Stage 4 – Cultivating kindness towards a “difficult person”

What’s called “lovingkindness meditation” is really just “kindness meditation.” It’s where we train, through reflection, to be kinder to ourselves and others.

To be kind is to empathetically recognize that another person desires to be happy and to avoid suffering, and then to act accordingly. When we’re kind we act in ways that support another person’s happiness and well-being, and we take care not to unnecessarily hurt them. That is what metta, or “lovingkindness,” is.

Metta is kindness.

Lovingkindness practice, in the traditional form I was taught, is in five stages.

  1. Cultivating kindness for oneself.
  2. Cultivating kindness for a friend.
  3. Cultivating kindness for a relative stranger.
  4. Cultivating kindness for someone we’re in conflict with.
  5. Cultivating an attitude of kindness toward anyone we might encounter.

You’re about to read about the fourth stage of the meditation, in which we cultivate kindness for someone with whom we are in a state of conflict. This person may be someone we love, but tend to get irritated with, or there may be a more deep-rooted conflict.

Being kind toward someone does not mean approving of, allowing, or tolerating what we find morally objectionable in their beliefs, words, and actions. You can be kind toward someone — that is, have their long-term happiness and well-being at heart — and yet vigorously oppose what they believe, say, and do.

Having someone’s long-term happiness and wellbeing at heart does not mean giving them what they want. Someone intent on causing harm harms not just others, but themselves too. We do them (as well as their potential victims) a favor by dissuading or preventing them from harming other people.

So if we’re cultivating kindness toward someone that causes harm, we’re really wishing that they cease causing harm.

This is a particularly interesting part of the practice, because it’s a real test of our ability to overcome resentments and to tune into our inherent capacity for kindness. It’s also interesting in that it can make a huge difference to our lives to let go of anger and ill will, and instead to be kind.

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In this part of the practice we are meeting our ill-will head on. Kindness is the emotional opposite of ill will. With ill will we want to hurt someone. We want to hurt their feelings. We might even have fantasies about bad things happening to them, or even want to harm them ourselves. Kindness on the other hand recognizes empathetically that another person’s feelings are as real to them as ours are to us, and so we want to benefit them rather than harm them.

In this stage of the practice we’re consciously evoking the memory or image of someone we usually respond to with feelings of aversion. We do that so that we can train ourselves to be more empathetic, and train ourselves to overcome our ill will. We don’t have to like this person. To like someone is to approve of them or their actions, and to have pleasurable feelings in response to them. We don’t in fact have to like someone in order to be kind to them. And being kind is our aim here.

By letting go of ill will and resentment we’re being kind to ourselves as well. Since ill will and resentment hurt us, letting go of them is in the interest of our long-term happiness and well-being. Therefore we are being kind to ourselves in letting go of ill will toward another person.

Guided Meditation

You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the first four stages of the practice by clicking on the player below.

What We Do In This Stage of Lovingkindness Practice

I’m going to give a complete recap of the practice so far. Click here if you’d like to skip ahead to the description of the fourth stage.

Stage Zero: Sitting With Kindness

Stage Zero is the initial stage of meditation, before the stages proper, in which we set up conditions that help the meditation practice to go well. It’s not an optional extra. It’s where we start cultivating kindness by sitting with kindness, and by allowing ourselves to look with love.

In stage zero first settle into your meditation posture. If you’re not sure about meditation posture then check out our posture workshop. Sit in a way that is kind — that supports your long-term happiness and well-being. So, as best you can, let go of any unnecessary tensions in the body. Don’t sit rigidly, but let your muscles relax and soften with the out-breath. But also sit with dignity: upright, and open. This will help you feel confident and remain gently alert.

With kind eyes, meet everything that arises with kindness and tenderness, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Stage 1: Developing Kindness for Ourselves

Next become aware of your heart. Notice whatever feelings happen to be present. Whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, or whether you don’t know what you’re feeling, meet everything with kind eyes.

Remind yourself that you are a feeling being; your feelings are important to you. Remember that your deepest desire is to escape or avoid suffering, and to find peace and joy. Remember also that you are doing a difficult thing in being human. It’s not easy to go through life, encountering less happiness and more suffering than we’d ideally want.

And because you are doing a difficult thing in being human, you need support. So offer support to yourself, by saying, over and over again, words such as these:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Continue to drop those words into the heart for a few minutes, doing so gently, giving yourself time between the phrases to absorb any effects.

Stage 2: Strengthening Our Kindness for a Friend

In the second stage of the practice, think of a good friend, and wish them well. Decide in advance who you’re going to pick, otherwise you might waste time in indecision during the practice.

Remind yourself that they too are a feeling being, that they too desire happiness and freedom from suffering, and that they too need support. And so, offer them support in the same way as you did for yourself, by saying:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Now you’re ready to move on to the third stage.

Stage 3: Training Ourselves to be Kinder to Strangers

Next, call to mind someone you have little or no emotional connection with. Perhaps this is someone you see working in a store, or that you pass on the street.

It doesn’t matter if there is some feeling — the main thing is that you neither really like nor really dislike this person.

Once you’ve called this person to mind, remind yourself that they are just like you, and just like your friend.

They are a feeling being. Their feelings are as real to them as yours are to you. Their pain is just as vivid and just as painful. Their joys are just as enjoyable.

And just as for you, life for them is challenging. They want to be happy, but happiness is often elusive. They don’t want to suffer, and yet suffering often comes to them. So as they, just like you, are doing this difficult thing of being human, you can wish them well, just as you did for yourself and your friend, by saying:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Stage 4: Training Ourselves to be Kinder in Conflicts

Now we cultivate Metta for someone we don’t get on with. It may be someone that we have long-standing difficulties with, or it may be someone that is normally a friend, but we have difficulties with them just now.

Call the difficult person to mind, and be honest about what you feel. There may well be feelings of discomfort that manifest as sensations in the body — perhaps around the heart, or around the diaphragm or in the gut. Allow those feelings to be there. There’s nothing wrong with them. This is just your body alerting you to a potential threat. As best you can, receive these uncomfortable feelings with kindness.

If any reactive, blaming, angry, or resentful thoughts arise, let go of them, again as best you can, and simply be with your sensory experience of the body and its sensations and feelings.

Recollect that this person you’re having conflict with is, just like you, just like anyone, a feeling being. Their pain and joy are as real to them as yours are to you. They want to be happy, but happiness is elusive. They don’t want to suffer, but they often do. They, just like you, just like anyone, are doing a difficult thing in being human. Just as you find them difficult, so do they find you difficult. They, just like you, would like to be free from conflict.

So in solidarity with this struggling being, wish them well by saying:

  • May you be well.
  • May you be at ease.
  • May you be kind to yourself and others.

Continue to do this for a few minutes.

On Creating Enemies

This stage of the meditation is traditionally referred to as the stage where we cultivate lovingkindness for an “enemy.” Many of us feel uncomfortable using that language, because it tends to create a polarization in the mind, leading to us associating this person will all the baggage that the word “enemy” tends to carry.

The way the human mind works is very interesting. For example, psychological research suggests that people choose a political party early in life, often on the basis of one major policy that they happen to agree with and that is important to them. There may at this point be many things in their chosen party’s platform that they disagree with, and many aspects of rival parties’ policies that they feel in harmony with.

But what then happens is that the potential voter strives to maintain cognitive consistency. Although they may have started by agreeing only with one policy that they happened to feel strongly about (say, education policy) they start to take on board many, if not all, the other policies that their chosen party puts forward.

Conversely, they start to automatically and systematically disagree with the policies of opposing parties, even if they started by agreeing with those policies. The opposition has become the enemy, and while the chose party can often do no wrong, the “enemy” can do nothing right.

Experiments in the US showed voters with Democratic or Republican affiliations footage of the two main presidential candidates contradicting themselves. Democrats judged the Republican candidate harshly for his inconsistency while finding reasons to absolve their own man from blame. Republicans did exactly the same thing for their candidate.

What I’m getting at is that once we’ve decided that someone is the enemy, we’ll go to extraordinary lengths to maintain cognitive consistency. We’ll ignore the “enemy’s” good qualities, exaggerate his or her faults, and we’ll interpret his or her actions in ways that confirm to us that he or she is worthy of being disliked.

Back to meditation, that’s why I don’t like using the traditional term, “enemy”.

I’ve tended to use the term “difficult person” instead, and you’ll find that term liberally sprinkled around this site. But more recently I’ve realized that using the term “difficult person” suggests that the difficulty lies within that person, which of course is rarely absolutely true. Usually the difficulties that occur in a relationship are the result of factors within both parties, and often when we have difficulty with another person the cause is almost entirely our own actions towards them, including the very tendency to judge an “enemy” unfairly.

These days I tend to talk about “the person you have difficulty with.” It’s a bit more clumsy than “difficult person” and less snappy than “enemy” (which is a great sound-bite word) but I think it’s more accurate and helpful. I know some teachers go a step further and think that calling someone a “difficult person” is unkind because it suggest that the person is inherently difficult rather than allowing for the possibility that the problem lies with our responses to them, and because it’s a form of labeling. And I think that’s true. However referring over and over to “the person with whom you have difficulties” can be rather wearing!

