lovingkindness practice

The thing you may sometimes confuse with true kindness

Someone recently wrote to me sharing his reservations about the use of the word “love” to translate metta. Metta is a Buddhist word that is most often translated as “lovingkindness.”

I confess I used to translate metta as love, and did so a lot in the guide to the metta bhavana meditation practice that you’ll find on the Wildmind website. (This is something I’ll be addressing in an upcoming revision of the site.)

Nowadays I prefer to translate metta as kindness, which is much more accurate and less ambiguous. There are so many different forms of love, aren’t there?

What my correspondent had to say was as follows:

I don’t want to try to cultivate lovingkindness on top of habitual hostility. Sugary frosting to cover over the unpalatable.

It can seem like it is positive, but it leaves a trap underneath which can be triggered. If someone does something averse towards me, no matter how ‘lovingly friendly’ I have been, the trap will trigger into aversion, which sudden switch is very unpleasant and leads to attacking behaviors.

I appreciated this comment about the “sugary frosting” and the aversion that can so easily be triggered toward someone who does something we don’t like. It’s a common phenomenon. You hold open a door for someone and they don’t say thank you, and how do you feel? Many times annoyance arises. You offer someone advice and they dismiss it. Again, this can be annoying. One trigger I’ve noticed in my own life is that if I’m holding something out for a person to take, and they don’t reach out in response, I get pissed off, as if they’re rejecting or insulting me.

I think that a lot of the time when we think they’re being loving and compassionate, we’re actually “being nice.” The primary motivation for being nice is to be liked, which brings pleasant feelings. Being nice is transactional. We’re buying pleasant feelings by getting another person to appreciate us.

But when we get the opposite of pleasant feelings (for example it feels unpleasant when someone doesn’t say thank you or doesn’t accept what we’ve offered them) our instinct is to react with aversion. The person is no longer responding to our “being nice” in the way we want. They longer deserve our niceness. In fact they deserve our displeasure. We need to make them feel bad; they deserve it.

Our previous “niceness” was the “sugary frosting” my correspondent talked about. Our ill will is the “unpalatable, habitual hostility” underlying this.

I believe that this “being nice” is what the Buddha referred to, in Pali, as pema. The Pali-English dictionary translates pema as “love” or “affection.”

The important thing to note about pema is that it’s conditional. The Buddha gave an example of how this can work:

And how is love (pema) born of love (pema)? It’s when someone likes, loves, and cares for a person. Others treat that person with liking, love, and care. They think: ‘These others like the person I like.’ And so love for them [i.e. those others] springs up.

Here our love (pema) toward others is conditional upon them liking someone we like. If those others hated the person we love, the Buddha, said later in the same teaching, we’d generally end up hating them.

This is the “trap” my correspondent was aware of.

The Buddha talked about what happens when one “likes, loves, and cares for a person.” But that person can be us. We can think we’re a person that others should admire, like, and appreciate. And we might do what we can to show that we’re worth of that (including holding open doors, giving advice, and all manner of thing). And when others don’t seem to respond in a way that makes us feel good, we turn against them.

None of this has anything to do with kindness, or metta.

Actual kindness is based on an empathetic understanding that another person’s happiness and unhappiness are as real to them as ours are to us. When we relate to another in this way, we naturally don’t want to act in a way that causes them to suffer. We naturally want to act in ways that support their well-being. We’ll think about what would benefit them. We’ll talk to them in ways that show we care about their well-being and that make them feel affirmed. If we offer criticism, it’s not with a desire to hurt them but to help them feel happier in the long term.

And so if they act in a way that’s averse to us, and that doesn’t make us feel pleasure, and perhaps even makes us experience unpleasant feelings, we don’t seek to “punish” them. We still have their well-being at heart.

True kindness is unconditional. It only depends on our being aware that others are, just like us, feeling beings. It depends on our recognizing that they prefer, just like us, to be happy and not to suffer.

People say, “I’m very good at loving other people, but I hate myself.” And I think that a lot of the time the “love” they feel for other people is pema. They feel a lack of love for themselves, and so they try to be “nice” toward others in the hope that those others will show them appreciation.

Of course you can hate yourself in every waking hour of your day. But there’s only so much affirmation you can get from others. And even if others did show us affection all the time it wouldn’t make up for the lack of love you have for yourself. So you can never feel at ease with yourself by being nice to others, hoping to be appreciated in return.

When others aren’t sufficiently appreciative of you, you might be annoyed with them. But you’ll probably on some level hate yourself even more. Surely the lack of love you’re getting from others is a sign there must be something deficient about you?

My own experience was that it wasn’t until I started to empathize with myself — recognizing that I was a feeling being, and that my own happiness and unhappiness were important to me — that I found I could begin to empathize with others. The difference was quite noticeable: here was I, a feeling being; there was another person who was also a feeling being. My feelings were real and vivid to me; so were theirs to them. Here was I, preferring happiness to suffering; there was another person who also preferred happiness to suffering. Knowing these things, how could I act in a way that disregarded their well-being and happiness?

And it was then that I realized how much of my own “kindness” and “compassion” weren’t actually true kindness and compassion, based on empathy. Instead they were attempts to be nice, and to be liked, based on a lack of self-kindness.

I’m not saying it’s like this for everyone, but it might be the case for you too.

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Meditating with pets

I have a daily Zoom meditation group as part of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative, and there are often a few pets in evidence. In fact one day someone commented that it must be “Take Your Dog to Meditation Day.”

In some ways pets are natural meditators. I’ve had a few cats in my life, and currently have a couple of dogs, and their ability to “just sit” and to be in the moment puts mine to shame.

