The Urban Retreat, Day 6: The tender heart of lovingkindness
In previous posts I’ve suggested an approach to cultivating lovingkindness that begins with contacting our innate lovingkindness. Now the expression “contacting our innate lovingkindness” is a problem for many people, because they look inside themselves, don’t see anything at that moment that they could call “metta” or “lovingkindness,” and then conclude they don’t have these qualities. Which can start a downward spiral of rumination and pain: I don’t feel any love; Therefore I don’t love myself; Therefore I must be unlovable; Therefore no one will ever love me; Therefore my life is horrible.
I think almost everyone has experienced that kind of emotional nose-dive at one time or another.
But I think that when this happens we may be looking within in the wrong way, and for the wrong thing.
I think the potential for lovingkindness is always there. It’s an innate part of us. But we have to awaken it. It’s sleeping, dormant. It’s wrapped in blankets of denial and self-protection.
And my current approach to awakening our innate ability to be kind is one I’ve mentioned before: a pair of simple reflections, followed by an invitation.
So the first reflection is this: We drop into the mind the truth, “I want to be happy.” I’m presenting this as a truth, because I believe that deep down we all do want happiness. Even when we choose a destructive path that leads to pain, we’re doing this because we believe it will bring happiness, or at least a relief from suffering, in the long term. It won’t, of course, but that’s because we’ve chosen the wrong strategy to find happiness, not because we don’t want to be happy.
So we drop this statement — “I want to be happy” — into the mind, and let its truth resonate within us. Feel its truth in your life, not in an abstract way, but concretely: “Yes, it’s true. I do want happiness. Even in this moment I want happiness.” This may be experienced as a kind of tender ache, and that’s OK. We’ll get back in a moment to why that’s OK.
And the second reflection is this: “Happiness isn’t always easy to find.” So we drop that thought — that truth — into the mind in the same way, giving ourselves time and space to have a response to it, to sense the truth of it in our lives. Because this too is true. We want happiness, but happiness is often elusive. We keep expecting to be happy and it doesn’t happen. Happiness doesn’t arrive, or it passes too quickly, or unhappiness shows up instead. So this too many evoke an achey sense around the heart. That’s good. Again, we’ll come to the why in a moment.
The invitation that follows these two reflections is just this: there is some part of you that, realizing that you want to be happy and that happiness is elusive, is prepared to wish you well. There is a part of you — a very deep part of you — that is prepared to be kind and supportive as you go about this difficult thing we do — being human.
Because I think it is generally harder than we admit, this being human. Having this innate drive for happiness in a world in which happiness is hard to find is a tough thing to do. And happiness doesn’t necessarily mean going about with a smile plastered on your face. Yes it can mean joy, but it can also be meaning, purpose, satisfaction, connection, or peace.
And the ache I talked about, which comes, often, when we rediscover that we want to be happy and when we admit that it’s hard to do this, is very valuable. Because this feeling of vulnerability is the recognition of the truth of our existential situation, and it’s not until we recognize our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining that desire that we can be truly supportive of ourselves.
Often we don’t admit this truth, and we believe we have our lives “sorted.” We’re fine. Maybe we don’t admit that we’re not too happy right now. That would be an admission of weakness and failure! Or maybe we do grudgingly admit that things aren’t perfect right now, but once we lose that 10 pounds, or get that promotion, or get past this busy spell at work — well, then we’ll be happy. We can become a bit cold and hard, and judgmental. When we see others being unhappy, rather than feel sympathy for them we may feel contempt. Or if we’re magnanimous we may give them some advice: “You just need to…” Have you noticed how prone we are to give advice on how to be happy even when we’re not happy ourselves? How sure we are that we have it all figured out, even when clearly we haven’t? And when people are at their most alienated from their vulnerability, they can be cruel. It becomes enjoyable to watch someone else fail; it confirms that that person is weak — unlike us.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (“Yes, I do want to be happy; yes, it is hard”) all this protectiveness is dropped, and we discover that we do want to support ourselves. We do want to be kind to ourselves as we do this difficult thing of being human. We do have innate lovingkindness and we have just contacted it. And it’s a bit achey, but that’s just what happens when we rediscover our deeper needs, and when we admit the difficulty of meeting them.
And then when we turn our attention to others and recognize that they are in the same situation as us — that they are struggling beings, desiring happiness but finding it elusive — we find that the vulnerability opens the way to a tender sense of kindess toward them: a heart-felt desire to wish them well as they do this difficult thing of being human.
So try this as a practice for the next few days, at least. When you meet other people, or see them on TV, or think about them, remember that this is another being who wants to be happy, and who finds happiness elusive, who wants not to suffer and finds the suffering comes visiting all too often. Try this and see how it affects your sense of yourself, and your attitude to others. Try this also when you become aware of yourself — particularly when you find life hard or frustrating or unsatisfying. Recollect that you want to be happy, and that happiness isn’t always easy to find. Accept the tender sense of vulnerability that comes with that awareness — and wish yourself well.
This is what “contacting our innate lovingkindness” means. It’s not looking inside and finding some pre-made emotion of love. It’s finding a way to our own achey, tender vulnerability, and letting the heart respond with kindness.