But coming back even more to the meditation practice, one of the things that’s happening when we’re cultivating lovingkindness towards our enemy — sorry I mean “the person we’re having difficulty with” — is that we’re overcoming that very tendency to demonize opponents.

I’m sure the research into the psychology of meditators with regard to political affiliation would be most interesting.

Overcoming Ill Will Toward an “Enemy”

Lovingkindness practice helps us to overcome ill-will, anger and resentment. People that we habitually have those feelings for are traditionally known as an “enemy.”

The most basic way to cultivate kindness toward an “enemy” in the lovingkindness meditation practice is simply to call the difficult person to mind, and to repeat something along the lines of, “May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be kind to yourself and others.” It helps if you also imagine the difficult person actually being well, and at peace, and showing kindness. This can help to build up more positive associations with that person, and can help you let go of anger and resentment toward them.

But I’ve found reflecting in the following way to be particularly helpful:

  • Remind yourself that the person you’re in conflict with is just the same as you. They, just like you, are a feeling being.They too feel joy and pain.
  • Their joys and pains are as real and vivid to them as yours are to you.
  • They, just like you, prefer happiness to suffering.
  • And they too, just like you, are doing a difficult thing in being human.

Take a minute or two and try doing this, feeling the thoughts in your heart as well as thinking them in your head.

This is an exercise in empathy, and it very naturally leads to a sense of wanting to support the other person. Or at least it does with me.

You might find that you get stuck, not wanting the person you’re in conflict with to be happy. You might even think they deserve punishment, and so you think they should suffer. I’d suggest that when this happens, you have pain arising that you’re not taking care of. Anger usually results from pain such as hurt or fear. So when you find you’re stuck in anger and resentment, try being aware of the physical sensations that are arising in the body, especially around the heart, the diaphragm, and the gut. Notice if there’s any pain, tension, or other unpleasant sensation there.

Now, recognize that this is a part of you that is asking for support and protection. Your anger is trying to protect your pain, but it doesn’t do so effectively. What works much better is compassion. So regard your pain as a small, ancient, animal-like part of you that needs your care and support. Talk to it as you would a beloved child or a frightened animal: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I care about you and I want you to be happy. I’m here to protect you.” In this way you’re offering the suffering part of you your love and compassion. Once you’ve done that, and the painful feeling has started to subside, you can then turn back toward the person you’re in conflict with.

Sometimes you’ll find you can offer yourself compassion, and in just a few breaths you’ll feel better and be able to return to the person you have difficulties with. Sometimes the hurt or fear goes deep, and you’ll spend all of your time soothing yourself and not get around to wishing the other person well. That’s OK. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to work on healing that relationship.

Other Approaches In the Fourth Stage

There are many other approaches I’ve taken over the years:

  • You can imagine that it’s years from now, and that the two of you have resolved your difficulties and have now become good friends (it doesn’t just happen in romantic novels). In doing this you can “trick” yourself into feeling a sense of friendship for that person. It’s surprising sometimes how easily the mind can be tricked into suspending the judgments about others that we habitually make.
  • You can reflect on any good qualities the difficult person might have. Often we selectively “filter out” any good qualities from our perceptions, a bit like the kind of journalist who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Dwell on the positive qualities of the difficult person. Remember that other people no doubt see admirable qualities in this person — qualities, perhaps, that you do not allow yourself to register.
  • You can remind yourself that you both have a limited amount of time on this earth. One day you’re going to die. One day they’re going to die. Recognizing this, isn’t it a waste of our precious time to hold onto hate? Do you want to be on your death-bed still harboring resentments?
  • Similar to the previous approach, imagine the person you have a conflict with. Now imagine that to the left of them is them as a baby, and to the right of them is them as an extremely old person, with not much time left on this earth. Now, calling to mind the thing they do or have done that upsets you, how do you feel? Most people either feel sad or compassionate. Either response is fine. If you experience sadness, just allow yourself to sit with that experience, which is a perfectly healthy feeling to have.
  • Another approach is to consider that if you had the history of the person you dislike, if your experiences were their experiences, if your conditioning was the same as theirs, then your actions would be the same as theirs. Or as the French saying goes, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” or “To know all is to forgive all.”
  • You can be grateful for this conflict. Shantideva, the 7th century Buddhist teacher, reminds us that without enemies we have fewer opportunities to practice patience. And since patience is a virtue we should therefore be grateful to our enemies for giving us this precious opportunity: “Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure,” he wrote.

Often we experience resistance to cultivating lovingkindness for a person we have difficulty with. We think that that person being happy would be a kind of “reward” that we’d be giving them.

But you can consider that actually we’re doing this for ourselves, too. Anger and ill will are painful states, and if we can let go of them by wishing another person well then we become happier. As a famous Buddhist teaching reminds us, it is anger and hatred that is our real enemy, not the person we’re angry with or have hatred for.

Who to Choose and Not to Choose

They say you should choose your enemies carefully, and that’s true in the fourth stage of the lovingkindness meditation.

Ultimately, we want to develop an attitude of kindness toward anyone we meet or who comes to mind. But there are a few categories of people you should avoid putting in the fourth stage altogether, and some that you should probably avoid putting in this stage when you’re first learning the meditation practice.

Avoid altogether

Don’t use people you don’t know personally. It can be tempting to use “bogeymen” (or “bogeywomen,” I suppose) like Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden, or some political figure we dislike (depending on our personal inclinations). It’s much more useful to stick to people that you actually have contact with.

You can put “bogeymen” in the last stage of the practice when we wish all sentient beings well.

Leave until later

If there is someone who you can’t bring to mind without getting very upset (sad, or angry), perhaps because they’ve done us a great deal of harm, then it’s probably a good idea to put them to one side for a while.

Doing the Metta Bhavana practice will help you to develop the confidence to deal with your responses to this person eventually. Let’s keep the meditation practice relatively straightforward for now, though, and come back to this person later.

A surprisingly good choice

Who are the people you get most annoyed with? Often it’s the people you’re closest to: siblings, parents, children, and (perhaps especially) partners. If we fall into the trap of thinking of the fourth stage of the practice as being about an “enemy” it would seem to be very inappropriate to include any of the people I’ve just mentioned.

When we do think of including those people in the lovingkindness meditation, we probably think of them as people we love, and include them in the second stage or leave them until the fifth (bearing in mind the traditional advice not to include them in the second stage).

But this stage, really, is about working with conflicted relationships. And so I think it’s entirely appropriate to include people we’re close to, because we usually clash with them quite often. Those clashes, because they involve high-stakes relationships, can have a very negative effect on our sense of well-being. Sometimes those clashes are about major issues, but they often come down to small things, like how that person loads the dishwasher, or the way they leave the bathroom sink after using it. I think it’s a very good use of the fourth stage to call those people to mind — and to call to mind the specific things they do that annoy us — and to cultivate kindness for them. This is an opportunity, once again, to treat the meditation practice as a rehearsal (see below).

What to Do When Thinking of an Enemy In Meditation Causes Anger

It’s a shame when we have a meditation practice that’s designed to help us become kinder, and yet we spend it becoming angry instead. And yet this can happen when we’re calling to mind someone we have a habit of being angry with. Our mindfulness slips, and we start thinking critical thoughts about that person and wishing that bad things happen to them. It’s natural that this happens, of course. None of us is perfectly mindful.

But in order to prevent this from happening, it’s helpful to get a better handle on how what happens psychologically in order to produce ill will.

The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pointed out that human freedom relies on the fact that there is a gap between stimulus and response. If we’re mindful we can make choices in that gap. We can choose how we will respond in any given situation. Buddhist psychology draws a similar distinction, and located the gap between feeling and volition (you might think of that as emotion). So let me explain what these two things are, what the difference is between them, and how the ability to choose arises in between them.

Feeling

In common usage we tend to use the words feeling and emotion pretty much interchangeably, but in Buddhist psychology feeling (vedana) refers to our basic, gut-level likes and dislikes. Feelings are sensations created in the body by ancient parts of the brain. They’re basically of three kinds — pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And their purpose is to flag up potential benefits (pleasant feelings being the signal that those are present) or potential threats (which is when unpleasant feelings arise. When there are no potential threats or benefits present, or if we’re not sure what we’re feeling, then we call the feeling tone that arises “neutral.”

These feeling responses are automatic — we have no control over them. And they often arise in response to people. Imagine, for example, you walk into a room full of people you don’t know. As you look around the room there will be some people you want to gravitate toward, because your brain creates pleasant feelings in response to seeing them. This is your brain telling you there’s a potential benefit in being associated with them.

There will be some people you want to avoid, because your brain creates unpleasant feelings when you look at them. This is your brain highlighting a potential threat — perhaps those people show signs of emotion or behaviors you’re not comfortable with.

Lastly, there will be people you essentially ignore. Your brain hasn’t detected any potential threats or benefits associated with them, and so it doesn’t generate any feeling response. That’s a neutral feeling response. You ignore these people because there’s no feeling to direct you toward or away from them.

