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In Salzberg’s kitchen at dinnertime, six friends are sitting around a long country table yakking away about not much, laughing, eating two kinds of ice cream and apple pie and expensive chocolates after a large meal of leftovers liberated from the industrial-sized, stainless steel refrigerators at IMS, where a handful of people are doing silent retreats.

Salzberg, though, is sitting in a chair just away from the table, in the corner, watching. Or maybe not watching—maybe she’s just being there—listening, kind of smiling, occasionally saying a few words and then falling silent again.

If you were angry, you might think she was angry; if you were sad, you might think she was sad; if you were lonely or bored or tired or scared or feeling above it all or deeply, deeply depressed or very happy, you might think she was that. Which means that Salzberg, doing nothing but quietly being there, is doing her work well: she’s being what Ram Dass says she is: a kalyanamitra, a “special friend,” a mirror that shows you—if you care to take a look on a dark Saturday night—your mind.

“This is not a drama queen,” says Michele Bohana, director of the Institute of Asian Democracy in Washington, D.C. “She has tremendous compassion, she’s extremely generous, she is a fabulous teacher, she has total commitment to the dharma, she’s extremely humble and there’s nothing fancy-schmancy about her—she’s very down to earth.” Bohana laughs. “Us American women?” she says, “We’re all very hyper. We’re all very, ‘Deadline, deadline, can’t talk now, call me back!’ Right? Well, she’s, ‘Gotta go practice.’ Quite the difference.”

Sunanda Markus, a consultant for Mirabai Bush’s Center for Contemplative Mind and Society, says, “She’s one of those people whose love of the dharma rings throughout every cell of her body. And she has an understanding that the dharma is really what has import. And that’s why she’s here. And why she went to India when she was eighteen. You might think I’m completely nuts,” Markus says, “but I actually believe that she has done many lifetimes of practice and is an incredibly evolved person.”

In Faith, Salzberg tells the story of arriving in Bodh-gaya in ‘71 and sitting next to a monk under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha was enlightened. The monk turned out to be one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers, Khunu Rinpoche.

“As I sat next to Khunu Rinpoche,” she writes, “I sensed deep within me the possibility of rising above the circumstances of my childhood, of defining myself by something other than my family’s painful struggles and its hardened tone of defeat. I recalled the resignation in my father’s eyes at the constraints that governed his life. The boundary of his autonomy was the decision about where to have lunch if someone took him out of the hospital on a pass. With a surge of conviction, I thought, But I am here, and I can learn to be truly free. I felt as if nothing and no one could take away the joy of that prospect.”

Salzberg traveled around India for a while in 1971, but couldn’t find anyone to teach her how to meditate. Finally, at a yoga conference she’d stumbled upon, she heard about a ten-day retreat in Bodh-gaya, led by a S.N. Goenka of Burma, who had started doing Vipassana meditation to cure his migraines. It was at this first retreat that Salzberg met a group of people who would become her longtime colleagues and friends: Joseph Goldstein, Ram Dass, Daniel Goleman, Mirabai Bush and Krishna Das.

“I had a great sense of discovery,” she says, “and homecoming and rightness at being there. As difficult as it was to do—I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t sit still, and a lot of uncomfortable feelings started to surface—I loved it. It was like falling in love. And, in a way, I’ve never veered from that. I do different practices or I approach the dharma in a different way, but that feeling hasn’t faded.

“I was working against so much unhappiness,” she says of her early practice, “trying to come out of it, that it was all me-me-me, all the way.” She laughs. “Perhaps it would have been healing to be able to reach out to help others, but I didn’t have it in me, even though I tried practicing generosity a lot.”

Salzberg stayed in India for a year and a half that trip, remaining in Bodh-gaya to do additional retreats with Goenka, and then moving on to meet and study with Tibetan teachers Kalu Rinpoche and the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje. But there was something in the simplicity of the Theravadan tradition of mindfulness practice that Salzberg was drawn back to. She was drawn back to Vipassana meditation, and a practice that Goenka introduced only at the end of Salzberg’s first retreat: metta—loving-kindness practice.

One thing that makes Salzberg different from many other Western students who sat at the feet of great Indian, Tibetan and Southeast Asian Buddhist teachers in the early 1970’s and brought what they taught back home, is that Salzberg embodies a very particular piece of the dharma puzzle. She stresses one thing: that in order to be free from suffering—and therefore to be able to give abundantly to others—one must endeavor to love oneself abundantly. Even for people whose lives have been less painful than Salzberg’s, the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness work to connect a person to their own heart and the hearts of all other beings without exception.

The day Salzberg sat under the Bodhi tree, she made a vow to herself: she vowed to learn to love as the Buddha loved. “Loving as the Buddha loved of course meant being able to love oneself as well,” she says in her living room. “It’s not really a question of, ‘May all sentient beings be free from suffering,’” she laughs, “’—except for me.’ It has to include oneself.” The question was how to do that.

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