100 Days of Lovingkindness

Cocooned in lovingkindness (Day 13)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We’re almost two weeks into this 100 Days of Lovingkindness, but even after just five or six days the quality of my experience was radically different from usual.

I’ve felt considerably happier than I normally do. Blissfully happy, often. I’ve been much more patient with my children. I’ve been buffered from things that would normally press my buttons. I’ve been cocooned in lovingkindness.

To give you an example, last week I dropped my beloved iPad mini as I was putting it into my bag to head to work. I didn’t notice until I actually arrived at the office, but there was a huge crack right across the screen. Normally I’d feel sick about something like this, partly because the device is something I enjoy using and I’d hate to see it marred, and partly because the repair bill on something like that is very high. But when I saw that the screen was cracked I just thought, “Oh, well” and continued with my day. I had no sense of being upset by it at all.

Another example: last night I came down with a migraine, having had a headache building all day. I’d just been spending too much time on the computer — all these 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts! — and hadn’t been taking enough breaks or being careful enough about my posture. So I had a horrible headache and waves of nausea flooding my body. And my wife was away for the evening so I had to put the kids to bed. After they were asleep I went to lie down in bed and started to turn toward the pain. I noticed these pulses of pain and waves of nausea, and sent them lovingkindness. And then to my surprise I found that I was experiencing a powerful sense of joy, and even had waves of pleasurable energy (pīti) flowing up and down my back. That’s not something I’ve ever experienced with a migraine before, although I have had them diminish or vanish entirely when I’ve meditated with them.

And the surprising thing is that it’s not like I’ve been doing anything like retreat-level amounts of meditation. I’ve been doing perhaps a bit more than 90 minutes of meditation (including some walking metta bhavana) on a good day, and only 30 minutes on my busier days.

My life hasn’t been 100% positive. I felt a bit irritable yesterday as the migraine was building, although by the time it was a full-blown attack I was no longer feeling that way. Early in the day the irritability flared up a little when one person online responded to me with what I saw as passive-aggressive communication, and when another couple of people seemed to be taking pleasure in seeing a child being humiliated, but I decided just to extricate myself from those conversations and not look back. It was easy to let go of my irritable thoughts.

On the whole it’s been one of the most joyful periods I’ve had in my life, outside of some retreat experiences.

Partly this is due, no doubt, to consistency of practice. By the time you read this I’ll have done 199 continuous days of meditation, and just before 100 Days of Lovingkindness began we’d finished the 100 Day Meditation Challenge. I think that really “primed the pumps” emotionally.

What’s really surprised me, though, is that I normally make an effort to be mindful in daily life. Mindfulness has a buffering effect on us, too. And I’ve been putting no more effort into practicing and developing lovingkindness than I usually put into practicing and developing mindfulness. So I can only conclude that lovingkindness practice brings about a much greater degree of emotional resiliency than mindfulness practice alone. Although it’s not a very fitting analogy, you get more “bang for your buck.”

I’m guessing that the reason for this is that mindfulness is like hoeing your garden and keeping it weed free, while lovingkindness is like planting seeds and growing flowers. It’s not enough simply to prevent negative states from arising, you need to cultivate the positive. I know this, of course. I’ve known it for a long time. But it’s very rewarding to see this truth illustrated in my own life.

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Kindfulness of breathing (Day 12)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Do you find it a bit much doing lovingkindness practice every day? Do you feel the need to stay in balance by doing other practices, like mindfulness of breathing? I don’t blame you!

In our last special project, which was to meditate for 100 days (the 100 Day Meditation Challenge) we got about a week into it and then I realized I’d become a bit clearer about the intention behind the challenge. It’s happened again!

Someone wrote in our Google+ Community (a place where people are sharing their experiences of participating in 100 Days of Lovingkindness and giving each other support and encouragement) saying that she was getting a bit bored by doing only one practice, and losing her focus and awareness.

And this reminded me that when I’m teaching people meditation I always encourage them to alternate the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness practices. The two practices are complimentary: mindfulness of breathing brings clarity, calmness, and a better perception of what’s going on within us. Lovingkindness practice helps us to be more patient and forgiving with ourselves as we do this, and to be kinder toward whatever experiences we find. It’s like having a left and a right leg; you can make good progress by hopping on one leg, but it gets rather tiring after a while.

Lotus, isolated on whiteIn presenting this opportunity to focus on lovingkindness practice for 100 days, I didn’t have in mind either that people would do nothing but lovingkindness meditations, or that they would be able to sustain doing two full-length sits every day. So the suggestion was that in order to honor our commitment to daily lovingkindness practice we’d do a minimum of five minutes of seated practice. Now this could be five minutes of lovingkindness before doing mindfulness of breathing or (and this will make more sense for many people) do five minutes after.