At the same time, sometimes when we’re trying to meditate they want to get involved in ways that are distracting, and so that’s the topic I’d like to address today.

I stress I’m talking about cats and dogs here. And since I currently have two dogs and haven’t had a cat in a long time it’s almost inevitable that I’ll be talking mostly about dogs. Hopefully you’ll be able to adapt what I say here to your particular circumstances.

Preparing for Meditation

Even before I meditate, I’ll separate my dogs from each other. When they play together it’s a very noisy affair. There’s lots of running around, wrestling, and growling. I don’t want that going on when I meditate. We have baby gates in the house, so I can have one dog in the room with me, and the other one in the next room. Because the one in the next room (that’s Suki) can see through the barrier, there’s no anxiety. I’m right there.

If the dogs seem to be restless as I’m preparing to meditate, I’ll often give them something by way of a distraction. Suki is still teething, and so I’ll make sure she has a teething toy; it’s kind of distracting to realize during a meditation that your dog is destroying the kitchen cabinets. And sometimes I’ll give them each a “Kong” (a thick rubber cone) filled with frozen peanut butter. That keeps them busy for a good few minutes while I settle in to meditation, and after they’ve done with their treats they usually settle down as well.

My dogs also tend to be very quiet when they’re in their crates, so I’ve sometimes taken that approach during meditation. But not everyone has crates for their pets, and I imagine not all pets are quiet when they’re crated.

Be Empathetic

Next, if their human sitting still with their eyes closed isn’t something they’ve been exposed to before, your pet may be confused by you meditating. My experience has been that they get used to it in time, although you may have to work with them until they do. And maybe they never will.

A cat of mine called Piglit used to be very curious when I meditated. Sometimes she’d just come and sit beside me with her eyes closed, looking for all the world like she was joining in with me. Other times she’d bat at me with a paw, trying to get my attention. One of my dogs, Luna, does this as well. In fact sometimes she’ll stare at me and bark. It’s hard to ignore.

When this happens I think it’s best to be empathetic. This can be a confusing situation for your animal. Ignoring them can make them even more confused. Often they need attention.

And they’re individuals, so forcing them to do something isn’t very kind. Don’t feel that your dog “should” quietly sit as you meditate. Why should they? You need to work with them on their own terms.

Make Contact

Today, during an online sit, I opened my eyes to see one of the participants sitting cross-legged between her two Labrador retrievers. She was holding one dog’s paw, and had a hand resting on the neck of the other. In order to get her attention they’d started barking during the meditation, and this was her way of calming them down. Given this small degree of contact, both dogs were perfectly happy and relaxed, and were just lying quietly beside her.

Most pets love touch, so simply reaching a hand out to them and making contact, or let them make contact with me, if sometimes enough to calm them.

If you have to stroke your pet in order to help them settle, that’s fine. A lot of people think this would be a distraction, but you can pet your animal mindfully and with kindness, so that it becomes part of the meditation.

If I’m stroking my pet I do it in time with the breathing. Find your own (and your pet’s) pace. Let the meditating and the petting be one single experience. Be mindful of the movements of the arm and of the sensations of contact, and of how these things synchronize with the movements of the breathing.

Luna, who stays in the room with me, is small, so if she’s really persistent in trying to get my attention I’ll often pick her up (if she’ll let me) and sit her on my lap. (Suki’s too large for that.) That makes it easier to pet her and show her reassurance. She rarely stays on my lap for more than 15 minutes, and then she’ll jump back onto the floor. I’m happy to let her go. That’s what she wants to do.

Practice Lovingkindness

Often I’ll include Luna in my lovingkindness (metta) meditation. My favored way of cultivating metta — which I just think of as “kindness” — is to remember what it’s like to look with loving eyes. I’ll remember times I’ve watched my kids sleeping, for example. As soon as I do this, I feel a sense of warmth, tenderness, and softness around my eyes. And then as I turn my attention toward my own body, and Luna sitting on my lap, those same qualities are brought into the way I’m regarding the two of us.

With my eyes soft, relaxed, and kind, I’m able to embrace myself and my dog in a single field of loving awareness. There’s no question of this being a distraction. When I’d doing this I’m very concretely cultivating metta (kindness) for myself and another living being. We are, experientially, one body, not two.

When Luna is on my lap, she’s usually very happy to have her back stroked or her tummy tickled. (Until she decides she’s had enough and goes away.) Sometimes though she wants to lick my face. So I’ll just accept that as part of my meditation practice. I’m accepting kindness, which is an important practice in its own right. Usually she doesn’t do it for long.

Practice Compassionate Reassurance

Sometimes my dogs bark while I’m meditating. A neighbor might be taking their dog out, or a delivery worker might be dropping something off. And the dogs see it as their responsibility to defend the house. When Luna (my first dog) started doing this, I was a bit annoyed at first. I wanted to yell at her to get her to shut up. Then I saw her hackles were up and realized that she was physiologically and emotionally aroused. She was experiencing anger, and possibly fear as well. Her territory was under threat, and she was trying to ward off this menace and to alert me to danger.

So it became obvious that what she needed was reassurance. So when she’s barking like this (and I’m not meditating) I’ll go through to her, pet her to calm her down, and emphasize that the person or dog outside is a “friend.” (I’m training her to recognize that as a reassurance word.)

In meditation I don’t get up and pet the dogs, but —without moving — I do talk to them reassuringly. I’ll say things like, “It’s just a friend, Luna (or Suki)! Thank you for protecting the house. Good girl. It’s just a friend, though. You’re OK. You’re OK.” (“You’re OK” is another phrase I’m training the dogs to recognize as reassuring. I reckon that if they associate “You’re OK” with the experience of calming down, those words will start to be effective even without physical contact.)

