kindness

A path to live life to the fullest

In Buddhism there are four reminders, things we should consider to make the most of our lives and to prepare us for death.

The four reminders are:

  • our lives are precious
  • we are not immortal
  • our actions have consequences and
  • we can learn to transcend pain.

These reminders can make a difference in how we live our lives, if we keep them in mind and reflect on them each day.

1. The preciousness of life – our lives are precious and our physical and mental health, energy, freedom, food, and money give us opportunities to make the most of each and every day. So each day, we might ask ourselves, “Am I making the most of my life?” “Am I using my time wisely?” “Am I aware of my thoughts, speech and actions?” “Do I react by habit or respond creatively to situations and people?” “Am I working at a job that is ethical and helpful to people?” “Am I spending as much time with my family as I want to?” “Am I spending as much time with my friends as I want to?” “Do I take time for leisure activities?” “Am I getting enough rest and sleep?” There may be other questions you would add to this list.

2. We are not immortal, although, in our culture we do not think about death until a loved one is very ill or we hear of someone dear to us who is dying. One thing is for certain — we will all die. We cannot avoid death. We all age, day by day we get older. We may think we are immune, but we are not. And there are other causes of death: illness, accidents, natural disasters and violence. We may die after an illness or we may die suddenly without being able to say good-bye to friends and family. Facing death takes courage and a clear conscience. We become more alive when we contemplate death.

3. Actions have consequences. We are the sum of many influences: family, religion, culture, education, relationships, friendships, diet, exercise and more. We are also the sum total of all the many choices and decisions we have made; our actions and our emotional lives. There may be some things we cannot change and we must accept that we cannot change them. We can, however, change the way we think (rather than letting the mind think in a random, unrestrained way). We can become more positive and loving by practicing meditation and yoga. When our actions are honest; when our speech is kind, helpful and harmonious; when we are positive, generous, loving and wise — all this will affect how we feel. We can commit to acting in a way that is beneficial to ourselves, to those around us, and to the world.

4. Learning to transcend pain and suffering.  Each day there is stress and striving. We are always searching for something: a faster, newer car; an updated computer; the latest technological toy; something different in our marriage; a new relationship; more fashionable clothing; a different job; an understanding boss; people to act differently; a bigger house; or greener grass. The list is endless — take a few moments and consider what you strive for, what you would like to be different or new in your life. Along with striving and stress — there is illness, injury, depression, fear, mental anguish — all of which contribute to feeling that we do not have enough, we are intrinsically not enough, we wish things/people/situations were different. Our bodies continue to grow older, our thoughts never end and keep us awake at night and distracted during the day. This is life, what the Buddha called samsara. We search for happiness and fulfillment in what we do not have, rather than finding contentment and joy in what we do have.

This dissatisfaction often brings us to question the meaning of life, or to a spiritual quest. We often need a wake up call to be jolted out of our complacency. We need to wake up to the truth – that we will not live forever, our actions have consequences for ourselves, others and the world, we can find happiness and joy, and we need to be aware enough to make the most of this precious life.

There are different ways of reflecting on these four reminders: meditation, silent reflection, writing and discussions with others.

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“The Force of Kindness,” by Sharon Salzberg

the force of kindness, sharon salzbergSharon Salzberg has an excellent reputation for creating wonderful dharma books, but when I first saw the title, The Force of Kindness, I thought the subject matter was a little… soft. How much can be said about kindness?

Then, too, the book itself is diminutive in size — a standard Sounds True publication of less than a hundred pages, with a guided meditation CD included.

Title: The Force of Kindness
Author: Sharon Salzberg
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-920-7
Format: 96-page book, plus one-hour CD
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

But that was exactly what Sharon addressed — the incorrect impression that kindness itself is a soft topic with minimal applications. Sure, you can be kind to a lot of people — but how much is there to say about it? In very short order, your entire thinking about kindness changes and you see it for the very powerful and courageous act that it is.
She begins with a walk through kindness as we grow to adulthood, and how we can be unkind to ourselves or not fully kind because it isn’t coming from a genuine place.

