100 Days of Lovingkindness

Looking with loving eyes (Day 3)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

For today’s adventure in 100 Days of Lovingkindness I’m going to share a way of relating that I call “loving gaze.” This is borrowed from Jan Chozen Bays, who writes in How to Train a Wild Elephant of the practice of “Loving Eyes.”

In her book she says:

We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?

So what we can do is to recall, or even just imagine, the experience of looking with loving eyes. You can recall (or imagine) looking at a beloved child, or a lover, or even a pet. I find that the sense of care, and appreciation, and non-judgement is very transferrable, so once you’ve evoked a loving gaze you can turn that sense of looking lovingly upon yourself. As you notice the body, your breathing, your thoughts, etc., you can look at them with loving eyes.

And once you’ve evoked that for yourself, you can now turn your loving gaze upon others: friends, people you don’t know, people you have difficulty with, animals, all beings…

This, I find, is a very quick way to help lovingkindness to emerge.

And when we do this, everything we experience seems to become gentler and softer. The world appears to be a lovelier, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, place. Even the ugly bits of life seem beautiful in their ugliness. And we start to realize that the world is our experience of the world, which is not separable from ourselves. And so when we change, the world we perceive changes too. The world of our experience becomes more loving, more tender.

There’s something Chozen says about this that always blows me away:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out? [Emphasis added]

Give it a try, both in your sitting practice and as you go about your daily life. You can start right now, as your eyes scan the words in front of you. Look with love. And then carry that loving gaze into your next activity.

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Taking kindness to heart (Day 2)

Woman holding string of LED lights in shape of a heart

Today, as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, where we focus on the development of basic kindness and compassion, we’ll continue with the practice of self-metta.

I’m suggesting a simple practice today to help you bring a more kindly attitude into your daily life.

It’s simply this: be aware of your heart.

I’m not talking about noticing your heart beating, but about bringing awareness to the central part of your chest, and coming back to that over and over again during the day.

This area of the body is very important in terms of emotion, which is why “emotion” and “the heart” are virtually synonymous. And even more crucially, “love” and “the heart” are also virtually synonymous. The heart symbol — ❤ — means “love,” after all.

One reason for this is that there’s a large nerve called the vagus that runs down the center of the chest. The vagus is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body back to calm, rest, and balance. And the vagus is very important in mediating feelings of love and compassion. When it’s activated, there can be a feeling of warmth and openness around the heart.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that lovingkindness meditation significantly increased “vagal tone” over a period of seven weeks. Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve and is a sign of good vagal health (it’s analogous to “muscle tone”).

Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago has said that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion.

And Dr. Dacher Keltner, the author of Born to Be Good and Codirector of the Greater Good Science Center, points out that young children who have a stronger vagal tone are the ones who step in when they see another child being bullied. They’re also more cooperative and helpful to their peers.

Simply taking your attention to the heart can help to activate the vagus nerve. So try this:

  • Become aware of the heart area.
  • Notice what emotions and sensations are present — without judgement. It doesn’t matter what’s there: whether you’re feeling neutral, or even feeling crappy. That’s just where you happen to be starting from in this moment.
  • Let go, as best you can, or any tension, letting a sense of softness emerge.
  • Send thoughts of lovingkindness to that part of the body, saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at ease.
  • Repeat many times daily, whenever you pause, or whenever you’re taking a break or doing some routine task, like driving or showering, where your mind would normally wander.

Let go of any yearning for results; that’s simply grasping, and it’s also a rejection of your experience. Just let things unfold in their own time.

You also might want to bring this into your sitting practice of lovingkindness, which (as part of the challenge) we’re doing for at least five minutes a day. I’d recommend doing more than this, but five minutes is your emergency fall-back position for those days when it’s especially hard to get on the cushion.

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

If you’ve missed the previous posts for 100 Days of Lovingkindness, you can start here.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Bringing kindness to mind (Day 1)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In one of the Buddha’s teachings on purifying the mind, he said that the basic attitude we should be cultivating can be summed up in the thought:

‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.’

Traditionally this kindly and loving attitude starts with how we relate to ourselves. If we carry around a harsh attitude inside ourselves, in the way we talk to ourselves internally, then it’s harder for us to have kindness for others.

So apart from doing some sitting metta practice today as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, I’d encourage you to cultivate kindness toward yourself throughout the day.

The phrases I most often use in cultivating lovingkindness towards myself are:

  • May I be well
  • May I be happy
  • May I feel at ease

Try saying those to yourself now. Let the rhythm of the words sink into your mind. Build that intention to be kinder!

And see if, throughout the day, you can keep coming back to dropping those thoughts into the mind at odd moments. I was doing it this morning as I was walking to the office. From time to time as I’ve been writing this article I’ve paused for a moment and dropped in one of the phrases. Every time I do it, I feel happier. Now I’ve been doing this practice for 30 years, so you may or may not feel happier, kinder, and more at ease as you repeat these phrases, but they will have an effect, and often quite quickly.

Apart from anything else, these phrases, when we have them running through our minds, reduce the normal stream of thoughts — often critical or self-critical — that tend to bubble up all day long. With less of that critical thinking going on we feel happier.

But the phrases also work in their own right, not just because they reduce critical thoughts. Every time you are dropping one of those thoughts into the mind, you’re strengthening your desire to be kind to yourself. And this has effects. When we use particular parts of the brain repeatedly, those parts actually get bigger. So when you cultivate loving thoughts for yourself, you’re strengthening pathways in the brain, and bringing about long-term change. You can trust this process! It works.

