lovingkindness practice

“As a parent raises a child with deep love, care for water and rice as though they were your own children.” Dogen

Dōgen

So I was walking to the office the other day, when something rather lovely happened.

Before I say what that was, I have to explain that walking to the office is a new thing for me — or the rediscovery of an old thing. Now before I entered a spell of working from home, I often used to make my morning “walking commute” into a walking meditation. Then, for several years, I did almost all of my work out of the house, and my daily walking meditation died away. But a couple of months ago I rented an office in town, only a 15 minute walk away, and I’m getting back into the habit of making my trip to the office into a meditation practice. I confess that it’s been taking a bit of time for the habit to kick in again.

So I sallied forth from the house after my ritual farewell to the family (it really is a ritual — I have to give everyone a hug, a kiss, and a high five before I’m allowed to leave), and of course my mind immediately went onto a journey of its own, as I recalled recent events, thought about my schedule, planned projects I’m working on, and for good measure worried a little about finances. Not very mindful!

And then, I remembered that I was missing an opportunity to pay attention to my physical and mental experience. I was missing an opportunity to be mindful, to make walking to work into a meditation practice rather than the practice of allowing an endless proliferation of thoughts.

So I brought my awareness into the sensations of my body, and that’s when the funny thing happened. It’s something that’s happened before, but every time it does happen it’s wonderful. Suddenly, my walking meditation practice “clicked.” And I found myself looking into my experience with pure, unconditional love. And then I realized that everything I needed in order to be completely fulfilled was contained within that present moment, and all I had to do was notice and appreciate it. Any thinking that I did was going to take me away from perfection, and why would I want to do that? And so my thinking pretty much ground to a halt. The odd thought would pop up, but I’d immediately realize that thinking compared to “just being” in the same way that eating chalk compares to eating cheesecake. One is rich and delightful, the other is dry and unsatisfying. So I just didn’t have any desire to get caught up in thinking, and just stayed with the experience of observing sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts coming into being.

Until the “click” took place, I’d been observing my experience all right, but I’d been eating “chalk” rather than “cheesecake.” My mindfulness had been a bit dry, a bit cold. Now was gazing with warmth into my experience. My gaze was appreciative, and it was responded to with a physical sense of delight. My body responded to this loving gaze by relaxing, and by releasing pleasant, tingling energy. And my heart responded with delight. It was as if, as I loved my experience, my experience loved me back.

I recognized this gaze. It’s the way I look at my kids (on a good day). Both my children are still quite young. My daughter’s five, and my son’s three. And they’re both very interesting characters, and very sweet (well, most of the time). I frequently find that when I look at them it’s with a sense of warm, appreciative, unconditional love — and with wonder, too.

But I forget to do that with myself. I tend to be too task-oriented. I tend to be too concerned about what needs to be done. And I forget to love myself.

So this experience was a lovely reminder of the well-being that can come from giving myself loving attention. It was a welcome reminder that true wellbeing lies in valuing and surrendering to the present moment.

Dogen’s saying is pointing to the same experience. His words come from advice written for monastery cooks, for whom working with rice and water was a mindfulness practice (“the mind which finds the Way actualizes itself through working with rolled up sleeves”). Being mindful of working with rice and water doesn’t mean simply noticing your experience as you fill pots and stir ingredients. It means, Dogen says, imbuing every moment with a love as powerful as that of a parent for a child.

Right now I’m typing on a laptop, and gazing into my experience (my body, the screen in front of me, the keyboard) with love. And the present moment is complete, and fulfilling. That’s my rice, my water. What’s yours?

Postscript

The “quote” above is actually an adaptation of Eihei Dōgen zenji’s words in Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo, translated by Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi and Anzan Hoshin Roshi, published in “Cooking Zen” (Great Matter Publications 1996).

A “motherly heart” is a heart which maintains the Three Jewels as a parent cares for a child. A parent raises a child with deep love, regardless of poverty or difficulties. Their hearts cannot be understood by another; only a parent can understand it. A parent protects their child from heat or cold before worrying about whether they themselves are hot or cold. This kind of care can only be understood by those who have given rise to it and realized only by those who practice it. This, brought to its fullest, is how you must care for water and rice, as though they were your own children.

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Six ways to sustain benevolence in ourselves and in our relationships, nations, and world

Hand holding a rectangular object on which is inscribed, "In a world where you can be anything, be kind."

