lovingkindness practice

Four spiritual love languages

Ai-generated images of the Buddha and a nun, in a colorful style that looks like a painting.

Yesterday on Mastodon, which is the only social media site I use at the moment besides the private online community space I host for Wildmind’s sponsors, someone shared a link to a “love languages” quiz.

I’d heard of this concept of love languages before. The blurb on the official website, based on the best-selling book by Dr. Gary Chapman, says,

The premise of The 5 Love Languages® book is quite simple: different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.

The basic idea is that we don’t all have the same ways of expressing love to each other, and therefore we don’t always recognize when someone is showing us love, or understand how to let them feel loved. And that fits with my experience.

For example, if my partner’s way of showing me love is giving small gifts, but I don’t value material possessions and in fact see them as annoying clutter, I might not feel that she intends to show love when she gives me some tchotchke or other. There’s a mismatch in how we interpret the action of giving.

See also:

Conversely, if my partner wants me to show affection with touch, but I’m not a particularly physical person, then she may not feel that she’s being shown love when I give her praise, even though I might consider that to be a clear expression of my love for her. If I offer help, but the other person interprets this as their competence being called into question, then again there’s a mismatch. It is indeed very much as if we were speaking different languages.

I took the quiz, and was told at the end that there were five love languages:

  • Quality Time™
  • Words of Affirmation™
  • Physical Touch™
  • Acts of Service™
  • Receiving Gifts™

I learned that my preferred “languages” were the first three in the list.

(And yes, the quiz included those oddly obsessive trademark signs, although hopefully we’re allowed to talk about things like “quality time” without getting sued.)

When I reflected on my own experience of being in loving relation to others, it seemed to me that the most profound expressions of love were not included in the five languages offered above. So I thought I’d say a few words about other love languages.

My intention isn’t at all to criticize Chapman’s work, but to offer a wider and deeper perspective on communicating love, for those who might find it helpful.

1. Looking With Love

Looking with love and being looked at with love are profound forms of communication. As Jan Chozen Bays wrote in her wonderful book, “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” in a chapter called Loving Eyes: “We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?”

Not only do we know how to look with loving eyes, but we know what it’s like to be looked at lovingly. It’s one of the most important communications that goes on in loving relationships, whether between partners, or parents and children, or friends.

Looking with loving eyes has become an important part of the way I practice and teach lovingkindness practice. But it’s something we can do anytime.

Although looking with love plays an important part in showing love, it doesn’t fit into the five-fold schema of the love languages. However, it seems to me to be a love language in its own right. And it’s another place where mismatches in communication styles can take place. Some people are more sensitive to loving looks than others. Some people express love through their eyes more than others.

2. Giving Honesty and Showing Vulnerability

Like everyone, I have bad habits. I get irritable at times, for example. When I’ve behaved badly like that I try to apologize as quickly as possible — often within moments. I usually try to explain what was going on in my being as the irritability arose — “I was stressed and tired, I misinterpreted what you said, old conditioning from childhood traumas was triggered,” and so on. I often say she doesn’t deserve to be treated badly. I do these things as an expression of love.

And she is very good herself at doing the same time, letting me know what led to her acting in unhelpful ways. She too does this as an expression of love.

This, to me, is one of the most profound displays of love we can offer. Giving honesty and showing vulnerability involves a great deal of trust. It too is a kind of love language — Look, I love you enough that I will take this risk!  — yet it doesn’t seem to fit at all in the five love languages schema.

There can be mismatches in language. Some people don’t like apologizing, because they think it makes them look weak, and they’ll see another person’s apologies as a sign of submission. Some people can’t receive expressions of vulnerability because their first instinct is to try to “fix” things by making suggestions, rather than listening empathetically.

3. Showing Patience and Forgiveness

The expressions of love that I most appreciate from my partner are when she is patient with me and when she forgives me. When she does those things I really know I’m loved.

When we accept each other as imperfect, and forgive each others’ missteps, we give each other permission to be ourselves, which is an enormous gift. We see ourselves and each other as works-in-progress, which liberates us both from being afraid we’ll never change and from having to pretend we’re perfect. And we also know that the other person is working on their stuff, which offers immense reassurance.

Patience and forgiveness are also languages through which we show love.

There could be mismatches here, too. One person might show patience and forgiveness as an act of love, while the other person takes it as a sign of having got away with something; they aren’t able to reciprocate with the humility and gratefulness that should accompany being offered forgiveness and so can’t benefit from it. Some people even see conflict as a sign of love, and think that patience is equivalent to not caring — If they really loved me they’d be angry. Some people fear being forgiving because they think it will encourage bad behavior, and so they resort to punishing, resentful behaviors, never letting the other person forget that they’ve transgressed.

