100 Days of Lovingkindness

The expansive mind of lovingkindness (Day 23)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The Buddha’s instructions on lovingkindness — at least those that have been passed on to us — don’t include the five stages of cultivating lovingkindness for oneself, the friend, the “neutral person,” the person we have difficulty with, and then all beings. There are some scattered instructions about cultivating lovingkindness toward people we harbor anger toward, but the bulk of the instructions concern what is, for us, the final stage of the practice: cultivating lovingkindness to all beings.

This doesn’t invalidate what we do. The five (sometimes six) stage model has a long pedigree going back at least 2,000 years, and it may be that it goes back to the Buddha himself. We just don’t know. But it’s interesting to look back and see that there is, apparently, an early strand of teaching that’s quite different from what we do.

So here’s a typical direction for lovingkindness practice:

That disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of covetousness, devoid of ill will, unbewildered, alert, mindful — keeps pervading the first direction [i.e. the East] with an awareness imbued with good will, likewise the second [South], likewise the third [West], likewise the fourth [North]. Thus above, below, and all around, everywhere, in its entirety, he keeps pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will.

So there’s a lot of emphasis on directionality. Let’s call this the “compass approach” to lovingkindness. This is quite different from how I was taught the practice, which was to cultivate loving-kindness for those nearby, and then to work outward: neighborhood, town, region, country, neighboring countries, etc., until the whole world is embraced in a mind of lovingkindness. What I was taught is more of an “atlas approach.”

What may be the earliest meditation manual we have, the Vimuttimagga (path of freedom), which dates to just a few hundred years after the Buddha, includes this atlas-style approach to lovingkindness:

…he should gradually arouse the thought of loving-kindness and develop it for various bhikkhus [monks] in (his) dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for the Community of Bhikkhus in (his) dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for the deities in his dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for beings in the village outside his dwelling-place. Thus (he develops loving-kindness for beings) from village to village, from country to country.

The Vimuttimagga then goes on to take the compass approach. And I think switching from the atlas to the compass approach is a good idea, because I’ve always felt the atlas metod to be rather clunky. How do you conceive of having lovingkindness for all beings in, say, Europe or Africa, especially for someone who doesn’t live there? Do you picture a map? That’s rather detached from the reality of the beings that live in those places. Do you pick random scenes and wish the people you see well? That’s what I tend to do, but in a way you’re departing from the atlas approach, since you can’t exactly do this for every nation, going “country to country.” It is, of course, possible to over-think this!

But it occurred to me that at the time of the Buddha, knowledge of geography was rather basic. There would have been maps, even just mental maps, extending a few hundred miles in every direction from where one resided, but beyond that would have been rather mysterious, even mythic (“Here be nāgas”). So when the Buddha suggested to cultivate lovingkindness to all the beings in one particular direction, he wouldn’t (couldn’t!) have had a picture of the places he was contemplating. (There were mythic geographies around at that time, but they would have been very vague.) He didn’t have images from TV shows and movies and magazines to draw upon.

So perhaps the notion of just considering a direction is a good one! It frees us up from having to picture the world. We can let go to some extent of our visual sense, and have more of a spatial sense of the world around us. We can just be aware of each direction in turn, and have a sense that we’re wishing any beings in that direction well. We don’t have to see the directions. We can feel them. They’re inside our awareness already.

A sense of the space around us is one of our senses, although one people don’t talk about very much. But if you close your eyes right now, you still have a pretty good idea of where you are in relation to things around you. You know roughly how far it is to the wall in front of you, to the right, left, and behind you. You have a sense of the dimensions and orientation of the whole building around you, and of that building’s relation to the space around it, and to other buildings. You can even have a sense of the whole space above you — all the way up the sky.

So in a sense all of that space is “in” your awareness. And if your awareness is imbued with a sense of kindness, then (in a sense) the space around you is imbued with kindness as well.

So I tend, in my own practice of the fifth stage of the metta bhavana, to simply experience the space around me in all directions, and to regard those directions kindly. And whatever beings there may be in that space, human or animal, I wish them well. My mind becomes a field of lovingkindness, extending outside of my body, into the world.