Again, you might think that this is a distraction from the meditation, but I see it as part of the meditation. If I was dealing with a knot of anxiety in meditation, I’d talk to it in a similar reassuring way: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I know this is scary, but we’re safe right now. I love you and I want you to be happy.”

It’s the same principle here, except that the knot of anxiety is in my dog’s belly rather than mine. All suffering deserves to be met with compassion. My dogs’ barking is a sign of their suffering. Therefore I respond compassionately.

Of course you have the option simply to let your dogs bark. After all, it’s an impermanent phenomenon and will therefore come and go. But I live in an apartment building and I think it would be a bit obnoxious to let my dogs disturb other people. And unrestrained barking isn’t a habit I want to encourage.

Practice Patience and Insight

Although I’ve said that sometimes your dogs need reassurance and comfort, sometimes they don’t! Or at least sometimes it’s better just to let them quiet down on their own, and maybe give them just minimal attention or no attention.

This morning while I was sitting, Suki started whining in the kitchen. I decided just to let her work through her emotions on her own. It isn’t really in my or the dogs’ long-term best interests if I jump up and attend to them every time they whine. After all, they whine every single time I leave the house, and I don’t respond by staying permanently at home. That the dogs are sometimes unhappy is something I just have to learn to tolerate. So be patient. They’ll be OK.

And bear in mind the insight that things are impermanent. “Things” here include my dogs’ feelings. They may be unhappy for a minute, but they’ll calm down and be at peace. Your feelings are impermanent too. It may be unpleasant to hear your dog crying, but it won’t go on forever.

It’s a judgement call to decide whether to intervene or not. Everyone is different, and all animals are different. I bear in mind, “Is this for our [i.e. mine and the dogs’] long-term happiness and well-being.”

So these are the kinds of situations I sometimes encounter meditating with dogs in the house, and some of the ways I respond to them.

Now bear in mind that my dog is not your dog, and that my dog is definitely not your cat or your African Grey parrot! So what works for me might not work for you.

In fact I’m sure some of you have evolved your own ways of meditating with pets. Perhaps you could share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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Love, grammar, and magic

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Weinstein’s book, “Grammar for a Full Life,” which I intend to write a review of later this week. (Spoiler: I’ll be recommending the book highly.) “Grammar for a Full Life” is a book on a topic that you might consider unusual—essentially it’s on the spirituality of grammar.

You might wonder what grammar and spirituality might have to do with each other. A lot, as it happens, but I’ll say more about that in the actual review. Right now I’d like to give a flavor of that connection by providing you with an example based on the book. It’s an example that starts off in the normal territory of grammar (which we often think of, I believe, as worthy but dull). But then it leads us into the territory of magic, and to a way of thinking about what we’re doing in meditation that has the potential to make our practice more vibrant and meaningful.

(Bear in mind that I’m condensing and simplifying, although hopefully not too grossly distorting, what Weinstein says.)

First the ordinary grammar: You’re probably familiar with the distinction between the use of the “active voice” and the “passive voice” in writing. The active voice is represented in a sentence such as, “I drove the car.” The “I” in the sentence is the doer—the one that actively drives. The car is the thing that “I” drove.

A passive-voice version of the same sentence would be “The car was driven.” Here there’s no active agent. Or at least the one who’s doing the driving is left unnamed and unexplained.

Because it neglects to mention who the “doer” is, passive voice is a construction favored by those who want to avoid taking responsibility. A politician says “Mistakes were made” because that construction leaves who actually made the mistakes (often themselves) unnamed. They give the impression that “responsibility has been taken” (another passive construction) but they themselves don’t take any responsibility. Similarly, when I point to a broken vase and ask my children what happened, they’ll usually say “It broke.” Perhaps my children are destined for careers in politics.

Weinstein points out that switching from using the passive to the active voice can be empowering, reminding us that we have agency. To take one of his examples, if someone asks you why you’ve been holding a phone to your ear without saying anything for a long time, you might say, “I’m being kept on hold.” This way of speaking (and thinking) reveals and reinforces a sense of helpless passivity. If you were to say something like “I’m waiting to talk to my bank” you’re framing yourself as an active agent—someone who is choosing to wait. It’s more likely, Weinstein points out, that using more active language will give you more of a sense of freedom—the freedom to hang up and call back later, for example. Using the active voice encourages us to take responsibility and to remind ourselves that we “remain the makers of our fate,” as Weinstein puts it.

Yet the passive voice, Weinstein also says, can express a form of “creative passivity” as well. The active voice can lead to us being effortful to such an extent that we get in our own way. Weinstein gives the example of his early attempts to sing being marred by having too much tension in his vocal apparatus. A skilled teacher later helped him to let go, so that his voice could flow, effortlessly, from him.

The active voice can also feed into our ego, while the passive voice can be expressive of modesty and of an awareness of interdependence. The woman who says, “I won the Oscar for best actress,” is suggesting that her talent and hard work alone were responsible for her success, Weinstein points out. On the other hand the woman who says “I was awarded the Oscar for best actress” is admitting that other factors are involved in this success. Luck can certainly be one of those factors (some actors are discovered while waiting tables—how fortunate for the actor that the director sat in that particular restaurant or cafe and not in the one down the road!). Perhaps people on the judging panel happen to know and like them. Perhaps other, better, performances weren’t brought to the judges’ attention. She has also been trained, coached, and advised by many people, who also contributed to her performance. The passive voice—”I was awarded the Oscar…”—can help us to recognize this complexity and also help move the “self” from the center of the story.