4. Sharing the Path

The most powerful way I know for us to connect lovingly with each other is for us to talk about our lives and our relationships as a spiritual practice. This means sharing what we understand love to be, sharing the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned, what our hopes and fears are, and in every way letting ourselves be known not just as a partner, but as a human being struggling our way through life.

It means sharing what we see our life’s purpose to be, and sharing how the relationship we have with the other person — and I’m thinking of partners here, in the main, but also some dear friendships — fits into that purpose.

This may be the deepest love language of all.

Through it, we come to see the other person in a deep way, and to see ourselves more clearly as well. We see the other person as a being who is on a spiritual journey. And we see ourselves in the same way. Sharing the path involves opening up in a deep way. It takes a lot of trust, as well as a shared commitment to growth.  Two people cannot share their paths unless they are both walking a path.

When we share in this way we become clearer about what matters most in our lives. We see ourselves in a very different way from our ordinary view of ourselves as beings who work and do chores and pay bills and relax in front of the TV in order to recuperate from all that.

Sharing the path in this way can lead to a profound sense of transcendence, where we no longer see ourselves and the other person as entirely separate, and where, even, our sense of self becomes tenuous. It is in fact a form of spiritual practice in its own right, as are the other three spiritual love languages I’ve described.

Mismatches here might arise when one person sees the point of such discussions as establishing who is “right” — who has the best philosophy, the most incisive insights, and so on. These kinds of mismatches are particularly painful, because what’s being shared and rejected is so central and important to who we are.

Four spiritual love languages

It’s possible that all this is contained in Chapman’s teaching on love languages — I haven’t read the book — but I saw not even the merest hint of it in the questions I was asked, which were all along the lines of, “It’s more meaningful for me when (a) my partner gives me a gift, or (b) my partner doesn’t check their phone when talking to me.”

It’s fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lack spiritual depth. Then again, not having read Chapman’s book, it may be I’m over-simplifying his approach.

Anyway, as someone who cares about the quality of my loving relationships, and who falteringly works at being a better friend, parent, and partner, I wanted to share a little of what I regard as important where it comes to communicating love.

These four spiritual love languages are areas where we need to learn to speak in ways that others who communicate differently can understand. And we need to learn to listen too, so that we can decipher others’ languages and realize that we are loved, and learn to respond to them, so that the other feels loved too.

Are there other things you would consider “love languages” that aren’t in Chapman’s book or in this article? Why not tell us about them in the comments below?

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A meditation for accepting aging

A man's hand reaching out to touch its reflection in a mirror.

An elderly friend of mine once said to me, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” She was talking mainly about the physical difficulties of getting older, and especially the aches, pains, and difficulty in doing things that were formerly easy.

To add insult to injury, though, we often feel critical about our appearance as we age, as if it were a sign of weakness instead of an inevitable part of living. Getting older is not a personality defect; it’s an inherent part of being human.

The Buddha talked about aging a lot. He listed it as one of the descriptions of dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

See also:

He also talked about youth as something we get intoxicated with. We become convinced when we’re young that we’re of a different nature from those who are old, forgetting that we’re all on a continuum. But because of this intoxication, which becomes a kind of addiction, we have difficulty accepting the fact of aging.

Today I led a meditation from in front of my bathroom mirror. I’m going to explain what i did, so that you can practice it as well.

To do this meditation you’ll have to be in a place where you can see yourself in a mirror. You should be able to see at least your face, but preferably your whole upper body. My bathroom mirror was ideal.

One thing that’s important but not obvious is that the place where you do this should be brightly illuminated. You don’t want to do this meditation in dim light, because looking for a prolonged period of time at your own face in a dark place can confuse your brain’s visual circuitry, leading to odd illusions. Let’s avoid that.

You could be sitting or standing depending on what’s convenient for you.

We’ll be meditating with the eyes open. And let the eyes be a little soft, by allowing the muscles supporting the eyes to be at rest.

You also shouldn’t stare, but should let there be a gentleness in your focus.

Also, don’t keep your eyes fixed on one spot. The image is your object of mindfulness, so let your eyes gently explore it.

With the eyes soft, notice the sensations of the breathing. And perhaps also seeing the rise and fall of the breath in the mirror.