Paying attention to these feelings is very useful. Sometimes we override the gut feelings we have about situations and regret it later, because these feeling are often very accurate. I can remember times I just haven’t trusted someone, even though I didn’t know why. And it turned out that in fact they were untrustworthy. Presumably, parts of my brain outside of conscious awareness had picked up on signs that this person wasn’t honest — perhaps their emotional displays hadn’t been entirely consistent with what they had been saying, for example.

Of course those gut feelings are not always accurate — evolution favors a certain degree of caution. If the woods look dark and scary then it may well be favorable to your survival to avoid going in there.

Volition (or “emotion”)

While feeling responses are automatic and we have no control over them, volitions, although often habitual, can be changed through conscious choice.

A volition is a desire, a wish, an emotion. Anger, for example, usually involves the desire to energetically and forcefully create change. Often when we’re angry with someone we believe that they are not responding to, or won’t respond to, messages delivered in a more reasonably tone. So the first time you ask your children for your attention, you may do so in a quiet and pleasant tone of voice. The third and fourth time, you’re talking more loudly and forcefully. Your volition is to break through resistance.

The volition of hatred is different. When we hate we want to hurt and punish another person. So we’ll say hurtful things and think unkind thoughts about them — blaming them, wishing them harm, etc.

Volitions, or emotions, are active responses that arise on the basis of feelings. When we have an unpleasant feeling in relation to someone, usually we will habitually respond to them with the volition of ill will. This especially happens when we’re not mindful. However, when we do have mindful awareness, we have more choice over how we respond.

We’re able to have an unpleasant feeling response to someone and choose to respond kindly to them, or to cultivate kindness for them, choosing at the same time not to feed our tendency to react with ill will.

This is the gap: being able to experience the feeling responses that arise in us without reacting to them. We can learn to be comfortable with discomfort.

Letting go of ill will

Anyway, to get back to you and that difficult person and your meditation practice… Being aware of this distinction between feeling and emotion allows us to become comfortable with the discomfort of unpleasant feeling without giving rise to ill will.

When you find yourself, in your meditation practice, getting angry with the person you’ve decided to put in the fourth stage, you can choose to let go of the angry, critical, or hateful thoughts that are going through your mind, and instead let your attention drop down into the body in order to notice the unpleasant feelings that are present. And there always are unpleasant feelings in the body in this situation.

You can practice sitting with those feelings of discomfort. You can see them as a normal part of every human’s experience, and not as a moral failing. You can see them as simply a communication from an ancient part of the brain warning you that it, at least, thinks the person you’re thinking of is a potential threat. You can see them as just sensations, like any other sensation.

As you’re doing this, you’ll probably find that your angry, critical thoughts are already beginning to subside, even just a little. That’s a great start.

If you also recognize the unpleasant feeling you’re experiencing as a communication from a part of you that needs support, then now you’re open to offering it your kindness, as I described above. For example you can say, “I know this is uncomfortable, but you’re OK. I’m here for you, and I care about you. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”

Now you’re responding to discomfort with kindness.

And now that that’s happening, you can turn your kindness toward the person you’re in conflict with. You can be comfortable with the discomfort you feel as you call them to mind, and you can, at the same time, wish them well, regarding them with kind eyes, and saying:

  • “May you be well.”
  • “May you be at peace.”
  • “May you be kind to yourself and others.”

Why Develop Kindness for a Bad Person?

There are some very bad people in the world. Sometimes evil seems to be not too strong a word for some of the actions that are perpetrated. So you may well wonder why should you develop kindness towards those who commit evil actions.

Partly it’s for ourselves. Hatred makes us unhappy. To hate is to suffer. To be sure, there can be a certain amount of pleasure found in hating. When we hate someone we feel superior to them, and that sense of superiority can be pleasurable. But pleasure is not happiness. Hatred is a state of mind in which we are not at peace, and are not truly happy. When we let go of hatred, we feel happier.

In contrast to hatred, kindness and compassion are indeed sources of happiness. When people experience these emotions, the parts of the brain connected with feelings of well-being become active. When we connect empathetically, we become happier.

We should ask ourselves as well, what kind of world do we want to live in? People who commit evil may be callous and hateful. What sense does it make if we become more like them by having hatred for them? If we want to make the world a better place, doesn’t it make sense for us to become kinder and more compassionate?

It makes sense then that if you want the world to be a better place you would want all beings to experience metta — even the very bad ones. In fact especially the bad ones, since if evil people were to experience Metta, there would be no evil done. I’m not suggesting that we can “wish” bad people into becoming good people, simply that it’s rational to wish that those who commit evil were free from the unwholesome mental states that lead to their actions. This implies that we should have compassion even for those who commit evil actions.

Understanding Causes and Conditions

A meditation student of mine who is a psychotherapist pointed out to me that most of the actions that we would label as evil are committed by people who suffer from what is known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, and that scientific research studies have shown that up to 75% of all those in the US criminal justice system fit the diagnostic criteria for this personality disorder.

This disorder is almost certain to have a genetic component, so that many bad people are born that way and not made that way, although certain environments can probably make these genetically based traits worse. Many people, in committing evil, are therefore passing on the results of a sickness that they suffer from — a sickness that prevents them from feeling empathy, remorse, and anxiety.

Additionally, they may feel compelled to lie, even when it’s not necessary, have difficulty learning from past experience, and have trouble controlling their impulses in the way that most people can.

Evil as an illness

There’s no reason why we should feel any less sympathetic towards a criminal who, because of a genetic defect, has a lower than normal ability to control his or her impulses, than towards a person with any other genetically based physical or mental condition.

If we can feel sympathy for a person who suffers from, say, Downs’ Syndrome, then why not cultivate sympathy in meditation towards someone who has a genetic disorder like Antisocial Personality Disorder that ruins the lives not only of its direct sufferers but also those who are unfortunate enough to be exploited or harmed by them?

As an aside, I hope (although I have no personal experience on which to build this hope) that those suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder can learn to control their impulses. Some mental health professionals have shown that individual and group therapy can help those suffering from this devastating condition to learn to experience and to deal with their emotions, and to learn to have more moral concern for others.

I don’t want to appear to be saying that those who act destructively should be absolved from all responsibility for their mental states and actions, simply that not everyone is starting from the same place in learning to take such responsibility, and that it is helpful to them and to us if we have sympathy for those in such an unfortunate position.

You might well ask though: how is you cultivating kindness towards a bad person going to have any effect on them? Isn’t it just a game that you’re playing inside your own head?

It’s true that your meditation practice is not likely to have much effect on another person (although you never know – some interesting research has been done that shows that this does happen), but at the very least it will have an effect on you. It will help you to be more truly compassionate. It will reduce the amount of intolerance and hatred in the world by reducing the amount of intolerance and hatred in your own heart (which is the only place where you can guarantee to make a difference).

Conversely, having hatred for another person is, in the vast majority of cases, going to have no effect on them whatsoever. But it will hurt you, so why not let go of it?

The Fourth Stage as Rehearsal

You can see this stage (like the neutral person stage) as being a rehearsal for life outside meditation.

You might want to think about something as simple as how you will greet the person you have difficulty with when you next meet. If you can be more friendly than usual then it will have a definite effect on your relationship. I’ve heard from many people who have worked on cultivating kindness to someone they’ve had longstanding problems with, and who have found that when they’ve met this person after a long gap, the relationship has changed. I assume that this is to do with the meditator’s attitude, body language, tone of voice, choice of words, and so on having changed in a way that communicates to the formerly difficult person that they’re now no longer seen as an enemy.

If you’re aware of any unhelpful patterns that the two of you have established, then you might like to think of a friendly and respectful way that you can change those patterns — perhaps by giving them genuine praise, or by apologizing for something you have done wrong.

Of course if there’s a bad history between the two of you then your well-meaning actions might well be misinterpreted as a manipulative trick. But if you’re being genuinely kind, eventually that will be recognized.

It’s also worth watching out for the reaction we commonly have when we hold out an olive branch only to have it knocked out of our hand with an angry blow. Often we have a naive assumption that if we do something “nice” then the other person “should” appreciate this and that if they don’t — well, that just shows we were right about them all along! Genuine kindness is based on an empathetic appreciation of the other person as a feeling being. It’s not a superficial attempt to “be nice.” If you are rebuffed, this is just another opportunity to practice empathy, and to understand that it takes time for people’s attitudes to change.

The Disadvantages of Anger, Hatred, and Resentment

Anger and resentment are like dust that we throw into the wind. It blows back on us. They’re like excrement we pick up to throw at another person: they might end up smelling, but we’re going to be pretty stinky ourselves.

Most Thursday afternoons for several years I drove an hour west, to Concord, the New Hampshire state capital. I left my car in the visitors’ parking lot of the prison there, and after handing over my drivers license and signed in I made my way through a series of heavy doors made of buff-painted steel bars that slam shut behind me.

I went up a staircase that gives me a brief view of the prison yard, usually at the time that the inmates, in their green jackets and pants, with gray sweatshirts if the weather is colder, are moving from one building to another.

At the top of the stairs I was buzzed through another door, signed in once again, and passed inmates sitting on a bench waiting to see various psychological professionals in the mental health wing. I stepped into the chapel, where the constantly rattling air conditioning was always turned up way too high and where a group of inmates would be patiently waiting.