“When we are devoted to the development of kindness, it becomes our ready response, so that reacting from compassion, from caring, is not a question of giving ourselves a lecture: ‘I don’t really feel like it, but I’d better be helpful, or what would people think?'” –Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness, page 8

With further reflection, I discovered that she’s right; kindness is a force, every bit as powerful as any other act of inclusion that comes from a place of love and compassion. Unlike many so-called ‘positive’ emotions, kindness is itself the act of application — moving the intent of compassion into action, even (perhaps especially) for yourself.

As I read this book, which I estimated at first I could finish in an afternoon, I fell into the pattern of reading a page or two and then reflecting on it for a day or two. The information was especially relevant to me personally, as someone who is chronically unkind to herself, but in any walk of life there is something here that can be applied.
If anything, this should have been a full-length study book with structured exercises.

The book is a collection of stories to make the force of kindness more apparent, but since the topic itself was demonstrated so well as a way to move forward and into an inclusive way of being, I would like to have had more guidance about exactly how to be proactive with the information from the beginning, beyond the reflections at the end of each chapter. For the most part, the reflections called on one to think, stay open and pay attention to this or that — but not many ways to be kind in a more dynamic, active way.

All in all, it’s a wonderful place to start this study. I’m sure, with a longer book, Sharon would have fleshed out all of those points. As it is, this is an excellent primer for looking at yourself and others in a much more kind way, and for seeing kindness itself as a more powerful connective thread between us.

“It’s easy for us to feel separate from other people and from other forms of life, especially if we don’t have a reliable connection to our own inner world. Without insight into our internal cycles of pleasure and pain, desires and fears, there is a strong sense of being removed, apart or disconnected. When we do have an understanding of our inner lives, it provides an intuitive opening, even without words, to the ties that exist between ourselves and others.” – Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness, page 32

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Going to the mat for Kerry (LA Times)

Michael Ordona, Los Angeles times: As if President Bush didn’t have enough trouble, the yoga community of Los Angeles launched its campaign of chakra and awe against him on Sunday.

“Voting is one of the ways society gives us to express our values,” said keynote speaker Robert Rabbin, a writer who has practiced meditation for 35 years. “If we don’t vote, it’s a betrayal of the very yoga and meditation we pursue. There’s no such thing as being apolitical. I hope to get out the vote for the mystic crowd. Twenty million U.S. adults practice yoga and meditate regularly — that’s one hell of a swing bloc.”

At a Hollywood yoga studio called Focus Fish, about 250 people took part in “Yoga for Kerry,” an all-day fund- and consciousness-raiser aimed at regime change in the United States. For donations starting at $50, attendees could take classes with respected teachers, listen to kirtan music and political speakers, and take part in group meditations.

Organizers had hoped the event would draw about 300 people, which it nearly did, and raise as much as $20,000, which it didn’t (early estimates were about $3,600). Nevertheless, event co-producer Michael Mollura thought the day served its purpose….

“We didn’t think we’d change the balance of the financial competition,” Mollura said. “We felt like we wanted to imbue the election process with love. It’s really an attempt to create something that is positive and loving in something that is otherwise thought of as cynical. I think everybody who came here today felt loved, felt cared for. Usually these things are Bush-bashing and people-bashing, but this was a positive event.”

The crowd seemed generally in agreement that Bush had not obeyed the yamas, or moral tenets, but there was little negative rhetoric. The most pointed barbs came from speaker Rabbin and in private conversations. Most participants who took issue with the Bush administration’s mantra of preemptive war countered with their own Weapons of Meditation and Dharma.

“There isn’t a lot of policy difference between Bush and Kerry on some issues,” Rabbin said. “But there’s a world of difference between their levels of consciousness. I’m voting for Kerry and Edwards because in my mind they and the people they will bring in are at least human beings. In my mind, George Bush et al are a group of psychopaths — it’s a clinical term, the primary element of which is an absolute lack of empathy.”

At Sunday’s event, yogis and yoginis were free to follow their bliss. In one room, some indulged in “healing sessions.” Outside, some bought beads, tea and Indian food. On the roof, musicians played to appreciative audiences.