It’s hard to say how far out from my body I sense this field of lovingkindness extending. You don’t literally have to have a sense of the whole world as part of the practice of “cultivating universal loving-kindness.” Your mind is your world, and all you have to do is maintain a loving awareness of that world, and of any beings that enter your senses, including the sense of the mind.

So for me the emphasis in the practice isn’t trying to connect with different geographic areas (which gets rather abstract), or with in some way trying to imagine the whole world (again abstract) or all the beings on it (which is impossible), but having a sense that my mind is this field of lovingkindness; and whoever was to enter my awareness, whether by physically entering the range of my senses, or by appearing in my mind’s eye, would be received kindly, with a recognition that this is a being that wants to be happy and finds happiness elusive, and with a sense that I am prepared to support that being, not obstructing their happiness, and supporting it if I can.

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The tender heart of lovingkindness (Day 22)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In previous posts I’ve suggested an approach to cultivating lovingkindness that begins with contacting our innate lovingkindness. Now the expression “contacting our innate lovingkindness” is a problem for many people, because they look inside themselves, don’t see anything at that moment that they could call “metta” or “lovingkindness,” and then conclude they don’t have these qualities. Which can start a downward spiral of rumination and pain: I don’t feel any love; Therefore I don’t love myself; Therefore I must be unlovable; Therefore no one will ever love me; Therefore my life is horrible.

I think almost everyone has experienced that kind of emotional nose-dive.

But I think that when this happens we may be looking within in the wrong way, and for the wrong thing.

I think the potential for lovingkindness is always there. It’s an innate part of us. But we have to awaken it. It’s sleeping, dormant. It’s wrapped in blankets of denial and self-protection.

And my current approach to awakening our innate ability to be kind is one I’ve mentioned before: a pair of simple reflections, followed by an invitation.

So the first reflection is this: We drop into the mind the truth, “I want to be happy.” I’m presenting this as a truth, because I believe that deep down we all do want happiness. Even when we choose a destructive path that leads to pain, we’re doing this because we believe it will bring happiness, or at least a relief from suffering, in the long term. It won’t, of course, but that’s because we’ve chosen the wrong strategy to find happiness, not because we don’t want to be happy.

So we drop this statement — “I want to be happy” — into the mind, and let its truth resonate within us. Feel its truth in your life, not in an abstract way, but concretely: “Yes, it’s true. I do want happiness. Even in this moment I want happiness.” This may be experienced as a kind of tender ache, and that’s OK. We’ll get back in a moment to why that’s OK.

And the second reflection is this: “Happiness isn’t always easy to find.” So we drop that thought — that truth — into the mind in the same way, giving ourselves time and space to have a response to it, to sense the truth of it in our lives. Because this too is true. We want happiness, but happiness is often elusive. We keep expecting to be happy and it doesn’t happen. Happiness doesn’t arrive, or it passes too quickly, or unhappiness shows up instead. So this too many evoke an achey sense around the heart. That’s good. Again, we’ll come to the why in a moment.

The invitation that follows these two reflections is just this: there is some part of you that, realizing that you want to be happy and that happiness is elusive, is prepared to wish you well. There is a part of you — a very deep part of you — that is prepared to be kind and supportive as you go about this difficult thing we do — being human.

Because I think it is generally harder than we admit, this being human. Having this innate drive for happiness in a world in which happiness is hard to find is a tough thing to do. And happiness doesn’t necessarily mean going about with a smile plastered on your face. Yes it can mean joy, but it can also be meaning, purpose, satisfaction, connection, or peace.

And the ache I talked about, which comes, often, when we rediscover that we want to be happy and when we admit that it’s hard to do this, is very valuable. Because this feeling of vulnerability is the recognition of the truth of our existential situation, and it’s not until we recognize our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining that desire that we can be truly supportive of ourselves.