Benevolence is a fancy word that means something simple: good intentions toward living beings, including oneself.

This goodwill is present in warmth, friendliness, compassion, ordinary decency, fair play, kindness, altruism, generosity, and love. The benevolent heart leans toward others; it is not neutral or indifferent. Benevolence is the opposite of ill will, coldness, prejudice, cruelty, and aggression. We’ve all been benevolent, we all know what it’s like to wish someone well.

Benevolence is widely praised – from parents telling children to share their toys to saints preaching the Golden Rule – because it has so many benefits:

  • Benevolence toward oneself is needed to fulfill our three fundamental needs: to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When these needs are met, your brain shifts into its Responsive mode, in which the body repairs and refuels itself, you feel peaceful, happy, and loving.
  • Benevolence toward others reduces quarrels, builds trust, and is the best-odds strategy to get good treatment in return.
  • Benevolence within and between nations promotes the rule of law, educates children, feeds the hungry, supports human rights, offers humanitarian aid, and works for peace. Benevolence toward our planet tries to protect endangered species and reduce global warming.

Of course, this is just a partial list of benefits. Bottom-line, benevolence is good for individuals, relationships, nations, and the world as a whole.

The fact that benevolence is often enlightened self-interest makes it no less warm-hearted and virtuous. And at this time in history when individuals feel increasingly stressed and isolated, when relationships often stand on shaky ground, when international conflicts are fueled by dwindling resources and increasingly lethal weapons, and when humanity is dumping over nine billions tons of carbon each year into the atmosphere (like throwing 5 billion cars a year up into the sky, most of which stay there) – benevolence is not just moral, it’s essential.

But easier said than done.

How can we sustain benevolence in ourselves and in our relationships, nations, and world?

  1. Know what benevolence feels like in your body, heart, and mind – Bring to mind a sense of warmth and good wishes toward someone. How does this feel? Try on other kinds of benevolence, and toward other beings, to sense what these are like as well.
  2. Realize that benevolence is natural and normal – In the media, we are so bombarded with words and images of anti-benevolence that you can start to think that ordinary decency and kindness are somehow exotic. But in fact, as we evolved, our ancestors stayed alive and passed on their genes by caring about themselves and others. And given the gratitude and reverence for nature commonly found in hunter-gatherer bands today, they likely also cared about the world upon which they depended.
  3. Take care of yourself – When your core needs are met – when you’re not stressed by threat, loss, or rejection – the brain defaults to its resting state, its home base. From this home base, most people are fair-minded, empathic, cooperative, compassionate, and kind: in a word, benevolent. While it’s possible to sustain goodwill in a state of fear, frustration, or loneliness, it is sure a lot harder. An undisturbed, healthy brain is a benevolent one.
  4. Take a stand for benevolence – Establish your intentions formally – perhaps at the start of the day, or during a contemplative practice, or at a meal – to wish yourself and all other beings well. In challenging situations, take care of your needs while also asking yourself, “How could I be benevolent here? How could I restrain any destructive thoughts, words, or deeds? Can I wish for the welfare of others? Can I express compassion and kindness?”
  5. Step out of your comfort zone – Not doing anything foolish, consider how you could stretch a bit (or more) in your good intentions toward others. For example, seeing people you don’t know, try wishing them well. Or with someone who’s irritating, try looking past the surface to sense this person’s own stress and worries; without waiving your rights, can you find more patience, can you let go of recrimination or payback? Or could you extend yourself with friends or family, maybe doing more dishes or giving someone a ride? In the larger world, consider volunteering some time or giving more to a charity.
  6. Last, appreciate some of the benevolence that buoys you along – We’ve all been nurtured and protected by friends and family, humanity altogether, and the biosphere. In some sense, there’s an exuberant benevolence in the physical universe itself; consider that most of the atoms in your body – any that are heavier than helium – were born inside an exploding star. Afloat in these gifts, who could not be benevolent?
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Five steps to opening the heart to peace

Overhead shot of woman doing seated yoga pose

For many years I co-led a yoga and meditation retreat with a friend.  The retreat was called Open Heart, Quiet Mind and it was offered  at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. My friend taught yoga and I led guided meditations on the metta bhavana, the meditation on the development of loving-kindness.