And there, in the chapel, we meditated in the closest thing to silence a medium security prison will allow, with the fans rattling and distant doors slamming so loudly that you could feel the vibrations running up your legs and through your whole body. After the meditation we checked in to see how everybody’s doing, and then discussed the intricacies of practicing Buddhism in this inhospitable environment.

Visiting a prison is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the disadvantages of anger, and the many other states of mind that impel one human being to hurt another. Contemplating the disadvantages of anger is said to be an important way to cultivate metta, and that’s certainly true from my own experience. The disadvantages are perhaps nowhere clearer than in a prison.

The prison rules say that I’m not allowed to ask what crimes these men have committed, but as they’ve grown to trust me they’ve begun to tell me their stories. One molested his daughters. Another, driving under the influence of drink and drugs, killed a man. Another, in the course of burgling a house in order to feed his crack cocaine habit, murdered the house owner in a blind panic when the man caught him in his home.

Hearing this you’ll no doubt be surprised to hear that these men are amongst the most interesting, kind, and likable people I’ve ever met. Had I met these men at a continuing education class I was teaching at a local college I’d have been wondering what I’d done to have such an intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective body of students.

Murderers, rapists, and child-molesters may have committed monstrous acts, but from the outside they tend to look like anyone else. They don’t have horns and tails, let alone the cold, staring eyes of tabloid infamy. People who do terrible things can also have many fine and admirable qualities. They can show kindness and compassion, and are friendly, considerate, and respectful.

One of the things I’ve learned through working in prisons is that you can’t judge a person purely on his or her personality. A seemingly pleasant person can do awful things. But you also can’t judge a person purely on the worst thing he or she has done. You can’t ignore that either, but the worst thing a person has done does not define them.

What makes the people I work with different is the things they’ve done. Each of these men, under the influence of powerful emotions of craving or hatred, or of indifference to suffering, has done things to cause immense harm to others.

Emotions have a habit of carrying us away. Anger is a particularly corrosive force that eats away at our sense of ethical restraint until it breaks through entirely and we do something we will later regret. Anger hurts us while it’s present in the mind, it hurts others, and the consequences of our acting or speaking out of anger can haunt us for a very long time.

For this reason, the Buddhist meditation tradition encourages us to reflect on the consequences of acting out of anger in order that we begin to weaken its hold over us.

Consciously directed thought can be a powerful tool for developing greater emotional wisdom, and the metta bhavana practice is a direct antidote to anger.

 

Reflections on the Consequences of Anger

Here are some questions and reflections to get you thinking about the disadvantages of anger.

Notice during the day when anger arises in your mind. What happens? Do you imagine yourself speaking hurtful words to another person? Do you imagine yourself acting violently? Do you find yourself actually speaking or acting in a hurtful way?

How does your anger feel inside? What’s the feeling tone? Do you feel a sense of enjoyment as you experience the energy of arousal? Do you perhaps find it painful to be harboring ill will?

What effect do your angry words and actions have on the other person? How do you think they feel inside when you express anger? Imagine that you’re on the receiving end of your own angry words. How would that feel?

What’s it like when you’re around a person who is habitually angry? Do you experience fear? Do you want to avoid that person? Now, what is it like for others to be around us when we’re angry? Anger isolates.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever imagined yourself doing when you’ve been under the sway of intense anger? Have you ever imagined humiliating someone? Hurting someone? Killing someone? Such thoughts are remarkably common, but just think how your life would have been different if your inhibitions had been lowered — perhaps by stress or alcohol — to the point where you had done something terrible.

The next time that you feel angry, pause, and bring your awareness to the heart. Just notice what’s there. If the mind wanders just keep on coming back to the heart. Does your anger change in any way as you do this? Do you notice any other feelings or emotions, like hurt, or sadness? What happens if you stay with those feelings? Often I find that as I stay with my heart the feelings of anger dissipate and may even change into compassion.

When Meditation Stirs Up Ill Will

I had a student write and say that after three years of practicing the mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana practices, with his practice being daily for the previous several months, he’d noticed that he was experiencing an upsurge in anger and irritability. He was naturally concerned about this and he wondered whether this was going to be the shape of things to come.

This is something that I’ve heard from a number of people, and in fact it’s something that I’ve experienced myself.

In writing back to my student I could think of a few things that might have brought about the surges of anger he talked about.

1. The most likely thing, I think, is that he was becoming more aware of his feelings.

Meditating puts us more in touch with ourselves. We’re practicing being aware of the body and of the sensations that arise within in. What happens when we practice any skill is that the parts of the brain responsible for that skill become larger. This gives us a greater ability to do the task related to that area of the brain, which in this case is to detect feeling. In more experiential terms, we feel our feelings more strongly. We become, in a way, more emotional.

Now this means that we experience pleasant feelings more strongly — things like the warm glow we get when we’re being kind. But it also means that we feel our unpleasant feelings more strongly too — such as the inner sense of tension and pressure that indicates frustration.

It’s great when those pleasant feelings happen. But when stronger-than-usual unpleasant feelings arise, we’re not used to them. We don’t know how to handle them. And so we over-react, and find ourselves blowing up.

So what do we do about this?

Well, the parts of the brain the detect feelings have become larger and more active. So we also need to grow the parts of the brain that are responsible for responding to those feelings with kindness and compassion. We need to practice bathing ourselves in kindness. My main advice would be to keep coming back to the experience of “loving eyes” over and over again during the day. Not just during meditation, but every time you remember to.

I’d also suggest the practice of self-compassion. If you’re feeling your feelings more strongly, then you’re feeling painful feelings more strongly. If you’re experiencing painful feelings more strongly, you’re suffering more. And so you need to practice offering yourself emotional support and kindness, especially at times you’re hurting.

We can welcome any painful or uncomfortable feelings into our experience and just sit with them, taking a friendly interest. It’s valuable to locate the sense of hurt in the body, to see exactly where the feelings are situated, and to send kindness there, repeating “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering,” just as if this were a friend who was in pain.

2. Sometimes we enjoy the pleasant feelings that come with kindness, and react with aversion when those feelings are disrupted.

Cultivating kindness feels good. It gives rise to warm, glowing, open feelings. Sometimes can find ourselves in a good mood. That of course is enjoyable.

But what happens when someone does something to disturb our good mood? Sometimes we don’t like this, and we get angry.

One thing to do here is first to distinguish being kind (which is an empathetic intention to cherish the well-being of ourselves and others) from pleasant feelings. Put more emphasis on the former, and less on the latter, and it won’t matter so much if those feelings aren’t there.

Another thing to do is to recognize that feelings come and go. Happiness doesn’t depend on the presence of pleasant feelings. It arises from being at peace (and being kind) whatever we happen to be feeling.

3. There may be some other forms of clinging and attachment going on.

I remember noticing this in my own practice many years ago. I was living in the city at the time and was fairly new to meditation. I really wanted quietness to meditate in, but there was always something going on outside my flat — taxis idling, people fighting, a guy shouting the titles of the newspapers he was selling. When I got disturbed I’d end up getting annoyed because of the frustrated desire for silence that I had, and sometimes I’d have quite violent emotions arising — highly ironic when you’re doing the development of lovingkindness practice!

I had become very attached to having what I thought of as the “right” conditions for meditating.

I found it helpful to put my expectations words so I could become more conscious about the clinging that was going on. This allows you to take the expectation (perhaps something like “I expect it to be quiet when I meditate”) and analyze it to see if it makes sense, and to see what other assumptions might go along with that expectation or underlie it. And you can counter that with a more realistic perspective, perhaps along the lines of, “I live in a place where there’s noise. I can’t expect it to be quiet when I meditate. I can’t control the noise. But I can practice accepting the noise.”

Sometimes these forms of clinging go quite deep. I used to find I had an assumption that that ran like this: “I’m special, and my meditation practice is special, and I expect the world to recognize that.”

Now this kind of assumption seems rather absurd when it’s spoken out loud or written down, which is the whole point of the exercise! Put it into words, and you realize how unrealistic it is. Once you’ve realized the absurdity of the ego’s view of itself it’s a bit easier to find a lighter attitude, laugh at yourself, let go of your expectations more easily, and maybe once again state a more realistic perspective: “I’m not the center of the world. Other people are just doing what they need to do. They don’t know I’m meditating, and even if they did, why should they care? It’s up to mean to learn to be at peace with whatever arises.

So those are a few suggestions as to why one might feel an upsurge in difficult emotions through meditation, and of the kind of things we can do about them.

A Guided Meditation Recording for Self-Hatred

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

There were times years ago when it was simply painful to sit with myself in meditation because I disliked myself so strongly. And that self-hatred would also spill out into my relations with others in the form of intolerance, ill-will, and a preoccupation with judging. Someone who had been practicing quite a lot longer than I had been (I was a relative beginner at the time) suggested that I do a lot more lovingkindness meditation.

So for quite a long time I did the metta bhavana meditation on a daily basis. But somehow even that wasn’t enough, and so I came up with a way of doing the practice that helped me with my self hatred (or low self-esteem, as people call it nowadays).