Often we don’t admit this truth, and we believe we have our lives “sorted.” We’re fine. Maybe we don’t admit that we’re not too happy right now. That would be an admission of weakness and failure! Or maybe we do grudgingly admit that things aren’t perfect right now, but once we lose that 10 pounds, or get that promotion, or get past this busy spell at work — well, then we’ll be happy. We can become a bit cold and hard, and judgmental. When we see others being unhappy, rather than feel sympathy for them we may feel contempt. Or if we’re magnanimous we may give them some advice: “You just need to…” Have you noticed how prone we are to give advice on how to be happy even when we’re not happy ourselves? How sure we are that we have it all figured out, even when clearly we haven’t? And when people are at their most alienated from their vulnerability, they can be cruel. It becomes enjoyable to watch someone else fail; it confirms that they are weak — unlike us.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (“Yes, I do want to be happy; yes, it is hard”) all this protectiveness is dropped, and we discover that we do want to support ourselves. We do want to be kind to ourselves as we do this difficult thing of being human. We do have innate lovingkindness and we have just contacted it. And it’s a bit achey, but that’s just what happens when we rediscover our deeper needs, and when we admit the difficulty of meeting them.

And then when we turn our attention to others and recognize that they are in the same situation as us — that they are struggling beings, desiring happiness but finding it elusive — we find that the vulnerability opens the way to a tender sense of kindess toward them: a heart-felt desire to wish them well as they do this difficult thing of being human.

This is what “contacting our innate lovingkindness” means. It’s not looking inside and finding some pre-made emotion of love. It’s finding a way to our own achey, tender vulnerability, and letting the heart respond with kindness.

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Lovingkindness while driving (Day 21)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

When the rubber hits the road is a great time to practice lovingkindness, and I mean literal rubber and a literal road.

There’s a lot of irritation involved in driving, right up to the extreme of road rage. It can be irritating to be in slow traffic, or busy traffic, or to be cut off, or to be held up by roadworks, or stuck at traffic lights.

We’re emotionally cut off from other drivers because we’re all in our own semi-private metal boxes, and so we don’t have access (usually) to their body language and facial expressions. So we often take things personally that aren’t necessarily personal. As comedian George Carlin said, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

And the mind wanders when we’re driving. We drive “on autopilot” and the mind gets distracted. And you might think that the mind, having meandered away from the unpleasant grind of the daily commute, would find something enjoyable to think about. But research shows that most of the time we think about things that make us even unhappier! So our internal experience is unpleasant, and we don’t much like what’s going on around us.

Next time you get a chance, look at drivers’ facial expressions. They’re often frowning, or at best neutral. You’ll rarely see anyone smiling while they’re driving. It’s a serious business. It’s an unhappy business, for the most part.

Driving lovingkindness practice can liberate us from all this. It’s very like the walking lovingkindness practice that I described yesterday. When I do driving lovingkindness, I keep myself mindful by remaining aware of my surroundings, and I say the phrases, “May you be well, may you be happy” as I drive along. Sometimes it’s “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”

I might just have a sense that I’m imbuing my field of awareness with lovingkindness in this way, and every perception of a person (or a vehicle that a person contains) is simply touched by my kindly awareness. Or I may focus my attention on various vehicles as they pass in either direction, and wish the drivers and passengers well.

This can become very joyful. One of the participants in 100 Days of Lovingkindness wrote:

For my entire 30 minute ride to work I sent lovingkindness to each passing driver on the road. I can’t tell you the effect the that it had on me … I felt like a protective mother sending all of her children off on their day.

That’s rather lovely.

It’s so much more satisfying to wish drivers well than to have thoughts of ill will about them. When I’m driving with lovingkindness I find I want to let drivers merge, and it feels great. I can see why the Buddha described lovingkindness as a “divine state” — I feel like a gracious deity bestowing blessings as I slow down to create a space for a driver to enter the road. Even if it looks like the other driver is trying to cut the line, I have a sense of magnanimity and forgiveness as I let them in. It feels so much more enjoyable than trying to “punish” the driver by refusing to let them cut in.

And the act of well-wishing also helps prevent the mind from wandering into areas of thought that cloud my sense of well-being. The constant stream of thoughts like “May you be well, may you be happy” make it much harder for my mind to drift. So, despite some people’s fears to the contrary, I find I’m able to pay more attention to my driving, because I’m not getting lost in thought.

And smile! Smiling helps activate our kindness, and it makes us happier. And if some driver or pedestrian happens to see us smiling, they may be reminded that life doesn’t have to be cold, grim, and distracted, but can be warm, kind, and mindful.