The retreats initially began on Friday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon. They were so popular the next retreat was fully booked at the end of each retreat. After sensing the rhythm of the retreats for several years, we decided to extend the timing of them and so we started Thursday evenings and ended Sunday afternoons so that we would have an extra full day to meditate and practice yoga.

With the combination of yoga and meditation, participants relaxed and looked inward and a community was established. Throughout the retreat we thought about an intention, something we wanted to consider during and after the retreat. The intentions came as a result of the yoga, meditation, silence, cooking together and having spaciousness from the usual routine of daily life.

Towards the end of the retreat we shared our intentions, with each person listening quietly as individuals described their intentions. The intentions spanned a range of topics from exercise, meditation, diet, communication, music practice to making amends with estranged friends and family members. Although each person’s intention was different, the common thread was that they came from the heart.

Although we did not lead people to make intentions based on ethical disciplines of yoga, most of them did fall into five ethical categories.  So, eventually, when leading meditation at the yoga retreats, I spoke about these steps to freedom.

Just as the practice of yoga releases tension in the body, these five steps will release blocks to the flow of the heart and release unconditional love.  When we love, we are free from the restrictions of ill will.

Here is a list of five ways to open the heart:

1. Ahimsa – nonharm – the practice of compassion and unconditional love for ourselves, for all human beings and all sentient beings

We can practice ahimsa with each word we speak, each action we take and each thought we think. Ahimsa is the foundation for vegetarianism.

Of course we don’t always reach our ideals so an important aspect of this practice is to be gentle and accepting of ourselves when our practice falls short of the ideal.

As a way of practicing ahimsa we might ponder the following queries:

  • In what ways am I critical of myself and others?
  • Recall a time when I blamed myself for an outcome of an action. What could I have done differently, if anything?
  • In what ways have I allowed others to be critical, cruel, unloving to me? What will I do to become free from this situation?
  • How can I be more loving and accepting of myself and others?

2. Satya – truth – the practice of being true in our thoughts, words and actions

To practice satya, we are fearless in understanding the truth and this is reflected in what we think, how we communicate and how we behave. We are also fearless when listening to others, to understand their truth. We recognize that the foundation of truth is ahimsa.

As a way of practicing satya, we might ponder the following:

  • In what ways am I true to myself?
  • When do my actions conflict with honoring the truth?
  • With whom am I truthful and which people “not so much”?
  • Reflect on relationships that are not based on truth and consider whether it is time to communicate with the person in an honest and kind way.
  • How can I be more true to myself and to others?

3. Asteya – not stealing – being free from desiring what belongs to others

Desire and craving what we do not have means that we feel insufficient, as though we lack something. This practice means that we respect the property of others, return what we borrow, act in a courteous way with others (respecting their energy and time) and to be at peace within ourselves.

We might practice asteya by reflecting on the following:

  • With whom do I feel “lesser than” or jealous? What is beneath this feeling and how can I change this sense of lack?
  • What material things of others do I desire?
  • When do I feel at ease and grateful for how things are? How can I develop this sense of ease?
  • How does generosity fit with asteya?

4. Aparigraha – letting go – freedom from collecting possessions

We desire to possess many things including material objects, thoughts and ideas, and even people. We cling to things – homes, cars, technological toys, books, adventures, partners, travel and pets. We feel secure when we have our “stuff”.

To practice letting go:

  • Consider times when you released your attachment to something or someone.
  • Consider what you cling to. In what, who and where is your sense of security based?
  • Which possessions are you most tied to? Which can you easily let go?
  • Make a list of your possessions and consider a giving away 10%- 25% of them! What is your felt sense as you consider this idea?

5. Santosha – contentment – being at peace no matter what our situation is

We may be in a partnership or single, live in an apartment or a home, drive a Subaru or a Lamborghini, work in a cubicle or the corner office with the view, we may be twenty or seventy, have a high school education or a Doctorate, healthy or ill, intellectual or not, artistic or not – whatever our circumstances, we are content and at peace.

Being at peace means that when we work with, or know, or hear of someone who seems to “have it all” or “have it easy”, we are centered and at peace with the understanding that we lack nothing.

Some ideas to ponder when working with santosha include:

  • When I find myself feeling jealous of someone’s conditions, how do I feel in my body and what emotions arise?
  • Consider a time you were filled with negativity, how did you react? How could you respond to move towards contentment?