What I did was to take the first four stages of the practice and apply them to myself. That may seem at first glance like a selfish act, but it wasn’t really. In order to become a more compassionate being I had to learn to live with myself first, and so the question of selfishness doesn’t really arise — in helping myself I was helping everyone around me.

The first stage I did in the normal way — I just wished myself well.

In the second stage of the meditation practice, where we normally cultivate lovingkindness for a friend, I called to mind all the qualities I liked in myself. These were the parts of myself that I was friendly towards. And I’d name these qualities and wish them well.

For example, I respected my own intelligence and so I’d repeat: “May my intelligence be well. May my intelligence be happy. May my intelligence be free from suffering.” I’d do that for the whole of the second stage of the practice, sometimes spending the whole stage on one quality that I appreciated in myself, but more often calling to mind a few different qualities. That seemed to be the most useful way to do the practice — calling to mind as many positive qualities as came to mind. But if I could only think of one thing then I’d wish that part of myself well for the whole 10 minutes or so.

In the third stage, which is generally where we wish a neutral person well, I’d think about qualities that I hadn’t yet developed, and I’d wish those parts of myself well. Those qualities were neutral in the same way as people I haven’t yet met are neutral — they were parts of myself that I hadn’t yet developed a relationship with, just as neutral people are simply people that you haven’t yet established a relationship with. So I might repeat something like, “May my confidence be well. May my confidence be happy. May my confidence be free from suffering.” This stage was pretty easy — there were plenty of qualities that I wanted to develop but didn’t think I had in any great degree. It didn’t matter if I already had the quality to <em>some</em> degree — as long as I felt I needed to develop that part of myself much more than it was developed already then it was suitable for inclusion in this stage.

Sometimes I’d include in the “neutral person” stage qualities of mine that other people had expressed appreciation of but which I didn’t really appreciate much myself. I can’t remember what those were in any great detail, but sometimes someone would tell me that I was friendly, for example, while that wasn’t the way I thought of myself.

In the fourth stage — the stage where we usually cultivate lovingkindness for someone we have difficulty with — I’d call to mind those parts of myself that I didn’t like. I’d say things like “May my ill-will be well. May my ill-will be happy. May my ill-will be free from suffering.” Those qualities were my inner “difficult people.” There was no shortage of these! I found it very beneficial indeed to wish these troublesome parts of myself well. In this stage of the practice some genuine compassion for myself would often emerge.

Lastly, I’d conclude the meditation in the usual way by spreading my well-wishing into the world in wider and wider circles.

So in the middle three stages I was relating to different parts of myself as if they were other people — people I liked, people that were strangers to me, and people I was in conflict with. This seemed to offer a deeper way of working with the practice than the normal first stage, which involved a more general sense of cultivating lovingkindness towards “myself.” It takes that idea of “myself” and deals with it in more detail and deals with it in, I found, a more useful way.

I’ve sometimes suggested when others are afflicted with self-hatred that they take the same approach I did, and so I’m offering up this modified approach to the metta bhavana meditation in the hope that some will find it useful.

129 Comments. Leave new

  • sometimes we have to control our anger and temper but its not good always to hide our feelings

    Reply
  • I’m having some difficulty choosing a ‘difficult person’ to wish well in this stage… I can’t think of anyone with whom I have any significant difficulties right now. Could I pick someone I have had troubles with in the past but am no longer in any contact with?

    Reply
  • Hi Dan,

    That’s absolutely fine!

    All the best,
    Bodhipaksa

    Reply
  • I find it helps to approach the difficult person ‘identity’ as being like me in that they too are human, have problems of their own so maybe there is a reason(s) for them being difficult – maybe other people find me difficult! (At the back of this is my experience of one of the best friends I ever had – we started off hating each other on sight, then a flash of humour broke down the walls..we weren’t so different.)

    Reply
  • […] kindness meditation could be a great place to start for people who suffer from self-hatred, as this practitioner describes. Filed under: Paths and Methods, Emily’s Posts […]

    Reply
  • Most useful powerfull stuff Buddha ever gave us..think its the greatest need of majority people and all the hatred in the world

    Reply
  • Ladio Marismari
    January 6, 2009 10:42 pm

    Or perhaps what we find in the ‘difficult person’ is actually a reflection of one of our less pleasant aspects. A gift from the
    reflection to create the opportunity to deepen our own understanding of ourselves.

    Reply
  • Hi Ladio,

    I agree completely, and in fact I discuss this phenomenon (which is called “psychological projection” in the context of the first stage of the practice. It would make sense for me to write something about this in the fourth stage as well, especially given that people won’t read all the materials on the practice in order.

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  • First, Many many many thanks for this insightful adaptation… I practiced it this morning and it felt quite powerful and am intending to continue with this practice.

    I’d like to share some ideas that came up:

    1. I have adapted the phrasing to “May … enjoy peace of mind and the root of peace-of-mind.”…
    Also… for qualities I that are difficult in me, I phrased it as “May the part of me that suffers from … (say compulsiveness) enjoy peace of mind and the root of peace-of-mind” to disticnt
    a. its a part of me, not all of me, and
    b.it is not the compulsiveness that needs peace of mind but the “suffering from compulsiveness” that needs it. A small, but important shift in my humble opinion…

    2. as an aikido practitioner, I’ve been experimenting with uttering the aspiration both in seated and bowing position (bowing is a part of aikido training), as an act of humility and surrender. it was very grounding for me. But I am unsure if the aspiration is meant to be uttered loudly at all?

    3. I found that once I sincerely aspire, the intention cannot be “held” to long or really meditated about but rather a spaciousness or sense of relief enter and I simply abide in them.

    4. How structured vs. spontaneous should one be, in terms of practising by yourself? I simply let the qualities arise by themselves for each phase (good, neutral, bad). But my tendency to be comprehensive made this meditation very long. When to switch pahses? So, what could I do about this?

    5. I added two more phases-
    an aspiration for “this very observing, meditating mind”;
    followed by an aspiration for “this peaceful mind” to enjoy peace of mind :) (if I was aspiring for happiness I would phrase it as “may this happiness itself enjoy happiness and the root of happiness”). This kind of self reference is common in nondual practices…
    and a final aspiration for my “complete being”, equivalent to “all sentient beings”.

    anyways, much gratitude for this.
    -g

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  • Hello, I’ ve got a small question about the method that is described in this section. I was wondering if instead of using this meditation for self-hatred, do you think I could also use it for fears that I have? So for example in the 4th stage I would then recall my fear for ghosts (i know, this might sound silly, but it’s an actual fear that I have) to mind and wish my fear well. Any help is very much appreciated.

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  • This is a really nice technique, and I appreciate it a lot. Thanx a lot your ways for lovingkindness
    is really helpful.

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  • Today, 8/21/09 I was looking in the web for some thoughts about meditation and self hatred.
    I am having a hard time meditating because the monster of hate – towards myself- is always there. I am greatful to whom ever wrote the article. I will try to put into practice. There is no reference as to whom the author is or when it was written. I would like to know if possible.
    Thank you….. is very painful the war against oneself

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    • Hi Aze,

      I’m glad you found the article helpful, and I hope you take up the metta bhavana practice. Unless otherwise indicated all the articles on this site are my work.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • Studies have shown that positivity is contagious.

    https://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/337/dec04_2/a2338

    The conclusion says: “People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.”

    Reply
  • Thankyou for this, I will try working with it.

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  • In addition to the abovementioned issues, I have experienced sometimes quite strong negative emotions regarding disappointment. Out of the blue, a knowing voice inside tells me that everything I had struggled for (and paid for dearly in terms of wellness, happiness, relationships etc.) was in vain.

    It’s feels easier not to see that kind of things. Of course they should, instead, to be embraced warmly. It’s a lesson worth learning, however hard it feels.

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  • Wow! Yes, it’s a tough thing to realize that we’ve been pursuing goals that weren’t going to work out for us. It’s tempting when that happens to beat ourselves up about it, but of course that’s just another unhelpful pattern that isn’t going to help us. At those times what we need is to have compassion for ourselves, so that we can process our disappointment and move on.

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  • Thank you so much for this meditation! I have come to the point in my meditation where it is painful to meditate and after attending a gnostic class I’m involved with tonight, I knew I had to take a more pro-active approach to see what others have done in this situation.
    I will try this approach. It’s nice to know that others have faced this obstacle and overcome it.
    Thank you!

    Reply
  • Thank you …… its very helpful how you suggest using metta bhavana meditation .. also the comment on fear as well …. just today precisely this insight comes in at right moment ……

    namaste

    aze

    Reply
  • I found this a very useful,helpful article.Much appreciation,from the bottom of my heart
    Thankyou !

    Reply
  • this is really nice :-)

    Reply
  • William Brownings
    March 13, 2011 11:06 am

    Thank you for this article. I arrived at your page because I have recently had the realisation of my own self hatred. It’s always been there of course but now I’m staring it right in the face and of course it has really disturbed me, and yes I have been having a negative reaction to ths negativity.

    But today I feel a sense of relief that I have arrived at this place and I am now beginning to explore the ideas that lay behind this self-hatred.

    I do the metta bhavana about every other day but recently it simply has stopped working, so I am going to try your suggestion here. Thank you once again for your practicle advice.