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Walking with love (Day 20)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

When I walk, I usually do a “walking lovingkindness” practice. Since it takes me 15 minutes to walk to work and another 15 to walk home again, I get a “bonus” 30 minutes of meditation on the days I don’t have to drive. So even if I only manage 30 minutes of sitting practice I end up meditating for an hour, which is a reasonably substantial amount of meditation to do in a day.

Of course I’m sure there are many ways to do walking lovingkindness, but I’ll share what my practice is.

Basically, it’s very simple: as I walk, I say to myself, “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy.” I remain aware of the space around me, and let a sense of kindness take hold. Since my consciousness is tinged with kindness, and since my consciousness is filling the space around me, I have a feeling that my well-wishing is touching those around me.

I’ll be a bit more aware of the body than when I’m doing regular walking (when I tend to disappear into my head) but not as much as when I’m doing mindful walking. The practice of walking lovingkindness takes us more “out in the world” than mindfulness typically does, and so there’s bit less focus on internal experience. I sometimes keep some awareness on the heart as I walk, but often I don’t.

If there’s no one to be seen (and that’s often the case) then I simply continue like this — walking, repeating the phrases, letting my goodwill radiate into the world around me. If I see someone — the guy putting his recycling out by the curb-side, a car driving by, a woman walking her dog — I direct my attention toward those beings and specifically wish them well.

As a car goes by, my attention tracks it in a focused way, as if I’m shining a mental spotlight on it. As I walk past the guy putting our his recycling I smile and say good-morning.

I hear a train in the distance, and my attention turns in that direction, wishing the staff and passengers well.

If there are a lot of people around, then it can seem a bit restless and unsatisfying to have the “spotlight” jittering around all over the place, so I’ll return to simply allowing a field of kindness to extend around me, knowing that it touches all these beings as they pass through my awareness.

Sometimes if I’m experiencing personal suffering — like the day last week I was feeling a little irritable — I direct my lovingkindness mainly toward myself, until I’m feeling more at peace and less likely to be judgmental of others.

The phrases I’m reciting take up “mental space” that would otherwise be occupied with rumination that would often be tinged with anxiety or ill will. Most of that thinking is laid aside, although sometimes my mindfulness slips and I find myself distracted. But when this happens I simply let go of the unhelpful thinking at the first opportunity and return to the practice: walking and loving.

But the phrases don’t simply displace mental activity that would generally make me unhappy: they actually help foster kindness and joy. Often I’ll feel like I’m radiating this love and joy into the world around me. I’ll feel buffered by it, buoyed up by it.

There’s a feeling of my sense of self expanding and attenuating, because of this sense of my consciousness radiating into the world. There’s a large degree of “un-selfing” in this practice, which can bring it close to being an insight practice.

This is a very traditional practice, by the way. According to the Metta Sutta, one of the key teachings on lovingkindess:

Let him radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Standing, walking, sitting or reclining, as long as he is awake, let him develop this mindfulness.

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Dealing with guilt and shame (Day 19)

dealing with guilt and shame

People use the words “guilt” and “shame” in different ways. In everyday communication they’re used pretty much interchangeably. And the dictionary definitions aren’t significantly different. For example, shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” while guilt is “a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.”

Both of those involve a painful emotional response to having done something wrong. The word “shame” however has more of a connotation of personal failure (hence, “humiliation”) and is also described in stronger emotional terms.

In psychology, the two terms are used in very different ways. “Guilt” is used to refer to painful feelings of remorse. That is, we’ve done something that’s objectively or subjectively wrong and we feel bad about it. “Shame” is used to refer to fundamental feelings of unworthiness. It’s a sense of being fundamentally flawed, and that we, at our core, are “bad.”

The Buddhist word that corresponds to “guilt” is hiri. I’m going to use the word “remorse” to translate it, though, because even though the word guilt has that technical sense of “consciousness of having done wrong” as opposed to shame’s “consciousness of being wrong at one’s core,” the word remorse is very clearly about feeling bad because you’ve done something wrong.