But why limit yourself? You could do three minutes at the start and two at the end. Or you could (if you’re doing the four stage version) do a minute of lovingkindness at the start of each stage and one at the end. Or you could simply blend the two practices, by cultivating a loving gaze, and observing your breathing throughout the practice in that kindly way. I’m inventing the terms “Breathingkindness” and “Kindfulness of Breathing” to describe this approach to meditation.

It’s certainly not helpful, and completely contrary to the spirit of metta, to be rigid with ourselves. Although some kind of commitment to practice is vital, the attitude with which we do that practice is vital. It has to be kind, patient, and forgiving.

[Read the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Guardian angel meditation (Day 11)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

You know when you’re sitting on a subway and there’s someone sitting directly opposite? It’s kind of awkward — all that trying not to make eye contact, and those embarrassing moments when we get caught looking at them…

There’s something of this sometimes in the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) meditation practice. It’s not so bad with the friend, since you’re used to making eye contact with them, but even there is can feel a bit odd to be mentally “sitting opposite” them for ten minutes or so. It’s just not very natural, is it? It’s rather stilted.

For quite a while now, I’ve been doing the lovingkindness practice in a different way. For one thing I’ve been imagining the other person not as being statically opposite me, but as going about their daily business. I might visualize my friend working on his computer, or practicing the piano, or doing some gardening. The “neutral person” I might see working at their counter in the post office…

It’s not that I have one ongoing movie, by the way. It’s more a series of fragmented images. That seems to be enough.

So that’s step one.

Step two is that I see myself as an invisible presence. I’m that person’s guardian angel, wishing them well.

I sometimes will imagine that I’m laying a hand on them in a loving touch, and sending my love into their body as I say “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at peace.” Sometimes I’ll imagine that there’s light streaming from my body to theirs as I repeat the phrases. Sometimes I’ll just see the person “doing their thing” and repeat the phrases.

Usually I’ll smile.

I think I got the idea from the Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire (Himmel Ãœber Berlin) where invisible angels patrol the city of Berlin, touching people and feeling their pain, although in the movie this is rather depressing and you don’t get the impression that they actually alleviate much suffering.

But I like the idea. We all are familiar with the idea of guardian angels, but we usually think in terms of having one. I think it’s even lovelier to think in terms of being one.

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Smile your way to kindness (Day 10)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Look at a statue or painting of the Buddha. You’ll usually find that he’s smiling. And one thing that can help us find a friendly attitude is adopting a smile, even when we don’t feel like it.

I think pretty much everyone now knows that smiling affects our physiology and how we feel. One study, for example, got people to hold chopsticks in their teeth in a way that created an artificial smile. The participants didn’t actually know that they were smiling, and yet their physiology changed. They were able to recover more quickly from stressful situations than non-smiling participants, and had lower heart rates. They were literally able to “grin and bear it.”

Similar studies have shown that people who are smiling (even in this artificial way and without knowing it) find funny cartoons funnier, experience more pleasure when looking at faces (even if the faces look unhappy), and have their mood boosted. The effects on mood are most pronounced with people who are self-conscious — which usually equates to being self-critical.

One thing I’ve noticed that smiling does for me is to convey a sense of kindness to any part of my experience that I happen to be focusing on. When I smile as I pay attention to my body, or part of my body — especially to a part of my body that’s tense or in pain — or to a feeling of discomfort, it’s as if I’m sending a signal saying “It’s OK. Everything’s OK. Sure, there’s pain, but we can do this.” Smiling allows us to communicate reassurance to ourselves.

Smiling conveys confidence, and confidence is, as I pointed out a few days ago, related to our ability to have goodwill toward others. When we lack confidence we tend to assume that we can’t have an effect on others, or even that we can only have a negative effect on others. It takes confidence to think that our kindness matters.

When I smile, I feel that my heart softens. In fact everything in the world around me seems to soften. Smiling conveys benevolence. Research shows that when we smile, people judge us less harshly; smiling helps others to feel more benevolent. And it certainly helps us to feel more benevolent as well. The Buddha, as he smiles in those statues, is showing not just happiness, but benevolent compassion and love for all beings. When you smile as you wish another person well, you’ll feel more kindness toward them.

One lovely thing about smiling in meditation is that it can spark off a feedback loop where smiling makes you happier and being happier makes you smile. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

So smiling is an easy thing to do, it’s effective, and it’s free! That seems like something to smile about!