And let your eyes be kind as well, remembering what it’s like to look with kindness, and reconnecting with that experience. And you might be able to see that kindness in your own eyes as you’re regarding your reflection.

Now, most of us judge our own appearance more harshly than we do the appearance of others. So we focus on blemishes, wrinkles, gray hair, and flesh that’s no longer as firm as it used to be. And we tend to judge those things.

When you see them in another person, they’re just part of that person’s appearance. They could have exactly the same blemishes and wrinkles and gray hairs and saggy parts as we have and we think they’re a beautiful person. We might love those features that they have.

So just see if you can appreciate the texture and the detail of your own appearance, without judgment, in the same kind and appreciative way that you would if this was another person you were seeing.

You can even drop in some words of appreciation. So seeing a wrinkle, a grey hair, or some other feature of the face, you can say to yourself:

“How beautiful that is! How beautiful is this sign of humanness!”

Repeat this a few times.

And you can say to yourself, to yourself as a whole now, not just talking to a feature as you did a little while ago:

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

Repeat this a few times.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.

“Aging is inherent in human life. May I meet aging with grace and dignity.”

And there’s one more phrase I’d like to suggest, that we can say to ourselves. It’s

“May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

So repeat that a few times as well:

“May I support myself with kindness as I age. May I support myself with kindness as I age.”

And so you can just continue in this way for the rest of this period of practice, however long you’ve chosen to meditate for. Just keep regarding yourself with kind eyes, and be accepting and appreciative of signs of aging and other imperfections.

Guided Meditation

The following meditation is “Sitting With Bodhi”-style. This means that although the recording is ten minutes in length, you’re invited to continue for longer. I’d suggest that before you begin you set a timer for at least 15 minutes.

This recording is one of those I’ve recorded for Wildmind’s sponsors. If you’d like to find out more about what that means, click here.

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In lovingkindness practice, don’t look for love; look with love

mother looking lovingly at her baby

I remember one time, not long after I’d first learned to meditate, I was being guided through the lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice. And the instructor asked us to turn our attention to our hearts, to find the love there, and then to radiate that love to all beings.

Uh, oh! There was no love to be found in my heart! “Why is there no love in my heart?” I wondered “Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I’m a horrible person. I guess I must be,” I concluded!

Thus began a 20-minute spiral into despair and self-loathing. Probably not what the meditation instructor had in mind.

A few weeks later a friend described exactly the same thing happening to him. I’ve since heard the same story from others.

The central problem here is that we’re looking for the wrong thing, or at least we’re looking for it in the wrong place. We’re looking for some kind of feeling down there, in the body — in the heart, often, where we tend to experience feelings connected with love.

But we should be looking with love, not for love.

Kindness (Love) Is About How We Relate

In lovingkindness practice we’re trying to develop kindness. (You can call it “love” if you want. I’ll sometimes use “love” and sometimes say “kindness.”)

Kindness is an attitude. It’s a way of relating in which we value others’ well-being. You could say it’s a way of regarding or looking — looking with respect, cherishing, and support.

When we relate, regard, or look with kindness, pleasant, warm feelings arise. But those feelings are not themselves kindness. They’re physiological sensations. They’re feelings. They’re nice feelings, but they’re just feelings. They can be important because they help us to value kindness but they’re not kindness.

See also:

But they arise because we’re looking or relating with kindness. If we try to look for those feelings without first relating or looking with kindness (again, call it love if you want) we’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s possible we’ll find those pleasant feelings, but only if we’re relating with kindness already. Or if we’re on the verge of doing so.

Kindness or love (in the sense I’m using those words) are not simply feelings. They’re active desires (or volitions): we desire the well-being of another, for example. We want them to feel happy and at ease, which is why we treat them with kindness and respect, and don’t say hurtful things to them.

Recall Looking With Loving Eyes

When we’re cultivating lovingkindness, what’s much more effective is to connect with the experience of looking with love: of having kind eyes. We can do this by remembering what it’s like to look with love or kindness.

It doesn’t matter what the memory is of, as long as it’s a loving memory. It can be a memory of looking at a child, or a pet, or a lover. Take your pick,

When you recall something like that, you’ll notice that your eyes become permeated with the qualities of love: cherishing, valuing, warmth, softness, openness, gentleness, caring, and so on.

Actually it’s not just your eyes that become filled with those qualities, but your mind. And when you turn your mind toward an awareness of your own being, those qualities become directed toward yourself. You find you’re regarding yourself with warmth, care, cherishing, and so on. Turn your mind toward another person, and those qualities (which are permeating your mind) become directed toward that person.