In the Buddhist community I’m part of, the terms guilt and shame are commonly used the other way around. In fact the majority of Buddhist translators have used “shame” to translate hiri. That’s possibly because Christians tend to use the word “guilt” (sometimes in the sense of fundamental unworthiness — more about that below) and so various translators wanted to emphasize that Buddhism sees things differently. In this article I’ll stick with the widely accepted, modern psychological, use of the terms.

Shame doesn’t play a role in Buddhist practice. The idea of us being flawed in our very essence doesn’t work well in a tradition that says you have no essence. From the Buddhist point of view, everything that makes up “us” is impermanent. Yes, we all contain unskillful (akusala) drives and impulses, based on greed, hatred, and delusion. But those are not inherent parts of us. They are impermanent processes, and those processes can be ended.

In Buddhist psychology remorse (hiri) is a skillful rather than an unskillful mental state. This may be surprising! We usually think of “skillful” mental states as being pleasant, and remorse is definitely not pleasant. In fact it can be rather painful. So what does it mean to say that remorse is skillful?

Remorse/hiri is considered to be a spiritually useful emotion — an emotion that leads to our happiness and well-being — because it realigns us with our ideals. It’s uncomfortable, but good for us. When we’ve not acted at our best, or way below our best — when we’ve hurt someone, or been untruthful, or let someone down, for example — and we then become aware that this is not how we want to behave, a painful feeling can arise. This is remorse. This is the painful sense that our behavior has departed from the values we hold dear. And this helps us reconnect with those values.

We often lose touch with our deeper values in daily life. We’re complex beings. Yes, we want to be kind to people and yes, we want to be honest. But some parts of the brain are running on a very old operating system — shared with crocodiles and wolf-packs — that tells us to lash out when we’re threatened. Let’s call that Brain 1.0.

And we have parts of the brain running on a somewhat newer, but still old, operating system that tells us not to jeopardize our standing with our “pack.” This is an operating system (“Brain 2.0”) that we share with wolves, but not with crocodiles. So sometimes we lie, exaggerating our accomplishments, minimizing our flaws, trying to make others look bad so that we’ll look better.

And then we have Brain 3.0, which is more truly human, and which fully recognizes the value of cooperation, kindness, and is able to reflect on what constitutes a good and ethical life. It’s able to formulate ideals for us to live by and ethical principles for us to hold ourselves to. Although I call this part of the brain “truly human” it’s not lacking in other mammals. It’s just more developed in humans, who have a very large neocortex — the part of the brain in which this form of morality exists.

So remorse is when the neocortex (Brain 3.0) recognizes that we’ve been acting on the basis of fear, greed, or ill will — behaviors that are generated in Brains 1.0 and 2.0, and sees that those actions aren’t going to contribute to the wellbeing and happiness of ourselves or others.

Remorse, for it to be healthy Buddhist hiri, has to be focused on the act we’ve done. We feel bad because something was not a good thing to do. Remorse, in a way, is a form of self-metta (self-kindness), since we’re reminding ourselves of what does and doesn’t contribute to our own happiness.

And here’s where remorse (or guilt, if you want) is different from shame. Shame is focused on us, not on our actions. Shame may well be triggered by a specific thing we’ve done wrong, but we go from thinking that we’ve done something “bad” to thinking that we ourselves are “bad.” The “bad” thing we did is seen as proof that we have a “bad” self — perhaps even an essentially bad self. Shame is a form of self-hatred. So while shame and guilt/remorse/hiri may seem similar, they’re actually opposites.

Shame is very often influenced by the idea of original sin, which teaches us that sin is an inherent part of our nature. The Buddha’s view was that our unskillful tendencies are not inherent to us at all. They’re “not me, not mine, not myself.” Some Buddhist traditions emphasize that the mind is inherently pure, but that this purity is obscured by our unskillfulness. This is a much more encouraging way for us to think about ourselves, and many people feel a sense of relief when they come across this very positive view of what it means to be human. Of course even adopting this view that deep down we are good, there’s still a lot of work to do. But it’s easier to do that work when you don’t think that your unskillful tendencies are a fixed part of you, but are just “passing through.”

It’s worth, whenever we feel shame, reminding ourselves that our unskillfulness is something that’s relatively superficial. It’s liberating to recognize this.

