Lovingkindness: Connection before cultivation

heart-shaped stone on a sandy beach, close to the foam of an incoming wave

One of the emphases in my teaching of lovingkindness is what might be called connection before cultivation. Basically this is the principle that cultivating kindness (or lovingkindness, if you prefer) is easier and more effective when we first connect empathetically with the person we’re wishing well (and that can include ourselves!).

This isn’t the way I was taught to cultivate metta. I was encouraged, more or less, just to connect with my experience and then to start wishing myself, and then others, well.

What I do now makes my practice much more effective and really brings it to life.

I start by empathizing with my deepest desire, which I believe is everyone’s deepest desire: to be happy, or to experience some kind of peace or state of wellbeing. I do this by simply reminding myself, “I want to be happy,” and connecting with the truth of that statement in my experience. Usually at that very moment it’s true that I want to be happy.

Now I empathize with the fact that it’s not easy to be happy. Suffering happens all the time. Happiness is elusive. I do this just by remembering how hard it can be to find happiness.

Put together, these two facts — that we desire happiness and yet happiness is elusive — mean that this human life we live isn’t easy. This is what we’re empathizing with.

This difficulty in navigating a world where we desire and need something that is elusive isn’t a personal failing. It’s an intrinsic part of being human. So I like to say that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

Having recognized all the above, I can now see that as I go through life I need support. I need encouragement. I need kindness. And while it’s lovely to receive these from other people, the one person I’m with 24 hours a day is myself! And so “cultivating metta” becomes the act of wishing myself well as I do this difficult thing of being human. This is how empathy and kindness work together.

Without this kind of empathy as a basis, it’s much harder to wish ourselves well.

Having empathized with myself, it becomes much easier to empathize with other people. Everyone else is in the same situation as myself. They all want happiness and find it elusive. They’re also all doing this difficult thing of being human. When I reflect on this my heart becomes tender. Seeing that we’re all in the same existential situation, I want to offer kindness, support, and encouragement to others. And that’s how metta arises.

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