Looking With Love Rather Than For Love

When we’re doing lovingkindness practice in this way we don’t need to look for love “down there” in the heart. We’re already looking with love from “up here.”

And now, if we bring our awareness to the heart, we may well find that there are warm feelings there too. And that’s great.

Skip the whole part about connecting with kindness, and you’re liable to find little or nothing going on, heart-wise.

If you find that the “loving eyes” thing isn’t working for you, it may well be because you’re unconsciously doing something that’s blocking kindness from arising.

Unblocking Our Love

So you can gently inquire: What could I do, right now, to show a little more kindness?

Maybe that means relaxing physically. Maybe it means smiling. Maybe it means relaxing mentally, so that we’re not trying too hard, not judging ourselves for “not being good enough.” Maybe it means allowing ourselves to be at ease and to be playful.

Let go of those barriers to love, and you’ll naturally become kinder.

Summing Up

In lovingkindness practice, it’s often not a very good idea to go looking for feelings of love in the heart. Start by recalling what it feels like in and around the eyes when you look with love. Then when you turn your attention elsewhere, those feelings are likely to follow, because it’s your attention itself that’s permeated with kindness.

If those feelings in and around the eyes don’t arise, or if they do but they vanish when you turn your attention toward yourself, gently ask yourself what you can do, right here, in this moment to be kinder. Let your attitude soften, and you’ll find you’ve become kinder. And that’s what the practice is about.

Love is not what we look for. It’s what we look with.

Wildmind is an ad-free, community-supported meditation initiative, supported by sponsors. If you find this website helpful, you’ll love the access that Wildmind’s sponsors get to the meditation courses and other resources that I make available to them. Click here to learn more.

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“Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story”

goodnight love, by sumi loudon kim

Please order books locally, rather than from Amazon, through, Shambhala, Indiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK)

A little while ago I received an email from Sumi Loundon Kim, telling me about a new bedtime book for children that she’d just had published. The book is an adaptation of a traditional Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, which helps us to develop warmth and kindness, and to take our own and others’ well-being into account.

Sumi’s family practiced this meditation every night for five years as they snuggled in bed. She went on to teach it to other families. and discovered it was a popular approach that many parents and children ended up doing together.

When my review copy arrived, my heart melted! The warmth and love embodied in the cover image by Laura Watkins is simply stunning. In fact, the illustrations are gorgeous throughout: full of life and love.

Sumi Kim’s text gives a lovely, child-friendly guide to bedtime loving-kindness practice. There are a few pages that describe a series of brief practices that prepare the ground for kindness to arise: arriving by acknowledging that snuggling we’re in bed; grounding ourselves with deep in and out breaths; relaxing (“soft and heavy, melting into our resting spot”); and connecting with kindness by placing our hands on our hearts and picturing a warm glow radiating outward.

Title: “Goodnight Love: A Bedtime Meditation Story”
Author: Sumi Loundon Kim, Laura Watkins (illustrator)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-61180-944-2
Available from: ShambhalaIndiebound (US), or Bookshop.org (US and UK).

As is traditional, the loving-kindness instructions begin with adopting a kind and loving attitude toward ourselves: “May I be healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be happy and peaceful.” They then widen into cultivating kindness and love for our families and loved ones, our friends, including friends who are hurting, and then out yet further, into forests, mountains, oceans, and the whole world.

In case you think it’s odd to wish a mountain well, the illustrations make it clear that we’re considering not just a hunk of rock, but all the living creatures that live on and around it. The same is true for forests and oceans.

Finally — and this was a really lovely transition — we come back to the intensely personal, as the adult reader wishes their snuggling child well: “And now, little one, it is my turn to share my love for you: May you be healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be happy and peaceful, always and forever.”

The return from the universal to the intimate was very effectively done. This must be so pleasing to any child, reminding them that out of all the billions of being in our world  they have a very special place in their family.

My children are about the same age as Sumi’s — they’re both teenagers – and beyond the target age for this book. I really wish something like this had been available when they were younger, because I’d love to have had the experience of sharing it with them.

I wholeheartedly recommend Sumi Loundon Kim and Laura Watkin’s book to all parents of young children. Books like this are rare. They are important tools for bringing more love and kindness into the world.

See also:

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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.

