lovingkindness practice

“All people and all circumstances are my allies.”

All people and all circumstances are my allies

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Old Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Meditation Practice

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

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

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

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

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

Making This Your Life

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

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

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Seven tips for people who struggle with lovingkindness practice

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Start by sitting with kindness.

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

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

3. Regard yourself with kindness.

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

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

4. Empathy before kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

6. Give yourself time and space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four steps to self-empathy and self-kindness

Karina Vorozheeva on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

1. Recognize Yourself as a Feeling Being

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

2. Sense Your Deepest Needs

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

3. Understand That Life Is Challenging

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

4. Offer Yourself Kindness and Support

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

That person is, of course, yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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Practicing in balance

Photo by Jordan Steranka on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sitting With Bodhi II

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

It’s called Sitting With Bodhi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to find out a bit more or enroll.

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The world needs your kindness

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world.
–The Buddha

Just as a child needs nurturing parents, the world, now more than ever, needs our wisdom, compassion, and care. But changing the world starts with changing ourselves.

For 2,500 years the Buddhist meditation tradition has offered powerful tools for self-transformation — for becoming wiser, kinder, and more compassionate.

Our 28-day online course introduces the practice of lovingkindness meditation, which helps us to be more at ease with, more patient with, and more supportive of ourselves, as well as calmer and kinder to those in our lives — from our dearest friends to those we find ourselves in conflict with.

I invite you to join me on this path of the heart, this discovery of the hidden power of kindness.

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Stepping into an “enemy’s” shoes

Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash

We all experience problems of coming into conflict with others, even if sometimes the conflicts take place purely inside our heads in the form of resentment and irritation.

Finding ways to lessen those conflicts has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our lives, especially since these conflicts are with people who are close to us.

(I’ve used the traditional term “enemy” above to cover all people we come into conflict with, even though in ordinary parlance we wouldn’t normally use that word for someone we have a generally positive relationship with, even if we do sometimes get into disputes with them.)

One way of letting go of our resentments and of practicing forgiveness is to recognize that the other person’s thoughts, speech, and actions are the result of causes and conditions. This might sound rather abstract, but please bear with me.

We’re all born with genetic and epigenetic predispositions toward certain kinds of behavioral traits. Most of us know that our genes predispose us to be more confident, aggressive or fearful; gregarious, clingy or aloof, and so on. Fewer people are aware that experiences our parents and grandparents have had (and even the food they’ve eaten) can affect the way our genes express themselves right now.

And then we are all subject to conditioning early in childhood. The presence or absence of nurturing, and the kinds of behavioral modeling we’re exposed to, profoundly shape the very structure of our brains, and thus the way we feel, think, and act.

And we’re all subject to cultural conditioning that shapes the way we see the world.

These forms of conditioning affect the kinds of choices we make, and thus what happens to us in life. Some of what happens to us in life may change us in positive ways, but sometimes the effects are to reinforce our early conditioning. So someone who’s afraid of intimacy because of childhood betrayals may inadvertently choose to be with people who don’t care about their feelings or wellbeing. An aggressive person will tend to seek out conflict.

It’s being aware of all this that I mean when I talk about stepping into the shoes of an “enemy.”

Take anyone you get into conflict with for any reason. It might be a colleague at work who routinely dismisses your suggestions, or a spouse who is often so absorbed in something else that they forget to greet you when you come home, or a child who picks fights with their siblings and drives you crazy.

Now consider that this person has been conditioned since before birth to behave in certain ways, that their brains have been profoundly shaped by early childhood experiences as well as events later in life. That their beliefs and values have similarly been shaped by genetics and life experiences. That it may be very difficult, even impossible, for them to do things you might want them to do, like be more trusting, be less aggressive, cooperate more, be more logical or more emotionally expressive, and so on.

The contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle wrote, “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.”

So imagine you had been born with the brain and genes of the person you’re having difficult with. Imagine you’d had the same (inevitably faulty) parenting, early childhood experiences, cultural conditioning, education, and life experiences. In all likelihood you’d act exactly as they do.

Tolle points out that this realization that a person is a bundle of conditions, and that if you were subject to the same conditions you’d think and act as they do, leads to forgiveness, compassion, and peace. And he’s right. It’s also true that recognizing our own conditioning leads to self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and peace.

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Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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Ask yourself, “Am I showing love right now?”

loving touch

A little while ago, while I was in the shower, I had a series of realizations.

I was unmindfully mulling over a financial problem, because my bank had messed and moved all my money into someone else’s account, and then I became aware that I was caught up in unhelpful and distracted thinking.

My initial thought was that I was being blown around by one of the “four worldly winds” that Buddhism talks about: gain and loss. We often end up thinking that getting and having stuff is one of the most important things in life, and therefore think that losing stuff is important too.

As long as I’m not starving, loss isn’t really a problem. (I’ll get the money back, I’m told, although it seems to be taking a long time.) But the problem of money is fundamentally a practical one, and doesn’t have to be an emotional one. I don’t have to let loss affect my sense of wellbeing.

The other worldly winds are high and low status, approval and disapproval, and pleasure and pain. These are various things that we think are important. Sometimes in fact we think that they’re the most important things in life, because they’re where happiness comes from. But the Buddha didn’t think that.