The multiethnic crowd wore gym clothes, traditional Indian garb and a few political T-shirts — in other words, a pretty typical Los Angeles bunch. While a few admitted they were there for specific teachers, most said they were drawn by the mix of yoga and politics — and a chance to say neti-neti to President Bush.

“The planet needs more kindness,” said Harijiwan, who has taught yoga for 29 years. “I would ask him to look through all of his policies to see if they make people’s lives better or if they’re based on fear.”

Adam Sigel, a representative of California Grass Roots for Kerry, said, “My concern is that our country has been taken away from us by extremists. So we’re here to show that the left have beliefs and spirit too — and we’ve got a lot more soul.”

Among the booths in the parking lot was one for the Democratic Club of West Los Angeles, where volunteers registered voters and spread the gospel according to John (Kerry).

“I was looking at the mix of religion and politics, the way that George Bush uses evangelical language,” said volunteer Matt Gunn. “Yoga is not a religion, but it is something that has a spiritual focus. I think it’s just about finding that balance. If you’re a spiritual person, then you want to bring that to the way you feel about civic life.”

While Gunn had at best “flirted” with yoga, volunteer Michelle Martin said she had been practicing for three years and was anxious to check out some of the events. “When the war was going on, meditation was helpful to me,” she said. “It’s a way to stay calm and centered amidst a lot of chaos.”

In the middle of the day, teacher Steve Ross led a yoga class of about 35 through a series of positions that the Geneva Convention might prohibit but the students seemed to enjoy. The air-conditioned studio with its soft, iPod-generated music seemed like a completely different world from the vendors and political booths in the blazing heat outside.

After Ross’ class, which was mostly young and female, Rabbin delivered his keynote speech about “spiritual activism,” to a somewhat older and mostly male crowd.

“Spiritual activism refers to the various ways that we actualize our spiritual understanding, and ‘actualize’ means ‘to make real through action,’ ” Rabbin said. “There’s a propensity in the yoga and meditation communities to think that the summit of realization is to have an internal, subjective experience of bliss or union. It isn’t. That focus on the discovery of the Self, capital S, has an unspoken downside, which is forgetfulness or neglect of civic responsibility.”

Mostly, organizers hoped to unleash the kundalini of the spiritual voting bloc, which sounds naughty but isn’t. Kundalini is “the cosmic energy in the body that is often compared to a snake lying coiled, waiting to be awakened,” according to www.yogamovement.com. It’s also the style of yoga taught by Jenn Joos, a local teacher who helped produce the event.

“I would give [Bush] an exercise that would open his heart,” Joos said. She suggested the “camel pose,” which involves kneeling and arching one’s back. “It opens up your heart chakra, which embodies your compassion. You can see the other person as yourself.”

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Metta in Motion (Yoga Journal)

Anne Cushman, Yoga Journal: Learn how to infuse your hatha yoga practice with the meditative quality of metta, or "lovingkindness."

Early last year, in the heart of a stormy winter during which the country was hurtling toward war and my own life felt like it was falling apart, I decided to use yoga to dive into an extended investigation of the Buddha’s teachings on the four brahmaviharas—literally, the “divine abodes” of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, which are also extolled in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

At the time, I was worried and brokenhearted. A funky left knee, an inflamed wrist, and chronic exhaustion as a toddler’s mother kept me from taking refuge in a sweaty, endorphin-inducing yoga flow. The brahmaviharas seemed to be exactly what I needed to focus on in my spiritual practice.

They also seemed, quite frankly, as remote as Jupiter. But the teachings of both yoga and Buddhism assured me that these luminous qualities were my true nature, a heavenly inner realm into which I could be reborn at any moment, and that my job in my spiritual practice was simply to find my way back to them…

Hatha yoga has always been one of my primary tools for conjuring up the qualities I want more of in my life. So I asked the students at a class I co-lead (along with several other yoga teachers and vipassana teacher Anna Douglas) at the Buddhist meditation center Spirit Rock to join me in an exploration: Could we infuse our asana practice with the spirit of the brahmaviharas? Could yoga’s physical techniques, in turn, induce an embodied experience of these spiritual qualities, which we could then express in the world? Could the brahmaviharas be touched through bones and muscle, blood and prana, in the midst of our ordinary lives of e-mails and diapers and credit-card bills and listening to NPR in freeway traffic?