Patanjali (150 BCE) is the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, an important collection of aphorisms on yoga practice based on reflection, meditation and ethics.

He wrote: “Peace can be reached through meditation on the knowledge which dreams give. Peace can also be reached through concentration upon that which is dearest to the heart.”

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Five ways to increase your joy

Joy (sukha in Pali) should be our natural state of being. Unfortunately, though, we’ve been brought up in a society that emphasizes wanting things and having things as the primary path to happiness. Wanting things actually destroys joy, while having things brings only a short-term burst of pleasure that fades quickly.

In fact, thinking that joy depends on things outside of ourselves is a trap. It makes it harder for us to experience real happiness. True happiness comes from our attitude toward things, not from things themselves.

Despite its seeming elusiveness, it’s possible for us to spend much of our time in a state of joy, and here are a few suggestions for moving in that direction:

1. Smile

Remembering to smile has a potent effect on how we feel. It sparks off a whole chain of mental and physical events, and promotes a sense of happiness. We can even smile in the face of pain and fear. This reminds us that basically things are OK, right now. Yes, things are not “perfect,” but we can deal with it.

Rick Hanson, the author of The Buddha’s Brain, reminds us that the mind has a built-in negativity bias. We’re more likely to pay attention to potential threats than to benefits — even benefits that presently exist. As he puts it, the mind “is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” Smiling implicitly connects us with the positive.

2. Appreciate

Along the same lines, appreciation supports the arising of joy. This is true both in meditation and in our ordinary lives. When people were asked to write a letter of appreciation to someone who had benefitted them, they were measurably happier for weeks afterward. Explicit appreciation is the most effective. When we say words of thanks to ourselves, even in our own heads, it makes the appreciation more real — probably because it involves more of the brain.

So in meditation I have a practice I sometimes do of saying “thanks” for all the things that are going right. I notice that the climate is livable (even if it doesn’t fit my narrow conception of “ideal”) and say “thank you.” I notice the room around me, appreciate that it’s sheltering me from the elements, and say “thank you.” I notice that the electricity, gas, internet connection are functioning, and say “thank you” (I’ll do these separately, but I’m abbreviating the process here for the sake of brevity). I’ll say thank you in this way for:

  • Living in a country where there’s law and order,
  • The presence of other people around me, some of whom I have loving relationships with,
  • The presence of furnishings (this is unimaginable luxury for many people in the world),
  • Individual body parts that function, day in, day out,
  • Functioning senses,
  • Functioning utilities — internet, water, electricity, etc.,
  • A world round about me that’s filled with beauty.

This practice can be very detailed. In fact it’s best that it’s very, very detailed, so where I’ve said “individual body parts” above, you can in fact do a detailed body scan, identifying each part of the body in turn and saying “thank you” to each. Even where there’s pain, you can note that the body part is still struggling to function for you, and trying to heal. (This, incidentally, can free us from the tendency to blame the body for being sick or in pain.)

3. Imbue your experience with a sense of lovingkindness

To be loving is one of our deepest needs. The experience of loving is deeply beneficial to us, and helps bring about a sense of wellbeing and joy.

Jan Chozen Bays, in her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant, writes very beautifully about the practices of “loving gaze” and “loving touch.” You can simply evoke the experience of looking with love (for example, remembering looking at a sleeping child) or of touching with love (for example, placing a hand on someone who is in pain). By recalling those ways of interacting, we can bring a sense of love into our experience right now.

As you become aware of your body in meditation, for example, you don’t have to do that in a cold and clinical way. You can “gaze” (not literally, but in terms of being aware) inwardly in a loving way, and fill your entire body with a sense of love.

4. Feel loved

It can also be very helpful to feel loved. In one traditional form of the lovingkindness meditation, we begin by recalling someone (“the benefactor”) who has shown us kindness. By doing so we can recapture the feeling of being loved, which again is an important support for a sense of “everything being all right.”

If it’s hard to recapture that feeling, you can imagine being a baby in your mother’s arms, warm and loved and cared-for.

Sometimes I’ve found it useful just to imagine that there’s a source of light and love in the world, that I can tap into. I’ll imagine that I’m at the receiving end of a shaft of light, and that this light touches me in a loving way, flooding my being with lovingkindness.

