Sharon Salzberg – Metta Hour – Ep. 179 – Margaret Cullen

For episode 179 of the Metta Hour, Sharon speaks with Certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher, Margaret Cullen.

Margaret Cullen is a licensed psychotherapist and was one of the first to become a Certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher. For over 25 years, she has pioneered secular contemplative programs for various populations, developing and teaching contemplative interventions for research studies at Stanford, UCSF, Portland State, Penn State, University of Michigan, and the University of Miami. Margaret has contributed to the development of the Compassion Cultivation Training at Standford and become Founding Faculty for the Compassion Institute.

The conversation begins with Margaret sharing more of her history and how she came to meditation practice in her late 20s. They discuss how mindfulness is defined in different traditions and the implicit quality of compassion that exists in it, and how Margaret’s mentor, John Kabat Zinn, folded compassion into the teaching of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. They discuss “emotional balance” in Margaret’s early work doing research at UCSF. Margaret shares her definition of compassion and the ways her definition has evolved over her time. She also shares some of the common misconceptions about compassion that she had encountered in her work. They also discuss Margaret’s views on compassion fatigue and collapse and the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others. The conversation closes with Margaret leading a guided Compassionate Image Practice.


Mindfulness & Emotional Balance

Welcoming esteemed therapist and mindfulness teacher, Margaret Cullen, to the Metta Hour, Sharon invites her to share about her brilliant accomplishment of being one of the first ten people in the world to become a Certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher. Uncovering inspirations along Margaret’s serendipitous path, they investigate setting a precedent of compassion in mindfulness work, and explore the meaning of ’emotional balance’ in relation to Buddhism.

“‘[Balance] is a tricky word; it can sound so bland and indifferent when in fact it’s pointing to something quite poignant, exquisite, and tender. But the word ‘balance’ doesn’t really hold that, and language fails in some way to communicate what it means to rest with an open heart with all the joys and sorrows that we encounter as human beings. That’s a really different kind of balance than separation from an indifference, a kind of blandness that balance often implies.” – Margaret Cullen

Move from burnout to balance in a Real Change Anthology special, on Ep. 173 of the Metta Hour
Compassion’s Virtues & Misconceptions (20:00)

Further examining the roots of compassion, Sharon prompts Margaret to offer insight into its defining virtues and common misconceptions. Unraveling the hot modern concept of compassion fatigue as a misunderstanding, Margaret reminds us that to care for suffering doesn’t mean you are on the hook to solve it or fix it. Through this lens, they share on limitations, letting go, and the boundless nature of compassion.

“The really tricky part of the compassion fatigue and collapse for providers, caregivers, and people who are confronting suffering all the time, is that to care about suffering doesn’t mean you always have to solve it, or you always can solve it. And that, we can care, meet it with an open heart, and connect with bigger-than-self sense of compassion without solving suffering.” – Margaret Cullen

Jack Kornfield shares how to navigate change with equanimity & compassion, on Ep. 140 of Heart Wisdom

Bigger-Than-Self Compassion (40:00)

Exploring the relief that qualities like compassion are trainable—something one can cultivate with attention—Sharon and Margaret reflect on how our baseline of reactivity subtly changes over time and through practice. From here, they speak to the compassion of boundaries and saying no, before bringing us home with a guided mediation from Margaret on ‘bigger-than-self’ compassion.

“If I depend on Margaret and my personality I can’t get that far, but if I open to the idea that I’m connecting with a greater-than-Margaret compassion that’s a force in the universe that is immeasurable and boundless, and I don’t have to perfect Margaret in order to access it, that feels so much easier to me.” – Margaret Cullen

RamDev offers a Tibetan Tonglen meditation for compassion, on Ep. 66 of Healing at the Edge

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