The differences between the United States and Canada are pretty obvious these days.
Yet, Sharon Salzberg still felt compelled to mention that, when she passed through Halifax Stanfield International Airport the other day, the Canadian immigration officer asked what her business was in Nova Scotia.
When she said that she was giving a talk on Buddhist meditation the immigration official replied, “Oh, what kind? Shambhala?”
Actually, this spiritual leader of global stature does something called insight meditation.
But her point in telling me this story, I think, is that rather than slap a headlock on someone who admits to be a practitioner of Eastern spirituality, our border officer actually knew a little bit about Buddhism.
For her, the vibe here is different enough that, after talking to a crowd of provincial government employees late in the week, Salzberg just stopped and said to herself, “Ah, I’m in Canada,” and that was enough to make a meditation master, who sometimes shares the stage with the Dalai Lama, feel good.
Her message to the room full of bureaucrats was the same as it will be when she speaks at Mount Saint Vincent on the night of Nov. 8: that these are hard times, in her country and around the world, and that she feels it too, the hatred, violence and great divisions everywhere — the despair over everything from the melting ice caps to the unceasing global bloodshed.
But Salzberg, who grew up in the Jewish faith before coming to Buddhism, is a great believer that one small thing can make a difference.
That’s why she is urging everyone who is eligible to vote to do so in the United States mid-term elections on Nov. 6.
That’s why she wants each and every one of us to take a single, small breath.
Her message is that, no matter how hopeless things look, don’t give up. We can all build the inner resourcefulness needed to deal with these hard days.
And one of the best ways to do that is by not being overwhelmed by the stuff that has already happened, or to despair about what lies ahead, what Salzberg calls “rehearsing the apocalypse.”
Instead it is to be fully awake and aware in this present moment.
It is being mindful — a concept that is suddenly so in vogue that Ottawa is now standardizing mindfulness training for MPs and federal civil servants, and the U.S. House of Representatives has started similar programs for House members and staff, as has a cross-party organization of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom.
As further proof that mindfulness’s moment has arrived, consider that Sophie Gregoire Trudeau recorded a video to open the Mindful Society conference in Toronto last summer.
That, according to the American Mindfulness Research Association, in 1982 one scientific paper was published with mindfulness in the title; in 2015, there were 674.
And that Halifax-published Mindful magazine, a co-sponsor of Salzberg’s public talk, has a North America-wide circulation of 100,000 and claims that it reaches over five times that many people online with mindful.org.
Mindfulness has caught on because, as airy-fairy as it sounds, being in the moment gives people a concrete way of dealing with the angst that is everywhere nowadays: to concentrate on your breathing, one single breath at a time.
Salzberg roots herself in the here-and-now through her 40 minutes of daily dedicated meditation practice, but also in shorter bursts stolen while walking or flying on an plane, or even with just a few short meditative breaths taken before going into a meeting or answering her cellphone.
When I ask Salzberg what all of this does for her she says that it stops her from “anxiously projecting into the future” and “brings me back to my values.”
Being able to let go of the anxiety-producing thoughts is important. So is no longer being so self-absorbed that you can’t see beyond your own needs and desires.
Coupled together they make it possible for a person to connect with something bigger. That, says Salzberg, is critical at a time when so many people feel disconnected from others that there is an “epidemic of loneliness.”
What is more, connecting so deeply with others allows compassion, for others, but also for yourself, to blossom.
Salzberg’s message is the world needs more of that too. What is more, compassion begins in the same place as the tools of resistance: with a single act. With a single breath.