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“For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” (Day 9)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Yesterday I discussed what “well” means when we say “May you be well.” It’s not as straightforward as “physical health.” Today I’d like to talk about what “happy” means when we say “May you be happy.” Again this isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

I was prompted to think about this because of questions people had about the recent bombings at the Boston marathon, and what it means to cultivate lovingkindness for the bomber or bombers. But this applies to many of the people we find difficult, and whom we bring into the fourth stage of the metta bhavana practice.

One person commented that some of the people he finds difficult are destructive and “cause problems for those around them, and inflict pain on others, in family or work contexts.”

So naturally we wouldn’t want them to go around wreaking destruction in this way, but being happier as they did so! And in fact he spelled that out:

I have no difficulty wishing that they be physically healthy and safe. But I imagine their “happiness” or “living with ease” as very probably involving the detriment of others – if they do not change their behaviour.

It’s the last part — “if they do not change their behaviour” — that’s the key. Because from a Buddhist point of view, real happiness isn’t an add-on extra that you can simply bolt onto an existing life that’s deeply unskillful. Real happiness is actually the outcome of a life lived skillfully, and so in wishing that the difficult person be happy, we’re wishing that they be the kind of person who is kind, and mindful, and who creates happiness.

There are different kinds of happiness, according to Buddhist teachings. For example there is, according to one sutta, worldly happiness, unworldly happiness, and a still greater unworldly happiness.

I won’t go into these in detail, but the point is clear that there is a hierarchy of types of happiness, from the worldly (which includes the pleasure people get from being unkind), to the unworldly (which includes the happiness we get from meditation, although this would include all happiness that we get from acting with mindfulness and kindness), to the “still greater unworldly happiness” which arises in the mind that is freed of greed, hatred, and delusion.

So when you’re wishing that someone who normally acts destructively be “happy” you’re wishing them at least the “unworldly” happiness that comes from being an aware, empathic, ethically responsible human being, and maybe even the “still greater unworldly happiness” that comes from being enlightened.

And actually, this is a tough thing to wish on anyone! When we move from acting unskillfully to becoming more mindful and loving, there’s a time when we look back at our lives and have to accept responsibility for the harm we’ve done. And this is a very painful thing. In thinking of the true happiness of awakening, I’m reminded of Rilke’s words, “For here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” The mind of compassion that develops within us, becomes the place where we are seen, and so our lives must change — sometimes painfully.

Now I’m not suggesting that we wish pain on anyone, but just pointing out that to wish someone real happiness is not to wish that they be given a free pass that absolves them of the harm they’ve caused. It’s to wish that they be seen by their own conscience, and that they do the hard work that this “being seen” demands.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Learning to see with the eyes of wholeness (Day 8)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

A sticking point some people have with lovingkindness practice is what it means to wish someone “well.” This came up the other day with someone who has health difficulties that just aren’t going to go away. What does it mean for him to wish himself well? He’s not ever going to be completely healthy, so wellness is never going to be attained. What’s the point of wishing yourself something you can’t have? Isn’t that just a source of suffering. Yikes!

And the same applies to others. If you have a friend who’s, say, dying of cancer, what does it mean to wish them well?

There’s a nice little dialog that the Buddha has where he does some self-commentary — basically going over a teaching he’d previously passed on, and saying what he’d really meant. And it’s rather fascinating, because when you read the original verse you think you know what the Buddha meant, but you’re wrong:

Health is the most precious gain
and contentment the greatest wealth.
A trustworthy person is the best kinsman,
Nibbana the highest bliss.

That’s from the Dhammapada, and it’s verse 204. It’s hard to imagine anything more straightforward than the first line, which basically is equivalent to the old saying, “if you have your health you have everything.”

But in a discussion with a healthy man (who says he’s therefore happy), the Buddha says that’s not what he meant at all.

The body is “a calamity and an affliction” even when it’s healthy, he points out. You might say that a healthy body is an unhealthy body waiting to happen. The “health” that the Buddha’s talking about is freedom from mental suffering, which ultimately is enlightenment. Now even the enlightened get physically sick and experience physical pain and discomfort, but they don’t have the secondary suffering that comes with having aversion to sickness, and for craving for things to be otherwise. Think about the self-pity we commonly experience when we’re sick. That resistance to sickness, that “poor me” attitude, is far more painful than the actual illness itself. So this is all dropped when we’re enlightened, and there’s no more aversion or craving. Now we don’t have to be enlightened to experience this freedom (although you have to be enlightened to permanently experience it).

When we say “may I (or you) be well” we’re wishing ourselves or others freedom from the secondary suffering of aversion and craving with regard to the sickness. We’re wishing that the discomfort of illness be borne mindfully. We’re wishing that we, or the other person, be at peace with whatever is happening with the body.