    Reply
  • After practicing meditation, I feel I have become silent and withdrawn. I am not the usual self as I was before. I think twice before I speak and rather keep quiet so that I do not offend the other. I feel peaceful but all that bubbly attitude of mine has somehow been lost. I do not try to become over friendly as I used to be but my family life is peaceful. Why do we get detached from friends and about the world around us?

    Reply
    • Hi Fiona.
      There can be various things going on. You don’t say what kind of meditation you’re doing, but it’s helpful if mindfulness meditation is balanced with lovingkindness meditation, so that we stay in touch with our emotions and maintain our sensitivity to others. It can also be the case that there’s some inadvertent repression going on, where you’re forcing your attention onto one aspect of your experience (such as the breath) and ignoring your emotional side. And sometimes people’s relations with others can be tinged with things like a fear-based desire to impress or to be liked, and if that vanished we have to recalibrate our personal relationships. Certainly, I don’t think it’s at all inherent in meditation that we cut off from other people or the world around us. Long-term meditators have been shown to be more empathetic and more compassionate, so I’d suggest that what you’re experiencing is just a temporary phase. My main recommendation would be just to keep going, to pay more attention to your feelings and emotions during meditation, and to make sure you alternate mindfulness practice with lovingkindness meditation.

      Reply
    • It is a temporary phase of silence and detachment kind of feeling. It is like resting period after surgery. I have lived all this, just relax, in few months … you will be back to your bubbly attitude with a flavor of wisdom which you got from meditation.

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  • This is a really useful article. I’ve been following a Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield, which I find very insightful, but I’ve been finding that I just can’t connect with loving kindness meditation. I don’t have a problem feeling positive towards others, but find judgement and negativity creeping in when I try to apply loving kindness to myself, or sometimes not even that, just blankness and disconnectedness from what the meditation is asking me to wish and feel for myself. I will try your approach, it seems like it might be useful for breaking through these blocks.
    Many thanks,
    Daisy

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    • Hi, Daisy.

      I hope you find this approach helpful.

      One language thing I try to watch out for: instead of saying “I can’t connect with lovingkindness meditation,” try saying “I haven’t yet found a way to connect with lovingkindness meditation.” It’s a much less limiting way of talking, that implicitly recognizes the possibility of change, while “I can’t” represent a very tight and limited form of self view.

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  • In my opinion, there is no concrete thing or emotion called loving kindness that we are supposed to find and then direct towards ourselves. When I sit in meditation and aim to resist as little as possible and let things come and go, this, to me, is more loving and kind than anything. it is full acceptance of the thoughts, emotions and sensations that make up “myself” rather than pushing parts of myself away or trying to change something.

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    • You’re right; metta isn’t a thing. It’s a quality of relationship. But its much more than simple acceptance or non-resistance. It’s an active emotion of well-wishing towards oneself and others.

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  • Another thing I would say to Daisy. you talk about “breaking blocks”. What are those blocks but parts of your psyche and mind at that moment? So why are you trying to break them?

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  • This is very traditional language, Katy. The Buddha talked of certain mental states as being fetters (samyojanas) and hindrances (nivaranas). Fetters and hindrances are mental habits, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly unhelpful, at least initially, and for most people, in talking about “breaking habits” or “breaking fetters.” Sometimes we even have to use a degree of force to overcome a particular mental state. But that doesn’t necessarily imply unkindness toward ourselves, or suggest that ill will toward our blocks is useful. We have to learn patience and equanimity for them even as we dismantle them.

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  • Thanks Bodhipaksa, it’s funny, I spend most of my day thinking really carefully about how I speak to others as part of my job (I work with Offenders with Learning Disabilities), but I don’t always give the same level of consideration to how I talk to and about myself.
    Thanks also Katy, for your comments. I think what I mean by blocks is really an unwillingness that I have felt to open myself to the experience of lovingkindness or to have the equanimity to accept how I am feeling at the particular moment, rather than grasping at an ideal of how it should feel.

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  • Hi Bodhipaksa / Daisy

    Yeah, it’s really hard to get the balance between acceptance of what is, and acceptance that something has to change! Reminds me of that saying that all humans are perfect just as they are but could do with some polishing. i’m paraphrasing there but you get the idea :-)

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  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    First of all, thank you for the wealth of information you, and others, have provided on this wonderful website.

    I have been practicing mindful breathing and metta meditation for about 6 months now. The reason I am writing is that I don’t think I can achieve this and, consequently, the next stage of metta, and I was hoping that you (or another reader) could please offer some help to me.

    I suffer from severe PTSD due to an abusive childhood, and an extremely abusive relationship.
    I was emotionally, physically and sexually abused and I can not bring myself to offer any compassion to those who tormented me, and beat and raped me hundreds of times.
    I can not forgive them for the agony they have wrought upon my existence and soul.
    It was hard enough after such demeaning and self-shattering abuse, starting from my earliest memories, to be able to develop metta for my self. But, most of all, I find that I don’t WANT to wish these people well.

    The people who did this to me did not suffer from Anti-Social PD, evidenced by the fact they were/are capable of remorse about other things in their lives (they also lack most other symptoms), so I can not let mental illness be a reason for what they did and develop metta for them as ill people. And I feel that I can not use the development of metta towards them to help reduce my own prejudices, as you say at the end of the article, because the only prejudices I have developed because of them is against rapists, paedophiles, and child and spousal abusers.

    I don’t wish them harm, I don’t care enough about them to do so, but I honestly feel that I can’t offer metta to them.

    Does this mean I will be forever unable to move forward with my metta meditation? Am I always going to be stuck at the Neutral Person stage? Is there another way forward that you could suggest, please?
    I really want to continue to progress with this as it has brought me such wonderful benefits so far, especially regarding my PTSD symptoms, and my appreciation for the world and all the small wonders within it.

    Thank you kindly,
    Teeb

    Reply
  • Hi, Teeb.

    I’m very sorry to hear about what you went through. It’s terrible that people cause such pain.

    I don’t think there’s any question that you can move on with your lovingkindness practice. Apart from anything else, there are presumably other “difficult” people that you can develop lovingkindness for.

    But I have a few suggestions. First is simply recognizing that any anger you have hurts you, and taking that into account. As someone said, resentment is like swallowing rat poison in the hope that the rat will die. You don’t have to feel any love for the people who hurt you, but feeling hatred is only going to hurt you, and not affect them in the slightest.

    Another suggestion is in dealing with hurt. I’d imagine you find yourself experiencing pain, and this can be very unpleasant and even crippling at times. I’ve found it’s valuable to recognize pain when it arises (even when it’s accompanied by anger), to locate the pain in my body, and to wish it well. Treat the pain as if it’s someone else. Wish it well: ‘May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.” I find that when I do this, my mind becomes much less troubled. Pain becomes manageable, and the mind doesn’t get into anger, resentment, depression, etc.

    A third suggestion is to think about exactly what it is you’re wishing when you wish that someone who hurt you be well. You’re not wishing that they simply go blithely on with their lives, with no thought of the consequences of their actions. You’re not wanting them to be let off the karmic hook. What you are wishing is that they become more human: that they develop the qualities of empathy and conscience that make it impossible for them to act unkindly toward others. You’re wishing, in effect, that they develop metta.

    You can take or leave all my suggestions, of course…

    Reply
  • Thank you for taking the time to reply to me.

    I have been offering metta to less “difficult” people, but I thought before I could move on I had to be able to offer it to all the difficult people that have been in my life, so I could include them when I offer metta to all sentient beings.
    Am I mistaken?
    I tried to move on to Stage 5 but I always felt a whisper in my heart and mind that would say, “except for them” (i.e. the people who abused me – and I also found this whisper spreading to other rapists and abusers, and to murderers, tyrants, those violently supporting dictators/hips etc).
    I thought this meant I wasn’t ready to, or capable of, offer metta to all sentient beings yet.

    Although I have been practicing for a while I have had to take it very slowly to avoid flash-backs and my illness relapsing, so I still very much consider myself to be a beginner.

    With regards to your statements about hate, I don’t think I was very clear in my last post. I don’t have much hate for the people who did these things to me. Like many people who suffer with PTSD I have “internalised” my hatred and focussed it on myself. Speaking psychologically, it is very common for the victim, particularly women, to blame and hate themselves for what happened (men tend to “externalised” by lashing out at loved ones). This is one of the things I am working to change with metta and self-compassion – learning to love myself through my love of others, as I care about my friends very deeply.
    Learning that none of it was my fault and that I have no reason to hate myself has been, and still is, hard work, and I believe it may take a long time to overcome fully.
    As such, when I read the article you wrote about resentment (which I enjoyed reading, thank you for the link) I could see more of how I think of myself rather than of my abusers, especially in Nos. 4, 5 and 6 – although I was quite keen on applying No. 12 to myself :)

    I have been practising locating emotions within my physical body and it is fantastic advice to anyone out there who is in a similar position to me! I can not encourage people enough to try this simple technique!
    I’ve only been doing it for a couple of weeks and already I am noticing improvements in my levels of anxiety, panic and fear.
    When I do it I also notice the emotion’s location, shape, colour, density and texture. I get to know it physically, like a new and strange, but somehow cute, animal – watching with a curious and sometimes gently amused interest.

