg on two practices: mindfulness practice and loving-kindness practice. Though she’d been meditating for fourteen years, and had been at IMS for nine, it was a new beginning.

“I was seeing him six days a week when on intensive retreat,” Salzberg says, “and I’d go in for an interview, and describe something, and he’d say, ‘Well, in the beginning it can be like that,’ and I’d think, ‘I’m not a beginner!’” She laughs. “And I’d come in the next day and describe something completely different and he’d say, ‘Oh, in the beginning it can be like that.’ You know?!” Salzberg says, and, feigning infuriation, looks at you, “‘I’m not a beginner!’ And it went on that way for a very long time,” she says, “until I got it: It’s good to be a beginner. It’s good not to have all these ideas—‘I shouldn’t experience this, I should be doing more of that.’ It’s good to just see what’s there, to say, ‘Wow! Look at that!’”

One of the resident teachers at IMS, Amy Schmidt, is laughing about Salzberg. She’s remembering the time U Pandita came to IMS and made Salzberg slow down her mindfulness meditation to such a snail’s pace that sometimes she had to leave the shrine room two hours before lunch, in order to make it the fifty or so steps to the kitchen in time for the meal.

Salzberg rolls her eyes when she talks about this. “And there was Joseph,” she says, “walking around at his normal pace. I thought, ‘Why isn’t anybody doing this correctly but me?’”

U Pandita, though, obviously had something in mind for Salzberg. Again, he had her come in six days a week for interviews. The idea was that she would write down something she noticed about one meditation period per day, and one walking meditation.

“I’d go in there,” Salzberg says, “and before I could read my notes to describe my sitting and my walking, he’d say, ‘What did you experience when you washed your face?’ Which was nothing, because I hadn’t paid the least bit of attention to that.” Salzberg shakes her head. “And that was my interview. So I’d leave and I’d sit and walk and wash my face as mindfully as I could—I’d feel my hands in the water, and the water on my face—and I’d go in the next day and he’d say, ‘Tell me everything you noticed when you drank your cup of tea.’ Which was nothing.” Salzberg smiles, remembering.

Sometimes Salzberg would come into the room and bow to U Pandita and her hair would fall in her face and she’d brush it away with her hand and he’d say, “Did you note that?” “And I’d say, ‘No,’ and I wouldn’t get to read my sitting and walking notes that day either.” Salzberg called this experience the “torment of continuity,” but after a while she understood something more: where before she’d thought that meditation was what took place inside the shrine room, now she began to see that there was no difference between meditation and non-meditation. “We all have a tendency,” she says, “to think the real stuff happens in the meditation hall, and that if you’re drinking a cup of tea in the dining room and you get lost in a fantasy, the thing to do is throw the cup in the dishwasher and run back into the meditation hall to regroup. Well, that tendency for me was gone.

“The phrase that kept coming up in my mind during that retreat,” she says, “was from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which Suzuki Roshi says something like, ‘We practice not to attain buddhanature, but to express it.’ Finally I could just say, ‘O.K., I’m just expressing this right now, and right now, and right now.”

You walk with Salzberg through the woods from her house to IMS, and she just walks, hands in coat pockets, eyes on the ground. You take a stroll with her on a country road nearby, past horses, trees and a pond, and she just strolls. She’s not unfriendly—she tells stories and answers questions and smiles and laughs a lot—but she’s not busy building herself up, or entertaining you. The only thing you can do around her is let go of all expectation that something has to happen, that you have to be someone, that she has to respond as someone else.

In loving-kindness practice, a practitioner begins with him or herself, wishing four things: may I be free from danger, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease. The practitioner then moves on to wish a “benefactor”—someone who has cared for them—the same four things. Then they make those aspirations for a good friend, then a neutral person—a person they normally ignore, like the counter person at the dry cleaner—then a difficult person, and then all beings without exception. If one were doing a metta retreat, one would do this practice using the same people over and over again.

“We tend to associate love or loving-kindness with a feeling or emotion,” Salzberg says, “but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something deeper—it’s really about being able to connect rather than exclude.”

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