I’ve also sometimes imagined that I’m meditating with the Buddha, not in an idealized and iconic form like you see in Tibetan paintings, but just as an ordinary man sitting beside me. And I’ll drop into my mind the phrase “feel the love of the Buddha.” What then happens is that I’ll feel a sense that the Buddha is radiating love, like an aura, and that I’m on the receiving end of his blessings.

5. Savor the positive

Notice and appreciate any positive experiences that rise, however ordinary they may be. It could be the simple feeling of a coffee cup warming your hands, or seeing the sunlight shining through a window. Or it could be a pleasant feeling that arises when you think of a friend. In meditation, this could be a pleasant sensation of energy in one part of the body, or the simple rhythm of the breath, or a sense that the body is relaxing, or moments of calmness beginning to appear in the mind, or a sense of light, or any spontaneous and pleasing imagery that may appear in the mind

Your attention may want to slide quickly onto something else, but this is just an instance of the mind’s tendency to take the positive for granted and to go looking for something to be troubled with. So notice anything positive in your experience.

Don’t grasp after such experiences though, and don’t cling to them. All experiences pass. In fact experiences are passing as we have them. So let them go, and don’t mourn their passing. Just appreciate them as best you can.

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See the person behind the eyes

Most of us wear a kind of mask, a persona that hides our deepest thoughts and feelings, and presents a polished, controlled face to the world.

To be sure, a persona is a good thing to have. For example, meetings at work, holidays with the in-laws, or a first date are usually not the best time to spill your guts. Just because you’re selective about what you reveal to the world does not mean you’re insincere; phoniness is only when we lie about what’s really going on inside.

Much of the time, we interact mask-to-mask with other people. There’s a place for that. But remember times when someone saw through your mask to the real you, the person back behind your eyes. If you’re like me, those times were both unnerving and wonderful.

Even though it’s scary, everyone longs to be seen, to be known. To have your hopes and fears acknowledged – the ones behind a polite smile or a frown of frustration. To have your true caring seen, as well as your positive intentions and natural goodness. Most intimately of all, to feel that your innermost being – the one to whom things happen, the one strapped to this roller-coaster of a life trying to make sense of it before it ends – has been recognized by someone.

This goes both ways: others long to be seen by you. Besides the ways that seeing the person behind the eyes benefits others, it’s good for you, too. Being seen is often the real stake on the table, the top priority, more important to other people than whether you agree with them about something. When someone gets that sense from you, that he or she exists for you as a person- not just as a pain in the neck or as someone to manage to get through this meeting, dinner, bedtime routine, phone call, or sexual experience – then it’s much easier to take care of the matter at hand, whatever it is.

Sensing the deepest layers in people can nourish you in other ways, too. For example, I had a relative with a big heart but a difficult personality that drove me a little crazy. Finally, I started to imagine that being with her was like looking at a bonfire through a lattice covered with thorny vines. I focused on the love shining through and warming my own heart, and didn’t get caught up in the vines. That helped both of us a lot.

How do we learn to see the person behind the mask?

This week with different people, get a sense of the person behind the eyes. It’s not a staring contest; it can actually help to look away so you’re not distracted by surface details. (While I’m using the word “see,” of course you are also hearing the person behind the words, sensing the person embedded in the body sitting across from you.)

Take a moment to relax and set aside your case about the other person, and open to the being down in there somewhere, maybe rattled and defensive and acting in ways that are problematic, but really just yearning for happiness and some way to move forward in life.

You could also sense your own innermost being, and then imagine that core, that sense of being alive, the recipient of experiences, the one for whom life is hard sometimes, inside the other person.

Let that recognition of the person over there show in your face, in your own eyes. Be brave and let them see you seeing them.

Notice how this recognition changes the course of an interaction – perhaps softening it, making it more authentic, leading to a good resolution more gently and quickly.

As an advanced practice, you could even raise the subject with someone, of the degree to which you feel seen (or not) as persons by each other. That kind of conversation can transform a relationship.

Last, enjoy being a person yourself, the channel through which your life streams – with some of the richest streaming being the other persons all around you.

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“A Little Book of Love” by Moh Hardin

A Little Book of Love

This is the first book by Moh Hardin, an acarya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and teaches classes on Buddhism and meditation in Canada and the U.S.