Additionally, the passive voice very accurately expresses how creation happens. Fiction writers talk about how their characters behave in ways that are unexpected to them and experience themselves as the passive recipients of their characters’ dramas. Painters feel inspiration flowing through them, and so on. The passive voice expresses the reality of what takes place when we create. (And not just when we create: my article on non-self, The boys in the basement, the empty room, and the plagiarist, explains how the sense we have that we own our actions is in fact an illusion.)

But what of love and magic? The title of this little essay promises to say something about those topics as well.

First, grammar and magic are related. There’s an old Scots word for a magical spell: a glammer. Glammer made its way into English as “glamour,” which is the spell cast on us by beauty. Glammer was originally an alteration of “grammar,” which is from the Greek grammatikē tekhnē, meaning “the art of letters.” Magic used signs, symbols, and letters to conjure up desired results. Grammar is from the same Greek root, and it does the same thing: letters and symbols are used in certain ways to transmit a desired meaning (a pattern of thought, an understanding) from one mind to another, in a form of telepathy. Although Weinstein doesn’t say this in his book, grammar is magic.

Next, Weinstein also talks about a form of sentence that is neither passive nor active (or is both), and which brings us into the realm of the magical. And that grammatical form is one that’s commonly used in meditation.

In a chapter subtitled “Blessing,” Weinstein calls this the “active-passive hybrid.” The formula for this hybrid, which is rare in English, is the one that “begins with the auxiliary subjunctive verb may.” For example, “May your spirits lift.”

Who is the one who takes action here? The speaker is not saying “I raise your spirits” or even “I hope your spirits lift.” It is some unnamed force that will do the lifting. So this may seem like a passive construction. But at the same time the speaker is making an invocation. The form of words suggests that they have the power to invoke and direct the forces that can affect how another person feels. And so it also seems active. Perhaps it’s both, or neither.

As Weinstein says,

Insofar as I can tell, the blessing formula using may does several things at once.

  • it associates the speaker with a certain wish or vision, which she names;
  • it implicitly acknowledges that she, all by herself, doesn’t have sufficient power to bring the wished-for outcome to pass; and
  • it invites the people, forces, or divinities whose help is required for that outcome to come into play.

Now this “blessing formula,” although I’ve never called it that, and so I thank Weinstein for the term, is common in lovingkindness and compassion meditation. We might use any of the following phrases in this type of practice:

  • May I be well
  • May you be at peace
  • May we be free from suffering
  • May you be kind to yourselves and others

Those of us who do this kind of meditation are so used to that particular form of words that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps thinking about it would enrich our practice?

So I’d like you to imagine, as you’re reciting phrases of that sort—phrases of blessing—that you are becoming a channel for unknown forces that are indeed capable of bringing about wellness, peace, freedom from suffering, and an all-pervasive attitude of kindness. These unknown forces may reside in the entire universe, or in the earth beneath you, the heavens above you, or deep inside you. But consider that in saying “May you be at peace” you are inviting them to flow through you.

In passive voice terms, love is flowing through you. But there is also an active component. You are willing or inviting the forces of love to arise. You are willingly becoming a conduit. But you are not a passive conduit. You are bestowing these blessings upon the world, or upon particular individuals.

I say “imagine this,” but really I mean, “feel this.” Really I mean, “experience this.” Really I mean, “Let this happen.”

How enriching this is, not to limply and half-heartedly be reciting phrases, but to open ourselves up to love, to be a conduit for it, allowing it to affect our entire world. You have receptivity but also agency. You have power but also the humility to know that the power isn’t really yours.

The practices of lovingkindness and compassion are included in a set called the “brahma-viharas,” or the “divine abidings.” The name suggests our dwelling in a beautiful but potent, almost god-like, state of love. But it could also suggest a beautiful but potent state of love dwelling in (or flowing through) us.

So I recommend that you let yourself (another passive-active construction we often use in meditation instruction) adopt this perspective: that in lovingkindness and compassion practice you are inviting blessings to well up inside of you, and that those blessings are then, through you, bestowing themselves upon the world.

Once you’re aware of grammar as magic, of grammar as glammer, your meditation can become magic rather than a mere formal exercise in training the mind.

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. It is supported by, at present, over 600 people who donate an amount every month and who receive numerous benefits in return. Click here to learn more about the meditation initiative.

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Tonglen: a practice of compassion for self and other

In response to the coronavirus crisis, I put together a free course on how we can find calmness and balance when things around us are falling apart. It consisted of 28 guided meditations, accompanied by just a few written words for context. The materials were delivered by email.

I also recorded a compassion practice to help us remain open to the suffering within and around us.

This practice of “Tonglen” — “giving and receiving” — is a form of lovingkindness or compassion meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It includes a reminder for us to bring compassion to our own suffering, and so it’s also a self-compassion practice.

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Love isn’t what you look for; it’s how you look

In one of my early experiences of lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana), a teacher told me to look for feelings of love in my heart, and then to spread that love to other people. I duly searched my heart, seeking feelings of love. But I couldn’t find any! There was nothing there. Zilch. Nada!

This experience was very distressing. Since I couldn’t find love in my heart, I wasn’t able to do the rest of the practice. After all, how can you share something with other people if you don’t have it to give?

And because I couldn’t do the practice, I had plenty of time to reflect on what it meant that I couldn’t find any love in my heart. Presumably, since this was how the practice was done, there was something wrong with me. I must be defective. This thought was very unpleasant. I found it rather upsetting, in fact.

The Downward Spiral

Now I had some strongly unpleasant feelings to be aware of during this practice that (apparently) I couldn’t do. I took those feelings as confirmation that there was something wrong with me, and began to sink into despair and depression.

Fortunately the teacher eventually rang the bell. I started to feel better once the meditation was over.