The Basics of Metta

In the oldest forms of Buddhism, the first brahmavihara that practitioners work to cultivate—the cornerstone of all the rest—is metta, a Pali word translated as “love” or, more often, “lovingkindness.” Metta is not the emotional train-wreck version of love celebrated in Danielle Steel novels or television shows like Married By America. It’s not passion or sentimentality; it’s not laced with desire or possessiveness. Rather, metta is a kind of unconditional well-wishing, an openhearted nurturing of ourselves and others just as we all are. And—most crucially—it’s a quality that can be methodically cultivated through formal practice.

In traditional metta meditation, we systematically offer lovingkindness to ourselves and others through the silent repetition of classic phrases. We begin by offering metta to ourselves: May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be joyful. May I be free. We then extend the same wishes to others: first a dear friend or benefactor; then a neutral person, such as a checkout clerk at our local supermarket; then someone we find extremely difficult. (According to Patanjali, difficult people are especially suitable recipients of lovingkindness.) Ultimately, we extend metta to all beings everywhere, in an expansive blessing that takes in everyone and everything from the mosquito buzzing around our head to space aliens in distant galaxies.

Practice Metta on the Mat

To invite more metta into our hatha yoga practice, my students and I began taking five or 10 minutes, when we first came to our mats, to hold ourselves in the embrace of loving awareness. We’d set ourselves up in a receptive, nurturing posture; my personal favorite was Supta Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), a reclining supported backbend that gently opened my heart and belly. Then we would take some time to notice—without judgment—the emotional weather in our hearts and the precise physical sensations that accompanied it. Did our hearts feel like clenched fists, budding orchids, buzzing bees, ice cubes? Did we have a hard time finding them at all?

Next we’d set an intention to move through our yoga with lovingkindness. Sometimes we’d focus this intention with metta phrases: May I be peaceful and joyful. May my body be well. One student said it helped her to synchronize these phrases with her breath—she’d visualize flooding her body with metta as each breath poured in. Sometimes I found it helpful to use an image instead, such as rocking myself in my own arms the way I rock my son Skye when he wakes up crying. Some days, we’d direct our metta to body parts that particularly needed attention. We’d wrap our attention around our aching hip joints, our throbbing knees, our exhausted eyes. Then we’d direct our good wishes there: May you find ease and well-being.

As we began to move through our asana practice together, I’d invite my students to modify my suggested poses to cherish their own unique bodies, taking special care to support, not aggravate, any weaknesses or injuries. In my own practice, I tried to choose the postures and techniques that would nurture me most. This didn’t mean that I spent an hour just lolling around on the floor. If I came to my mat after a morning of answering e-mail, what felt kindest was a vigorous sequence of standing poses that wrung out the tension from my muscles and sent prana pulsing and coursing through my body. When Skye had kept me up all night with nightmares about dogs in his crib, it was kinder to drape myself over some bolsters and just breathe deeply.

To generate and intensify feelings of metta, my students and I found it particularly useful to explore poses that opened our heart chakras, such as backbends, side stretches, and twists. It was easier to send and receive love, we found, when our physical hearts were less constricted. Kindness came easier when our breaths were full and deep. We could come to our mats seething with resentment and yet leave after a vigorous vinyasa flow with our hearts singing.

As I focused on practicing with metta, I began to notice how much of my inner dialogue on the mat was subtly oriented toward critiquing what was wrong with my body and my practice: a subliminal commentary on my pooching belly, my wandering mind, the place where my hip froze during Revolved Triangle. I saw ways that my yoga practice had been reinforcing and refining my ability to criticize myself, rather than training my capacity to wish myself well.

Metta practice gave me a systematic way to shift this inner narrative.When I was struggling in a pose, I experimented with sending metta to the shoulder or hip or muscle that was squawking the loudest: May you be happy. Then I’d let the correct response arrive intuitively: whether to stay in the pose and continue to send metta, adjust it, or exit. One of the things I found useful about my metta exploration was that it was so nonprescriptive—it wasn’t dogma but an infinitely creative response to each situation.