Hardin tells us that A Little Book of Love is written for anyone who is interested in exploring wisdom from the Buddhist tradition for awakening, deepening and expanding love in our lives and in the world. Unfortunately, Hardin gives only tiny snippets of Buddhist wisdom and neglects to describe how this wisdom relates to his suggestions for deepening and expanding love.

Hardin begins by telling us we should be our own best friend, that our friendship with ourselves should not be based on conditions or a certain image we have of ourselves, not as we would like to be, but as we are. Making friends with ourselves is accepting ourselves just as we are, unconditionally in the same way we accept our children. While this is good advice, it is not an easy mission to accomplish. Buddhist wisdom teaches us that we are a product of our conditions including our upbringing, our relationships, our family interactions, our education, our work environments etc. To say we should love ourselves unconditionally without exploring how to do this falls short.

Title: A Little Book of Love: Heart Advice on Bringing Happiness to Ourselves and Our World
Author: Moh Hardin
Publisher: Shambhala (Dec, 2011)
ISBN: 978-1-59030-900-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Kindle Store (US), and Kindle Store (UK).

According to Buddhism, Hardin tells us, our basic nature is awake, enlightened, basic goodness, independent of conditions, naturally loving, compassionate, gentle, intelligent and wise. Confusion and suffering come when we are separate from this natural goodness and feel the need to protect ourselves and feel anger or jealousy. I agree with this premise, however, it is one thing to understand an idea and another thing to have the tools and time to integrate it. This would be a perfect place for Hardin to describe how meditation can help us to come to that basic nature.

Hardin tells how to love our partners. He states the most important ingredient for a good, healthy and long-lasting relationship is giving each other the gift of space by stopping habitual reactions and patterns and keeping things in perspective. He cites Chogyam Trungpa who said, “Being in love does not mean possessing the other person; it simply means appreciate the other person” and recommends giving a “flash” of generosity to our partner by looking at them as if for the first time and being receptive. I would have loved to have read examples of partners working on their relationships in the way Hardin suggests. Examples of people who have gone through difficulties and have used the tool of “flashes of generosity” would have brought this book to life.

Regarding loving our children, Hardin states, “We want to create situations to nurture children’s basic goodness and encourage their inherent curiosity and give them space for self-expression. He encourages us to ask ourselves “How do we manifest our love for our children in day-to-day life?” and to allow children to become our guides in teaching us how to perfect our love rather than seeking to perfect them. He also recommends spending time giving our children focused attention, thus enjoying genuine encounters. There is one example of Hardin doing this with his child, and more personal examples or examples from other parents would have been appreciated.

Hardin discusses the connection between our wishes, thoughts and motivation. What we wish for, according to Hardin, has a powerful motivating force in our lives and gives rise to our thoughts and our thought motivate us to action. Bringing love to ourselves, our partners, our children and the world is Bodhisattva (“awake being”) activity. The Bodhisattva path is based on: equanimity (a sense of balance and inner peace), love (desire for the happiness of others), compassion (a wish for freedom from suffering of others) and joy (a flow of free energy). Bodhisattva activity is a concept that deserves much more attention and discussion than was offered here.

As potential Bodhisattvas, according to Hardin, we begin to see through our own opinions and projections of who we think others are and develop “the mind of an awakened heart”. We begin to understand the interconnection of our worlds and gain confidence and trust in basic goodness (our own and that of other people). I wish that Hardin, as an acarya, would have taken the opportunity to share some of his experiences in this realm and also described how he has witnessed others develop Bodhisattva activity.

The ideas of unconditional love for ourselves, our partners and our children; generosity towards those we love and all people; skillful communication that comes from a place of open-heartedness and an open mind and Bodhisattva activity (including equanimity, loving kindness, compassion, and joy), are certainly important components of accepting and loving ourselves and others. They are inspired ideas, ideas I believe in and yet I finished the book feeling disappointed and uninspired due to the lack of depth of the exploration.

These ideas, these basic tenets of Buddhism, could have been explained in more depth and illustrated with examples from the author’s experience to provide inspiration and guidelines for increasing our understanding of and capacity for what we think of and know of love and Bodhisattva activity and offer a richer experience for the reader.

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The science of lovingkindness

on practice

Right at the very beginning of my meditation practice I was introduced to both mindfulness of breathing and the development of lovingkindness meditation. It was explained to me that both of these practices were equally important, that they were complementary, and that alternating these practices prevented imbalance in our approach. It was stressed, in fact, that sometimes lovingkindness practice is more important than mindfulness practice — especially for people who have a tendency toward being angry or over-critical.