I thought it was just me who had had this experience, but a few months later a friend was talking about the problems of doing lovingkindness meditation, and he described exactly the same thing that I’ve just talked about — a downward spiral of negativity triggered by the suggestion that he look for love in his heart.

Even by the time my friend shared his own experience, I’d figured out that what worked best for me was to observe my heart, accept whatever was there, whether it was pleasant or unpleasant, or even if there were no feelings there at all, and then to wish myself (and then others) well.

Love Is Not a Feeling

Later still I realized that the practice was simply about kindness. It’s about being kind to ourselves, and then extending that kindness to others. And kindness is not a feeling. Kindness is an intention. It starts with empathetically recognizing that we are feeling beings who desire happiness, peace, and wellbeing. Having seen that truth, kindness wishes that those beings be well.

Just think about that right now. Consider that you yourself are a feeling being, and recognize that your feelings are important to you. You’d rather be happy than suffer. You’d rather be at peace than troubled. You’d rather have a sense of wellbeing than be sick or sad.

And then call one other person to mind — someone you know. They, too, feel.  Their feelings are as real and vivid to them as yours are to you. They, just like you, feel happy. Just like you they suffer. and, just like you, they prefer happiness over suffering.

When you consider the reality of someone’s feelings in that way, you probably don’t want to do anything that would harm them. You probably want to support their wellbeing and act in ways that make them feel valued. In other words you want to be kind to them.

So that’s what kindness is: a desire to actively support someone’s wellbeing.

Now there may be feelings associated with your kindness. Sometimes you’ll experience a sense of warmth, openness, or tenderness in the heart, for example. But those feelings just accompany your kindness. They aren’t themselves kindness.

Love Is in How You Look…

Some years back I picked up a practice from the American Zen teacher teacher Jan Chozen Bays. She called it “Loving Eyes.”

She reminds us that we all know how to look with love. It’s easy to recall or imagine looking lovingly at a cute kitten or puppy, a beloved child, or even a romantic partner. When we do this an attitude of care, openness, tenderness, and love easily arises. Kindness arises. And accompanying those attitudes there are usually feelings as well. We find that we can turn our attention to the world or to ourselves, and continue to experience that kindness in relation to the new object.

So we’re looking with love or kindness, whether that’s a literal looking involving the eyes, or a metaphorical looking in involving our inner gaze as we bring our kindly attention toward our own being or to people we think about.

This act of looking is, as I’ve mentioned, accompanied by feelings — the pleasant feelings of kindness. It happens quite naturally and easily, and just in case you find it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry, for it gets easier with practice.

…Not What You’re Looking For

So it seems that for me and for most people, lovingkindness practice works best if we don’t look for feelings down in the heart, but if we look with kindness. Whatever feelings may be present in the heart, we can regard them kindly. If we’re feeling sad, we can regard the sadness with kindness and love. If we’re feeling neutral, we can regard the blankness with love. It really doesn’t matter what’s in the heart.

So I’d like to leave you with this simple suggestion: Love isn’t what you look for; it’s how you look.

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“All people and all circumstances are my allies.”

All people and all circumstances are my allies

In an interview, Lynn Jurich, the founder and CEO of the solar energy company, Sunrun, said:

Every morning my meditation is: “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” I repeat it every morning: “All people and all circumstances are my allies.”

This struck me as a deeply wise and self-compassionate saying. It also struck me as being one that’s very much in line with key teachings from the Buddhist tradition.

Normally we don’t think of all people and all circumstances as being our allies. Often we experience ourselves as being in opposition to others, and see circumstances as being against us, or at least not being as we would want them to be.

The interviewer asked Jurich whether she’d see even her business competitor, Elon Musk, as an ally. She said he would, citing the fact that he runs his own solar electric company out of a concern for the climate.

Perhaps the interview was curtailed, or perhaps Jurich thought one example was enough, but there are of course plenty of other ways that she could see Musk as an ally. For example, if he comes out with an improved solar project or a great advertising campaign, then that encourages Jurich’s own company to do better. If she feels jealous of Musk for his successes, then there’s something to learn there about the painful nature of jealousy and the need for patience.

An Old Teaching

Jurich’s “All people and all circumstances are my allies” may even have come from the Buddhist tradition. Certain Buddhist teachings emphasize the practice of meeting adversity as an opportunity to learn.

For example, the 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva wrote:

…just like treasure appearing in my house
Without any effort on my behalf to obtain it,
I should be happy to have an enemy
For he assists me in my conduct of Awakening.

And because I am able to practice (patience) with him,
He is worthy of being given
The very first fruits of my patience,
For in this way he is the cause of it.

Shantideva’s view is that without adversity it’s impossible to develop patience. You should therefore be grateful to have an enemy.

A later formulation of this principle, this one from Tibet, says, “transform all mishaps into the path of awakening.”

But Jurich’s form of this teaching is more appealing to me because it encapsulates so much, so neatly, in just eight words. It’s perfect, in fact, for memorizing and using as a “mantra.”

Creating a Meditation Practice

Jurich is a meditator, and she’s said that she’s brought “All people and all circumstances are my allies” into her morning meditation practice. This is a vital step, because we can read advice like this and get a pleasant glow from encountering the idea, but not put it into practice. To take a teaching like this on board we really have to etch it into our brains through focus and repetition.

Here’s a test: if you close your eyes right now, can you remember Jurich’s mantra, word for word? Or do you just remember the general idea? The problem is that our attention moves on, and we forget not just the form of the words, but even the message they encapsulate.

If you don’t make an effort to remember this phrase by repeating it in a focused way, you’ll forget all about it.