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts this very nicely:

Healing does not mean curing, although the two words are often used interchangeably, While it may not be possible for us to cure ourselves or to find someone who can, it is always possible for us to heal ourselves. Healing implies the possibility for us to relate differently to illness, disability, even death, as we learn to see with eyes of wholeness. Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

Of course if there’s a cure, that’s great. You can wish someone well in the sense that you hope they’ll be back to health. But in the long term we’re all headed for sickness and death, and true peace and happiness is going to come from patient acceptance of those things we cannot change. We “learn to see with eyes of wholeness” and accept, without resistance or aversion, even the most painful experiences.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post]
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Struggling with a “lack of lovingkindness” (Day 7)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

A couple of people in Wildmind’s online Community (which currently has over 400 members and is a thriving hubbub of conversation about practice, carried out with love and support) have been really struggling with lovingkindness, and especially with cultivating lovingkindness for themselves.

Here’s what I think often happens when cultivating metta goes wrong.

You start by assuming that metta is an emotion. It’s “universal lovingkindness” and so it must be some kind of powerful, warm, joyful glow: something quite extraordinary. And you’re supposed to have this emotion for yourself. So you start the practice and look for some sign of this emotion, and all you can find is — well, maybe you’re feeling a bit neutral, maybe you’re in a grumpy mood, maybe you’re anxious, maybe you’re feeling a bit low. Whatever is there, it’s not pretty. So where’s the lovingkindness? No trace of it! Oh, no. This means you don’t love yourself! You’re lacking in love, broken! There must be something wrong with you! Perhaps you don’t have love for yourself because you’re fundamentally unloveable! You plunge into despair.

I think most of us have gone through this at some time of another when learning lovingkindness practice.

Except … metta isn’t an emotion. It’s more like an attitude, or a perpective.

“Huh?” I hear you say, so let me explain.

Usually my metta practice is actually quite joyful, but the joy is an added bonus. Joy and metta aren’t the same thing, as I know from those times I’m joyfully oblivious to the suffering of people around me — suffering I may be causing.

In fact, I can be mettaful and be feeling crappy. So I may be anxious or despondent, and yet have metta. In these cases the metta is a kindly acceptance of what’s there. There’s an attitude of allowing and of tenderness.

The perspective is that it’s OK not to feel good. The perspective is that happiness doesn’t come from an endless stream of pleasant experiences, but from relating to whatever is present in a kindly way.

The perspective and the attitude are related. If it’s OK not to feel good, and if happiness comes from relating with kindness to whatever is present, even if it’s painful, then kindness naturally arises.

Without this perspective — if for example we have the perspective that it’s not OK to experience something unpleasant — then there will be aversion and consequently there will be no possibility of metta arising. This is the cause of the “cultivating metta gone wrong” scenario above.

Then there’s a more active “well-wishing” toward oneself or others. It’s an active recognition of beings’ potential for happiness, and a desire that beings (myself included) experience that happiness. I find it hard to describe this. But here goes.

The perspective is of recognizing that beings are feeling beings (something that, strangely, I forget) and that their feelings are important to them, and that they prefer happiness. Metta practice, for me, is largely keeping this perspective alive in my mind, and when I do bear this perspective in mind, I naturally wish others well, because I don’t want to get in the way of their finding happiness, and want to help them find it if I can. An attitude of well-wishing arises naturally out of a perspective of recognizing empathetically that others are feeling beings. So for me, the perspective is primary in my experience of metta, and the attitude of well-wishing is secondary, but it’s the two of those together that comprise metta.

The perspective and the attitude of well-wishing that arises from it are basically the same as the “sense of allowing and of tenderness” that I have for myself, even when I’m feeling crappy.

So there’s no need to avoid lovingkindness practice if you find it challenging. What you need to do is let go of the assumption that metta is an emotion, and see it instead as a perspective toward ourselves (“It’s OK not to feel good”) and an attitude (kindness toward what’s present in us), and as a perspective toward others (they are feeling beings that desire happiness) and an attitude of supporting them in that desire.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Effortless lovingkindness (Day 6)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

As part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindess we’re focusing on metta (lovingkindness) practice for 25 days, before going on to explore compassion, joy and equanimity (although I prefer to call this “loving with insight”).

People often think that lovingkindness is something hard. I’m going to write more about that tomorrow, but for now I want to stress the naturalness of metta, and how it arises effortlessly from certain reflections.