I’ve never had cause to doubt any of that advice.

There are many meditators, however, who only practice mindfulness meditation, and often lovingkindness practice is seen as second-best. Generally in western Buddhist practice, there is a heavy emphasis on particular forms of mindfulness meditation. And no doubt because of this arguably narrow emphasis, that’s the form of Buddhist meditation that’s been most commonly studied in the burgeoning research on the effects of meditative practice.

But beside mindfulness there are traditionally many forms of meditation practice, with one common list — the kammaṭṭhānas (literally “places of work”) including no less than forty forms of meditation. And in the Buddhist scriptures generally, there is a heavy emphasis on lovingkindness (mettā) meditation, especially as part of the four brahmavihāras, or sublime abodes.

Lovingkindness, fortunately, is becoming better known, and researchers are now studying the effects of practicing that form of meditation, showing that they positively affect health and well-being.

Here are a few highlights:

  • A study done at Stanford University used a brief lovingkindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers on both conscious and unconscious levels.
  • A Duke University Medical Center pilot study tested an eight-week lovingkindness program for chronic low back pain patients. Patients were randomly assigned to practice lovingkindness or were given standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress. There were significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the lovingkindness group — even after the study had ended. There were no improvements in the usual care group. An analysis of patients’ diaries showed that more lovingkindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.
  • Researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took working adults and assigned them randomly to a lovingkindness meditation group or to a control group. Her study found that lovingkindness practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions, which in turn produced increases in a wide range of personal resources, including increased mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. These increments in personal resources predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
  • In a study by Richard Davidson, scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to other parts of the brain.
  • The same study showed increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly in the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce reactions to inflammation and distress. An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress. Those who practiced the most meditation showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to stressors when compared to the low practice group and the control group. As one of the researchers noted, “If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes.”
  • A review by researchers in the US and Germany suggested that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation “may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.”

In some of these studies, the benefits were revealed after only twelve hours of meditation. Hopefully future studies will reveal yet more about the power of lovingkindness and compassion meditation.

If you’re interested in exploring lovingkindness practice in more depth, we have an extensive, free, self-paced guide, which includes audio guided meditations.

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Learning to love the flaws

As I wrote in my most recent book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

I think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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Seven ways to ease your anxiety, without pills

Someone recently wrote to me asking about how to deal with anxiety. He didn’t say specifically what his anxiety was about, so I offered some general advice, which I repeat here in a slightly modified and expanded form in case it benefits others.

1. Cultivate lovingkindness

I’ve found that doing lovingkindness practice as I go about my daily affairs has a big effect on my anxiety levels. I find it’s impossible to be cultivating lovingkindness toward people and simultaneously be worrying about what they might think of me. I’m talking here not of sitting practice (which helps too) but of cultivating lovingkindness as I walk around, drive, etc. There simply isn’t the mental bandwidth available to keep up both activities (loving and worrying), and in any event the two kinds of emotions are so different from each other that it’s hard for them to coexist. I find that the anxiety disappears quite quickly, but that may not be true for everyone. But that doesn’t matter — just keep wishing yourself and others well, and your anxiety will lessen.

2. Reassure your inner child

Anxiety finds something to be anxious about. Once you start working with your anxiety in order to lessen it, your anxiety will turn to the process itself. You’ll start worrying that your anxiety isn’t budging, or won’t go away, that you’re going to be stuck with it for life, etc. This is a primitive part of your brain speaking — your amygdala. It evolved to scan for danger, and sometimes it gets out of control. It’s screaming at your neocortex — the more rational part of your brain — and hijacking its functions. What you need to do is to turn the dynamic around so that it’s the rational neocortex that’s setting the agenda for the amygdala. And you do this by exercising your rationality, reminding yourself that change takes time, and that it isn’t always possible to see change happening in real time. Can you see a seed grow into a plant in real time? Of course not. You have to observe the change taking place over a long period of time. It’s the same with your emotional habits. Perhaps after 40 minutes of meditation there will be some perceptible change. Perhaps not. Perhaps it may take days or weeks. Engage the neocortex and remind yourself — remind the amygdala — that it’s OK, that change takes time. Over time, your neocortex gets better at reassuring the amygdala, so that you experience less anxiety. You’ll actually develop new pathways in your brain.