So first try memorizing the words. See if you can get it exact. Then leave it a few minutes and try again. Test to make sure that the phrase is actually stored in your long-term memory. You may have to do this many times before they stick.

Next, find five minutes in which you can close your eyes and turn this teaching into a meditation. Just drop the phrase “All people and all circumstances are my allies” into your mind. Let the words just sink in. Then say them again. Sometimes, as you’re doing this, briefly remember people and circumstances that try your patience. Don’t go into the whole background, justifying to yourself why you’re angry. Just remind yourself of some challenge, and remind yourself, “All people and all circumstances are my allies.” This person is not an enemy, but an ally. This circumstance is challenging, but it can help me learn and become a better person.

Making This Your Life

Let’s say you keep doing this practice for days, weeks, even years. Probably a lot of the time you’ll still get angry with people or things, and then catch yourself. “Oh, yeah. ‘All people and all circumstances are my allies.’ ” Perhaps sometimes you’ll be aware that you’re getting into a situation that’s likely to be challenging, and you’ll be able to go into it with your heart open, knowing that it’s an opportunity to learn.

I’ve only just begun working with this mantra. I’ve been memorizing it, turning it into a meditation practice, and putting it into practice. But already it’s helping me to feel more at peace with the challenges of my life. Even as I’m writing this article I’m being interrupted repeatedly by my son’s near-constant questioning. And I remember that these interruptions are my ally. They give me an opportunity to maintain love rather than express irritation. They give me an opportunity to communicate more skillfully, and to learn from my mistakes when I fail to do so. They give me an opportunity to be a better person.

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Seven tips for people who struggle with lovingkindness practice

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In the tradition I practice in, lovingkindness (metta bhavana) and mindfulness meditation are considered equally important, and yet my own informal surveys suggest that about a third of long-term practitioners have essentially given up on lovingkindness practice, doing it hardly at all, or skipping it altogether.

Often people have problems with the first stage, which is about cultivating lovingkindness for oneself. They look for (and are often encouraged to look for) feelings of kindness toward themselves. If those feelings fail to appear, they get anxious or despondent, assuming that they’re defective in some way.

In many cases, though, it’s the practice as a whole that they find difficult. Again, feelings of love may fail to appear. And when this happens people can take it to mean that they’re somehow personally lacking in love. That’s, of course, a depressing thing to think about yourself.

So there can be a sense of failure around the practice, which leads to self-loathing. This is of course the exact opposite of what should happen.

I’d like to suggest a few approaches to lovingkindness meditation that can take away that sense of failure, and help make the practice more accessible, effective, and rewarding.

1. Stop thinking of it as “lovingkindness” meditation.

“Lovingkindness” practice is what metta bhavana is commonly known as, but I don’t talk these days about cultivating lovingkindness. Instead I use the much more accessible term, “kindness.” “Lovingkindness” is not part of our natural vocabulary, and it suggests that we’re trying to bring into being something unusual. Using the word “kindness” reminds us that we’re simply connecting with a very familiar, everyday quality. And kindness is what metta is. Both kindness and metta begin with an empathetic recognition that a person is a feeling being who wants to be happy and doesn’t want to suffer. Having recognized this, we don’t want to act in ways that cause them to suffer, and we want to support their long-term happiness and wellbeing.

2. Start by sitting with kindness.

Right at the very beginning, as you settle in to meditate, bring qualities of kindness into how you hold your body. It’s not kind to hold yourself rigidly upright. Neither is it kind to force yourself into a posture that you think is “right” or “cool” but that doesn’t allow you to sit comfortably. Find a way to sit that supports kindness and relaxation. Let your muscles soften, especially as you breathe out.

At the same time, it’s not in your long-term wellbeing to slump or to lie down (unless you have an injury that you need to protect). So you’re aiming to find a balance of uprightness and relaxation. The words “dignity” and “ease” convey this very well. So sit with dignity and ease.

3. Regard yourself with kindness.

We all know how to look with loving eyes. We can remember times that we’ve looked with love at a child, a lover, a friend, or even an animal companion. At the beginning of a session of practice, remember experiences such as those. Notice the quality of your experience around the eyes in particular, and anyplace else they might manifest. Let those qualities persist, especially around the eyes, as you turn your attention inward to your own body. Observe your breathing human, animal body with the same fondness that you would have for a sleeping child or beloved pet. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just let it happen.

Keep checking in with your eyes during the practice. If necessary, recollect again the memory of looking with kindness.

4. Empathy before kindness.

Kindness is based on empathy, but very few people actively cultivate empathy at the start of the practice. What I recommend is the following:

  1. First of all recall that that you are a feeling being. Your happiness and suffering are important to you. In fact these are your deepest concerns. You want to be happy (or to have some sense of wellbeing) and you don’t want to suffer. Feel the truth of this in your own experience.
  2. Recall that it’s often difficult to find happiness, and all too easy to suffer. And so you’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you suffer; you’re being perfectly human.
  3. Knowing that you’re doing a difficult thing in being human, realize that you need and deserve your own support and encouragement. And the main way to provide that is by wishing yourself well, using “lovingkindness” phases.

You can repeat exactly the same steps for anyone else you call to mind in the practice.

5. Remind yourself that the point of the practice is kindness.

The “lovingkindness” phrases I was taught were, “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.” These tended to give me the impression that the point of the practice was to become happy. But the practice is about becoming kinder. Usually if we become kinder we’ll be happier too, but that’s not the main point. So now I usually say something more like “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be kind to myself and others.” This reminds me, over and over, what the purpose of the practice is. And the word “kind” can be a trigger for kindness. It can remind us of the experience of being kind, and thus bring qualities of kindness into our experience.