Find Your Metta In Meditation

Cultivating lovingkindness in asanas felt like a good start, but I knew it was only scratching the surface of true metta practice, which aims to transform our relationship not just with ourselves but with the world. To build on the insights from our asana practice, my students and I would follow it with a period of seated metta meditation in which we practiced extending to others the lovingkindness we had been cultivating on the mat.

To link our meditation practice to our asana practice—and truly embody our insights—we tracked the effects of the metta meditation on our bodies. As we sent metta to ourselves and others, we observed the subtle and not-so-subtle ways our hearts contracted and released, the tightening or softening of our pelvic floors, the deepening or constriction of our breaths. As we explored sending metta to friends, acquaintances, and difficult people, we brought to mind how we responded to the pleasant, neutral, and difficult sensations in our asana practice. For instance, was there any similarity between the way I responded to my intransigent hip joint and the way I responded to the neighbor who was threatening to sue me for floodwater runoff into her yard?

Like many of my students, I quickly discovered that it was infinitely easier to generate a rush of warmth and tenderness toward a good friend than toward myself. One of the blessings of regular metta practice is that it puts me in touch with how many people I truly love—and feeling this love, I discovered, could be an immediate, somatic source of nourishment and joy, no matter how much stress I was under. Metta could connect me, in an instant, to people I cared about near and far—from my son, asleep in the next room, to his former baby-sitter, now volunteering on an organic mulberry farm in Laos. It could also connect me to people I’d never even met, like a child in Iraq whose face stared out at me from the front page of the Times. And this sense of connection flooded not just my heart but my whole body with positive sensations.

Certain days, my students and I discovered, our hearts felt full of lovingkindness; other days, we were anxious and agitated and angry, and doing metta seemed only to make us more upset. We tried not to use our metta practice as an excuse for beating ourselves up about not being more loving. As our vipassana teacher, Anna Douglas, noted, “Metta is a purification practice, so it often brings up its opposite.” Just as our attempts to focus on the breath illuminate, first of all, how unsteady our minds are, our attempts to contact our innate lovingkindness may immediately illuminate the ways in which we have been conditioned to be less than loving and kind. This does not mean that the practice is not working. On the contrary, it means it’s working perfectly.
The Meta of Metta

One of the delights of metta practice is that it’s so portable. I am finding it tailor-made to my current life as a mom, in which I spend more time reading Winnie-the-Pooh books and walking at a toddler’s pace to the park than I spend on the meditation cushion.

One of my students, a stay-at-home mom, told me she likes to send metta to her family while folding their laundry: May you be joyful, she says as she holds her daughter’s sock in one hand and vainly looks for its match. May you be safe.

Another friend tells me she pretends that her stationary bike at the gym is a Tibetan prayer wheel; instead of watching CNN, she pumps out metta to the recipient of her choice with every cycle of her legs. Someone else I know uses every stoplight or traffic jam as a signal to send metta to the person in the car in front of him.

One student reports she has been regularly practicing metta while watching various political leaders on the news. Instead of raging and arguing with the television set, she silently sends them metta: May you be happy. May you be well. “I figure that happy people rarely start wars,” she tells me.

And me? As I’m falling asleep, instead of retraveling the day’s peaks and swamps in my mind, I send metta to myself and the people I love. (I’ve found metta particularly helpful when struggling with insomnia at 2 in the morning.) Sending metta to strangers I read about in the paper has transformed the way I experience the headlines. And in the midst of an argument, I try to remember to take a few breaths and sense what’s going on in my heart and belly, just as I do on my yoga mat. I silently send metta to myself and the other person. Then I go on with the conversation and see if it proceeds differently.

Like most of the students in my class, I’ve found that consciously infusing my yoga practice with lovingkindness has given me greater access to it throughout my life—even when my life is not going precisely the way I’d like. Metta practice helps us not just understand but feel that we are woven into a great web of relationships, which we can light up through the power of our attention. And it helps us shift our focus from getting love to creating it, from improving our bodies to cherishing them, and from fixing life to embracing it.

See also Cultivate Goodness: How to Practice Lovingkindness

About our author

Anne Cushman is the author of Enlightenment for Idiots and From Here to Nirvana: A Guide to Spiritual India.
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