metta

The thing you may sometimes confuse with true kindness

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

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

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

What my correspondent had to say was as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Downward Spiral

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

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

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

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

Love Is Not a Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Is in How You Look…

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

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

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

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

…Not What You’re Looking For

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

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

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From fear and denial to love and acceptance

Photo by Erico Marcelino on Unsplash

In the opening words to his book “The Road Less Traveled,” the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says:

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

I’d put this less absolutely than Peck does: once we know, understand, and accept that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult. This difficult thing of being human is made easier when we accept the inevitability of suffering.

I’d like to offer a series of suggestions to help you see the truth of this. And so I invite you to read the following points slowly and with care, allowing yourself time to take each suggestion on board, testing them in the heart and comparing them honestly with your own lived experience.

Drop any defensiveness or desire to be seen as perfect, and allow yourself to feel your own vulnerability. Let go of any desire to see yourself as “succeeding,” and let yourself be gloriously, humanly imperfect.

I suggest you spend at least a minute on each of these thoughts, and perhaps a bit longer on the final one.

  • First, as you read these words become aware of your vulnerable human body, with its beating heart, and the constant rise and fall of the breathing. This body is aging, and prone to injury and illness, as are all human bodies. Recognize yourself as an embodied, living being who will not be on this earth for long. If this is at all uncomfortable, see if you can regard those painful feelings with kindly eyes.
  • Next, allow into your awareness that your feelings are important to you. Perhaps in this moment you’re not feeling much, but sometimes you suffer, and sometimes you are happy. Consider the reality of this, recalling moments of happiness and of unhappiness, recognizing yourself as a feeling being.
  • Consider that you want, as your deepest desire, to find some kind of wellbeing, or happiness, or peace, and to escape suffering where that’s possible. When you remember times you’ve been unhappy, was there a desire to be free from that suffering? When you remember times of peace, happiness, or wellbeing, was there a wish to remain in that state? Recognize yourself as a being who desires happiness as your deepest yearning.
  • Now, remind yourself that happiness is often elusive, and that you experience suffering far more often than you’d like, were life ideal. Recognize yourself as a struggling being—as someone who is doing a difficult thing in being human.
  • Finally, try saying the following words to yourself for a few minutes: “May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.”

The first four activities help you empathize with yourself. Through them you sense yourself as a being in need of support, worthy of support. And this empathetic awareness of yourself provides a grounding for being kind to yourself. The phrases—“May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others”— are ways of showing yourself support. By the time you got to the fifth suggestion you may have felt that you actually wanted to offer yourself kindness and encouragement, and that you wanted to offer yourself support.

These reflections open us up to experiencing our own vulnerability, and this can be an uncomfortable process. It may be, for example, that heartache or sadness arose. That’s a common response. These reflections can put us in touch with yearnings that we have, perhaps out of duty or fear, long suppressed. We can spend much of our lives pretending to ourselves that we’re much happier than we actually are. We can pretend that suffering is an unfortunate accident we’re on the verge of recovering from. It can be frightening to take on board the truth that we frequently suffer, and that we’re not fully in control of our own lives.

Should painful feelings of sadness or heartache arise, it’s wise to accept them and show them kindness. If they do appear, that’s a good sign, because it shows that we’re getting more fully in touch with the reality that life is difficult. Empathizing with ourselves, and being kind toward ourselves, is essential if we’re to accept that reality, because it allows us to let go of the fear that leads to denial.

These reflections help us to more from fear and denial to love and acceptance. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable lets us see how challenging and difficult life is, but it also allows us to empathize with ourselves and to offer ourselves kindness and support as we do this difficult thing of being human.

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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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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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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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This simple tweak to the way you write emails might change your entire day

How many emails do you write in the average day? I just did a quick count and yesterday alone it was 64! Many of the messages I write are business emails and don’t have a salutation or valediction, plunging straight into the message. But some of them start with “Dear (whoever)” or “Hi!” and end with a sign-off.

I usually end those kinds of emails with “Metta, Bodhipaksa.” Metta is the Buddhist word for kindness. It’s often translated as “lovingkindness,” although I think the word kindness works much better, mainly because it’s familiar and experiential.

So I was responding to someone who said he couldn’t attend a gathering today because of work, and I was signing off with “Metta, Bodhipaksa” when it occurred to me that I could actually connect with warmth and kindness toward the person I was writing with.

Normally those sign-offs are just a formality. I don’t really think about what I’m saying.