    I think I understand what you are saying about offering metta to those who hurt me (and I think it would also apply to other people my mind whispers of).
    If these people were to have metta within themselves, and consequently compassion, empathy and love, then they wouldn’t be able to do such terrible things – and it would also mean they could never do to others what they did to me. By wishing metta FOR them it would also be a way of protecting others from them, and protecting them from themselves. Have I understood you correctly?
    If so, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it like that, but it makes perfect sense to me. If everyone had metta in their hearts and minds the world would be a safe and peaceful place where all could live with ease.

    Finally, this may be a foolish question, but if I were to wish metta for my abusers (and others, as mentioned) wouldn’t I be wishing pain upon them, because if they became compassionate, open and insightful wouldn’t they feel pain, guilt, shame and perhaps even horror at their actions?
    Isn’t that the opposite of what offering metta is supposed to achieve? Or is it more complicated than that and I just haven’t learnt the truth and depth of it yet? As I said, I really am a beginner, truly just starting out on this path.

    Sorry this was such a long post, and thank you again for your kindness in taking the time to reply and offer advice to me.
    Best wishes,
    Teeb

    Reply
  • Hi, Teeb.

    I’m glad you find that practice of locating feelings in the body and sending them lovingkindness useful. It’s the core of my practice, these days. I love the description of them as being like a “new and strange, but somehow cute, animal.”

    Yes, you didn’t say much last time about what was actually going on for you. It makes sense that you have internalized your anger. And actually that practice of locating feelings in the body and sending them lovingkindness is very useful for that. It’s so important to recognize our suffering, and to have compassion for it.

    You bring up an amazingly interesting question at the end! If you’re wishing that someone be a fully human being, equipped with a conscience, then yes, they’re going to suffer. I’ve seen this with prison inmates I’ve worked with, who have had to come to terms with what they’ve done. They’ve had to drop all their defense mechanisms and accept the pain of having hurt another human being. And it hurts like hell. But that kind of suffering is just part of the package deal of being (or becoming) an ethical human being. And in the long run it’s more enriching and satisfying, because it opens up the possibility of a truly meaningful life, and of experiencing genuine love and compassion.

    In effect you’re wishing the whole package deal for the other person, not specifically so that they’ll experience the suffering part of it, but so that in the long term they’ll be a happier and more loving person, and not hurt themselves or others.

    Usually, lovingkindness practice is not as analytical as this. Really what you’re wishing is that someone become happier through becoming more ethically aware and compassionate. The emphasis is on the positive that you wish for them. But the other stuff is there, as kind of a shadow.

    I’m very grateful you asked that question.

    Reply
  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    I’m glad you like my description of emotions :)
    I find anxiety/panic to be the cutest; it’s a small, brilliant white sparkly ball in my sternum, but it’s so fearful it tries to spread and make itself bigger by sending its sparkles to other parts of my body. It reminds me of when my cats try to make themselves look big.

    Thank you for answering my last question and settling my rather over-analytical mind.

    I just received your CD “Guided Meditations: For Calmness, Awareness, and Love.” I managed to go through all the stages of metta, using a much less “difficult” person and, thanks to your advice here, I managed to do stage 5 without any intrusive “except them” thoughts.
    As the metta section was winding up I did feel an immense sadness touching my heart because of the amount of suffering and injustice in the world, so it was exactly what I needed to hear when, at the end, you said cultivating positive emotions was a rare and precious thing and that the listener should appreciate their efforts. It’s as if you pre-empted the sadness the listener might feel.
    I must admit that I wasn’t expecting a posh Edinburgh accent – I had to check your bio to make sure I was right! Your voice is lovely and perfect for guided meditations, it isn’t harsh, commanding or strongly accented, which I personally find distracting at best and annoying and aggravating at worst.
    I’m sure I’ll be using this CD for a while – it’s just what I needed as it helped to keep me focussed and stopped the nagging worry after my session that I wasn’t doing things “correctly.”

    So I wanted to say thank you for your website, which started my meditation journey, thank you for your CD, and thank you for the advice you have given me here. Since I began meditating I’ve noticed that I am sometimes cheerful and I am experiencing moments of serenity and contentment in daily life. I never thought I’d ever feel these emotions again.
    It’s going to be a long and painful journey, probably with many set-backs and relapses, but I think I might now be ready and prepared for it.

    May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be at peace, and may you be free from suffering.

    With gratitude and best wishes,
    Teeb

    Reply
  • Hi, Teeb.

    Your metta practice has entered the zone of karuna (compassion) practice, which is where we simply cultivate lovingkindness with an awareness of suffering. It’s quite natural for this to happen, and it’s not possible or desirable to try to stop it. Compassion can have that “sad” tinge to it, but that’s not a bad thing. Sadness may be an uncomfortable emotion, but it’s not a negative one.

    I’m from Fife, actually, right next door to Edinburgh, although I don’t have a typical Fife accent, ye ken? I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly posh! I certainly don’t come from a posh background…

    Anyway, thanks for your thanks! I’m always delighted when I hear that my work has been beneficial to someone.

    All the best to you in your journey of healing and growth.
    Bodhipaksa

    Reply
  • First of all, thank you for this idea. Poke me to try it. This may be useful for me, since my feelings of self-aggression directly affect my meditation, since I take joy in making myself unhappy. The mindfulness meditation can serve as fodder for my self-aggressive ego to attack myself, pointing out how bad I am when I become mindful of my flaws. The daily meditation is just time to sit and criticize how bad at concentrating or how bad at being compassionate I am. It feels good to do this, or I wouldn’t do it.

    Should I show lovingkindness to this inner abuser? Hope that it gets happy? It already is! Who should I wish happy?? The victim, the very person doing the abusing? Maybe to other people who made me this way, where the root of the problem occurred when I was not mindful. And what is the distinction between mindfulness and lovingkindness, in essence? Can you be kind to someone without being mindful? Can you be mindful of your inner state without being kind to yourself? This may be why some people practice metta before practicing mindfulness meditation?

    Also, the distinction between self and other is not so solid. States of attachment and aversion can arise for people “outside” of yourself as well as for “beings” or personalities within. In general I have difficulty maintaining a friendly while neutral attitude, which, in daily life and in meditation, is the preferred way of dealing with obstacles to attaining stillness. Maybe you have to start somewhere. If you just show unconditional peaceful kindness to your breath, to your anger, to sounds in the environment, and to other living beings you appreciate or resent, then you are on the way to equanimity and peace? Or is there more to it than that?

    I hope you see how confused I am. If I weren’t confused, I wouldn’t need to ask for advice. Or maybe the problem is I am not confused enough. Can someone please unlearn me? Sorry, I was holding all of this in. Here goes, “Submit”. (If any of this is divisive: please don’t believe a word I say!!)

    Reply
  • To be very direct, Carlos, why don’t you stop finding excuses not to practice, and just practice?

    Reply
  • Okay, here is a direct answer:

    “I believe that I am incapable of practising meditation and self-control because I believe I am too stupid to do so and this gives me a sense of comfort.”

    Honesty: 90%

    Reply
    • Notice that inner voice that says, or implies, that you’re stupid and incapable, and give it a name. I call mine “Heinrich.” When I become aware that my inner critic is talking, I just say “Thanks, Heinrich” in a friendly, tolerantly amused manner. I’d suggest you do the same. There’s no point setting up a fight with yourself. If you fight with yourself, how can you win?

      Reply
  • Thanks for the tip. I agree that I can’t win in fighting myself, because fighting strengthens fighting, which is what I am trying to end.

    But as for calling the voice a name, I think I’ll try calling it “solraC” because this is really “me” criticizing myself, but a different “me”. And when you say “tolerantly amused”, is that like belittling the voice, honouring it, or just openly accepting it as it is?

    I tried this morning doing the 5 phase lovingkindness meditation, towards others and not myself. But every time I found myself distracted (often by thoughts that were criticizing or doubting myself, others, the practice, and my teachers), I said to the “voice”, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you live with ease.” This is the opposite of how I usually react when I realize I have been distracted for a whole minute, which is basically to start ranting even more about how I can’t concentrate or what to do about it until I realize again I’m not focused on the object. I think it sort of worked, because I felt more peaceful and happier than usual after the meditation. Is this the sort of attitude we should have towards our voice when we find ourselves distracted? Or should it be more neutral?

    Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    • Solrac sounds like a good name.

      I think we need to be gentle but firm with these voices. They lie to us. But they’re not really malicious — they actually come from parts of ourselves that believe we’ll be safer and happier if we never succeed at anything. In a way they want us to be happy, but are clueless. So they’re misguided, and not very smart. But I don’t think in terms of belittling, and certainly not honoring. Yes, we have to accept that this inner voice is there, and that it’s not helpful, and that arguing with it isn’t going to get us anywhere. It’s like the drunk uncle who shows up at family gatherings and sits in a corner making racist comments — you just say, “Oh, yeah, it’s him,” but the kindest thing is otherwise to ignore him. Be kind, but don’t engage.

      I think the metta practice you did towards your inner critic is good. I’ve done that kind of thing myself. The practice above is more for when you’re in the middle of daily activities and thoughts pop up. You can stop them from gaining a foothold just bay saying, “Hi, Solrac. Thanks for your input!”