I think of them as being a bit like “The Matrix” in the movie of the same name. They’re a virtual reality that we create and then live inside of. We become absolutely convinced that they’re real and important. It can be hard sometimes to imagine any other way of seeing our world.

Anyway, all of that flashed into my mind, and then I had my epiphany, which is probably nothing you haven’t heard before: The only important thing is to love.

This wasn’t something that came to me as a general statement, but as a personal one. The only important thing in my life is love. I need to take love as the central principle in my life—the one thing that I remember at all times. The worldly winds aren’t important. They’re things that we delude ourselves into thinking are important.

But it’s not always easy to be loving. We can realize things like “The only important thing is to love” and still behave like a jerk. I often do. The worldly winds are part of our genetic inheritance as mammals and they’re hard to set aside.

Our genetic inheritance sometimes makes us behave like assholes. There are circuits in our brains dedicated to tracking our importance in terms of loss and gain, high and low status, etc. The perception of loss of money, a risk to our status, and so on, triggers powerful feelings, which then lead to the brain’s resources being devoted to “fixing” the perceived problem. Those “fixes” sometimes make us treat others badly, because our worldly wind–driven habits are strong and fast. They often overwhelm us. And so while we may believe, on some level, that love is the most important thing, we still act as if it’s less important than things like status. (Think, for example, of when when we bicker with a partner and don’t want to admit we’re wrong. Status, in this case, trumps love, even though in the long term it’s much better to be loved than to be right.)

Then I realized I had a second thought to add to the first:

1. The only important thing is to love
2. And to remember to love.

But as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sang, “Love is not enough.” Actually, it’s the feeling of love that’s not enough. I can think of plenty of times in my marriage when I felt I loved my wife and told her so, but it wasn’t enough, because I wasn’t acting in ways that made her feel loved. Love is not enough.

So we need to learn to show love, and not just feel it. We need to learn what it is that people need in order to grow in happiness and to become free from suffering, and offer it to them. Usually that thing is empathy, and listening. Sometimes it’s a wider and wiser perspective.

Now I’m up to three things:

1. The only important thing is to love
2. And to remember to love
3. And to keep learning how to show love.

And then as I was soaping my self, I have another thing to add to those three. This is something to be done, not just thought, and so the fourth reflection is: “Am I being loving right now?”

Well, was I? No! I wasn’t being harsh, but I was washing my body in a rather unmindful way, because I’d been having all those thoughts. (It wasn’t a very long shower—thought is fast.) So I soaped myself with love. I felt the love in my heart. I let it fill my hands. I washed my body with kindness and affection. I took pleasure in the sensation of hot water splashing on my body. It felt like these realizations now meant something.

So now I had four things:

1. The only important thing is to love
2. And to remember to love
3. And to keep learning how to show love.
4. Am I showing love right now?

And then my shower was over.

Although the fourth thought came last, it actually seems like it’s the key one. It’s the one that the others are expressions of. It’s the question I need to keep returning to.

So these are the four things (which are really just one thing) I’m going to let rest in my mind. I’m going to keep coming back to these phrases over and over again. This is something I don’t want to forget.

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Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia, March 2017!

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Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia in 2017! He’s been invited by the Sydney Buddhist Centre to lead a week-long retreat on lovingkindness and the other three “divine abidings” at Vijayaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre, at Minto, just one hour from the centre of Sydney, on a plot of largely pristine bushland above the upper reaches of the Georges River.

This week-long retreat is an opportunity to enjoy my innovative and even provocative take on the “divine abidings” or Brahma Viharas — four inspiring and transformative practices that progressively expand our sphere of concern to include all beings.

The divine abidings are a path to insight, blending compassion and wisdom.

On this retreat we will delve progressively deeper into the divine abidings, developing an unselfish concern as deep as the world itself: a love that leads ourselves and others toward awakening.

These teachings have grown out of over 30 years of practicing these meditations, and of helping literally thousands of people to explore them. The retreat is suitable for people who already have some meditation experience. It’s not an event for complete beginners.

  • Metta is kindness, or an empathic recognition that just as we desire happiness, other beings desire happiness; therefore we wish for the wellbeing of others.
  • Karuna, or compassion, is the desire that beings be free from suffering so that they may experience happiness.
  • Mudita, or joyful appreciation, is far more than “being happy because others are happy.” It begins by recognizing that true happiness does not arise randomly, but as the result of skillful actions. Therefore we rejoice in the good we see in ourselves and the world, and encourage its development, living as much as possible from a basis of gratitude and appreciation.
  • Upekkha is often translated as equanimity, or balance. But it goes much deeper. The root meaning of upekkha is “to watch intimately.” It begins with the recognition that the deepest and truest form of happiness is the peace that arises from spiritual awakening; therefore if we truly want beings to be happy we should rejoice in and encourage the cultivation of insight in ourselves and others.

In cultivating upekkha we must look deeply into the hearts of beings and recognize their need for awakening. And we must look deeply into the nature of reality itself, so that we know what awakening is, and can help others to attain it. Upekkha, in its essence, is identical to “The Great Compassion” (Maha-Karuna) of the Mahayana, that seeks the enlightenment of all beings.

The divine abidings, ultimately, are a love as deep as life itself.

The retreat runs from Friday, 3 March until Friday, 10 March, 2017.

Click here to register for Bodhipaksa’s retreat in Australia.

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