The Buddha said, “Protecting oneself, one protects others. Protecting others, one protects oneself.”
Lovingkindness helps us protect others, and it helps us protect ourselves.
At one time I used to have the New York Times delivered to my house every morning. It was one of my great pleasures to have a leisurely breakfast with a cup of tea, toast, and some intelligent analysis from the Op-Ed pages. But first I had to get the newspaper, which was tossed onto (or near) the front porch every morning by the delivery driver.
It was always an awkward moment for me walking out onto the porch in my bathrobe and slippers, with my hairy legs and knobbly ankles exposed to the world. I somehow felt judged by the passing drivers. And even though I’m sure they never noticed me, I’d get a bit grouchy as I retrieved my rolled-up copy of the Times.
This was fear, really. It was the fear of what people thought of me, whether they judged me, whether they disliked me or laughed at me. You can tell yourself that all this is silly: that the drivers are too busy driving to notice you, that they’ll probably never see you again, that they’re probably not petty enough to care about how you look. You can tell yourself that it doesn’t matter; even if people have unkind thoughts about you, that’s their stuff, not yours. But still, there’s fear.
Sometimes I’m rather slow on the uptake, and it can take me a while to realize that I’m suffering. So it probably took a few weeks of grumpily retrieving the Times before I noticed what was going on. And my first response, once I did notice that I was suffering, was to wish the passers-by well. As drivers swished by, or as neighbors walked their dogs past the house, I’d slip into saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace.”
And the fear vanished. Instantly. As long as I kept repeating those phrases, there was no more worrying what people thought about me. There was no grumpiness. There was just me, picking up my paper, feeling joy as I wished others well.
The thing is that there’s no room in the mind for both well-wishing and worrying. If you fill the mind with well-wishing, there’s no mental bandwidth left for worrying what people think about you. And if the fear and the well-wishing coexist, them the fear is lessened.
I highly recommend cultivating lovingkindness at all times — or at least as much of the time as you can. Whenever your mind has room to wander, replace your normal “monkey-mind” thoughts with thoughts of lovingkindness. It provides a kind of mental buffer against anxiety and also against anger and other unhelpful mental states. And in this way we protect ourselves.
And if we do this, then in our interactions with others we’re more likely to take their wellbeing, their needs, and their feelings into account, and we’ll be less likely to cause them suffering and more likely to benefit them. So we protect others, too.
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