Here are some other suggestions:

3. Breathe into the belly

Make sure that you breathe fully into the belly. It centers our experience and slows the mind. Keep your awareness in the hara, a point just below the navel and just inside the body, throughout the day. This is your physical and emotional center of gravity. Keeping your awareness there helps you stay in balance.

4. Sit up!

Watch your posture. Relax the body, and make sure that your body is in the posture it would have if you felt confident. You remember what it feels like in the body when you’re confident? Let your body find its way into that relaxed, upright, open posture. You’ll feel different.

5. Acknowledge your suffering

Self-compassion is a vital practice: notice that you’re suffering when you’re in a state of anxiety. Locate the source of suffering in the body as specifically as you can. Send it thoughts of lovingkindness: “May you be well, may you be happy, etc.”

6. Count your blessings

As a meditation practice, these days, I become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.” I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.” I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning, and even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.” I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.” It’s important to actually make the sound of the words in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real. By focusing on what’s right in our lives, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong.

7. Head it off at the pass

But there are many forms of anxiety, and sometimes they’re very specific and can be addressed with very specific antidotes, so it would help if you could identify your core anxiety. What is it that you most commonly fear? What’s your worst-case scenario? I used to suffer anxiety when giving talks. My fear was that people were bored with what I was saying. My worst-case scenario — nightmare scenario, really — was that people would start chatting amongst themselves, or would get up and walk out! It was very useful to connect with what my nightmare scenario was, because it allowed me to find ways to avoid that fear arising. Since I was worried that my audience might be bored, all I had to do was to check that they were engaged. I’d ask them a question, right at the start of the class. And their responses would reassure me they had an interest in the topic. The talk would include further questions that would show me their engagement. (Incidentally, this made the talk more interesting, because people like to have an opportunity to interact).

I also used to suffer anxiety because of being overwhelmed with work. My fear was that I would forget some task that was vitally important. I found that planning tools helped me avoid that fear arising.

So I’d suggest facing your nightmare. Ask yourself what is it that you most fear. Then find creative ways to find reassurance.

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Meditation – how many forms should we practice?

A variety of cut citrus fruit, viewed from above.

There are many different types of meditation practices. Most familiar, perhaps, are mantra meditation, Mindfulness of Breathing, Metta Bhavana (Development of Loving Kindness), and the candle meditation. Recently I was asked by a student if I thought she should add a third meditation practice to the two forms of meditation she already practices. I responded to her question with a list of questions to consider before she made her decision. I hope these questions will be helpful to you as well, if you are considering adding other practices to your meditation repertoire.

Regarding adding another form of meditation to your meditation practice – there are differing ideas about doing that. In my own meditation process (from 1993 – 2000), it was recommended that I practice the metta bhavana and the mindfulness of breathing (which some believe can take us all the way to Enlightenment). When I was ordained, in September 2000, I was introduced to two more forms of meditation – the Six Element Practice and an Amitabha Buddha visualization practice. Those practices were taught during a seven week retreat and I had an opportunity to practice both forms in a context where I received instruction and support.

It’s probably a good idea to consider the intention underlying one’s desire to take on another meditation practice. Here are some questions to consider:

1. Am I bored/tired with my practice as it is? If so, why?

2. Which meditation practice do I practice most? If I just practice the Mindfulness of Breathing as a way to become more focused and mindful, should I practice the Metta Bhavana for a while so that I am developing loving kindness for myself and others? Is there a reason I practice one practice more than another? Am I having difficulty concentrating or feeling positive emotion for myself and or others? If there is resistance to one practice, understanding the resistance can be valuable.

3. What do I want to accomplish by taking on another meditation practice?

4. Do I know enough about the practice to do it without the support of a teacher and practice group?

After reading this list of questions, another student responded:

“Thank you for the list of questions to consider when thinking about trying another meditation practice. Your first question struck home with me in that sometimes after I have been doing a particular meditation for awhile I have more difficulty staying focused. It just struck me that maybe instead of switching to another method, I need to just sit with the restlessness of my mind and see what happens. Not being able to stay still emerges once again.”

It’s a good idea to be aware of your meditation practice, and to take stock, now and again, to see if changes (additions or deletions) might be helpful.

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