      Reply
  • I think you’re right about being gentle but firm. But sometimes the “voice” is right. It might say, “my mind is not steady on the breath” or “I am clumsy”. And it’s right! And sometimes it says, “I am going to die today”, or, “I deserve to be used”, and it’s wrong. So I can see that in the first case I should say, “Thanks, Solrac, you are right.” But in the second case, what should I say? “Thanks for your input, Solrac”?

    And what should I do with feelings that are not voices, like addictive cravings, irrational fears, feelings of ill will? Where do you draw the line and say, “sorry, this is not allowed”? I could say, “thanks but no thanks” or “Desire, may you be happy”, but desire has a way of tricking us. It presents us with mental advertisements of what we think will happen if and when we give into it. It then says, “see how good this is? you will do this ASAP”. Can we use metta to accept and pacify these urges?

    Thanks again. I think this knowledge can really free and empower some of us who struggle with self-hate.

    Reply
    • I wasn’t saying that you should treat every thought as if it’s a self-critical thought. Treat self-critical thoughts as self-critical thoughts.

      Where do you draw the line and say, “sorry, this is not allowed”? We can learn which thoughts are supportive of wellbeing and which aren’t. Traditionally this is described as “right view” (samma ditthi), and it requires mindfulness (samma sati).

      Desire and other emotional states do have a way of tricking us, and there’s no way to instantly prevent them from fooling us. But you can also use mindfulness and metta to deal with them. Over time they become less active. You can notice them, but not act them out (at least sometimes). These emotions aren’t separate from your thoughts, though. They manifest as thoughts: “Oh, what I really need is … just one more … what’s the harm … I’ll stop tomorrow.”

      Reply
  • Hi,
    I have difficulty in finding a person for the fourth stage of loving kindness meditation. I don’t have anyone with whom I have difficulty with, on a continued basis except an uncle whom I don’t even want to think about. However, I do get upset or frustrated with someone on some days. So, I guess I could include them on those days when I’m upset with them. I don’t know how I could find someone for the fourth stage on a day to day basis. I would appreciate it if you could give me some suggestions.
    Thanks,
    Jayashree

    Reply
    • You’re doing the right thing by choosing to focus on people you happen to be frustrated with. These can even be friends or other people we care for…

      I often find that I think of people I had problems with in the past. Even though there may be no current feelings of ill will, the memories of those people are connected in the mind with experiences of pain and ill will. You may be going back years, but that’s not a problem.

      Reply
  • Hello Bodhipaksa,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It was one of the first results of my google search “Buddhism and self hatred,” which I typed in after an extremely painful session on the cushion this morning (not unlike as you describe).

    I’ve been binge eating and over-eating to numb my feelings just about every day for about a year and a half now and would like to confess that is the #1 reason why I practice some form of meditation daily at present– I’ve heard it can help. I wish I could say my practice were more admirably motivated and feel ashamed/inferior in the meditating community, like an approval-seeking liar, untruthful about why I’m here (“maybe I’m just selfish”). Not loving myself, feeling betrayed and disgusted by my own body, it is hard and at times downright impossible to be kind to myself, others, or to my innocent (however freaking annoying) cat… and when I sat for twenty minutes today I felt like I was holding on for dear life.

    I’ve tried metta before but it hasn’t seemed to break down the walls of ill-will. I don’t know that it will. But, I will give your approach a shot.

    Sincere thanks and best wishes,
    R. Ted

    Reply
  • You’re welcome, R. Ted. You might want to start with cultivating lovingkindness for the pain that you feel around this topic. I wrote a couple of posts that touch on how this works. This one’s about anger, but it’s applicable. I also touch on it in this post on anxiety.

    You also might want to look for a mindfulness-based eating program, which can help you with your issues around food. Many hospitals are now offering these.

    Reply
  • Item #3 mentioned above has been happening to me quite a bit. I feel that if only there was silence around me, I could make some progress…

    Reply
    • It’s great that you’ve identified what’s going on, because that will help you to work with the situation. You can now think of progress in terms of learning to be at peace with the noise around you, and you can work on developing peace by using any sounds that are present as an object of mindfulness. Mindfulness is mindfulness, whatever it’s mindfulness of. Mindfulness of sounds is mindfulness, just as much as mindfulness of the breathing. So see if you can just allow the sounds to be there, letting go of any reactive thinking that arises. And let the sounds be part of your awareness, just as much as the breathing or other sensations from the body.

      Reply
  • I have being meditating for a month now for about 40 minutes twice a day. I have being feeling good most of the time. however, sometimes i felt like some negative emotions were raising to surface like anxiety or sadness. I try to see those emotions without identifing with them and being aware that it is part of the meditative process. especially for people that approach the meditation for the first time. The motto for me is to continue meditating untill i feel better! Blockages of negative emotions needs to be cleaned up! Practice may be the keyword.

    Reply
    • Omg I am feeling so sad and depressed and wasn’t sure why since I have started chakra I’m doing the root chakra

      Reply
  • Blessing Bodhipaksa,

    I have returned to this site inspired by what I first read here a while ago.
    I am in a state of confusion that often leads to self-hatred and anxiety. I have stopped reading a lot of Buddhist tests becuase the mind reacts as a judge when I am not following what the authors says. How many minds do we have? If there are several parts of me (the aze that is critical, the aze that is generous, ect) is there a aze mind that is accepting and at ease and another that is terribly demanding of perfection? I wish I had access to a teacher but I don;t so my learning is by reading and listening. Lately my mind is like a watch dog looking for anything I do wrong (who is that I?). The pain is the confusion that leads to fear and anxiety and the exhaustion of attending a mind that behaves like a unruly child. There is judgment to everything I do or don’t . During that time my mind “rebels and says: “don’t dare to pretend to be friendly to me because I know you don’t mean it “( mind as if I was trying to fool it)
    Forgive if I am not clear but I am not. I am trying to untangle this mind process that makes me suffer a lot. How can I love my mind(s)
    Thank you so much for reading.
    with metta
    aze

    Reply
    • Hi, Aze.

      The confusion you describe is unfortunately very common.

      You’ve correctly spotted that our brains, and therefore our minds, are modular. And not all parts of the brain/mind play well together. And sometimes parts of the brain/mind that are critical/defensive are most evident. It is possible to train the mind to be more appreciative and less critical. This takes time, of course, but it’s well worth doing, because of the sense of peace and wholeness it brings. So you might want to start with lovingkindness meditation, and you might also find some of Rick Hanson‘s articles useful.

      The repeated question you ask — “who is that I?” — is a very valuable one. You can realize that you don’t have to identify with those critical parts of yourself. When these parts of yourself are “observed” then there is another less critical “you” who is doing the observing. That in itself is a huge step forward. You can notice the critical thoughts and recognize that they are just thoughts, not facts. And you don’t have to take them seriously.

      Reply
  • Thank you Bodhipaksa for your generosity in responding.
    Is so easy to forget that our experiences our not unique!
    While I practice loving-kindness for all sentient beings, it brings tranquility to remember that I am not alone feeling what I feel.
    Mind aspects are difficult to understand . Perhaps we have the added believe of “Losing our minds” and that the diversity of mind leads to madness. I truly believe this is a subject that needs a lot of exploration and explanation to help students.
    With Metta,
    aze

    Reply
  • Thanks. I’ll use this on bad days when self-metta is hard to come by.

    Reply
  • I am fairly new to meditation. When I try loving kindness and direct it to myself I find a lot of sad feelings arise, particularly as I picture myself as a young child. It can make me tearful and ache in my heart. Do you have any advice on what this means and how to deal with it?

    Reply
  • Hi, Rebecca.

    I don’t think there’s any need to explore what it means. There’s sadness there, and that’s simply a fact to be dealt with. I’d suggest just allowing the sadness to be there, and meeting it with kindness. Imagine when you’re meeting your sadness that you’ve actually meeting a dear friend who is sad. The main things are to be a loving presence for your friend, to be accepting (“it’s OK to feel sad” rather than “Snap out of it”), and to show kindness in your attitude and even in words. So you can, as you pay mindful attention to your sadness, say to the sadness, “May you be well; may you be happy” as we do in lovingkindness practice.

    Reply
  • How to work with repetition of thoughts ,overseansitivity to happenings of the day, mind chattering during meditation. also at time pain and hurt is felt anatomically around left side of brain at times seems to be prints of old sanskara, or overreaction to hurt pain has left some prints or chemical changes in brain.

    Reply
    • Hi, Raj.

      Start with the mind-chattering during meditation. It’s just a normal part of experience. Notice the thoughts. Let go of them and return to the breathing If you’re judging yourself for “not meditating well” then let go of those thoughts and return to the breathing. Do that a thousand times, a million times. You’ll start to feel calmer and more patient, even if there is still thinking going on. This patience will spill over into your daily life.

      If there’s pain, just notice the sensations of the pain in the same way. It’s just a sensation. Notice it. Let go of any thoughts about it. If you’re familiar with lovingkindness practice, then send your pain thoughts of lovingkindness: may you be well, may you be happy.

      Reply

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