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The benefits of making things hard for ourselves

I find that a lot of the time, when people are cultivating kindness or compassion for a person they find difficult, they do it in a rather vague way. Usually in their meditation practice they just visualize an image of the “enemy” and repeat the appropriate phrases — “May you be well,” “May you be free from suffering,” and so on. That’s what I was taught to do, and it’s what most other people were taught as well.

Creating a challenge

So what’s the problem with this? It’s that when we have difficulties with people, what we really have difficulties with are their behaviors — what they say and do. Those are the things that provoke our own reactivity. When the person in our mind’s eye is just sitting there passively, we’re not triggering the discomfort that leads to us getting annoyed by them. We’re simply not making things hard enough for ourselves. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to learn how to handle discomfort without reacting. We have to put ourselves in the position where reactivity is a real possibility before we can start to recognize the signs that we’re starting to get angry, and then choose not to feed our anger.

So I tend to teach lovingkindness and compassion meditation as opportunities to rehearse facing real difficulties. When you call a so-called “difficult person” to mind in one of these meditations, it helps if we focus very specifically on the things they say and do that tend to trigger us. If we remember or imagine those things very vividly, we’re more likely to create uncomfortable feelings, and it’s those feelings that in turn trigger our reactivity. And now, in the mindful space that meditation offers us, we have the opportunity to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and be present with them. And we have the opportunity to see our anger arising, so that we can choose not to encourage it, but instead to let go of it. We have an opportunity to remember the humanity of the person facing us, and to cultivate an attitude of kindness toward them.

Superheroes of nonviolence

I was thinking about this the other day in the context of the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

When I first heard how Martin Luther King’s civil rights marchers endured, without retaliation, insults, beatings, being hosed with water, and having dogs set upon them, I was astonished and humbled. How was it they could do these things, when I take offense at merely being belittled online?

Later I learned that these brave activists trained to be non-reactive in the face of violence. They rehearsed. They met in groups where they would role-play facing insults and physical assaults, in order to learn how to respond non-violently to violence. They trained in reframing encounters with the police, so that they didn’t see arrest and imprisonment as violations of their freedom but as a badge of honor, to be worn with pride.

They trained in learning that the point of nonviolent resistance was not to insult or humiliate their opponents, but to win their trust, friendship, and understanding; it was to convert the enemy to nonviolence. They trained in understanding that the enemy was the ideology of evil and oppression, and not the persons who were committing injustice.

Training to be more loving

These brave individuals didn’t make some sudden leap to practicing love in the face of hatred; they learned, step by step, to do this. It became clear to me that we can learn to do seemingly superhuman acts of nonviolence through training.

If they could practice love while being beaten with clubs and insulted in vile ways, surely we can learn to do the same with the much more minor irritations in our own lives? And so I suggest that you make your meditation practice into a form of rehearsal. Do you get irritated with the way a household member loads the dishwasher badly, or doesn’t clear up after themselves? Or when someone ignores you, or puts you down? Visualize those things very clearly in your mind’s eye; let the feeling of irritation arise, and allow it to be present, without reacting. If angry thoughts and impulses arise, let go of them. Connect with kindness as you visualize the things that annoy you. Rehearse responding lightly, humorously, kindly, with full sensitivity to the other person as a feeling, vulnerable human being.

To create compassion, evoke powerful suffering

The same applies to compassion meditation, where we train ourselves to be loving and supportive in the face of another’s suffering. It’s fine to call someone to mind and remember that they suffer, but that’s really not very challenging. The Buddhist monk, Mathieu Ricard, explained once how he imagined suffering while meditation. One example he gave was of visualizing a friend, “terribly injured in a car accident, lying in his blood by the side of a road at night, far from help.” This is a potent image, evoking powerful feelings.

In fact, Ricard suggests that we imagine “different forms of distress as realistically as possible, until they become unbearable.”

It’s not about making ourselves suffer

The point is not to make ourselves suffer. It’s to give ourselves an opportunity to develop a compassionate response that envelops, sustains, and protects the person who is suffering. In fact, compassion is heart-warming, nourishing, and loving, and this to a large extent insulates us against sinking into suffering ourselves.

At the same time, it’s best if we stretch our capacity to bear suffering gradually. If we’re not able to respond to suffering with kindness and compassion we’re likely to become overwhelmed. And that’s not going to help us or others.

In short, our meditation practices of kindness and compassion are only going to lead to very slow change if we don’t challenge ourselves. But if instead we vividly imagine situations that provoke us emotionally, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to really grow the strength of our kindness and compassion. And as the civil rights marchers showed, we can even develop what appear to be superhuman levels of love and compassion.

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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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