And when we feel remorse, we can recognize that this is a healthy and useful response to having acted unskillfully. We don’t have to feel remorse for having felt remorse, which is what I think often happens. When remorse (or even shame) arises can recognize that we’re suffering, and treat our suffering kindly. (This is the practice of self-compassion that I’ve explained elsewhere.)

And we can also do whatever is necessary — confess or apologize, or make amends, to help redress any harm we may have caused and to lighten our emotional load. We let the remorse pass, reconnect with how we’d truly like to be living our lives, and then get on with the business of living with mindfulness and kindness.

(An earlier version of this article used the words “guilt” and “shame” in the way they’re often used by Buddhist translators, and in the community I practice in. I’ve corrected that usage here to bring the terminology into line with the conventional usage. I’ve also opted to use “remorse” as a clearer alternative to “guilt” and as a more accurate translation of hiri.)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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When you have trouble being kind to yourself (Day 18)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Triratna Buddhist Community, is asked by Ratnaguna in this video from (I think) 1991 why some of us have difficulties feeling kindness towards ourselves, and what we can do about it.

Here’s a transcript of the video below.

Ratnaguna: I think it would be true to say that most people find the mindfulness of
breathing the easier of the two meditation practices [mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation] and some people I think go so far as to say they they just can’t do the metta bhavana [lovingkindness meditation] — it’s too difficult. What would you say to people who say that?

Sangharakshita: I think people say this for various reasons, so it’s difficult to generalize and also it’s difficult to given an answer that will be applicable to all cases.

I think a lot of people when they try to to develop feelings of goodwill towards other living beings are a bit too forceful about it — and I won’t say wilful, because that word has perhaps been overused, not to say abused. They they’re a bit too forceful, let us say. They don’t do it in a sufficiently relaxed sort of way.

I think the secret is to to look at your relations to people, to things, to animals, and just to ask yourself, well, where do you have positive feelings? Where do you feel good will? Take that as a starting point, and remind yourself that, yes, you are capable of feeling goodwill. And in as much as you do experience goodwill towards this person or that creature. You’re able to develop it towards a greater number of people, a greater number of creatures. You are able to eventually even universalize it.

Ratnaguna: I think of the five stages of, the metta bhavana, the one that people find the most difficult is the first stage — the development of loving kindness towards oneself — and they often say that they be able to do the metta bhavana if it wasn’t for the first stage. And they quite often miss the first stage out. Do you think that’s advisable?

Sangharakshita: Well, if one has really insuperable difficulty in developing goodwill towards oneself, but can experience at least some goodwill towards others, then concentrate on the goodwill towards others for the time being. But you mustn’t give up on yourself, as it were. You must nonetheless, sooner or later, come back to developing feelings of goodwill towards yourself.

Very often people are unable or find it very difficult to develop goodwill towards themselves because they’ve been brought up with the the idea, or they’ve somehow acquired the idea, that they’re unworthy — that they don’t deserve affection or goodwill. They may even feel, in specifically Christian terms, that they’re sinners — even miserable sinners — and not deserving of anything like goodwill. Perhaps they don’t like themselves. Perhaps they don’t — I’m not going to say “accept” themselves — again this is a term that has become overused. But in some ways they’re unduly critical of themselves, and they have to let up a bit.

PS Feel free to join our Google+ 100 Day Community (now replaced by Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative), where people are reporting-in on their practice, and giving each other support and encouragement.

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Metta on the go: 6 simple ways to take lovingkindness off the cushion (Day 17)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

For the sixth day of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, we have a guest post from therapist Ashley Davis Bush.

What a wonderful feeling – you’re in your favorite meditation pose generating loving-kindness, starting with yourself and gradually turning to the world. A feeling of connection to your loved ones, your sangha, and to all sentient beings fills you with bliss.

The metta bhavana is a powerful meditation. It opens the heart and engenders feelings of love and openness.

But what about when you’re off the cushion . . . like when you’re late for work in that long line for coffee? Or when you’re stuck in traffic and just want to get home? Is the loving-kindness still radiating from within you?