So keep coming back to these thoughts at odd moments. You’ll forget to do it for long periods. That’s all right. Every time you do actually remember, you’re building an intention to be kind to yourself. And that’s going to benefit not just you, but everyone you’re in contact with.

What are you doing to be kinder to yourself today?

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Getting started with lovingkindness (Day 1 of 100 Days of Lovingkindness)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Welcome to Day 1 of 100 Days of Lovingkindness!

So, what’s this 100 Days of Lovingkindness about?

We have a thriving community of practitioners over on Google Plus (do feel free to join us). We discuss our meditation practice and our lives, and we give each other support and encouragement. It’s wonderful. And late last year someone said they’d just meditated for 100 straight days and someone else suggested that we should all commit ourselves to sitting for 100 straight days in the New Year, and that turned more into the idea of establishing a habit of daily sitting over 100 days, and so we did the 100 Day Meditation Challenge together. Many of us sat for 100 straight days, and lot of people, although not sitting quite every day, did a great job of building that habit of daily sitting.

And as the 100 Day Meditation Challenge came to an end, we thought, “What next?”

And what’s next is focusing on developing qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity over the next 100 days. It’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

Want to join us?

I suppose you’ll want to know what it involves?

There are just these few things:

  • Do some formal seated lovingkindness meditation every day, for at least five minutes (longer if possible, but five minutes is your emergency fall-back position).
  • A day is the time between waking and sleeping, not a calendar day, so if you don’t sit until midnight you haven’t blown it!.
  • Make some effort to cultivate or practice lovingkindness in daily life.
  • Share what you’re doing with others (here, or on Facebook, or on Google+, which is where the main activity is.
  • If you forget to meditate one day, you haven’t “blown it.” The point is to work for one hundred days to being more lovingkindness into our lives, not to “be perfect.” If you fall off the wagon, just get straight back on.

Uh, what’s “lovingkindness”?

Good question. Lovingkindness meditation is a practice in which we contact and strengthen our innate desire for beings, including ourselves, to be happy. Lovingkindness is kindly awareness. When our kindly awareness meets suffering, it becomes compassion, which is the desire that beings, including ourselves, be free from suffering. So lovingkindness and compassion are simply different modes of the same experience, a desire that beings be happy and free from suffering.

Consider the following reflections:

  • You want, generally speaking, to be happy. You don’t want, generally speaking, to suffer. (Is this true for you?)
  • 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. (Is this also true for you?)

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.

And then consider that these reflections are true for others as well. All beings, whether you like them or don’t like them, whether you know them or not, are in the same situation as you are. Is there some part of you that can support and cherish the aspirations of other beings as they struggle to find happiness and escape suffering, as they too do this difficult thing of being human? This perspective is the essence of cultivating both lovingkindness and compassion.

So this is a very natural thing, although it may go hugely against some of our conditioning. (“You mean I’m allowed to like myself!”)

OK! How do I start?

We actually have a fairly extensive guide to lovingkindness practice on this site, and you can start with cultivating lovingkindness toward yourself here.

Of, if you want, you can just go straight to this short guided meditation. It was recorded a long time ago, on very poor equipment, but if you can overlook those deficiencies I hope you’ll find it beneficial.

And over the next 99 days, although not necessarily every day, we’ll be sharing various resources, tips, and teachings on various forms of lovingkindness practice. Once again, I hope you’ll join us. Leave a quick comment below if you’re on board…

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Get ready for “100 Days of Lovingkindness”

Lotus, isolated on whiteYesterday we finished up our 100 Day Meditation Challenge, which was an opportunity to build up a habit of meditating daily over a period of 100 days. Many people managed to sit every day, and many others made substantial progress in sitting daily. That makes today Day 101 of our 100 Day Challenge.

So what’s next?

Tomorrow we’re starting 100 Days of Lovingkindness. I’m not calling this a “challenge” since I’m not too fond of that word. You can take it as a challenge to sit daily if you want. I’m framing it as an opportunity to focus on the cultivation of lovingkindness (metta).

It’s not just about meditation either — it’s about taking lovingkindness practice into daily life. I think it would be beautiful to have a bunch of people working undercover, infiltrating samsara and making the world a kinder place.

We’ll have 25 days of cultivating lovingkindness, 25 days of cultivating compassion, 25 days of cultivating appreciation, and 25 days of cultivating love with insight (also known as equanimity). These four practices are collectively known as the “Brahmavihāras” (Divine Abodes), or the Immeasurables (appamaññā). Lovingkindness is the basis of the other three, which are simply love encountering (in turn) suffering, joy and goodness, and an awareness of reality.

How do you participate?

There will be regular blog posts, starting tomorrow, with teachings and links to resources. So keeping up with the blog, one way or another, is a good start. The very best way to keep up and to get support from others is to join our Google Plus Community [Google+ is now defunct], which is an amazingly friendly and supportive place.

You can follow us on Facebook, although Facebook will probably hide most of our posts from you, so it’s not the best way to keep in touch.

And all our posts are published on Twitter, where you can also follow us.

Lastly, you can follow our RSS feed if you use some kind of feed reader.

But the Google+ Community is where the main action will happen. If you don’t want to feel like you’re on your own, sign up there.

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