6. Give yourself time and space.

It’s not kind to bombard yourself with words, so when you’re repeating the phrases it’s important to give yourself time to digest them. So I’ll usually say one phrase on an out-breath, then take a full in-breath and out-breath, and another in-breath, and then say the next phrase on the following out-breath. This allows your being time to take in what you’re saying.

7. Forget about having “lovingkindness for all beings.”

When I was introduced to metta bhavana practice I was told that the purpose was to develop “universal lovingkindness.” Of course I wanted this to be possible, but it always seemed like a lofty goal. You don’t have to call everyone in the world to mind. In fact that’s impossible.

In the final stage of the practice I go back to the principle outlined in an early commentary, the Vimuttimagga (path of liberation). There the final stage of the meditation practice is described in terms of “permeation.” And so what I do is to permeate my awareness with kindness, so that anyone I encounter, either in the world of the senses or in my mind, will be met kindly. That is what universal kindness is. In other words, anyone I meet or think of will be met with an awareness that they are a feeling being, that they want to be happy, and that they need my support because they’re doing a difficult thing in being human.

If there is anyone around me that I’m aware of, I meet them with kindness. When there are people I’m indirectly aware of—for example if I hear cars or airplanes—then I meet those people with kindness. If I call to mind people from other places, then I meet them with kindness too. I simply embrace with kindness anyone who I happen to encounter with my awareness. So I’m not overwhelming my mind by trying to do the impossible task of wishing everyone in the world well.

So if you’re one of those people who struggle with “lovingkindness” meditation, these are seven very practical things you can do to help your practice go more smoothly.

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Four steps to self-empathy and self-kindness

Photo by Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

One thing that’s changed my life more than any other is the practice of self-empathy. Simply hearing the term for the first time was a revelation for me, since I immediately recognized that I wasn’t in fact empathetic toward myself. It had never even occurred to me to have empathy for myself. And this was despite the fact that I’d been, at that point, practicing lovingkindness meditation for more than two decades.

My lack of self-empathy showed itself in the way I could be down on myself when I was struggling. I took being unhappy as a sign of failure, as if I was meant to be happy all the time. At one point my not-very-conscious habit of self-blame led to me being overwhelmed by depression, since I was responding to feeling unhappy by making myself feel even more unhappy.

Over the years, I got better at being understanding toward and supportive of myself. In fact I now see the cultivation of self-empathy as an indispensable prerequisite for cultivating self-metta—kindness toward oneself. And since kindness for oneself is the basis of kindness for others, self-empathy is therefore the foundation of the entire practice of lovingkindness.

Probably the best way to explain self-empathy is to say how you can cultivate it. It’s easier to understand when you see it in action.

1. Recognize Yourself as a Feeling Being

So first, recognize that you’re a feeling being. You are wired to feel. You feelings are important to you. You can override them for a while, maybe even for a long time, but there will be a cost in terms of a diminished capacity to enjoy life, a sense of emotional brittleness, and difficulty in connecting with others in meaningful ways. It’s quite common for us to suppress an awareness of ourselves as feeling beings in the service of pursuing goals like work. Having self-empathy involves accepting that it’s OK to feel.

2. Sense Your Deepest Needs

Next, recognize that, deep down, you want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. This is an instinct that all sentient beings have, and it’s among our most primal instincts. Feelings have evolved as a way of helping us to survive by moving toward potential benefits and away from potential threats. We’re wired to do this, although again we can suppress or ignore those drives, and can see feelings as a source of weakness. Having self-empathy involves having a sensitivity to our emotional needs.

3. Understand that life is challenging

It’s difficult to have our desires for wellbeing and to be free from suffering in a world where wellbeing is frequently elusive, and where various forms of suffering visit us all too commonly. Empathy can involve recognizing that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you’re having a hard time, you’re just being human. You’ve been set up by your evolutionary past.

4. Offer Yourself Kindness and Support

Putting this all together, we start to think of it as natural for us to give ourselves support and encouragement as we encounter life’s inevitable difficulties. As the Rev. John Watson said in the 19th century, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And who, out of this “everyone,” do you encounter most often? That person is, of course, yourself.

We’re already offering ourselves a considerable amount of support just by empathizing with ourselves in this way, but there are many ways we can show ourselves kindness. For example I make a practice of talking o myself (usually internally) when I’m having a hard time. The standard lovingkindness phrases—things like “May I be well, may I be happy”—can be useful, but using natural language is even more so. So I might say something like “I know you’re anxious right now, but I’m here for you. We’ve been through this before and we’ve always come out the other side.”

Another way of showing kindness is to have a kindly inner gaze. Think of how you might look at a beloved sleeping child, or a dear pet, or at a lover (not when you’re sexually aroused, but when you’re feeling particularly loving toward them). Sense the qualities that arise in your gaze as you do these things. And then turn that same quality of attention inwards as you observe your own body and feelings. To look at ourselves with this kind of fondness, tenderness, and appreciation communicates a sense of being supported. And when we feel supported we’re better able to weather difficult times.

A third way to show ourselves kindness is through touch. Your first instinct when a loved one is experiencing grief or some other form of suffering may well be to hug them or place a hand on their arm or shoulder. I’ll often just place a hand on my heart. I might do this at the same time as I talk to myself and regard myself with kindness. This is all very sustaining.

Some people assume that developing self-compassion will make you soft. The opposite is the case. Research shows that individuals who have the best developed self-compassion skills are the most emotionally resilient. And learning to turn toward and accept painful feelings is challenging, to say the least.