Below are 6 simple ways to weave that loving feeling through everyday experiences. Until they become habitual, you might want to use Post It notes as reminders. Over time, you’ll find that metta is better than ever when it’s on the go.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall
When: when you look in a mirror
What: look yourself in the eye and say, “May you be happy. May you be healthy.”

Joy to the World
When: when you blow dry your hair
What: imagine the blow dryer as a large prayer wheel of sorts blowing out blessings. Say, “May all beings be happy. May all beings be safe from harm.”

Who is Your Mother?
When: when you’re standing in a line (especially if you’re in a hurry)
What: look at the cashier and think ‘who is your mother?’ Imagine his or her mother, that she may be alive or not. Imagine their relationship, good one or bad. Wish this anonymous mother well. Wish the cashier well. “May you both be at peace. May you both be healthy.”

Stop Drop and Roll
When: when stopped at a red light
What: ‘Stop’ the car, ‘drop’ down into your heart and ‘roll’ out some goodwill to your fellow travelers. Look at the people in other cars in front of you, behind you, passing you, and recognize that each one of them is just like you – they want happiness and they want to be free from suffering. Say, “May you know happiness. May you be safe.”

Bless Us Everyone
When: when you see or hear an emergency vehicle
What: wish those involved well — including the victims, their loved ones, the first responders, and associated medical or legal professionals. Say “May you be surrounded with love. May you be supported.”

Newspaper Clippings
When: when reading, watching or listening to the news
What: As you learn of distressing news, take a moment to send the people involved some peaceful wishes. Say, “I wish you peace. May you be safe from harm.”

Both on and off the cushion, the metta bhavana practice will keep your heart open, flexible, and radiant.

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Love letters to strangers (Day 16)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve been talking, in these 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts, of ways we can cultivate metta, or lovingkindness. But we also need to put it into practice. We need to practice kindness — to show kindness to others.

One of the participants in Wildmind’s online Community shared what I thought was a beautiful practice. She wrote:

For a few days I was surreptitiously writing love notes and dropping them in unlikely places for whoever found them. It was a challenge to my poetic nature and a source of delight to me.

It sounds crazy, but harmlessly loving, and since I’m in a bit of a funk today I think I’ll write a little love note. Here goes:

“This is to you. You are an extraordinary human being. The only one of your particular makeup who has ever been and who will ever be in all of time. You are totally amazing and I love you very much.”

Wow. This is something I’d never have thought of, but what a beautiful idea. I’m thinking of slipping notes under the doors of the other offices in the building where Wildmind’s “World Headquarters” are.

But I’m also trying to think of writing some of my blog posts here as “love letters to strangers.” I think it would change the tone of my communication

What would you write — in just a sentence or two — to a complete stranger, to communicate love and kindness?

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Loving your inner critic (Day 15)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We all have an inner critic that tells us we’re not good enough. Sometimes it tells us far worse things than that — that we’re worthless, that no one likes us, that we’re essentially unlovable. In cultivating metta we’re supposed to love ourselves, but the inner critic is a part of us; how do we love that? And how to we stop listening to the inner critic long enough to experience any love for ourselves?

Actually all practice helps deal with our inner critic. Any mindfulness practice helps because as soon as you’re mindful of the brain’s “self-hatred module” you’re no longer being self-hatred. Self hatred is at its worst when we think that the voice it speaks with is “us.” But you’re not speaking with that voice as long as you’re standing apart from it and relating to it in some way. You’re hearing the voice, not being the voice. To relate to the inner critic in any way — even if it’s just mindfully listening to its words — is to stand apart from it. That distance, however slight to begin with, is crucial.

And like in the cute story about the two wolves (too well known to bear repeating), you’re choosing which wolf to feed — the wolf of love or the wolf of hatred. And your brain being an economical sort of organ, unused parts will start to atrophy so that your body’s resources can be used elsewhere. Your brain is malleable and adaptable and the part of it devoted to self-hatred will wither away.

Your lovingkindness practice helps because you can take this “standing back” a bit further. You’re standing back and you can wish the self-hatred module well. And you can become aware of any pain that your inner critic gives rise to and give it compassion too. This is all very healing.