To begin with cultivating lovingkindness for a friend, let’s just note that the friend is someone for whom we already have metta. The Pali word (or one of them) for friend is “mitta” and you can see the obvious resemblance between the two words metta and mitta. A friend is someone whose wellbeing matters to us. When they’re unhappy it bothers us; when they’re happy it pleases us.

Metta has this same simplicity to it. With all the talk of “universal lovingkindness” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that metta is something we already have, and that we need to first reconnect with it (it often happens that we lose connection with it in the busyness of our lives), and then strengthen it by giving it our attention.

So right at the beginning of these 100 Days I wrote about some basic reflections I use that help us connect with our inherent lovigkindness.

  • You want, generally speaking, to be happy. You don’t want, generally speaking, to suffer.
  • Happiness is often much harder to find than you think it’s going to be, and suffering is something that you experience more often than you want to.
  • Really pause for a moment and check out the truth of those statements in your heart.
  • Now, having let these thoughts drop into your mind, and having sensed the truth of them in your experience, ask yourself whether there is some part of you that can respond with support and sympathy as you do this difficult thing of being human — as you go about this task of living, hoping for and seeking happiness and finding it elusive, hoping and trying to avoid suffering and finding that it arises all too often.

Now apply these reflections to your friend:

  • Your friend wants to be happy. Your friend doesn’t want to suffer.
  • For your friend, happiness is often hard to find, and suffering is something that they experience more often than they want to.
  • Give yourself time, once again, to let the truth of these reflections sink in, because they are true for everyone. I don’t think anyone looks at their life and says, “You know, this is great, but I’d rather be a bit less happy.”
  • And with the truth of these reflections in mind, see if there’s some part of you that it prepared to root for your friend, to wish them well as they do this difficult task of living a human life.

This isn’t complicated. But if we do this at the beginning of the second stage of the metta bhavana it brings our lovingkindness practice to life. Metta — a basic kindness that values others’ happiness — arises quite effortlessly from the reflections above.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Embodying lovingkindness (Day 5)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

There’s a lot of confidence involved in lovingkindness, especially with lovingkindness toward oneself (self-metta), and this confidence is reflected in the body. When we’re feeling loving toward ourselves or others we’re upright, the chest is open — the heart is open — and we’re relaxed. There’s a feeling of softness, but also of stength. Metta is definitely not a weak or passive state. It involves a confident stance.

When we lack confidence, we often slump. The shoulders roll forwards. The chest collapses so that we can’t breathe well. The heart is closed. We look down, limiting our horizons both literally and figuratively. We become inward turned, and we ruminate in a way that makes us feel even worse. You can’t feel loving toward yourself or others in such a posture.

Now, research has shown that our posture is very closely related to our sense of confidence, and that this is measurable. Amy Cuddy, in a very well-known TED talk (see below), discusses research showing that when people stand in a confident posture — the classic Wonder Woman or Superman stance, with legs apart, hands on the hips, chest open, looking straight ahead — there is a boost in their testosterone levels. Testosterone, contrary to popular belief is not just a “male” hormone. It’s found in both men and women. And it’s related to confidence, and a sense of competence and self-worth.

And the same stance also reduces our levels of cortisone, which is a stress hormone.

These changes in our hormone levels take place after only two minutes! It doesn’t take long for our physiology to change in response to our posture. In just two minutes you can feel more confident and strong.

So you can try this as a practice, whether you’re standing or sitting, and whether you’re sitting to work on a computer or sitting for meditation: keep your body erect, and your chest open. Even sitting for meditation yo might want to let your elbows move away from the side of your body. Feel the confidence of this open, erect posture.

But also soften. Let your musculature relax a little. Take your awareness to your heart, breathe into the heart area, and activate the vagus nerve so that the heart feels soft and open. And then wish yourself, and the world well.

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Metta-blast to the past (Day 4)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

A lot of us have trouble feeling kindness (metta) for ourselves. We’ve been brought up, or have learned, to think of ourselves as unworthy of love, or for some reason think it’s wrong to have kind feelings toward ourselves.

One way to get round this is to imagine that you’re a wiser, kinder, more compassionate version of yourself — you as you might be after another ten, or fifteen, or twenty years of practice. And you’re thinking of the present day you, with kindness and with a forgiving and understanding appreciation of the conditioning that he or she is struggling with. Perhaps there’s a feeling of tenderness, as you might have when thinking of yourself as a young child.

Imagine that you could meet yourself at a young age — perhaps at the age of five. Wouldn’t you wish your past self a happy life? So the future self, that you’re imagining yourself to be now, would have the same kind, patient, compassionate attitude to the you of today. Let the love flood back in time…

And now switch back to being the you of today, receiving this warm lovingkindness and compassion from your future self. How does it feel?

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness Post]
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