What I’ve found over the years is that the more I’m able to be empathetic and kind with myself, the stronger is my empathy and kindness for others. Just as I want to be happy, so do others. Just as I want to be free from suffering, so do they. Just as I often need support as I go through life’s challenges, so also do they. And so this sense of empathy for others communicates itself as kindness, which may be expressed simply in the way we look at them, or in words, or touch, or in helpful actions.

There’s more to developing self-empathy than this, but I’ve no doubt be writing more articles on this important topic. You can also check out my online course, “How to Stop Beating Yourself Up,” which gives a more thorough introduction to self-compassion, self-empathy, and self-kindness.

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Practicing in balance

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There’s an unfortunate tendency these days to see mindfulness as being the only quality we need to develop in meditation, and that everything else follows automatically. But that’s not how practice works, or how it’s traditionally been taught.

Just the other week I had a conversation with someone who seemed rather proud that the only form of meditation practice he did was mindfulness of breathing. He saw this as being a complete and sufficient practice unto itself.

The problem was that his personality seemed very lopsided. He was very austere and emotionally dry. In our conversation there was no emotional give and take, and when I talked about a personal matter that was troubling me his responses totally missed the mark. It was like we were talking two different languages that, rather confusingly, used the same words to mean very different things. It was very perplexing. Although I think he wanted to be able to respond empathetically, he didn’t seem to be able to actually do so.

What was lacking was the balancing factor of kindness and compassion. There is a whole set of meditation practices to do with things like kindness, compassion, appreciation, and reverence. And those practices are important; they are not optional extras but part of Buddhism’s core curriculum.

Now some people are naturally warmer and more emotional than others. They may have very well-developed connections of love and affection in their lives. There may be a lack of balance in their practice, but it doesn’t become a big problem like it does with the person I just talked about. They may not even notice the lack of balance, in fact. But they’re not tapping into their full potential.

Now, mindfulness meditation can be taught with an emphasis on warmth and kindness. I do this myself, and call kindness plus mindfulness “kindfulness.” It’s possible for us to bring quite a bit of kindness into our experience this way. But even if we do, there is still an imbalance. We’re still not developing our full potential as compassionate human beings.

Mindfulness is wonderful. It allows us to see how the mind functions. So it lets us see how anger manifests, for example. And it gives us an opportunity to change the way the mind works. So when we observe that anger is making life unpleasant, we can choose to let go of angry thoughts. We might also realize that we have reserves of kindness and compassion available that we can tap into. And so, when we’re mindful, we may find that we’re also, quite spontaneously, a bit kinder and more compassionate.

But traditionally, kindness and compassion are not just faculties we can tap into, but faculties we can develop, strengthen, and deepen.

In the past we might have just thought of kindness and compassion as rather mysterious “things” inside us. But now we can see that they actually involve specific parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain, like any others, actually grow as we exercise them, in the same way as muscles grow when we use them. And the parts of the brain that are active when we’re compassionate are not the same parts that are active when we’re simply being mindful, so they aren’t exercised automatically as we practice mindfulness.

And this is why there are specific meditation practices to help us cultivate kindness and compassion. They use very specific mental muscles.

If we never did any leg exercises at the gym but only worked on our arms, we’d probably find that our legs did get a bit fitter. After all, if you’re standing and you’re holding weights in your hands your legs are doing some work. But that’s not the same as doing a leg workout. If you only worked out your arms, your legs would end up underdeveloped. This is what can happen with our emotions.

This is why in my own teaching, and in the teaching tradition I was trained in, both mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness practices were stressed equally. I was always encouraged to alternate these practices and to give them equal weight. In fact, as one of those people who was not naturally very emotional and with a tendency to negativity, I was encouraged at times to put more emphasis on lovingkindness practice. I needed to restore a balance that was missing.

And so that’s how I still teach. When I introduce people to meditation I introduce both mindfulness and lovingkindness practices. And I encourage my meditation students to, where possible, alternate these two approaches to meditation. Mindfulness and lovingkindness practices need equal attention so that we can become not just exceptionally mindful and aware individuals, but exceptionally empathetic and compassionate as well.

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Sitting With Bodhi II

I invite you to join a new format of course that I pioneered a few weeks ago. It’s a different kind of meditation course with a new format.

It’s called Sitting With Bodhi.

The second series starts tomorrow, and the focus is on lovingkindness — although I prefer to call it simply “kindness.” It’s all about being more accepting and less harsh toward yourself and others.

It consists of 28 guided meditations which are 10 minutes long but open-ended; they get you started and then invite you to continue with the practice for as long as you want.

And you can work through these entirely at your own pace. Thanks to some kind of internet magic that I don’t pretend to understand, the next email isn’t sent out until the day after you’ve played the meditation in the previous one. So you don’t end up in that situation where you miss a couple of days and then despair because you realize you can’t catch up. Here the material is delivered completely at your pace.

And there are no readings at all! It’s just pure meditation.

I did a survey during the first course and 92% of respondents said they’d want to continue. And they offered comments like these:

  • “I learned more in the first 10 meditations than in the last 6 months. So many new ways to explore. My sitting is now so much interesting, with focus…i am excited about each sitting….i have one comment….Thank you Bodhi!”
  • “Starting with an intention of at least 10mins a day makes it easy to sit, and then sit for longer.”
  • “The meditations have helped my practice become more consistent, thank you.”
  • “I’m really enjoying the meditations. Thank you Bodhi for all your gentle guidance.”
  • “Thank you!! For all the work you’ve put into this. This course and knowing a new meditation will arrive each day has got me to my cushion again daily, which is such a relief and a joy.”

There’s an online discussion group for support, and I’ll also be doing two live online meditation sessions. If you can’t make it to those they’ll be recorded and archived for you.

Click here to find out a bit more or enroll.

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