There’s another effect of metta too, which is that you’re learning a more effective strategy for relating to yourself and finding happiness. Self-hatred is, oddly enough, a way of seeking happiness. The idea behind it is that if you criticize yourself enough for “making mistakes” you won’t make them in the future, and therefore you’ll be better, more popular, happier. It doesn’t work, of course, so it’s a very ineffective strategy. But it’s helpful to recognize that your self-hatred actually is based on a desire to be happier and to avoid suffering. Its motivation is fine — it’s the strategy it uses that’s messed up.

Mindfulness and metta give us different and more effective ways to deal with our “faults” — our unhelpful habits that cause suffering for ourselves and others. We can be more forgiving and kinder. We can want to change, but not be so punitive about it. Self-hatred assumes it’s necessary for our well-being, but we can live perfectly well without it.

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Speak kindly to yourself (Day 14)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The other day I found myself having one of those odd, but common, daydreams where I was complaining to one friend about another friend. I was telling him about a situation where this third party was emotionally cutting me off. The conversation went on for a minute or so, and then I slipped from my daydream back into a more mindful state and realized that what I was saying wasn’t even close to being true. It was almost totally a fabrication. There was a tiny grain of truth, but the reality was completely different from how I was presenting it. I think what was happening was that I was looking for sympathy by taking a fear of being emotionally excluded and creating a whole story about it. Or at least I was rehearsing doing this, since the whole episode took place in my mind.

I think this kind of thing is very common. We talk to ourselves in this way, magnifying our problems and “catastrophizing.” Sometimes we even believe the stories we’re telling ourselves, and then we get very stressed or depressed.

I bring this up because the way we talk to ourselves can be kind or unkind, and as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness we’re seeking to live more kindly. I was “speaking” in an unkind way about a third party, and in doing so I was causing myself suffering. I was creating the very sense of emotional exclusion that I was complaining about!

And we create suffering for ourselves all the time in this way, by our self-talk. Many people berate themselves — “I’m such an idiot!” — in a very harsh way. Or they may be assuming that other people are thinking kind thoughts about them. Or they may have angry conversations going on in their minds. Or they may be thinking about things that are going wrong in their lives, and generalizing these to think that their lives as a whole are going wrong.

All of these forms of self-talk cause suffering.

So a good question to bear in mind is, “How is the way I’m talking to myself affecting how I feel?” Is your self-talk helping you to be more loving, more expansive, more at peace, more contented, or more energized, or is your self-talk making you feel isolated, stressed, dejected, angry, or anxious?

I’ve said before that we can regard our suffering as a “mindfulness bell” that calls us to notice how we’re relating to our experience, and that includes noticing how we’re talking to ourselves. So when you notice that you’re feeling unhappy, start to observe also what the tone of your inner conversations is.

I call suffering a “mindfulness bell” partly to suggest that it’s not helpful for us to make judgements about how we’re feeling or how we’re thinking. And by making judgments I mean that we can look at our feeling and thinking and then start talking about it in an unhelpful way — again berating ourselves, becoming depressed, angry, etc. Instead of doing this, realize that it’s just normal for us to let our thinking create suffering. None of us is 100% mindful, and so we’re going to find that the mind gets out of hand in this way. The important thing is that every time we notice that our thoughts are causing us suffering, we let go of those thoughts and then begin attending to our experience in a more skillful way — that is, a way that leads to less suffering.

So you might want just to let go of your unhelpful thinking and notice the physical sensations in your body and arising from the world around you. Or sometimes you might want to introduce some skillful — honest, kind, compassionate — thoughts. You can kindly contradict the untruths and exaggerations you’ve been telling yourself. You can reassure yourself — “It’s OK to feel this.”

As you let go of your unhelpful thoughts, or replace them with more honest and compassionate thoughts, the way you feel will change. It may be a small change, but as the Buddha said, “Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘It will not come to me.’ Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise, gathering it little by little, fill themselves with good.”

You can have confidence in this. No, you are not doing to eradicate your suffering or your unhelpful mental habits overnight. But you have the power to let go of your thoughts, and you have the power to cultivate skillful thoughts. And drop by drop by drop our hearts become filled with feelings of kindness, compassion, and joy.

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