So instead of doing that I just paused for a few seconds and called to mind the person I was writing to. I simply remembered that he was a feeling human being, that he had joys and sorrows just as I do, and that those feelings are as important to him as mine are to me. A sense of warmth and kindness naturally arose as I did this. I still feel different, perhaps half an hour after writing doing this exercise, which literally took just a few seconds.

Incidentally, this is how I teach people the practice of cultivating metta/kindness — the meditation practice we call “metta bhavana” (bhavana just means cultivation). You don’t need to “try to be nice” (yuck!) or try to make anything happen. Kindness just arises naturally when we empathize with the facts that others feel, and that their feelings are as important to them as ours are to us.

So there’s a new practice for me; I’m going to pause every time I write, “With metta, Bodhipaksa” and empathize with the person I’m writing to.

I can’t believe it took 36 years of meditating to come up with that one…

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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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“Make Peace With Your Mind,” by Mark Coleman

Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, as well as an executive coach and founder of the Mindfulness Institute. And he’s written a very rich, readable, and practical book on the practice of self-compassion.

Although we’ve never met, Coleman and I started our spiritual paths in similar places. Back in 1984, while I was throwing myself into Buddhist practice at the Glasgow Buddhist Center, Coleman was doing the same at the London Buddhist Center, both of which are part of the Triratna Buddhist Community. Our spiritual paths, even though they have diverged since then — I’m still practicing within Triratna while he embraced the Insight Meditation tradition — have also converged, in that we’re both deeply involved in the practice and teaching of self-compassion.

For both of us, there was an intense practical and personal need to do this. We were both angry young men, and full of self-hatred. We both now see the importance of compassion in this difficult world we find ourselves in — for ourselves and others.

The constant theme running through “Make Peace With Your Mind” is the “Inner Critic” — that all-too-familiar nagging voice that tells us over and over that we’ve messed up, that we’re not good enough, that things we did were idiotic, that we look bad in photographs, that people will judge us because we’re too fat, too skinny, too old, and so on.

Coleman explains over a number of chapters the problems that self-judgement causes in our lives, from the undermining comments we make about ourselves, to “imposter syndrome,” which causes very accomplished people to doubt their abilities. (No less than John Steinbeck wrote, “I am not a writer. I have been fooling myself and other people.” Wow!) He points out that self-judgement is universal. We all have this trait, and it’s a relief for many people to realize that they are not alone in suffering from self-criticism and doubt.

He helps us to understand the inner critic too, showing us that it has a role in protecting us from transgressing rules, or doing anything that might bring censure. “The problem,” as he points out, “is that it does not go away. It’s like a broken record, constantly repeating.” And this continues, sometimes, though our whole lives. We accumulate many such self-critical habits as we go through life. Each one has the function of protecting us, but the toll they take outweighs the benefits, and they can end up making our lives hell.

Coleman provides a lot of information about the inner critic, and it’s all useful. It’s a long time, however, until we get to the point where he explains how to work with our self-criticism.

We start with mindfulness, recognizing that our self-critical thoughts are indeed no more than thoughts and that we don’t have to take them seriously, practicing non-identification, and even learning to laugh at the inner critic’s antics.

Coleman also explains how to be kind to ourselves and stop treating ourselves as “the enemy,” and even to “befriend our own pain as much as we do with our loved ones.” This involves accepting and turning toward our pain, opening up to our vulnerability, and relating to our pain compassionately.

Toward the end of the book he takes us “beyond the critic” — beyond mere freedom from self-criticism, and into a positive appreciation of the good that is to be found in ourselves and others, and into a life in which peace and ease naturally arise.

This is a rich and comprehensive guide to the practice of self-compassion. It contains moving anecdotes and examples from the author’s own life and from the lives of others he has known in his capacity as a teacher. It’s particularly enriched by the inclusion of a practical guide at the end of each chapter. Even the more theoretical parts of the book conclude with us being asked to turn to our experience. And so my earlier comment that it takes a long time to get to the chapters on dealing with the inner critic should be tempered with an awareness that these practical guidelines foreshadow the later material, and give us plenty to do. The first chapter, for example, which is on the topic of recognizing how the brain can change and grow in response to our experiences, ends with suggestions to observe things in a public place that we dislike or like, and also to reflect on things in ourselves that we appreciate.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone suffering from self-criticism or self-esteem issues. It offers a rich and varied selection of tools for moving from self-hatred and the suffering it brings, to living more lightly, joyfully, and self-compassionately.

See also my own online course on self-compassion, starting Nov 1, 2017. It’s never too early to register!

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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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