metta bhavana

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

mother looking lovingly at her baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindness (Love) Is About How We Relate

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

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

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

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

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

Recall Looking With Loving Eyes

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

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

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

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

Looking With Love Rather Than For Love

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

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

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

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

Unblocking Our Love

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

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

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

Summing Up

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

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

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

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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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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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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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Seven minutes of meditation can reduce racial prejudice

wildmind meditation news

A popular meditation technique that’s intended to create feelings of kindness can also reduce prejudice, according to new University of Sussex research.

The study, published online in the journal Motivation and Emotion, found that just seven minutes of Loving-kindness meditation (LKM), a Buddhist practice that promotes unconditional kindness towards oneself and others, is effective at reducing racial bias.

Lead researcher Alexander Stell, a doctoral student in Psychology, said: “This indicates that some meditation techniques are about much more than feeling good, and might be an important tool for enhancing inter-group harmony.”

LKM is known to engender happiness and kindness to oneself and others through repeating phrases such as ‘may you be happy and healthy’ while visualising a particular person.

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Some previous studies have shown that inducing happiness in people, for example by exposing them to upbeat music, can actually make them more likely to have prejudiced thoughts compared to those hearing sad music.

Mr Stell said: “We wanted to see whether doing LKM towards a member of another ethnic group would reduce the automatic preference people tend to show for their own ethnic group.”

For the study, a sample of 71 white, non-meditating adults were each given a photo of a gender-matched black person and either received taped LKM instructions, or instructions to look at the photos and notice certain features of the face. Both conditions lasted just seven minutes.

Using the Implicit Association Test, the researchers then scored the reaction times of the participants who were asked to match up positive and negative words (for example “happiness” or “wrong”) with faces that belonged to either their own or another ethnic group.

On average people are quicker to match positive stimuli with their own group and quicker to match negative stimuli to the other group. This produces a bias ‘score’ that is considered a more robust measure of prejudice than traditional questionnaire data, which are known to be strongly influenced by social desirability.

The researchers found that just seven minutes of LKM directed to a member of a specific racial group (in this case, a black person) was sufficient to reduce racial bias towards that group. However, there was no marked reduction in racial bias towards other groups.

Additionally the researchers measured levels of positive emotions that were either ‘other-regarding’ (e.g. love, gratitude, awe, elevation) and those that were more self-directed (e.g. contentment, joy, pride) and found that people doing LKM showed large increases specifically in these other-regarding emotions. These other-regarding emotions were found to be what drives the reduction of bias.

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Lovingkindness meditation, using natural language

girl hand giving flowers

When I was first taught the metta bhavana (“development of lovingkindness”) practice, back in the early 1980s, I was encouraged to use these three phrases: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering” (altered to “may you…” or “may all beings…” in the other stages of the practice).

I was told that the exact words weren’t important, and that you could use your own phrases if you wanted. But none of the teachers who led the classes I went to ever offered any alternatives, which sent out a message saying that these were the “proper” and “authorized” ones.

But they worked! I remember the first time that I noticed the metta practice making a substantial difference to my emotional states. I was in a car, outside of Glasgow Veterinary School at the end of the day, waiting with two of my room-mates for one other person to show up so that we could go home. I guess I was probably tired after a full day of classes, and I was certainly grumpy.

The two girls, who were in the front seats, were chattering away about all kinds of things that I found rather trivial. They were just having fun and bonding, really, but I couldn’t appreciate that. I remember that at one point I was listening to them discuss what kinds of neckties their fathers wore, and I found myself in a really foul mood. Didn’t they have anything more meaningful to discuss!

Fortunately I remembered the metta bhavana practice, which I’d learned just a couple of weeks before. Didn’t that have something to do with overcoming ill will? So I began to repeat: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.” I didn’t have any expectation that this would actually do anything, but I gave it my best shot.

After maybe just three or four minutes of this, I noticed a really weird thing. Somehow, while I’d been reciting those three phrases, over and over, I’d moved from being miserable to being happy! I hadn’t even noticed it happening. Holy incense sticks, Batman! This lovingkindness meditation thing works!

When I began to teach, I’d do what I’d been taught: tell people the phrases, let them know that they could change them if they wanted, and then use only those phrases, as if to suggest that this was the “real” way to do the practice.

Only a few years ago, as I taught compassion meditation more, I shook up the lovingkindness phrases a bit. Since compassion is about relieving suffering, I reckoned that “May I be free from suffering” was more of a compassion statement, and so I started to say (and teach!) “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be feel at ease.” Even more recently, I’ve sometimes said “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be kind to myself and others.” That change is because I think it’s important to encourage not just happiness and well-being, but kindness itself. After all, that’s what the practice is about!

More recently still, I’ve made a more radical change. I still use the standard phrases, but I offer rather different ways of communicating kindness. The “May I be..” format seems a bit stilted, and although it works, I think it’s rather a slow method, because the mind treats rote phrases as less meaningful than natural language, and learns to ignore it.

So now I’m encouraging people to use more natural forms of inner speech. I keep this fluid, because it’s a form of communication, and communication is more effective when there’s some spontaneity in it. So I’ll tend to use phrases like:

  • I love you, and I want you to be happy.
  • I just want you to know that your wellbeing is important to me; I hope you feel happy today!
  • I care about you, and I wish you well.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be happy when you give yourself a hard time. You deserve happiness.
  • I know life’s hard sometimes, but I’m here for you.
  • May your life be full of ease and joy!
  • I love you, and I’m here to give you support and encouragement.
  • It might be hard to believe this sometimes, but everything’s going to be OK.

In the other stages I’ll use similar phrases. Often I’ll tailor the message specifically for the person I’m thinking about. So for a friend, I’ll wish him freedom from the financial stress I know he’s under, or wish him well in dealing with a difficult family issue.

Using more natural language like this is a more effective way for me to communicate with myself, and to wish others well. Even when I find myself reusing these phrases, I have more of a feeling that I’m speaking from the heart, and what I’m saying seems more effective. A kind and compassionate part of me is communicating to other, perhaps more anxious unhappy, parts of me in a very natural way. It feels more alive and genuine.

Why not give this a try, see how it goes, and let me know in the comments below?

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After meditation, self-critical people ease up

wildmind meditation newsAnn Lukits, Wall Street Journal: Self-critical people were significantly kinder and more compassionate toward themselves after practicing lovingkindness meditation compared with a control group, according to a pilot study in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. The technique, rooted in Buddhism, may help to reduce symptoms of depression, the researchers suggest.

Lovingkindness is a form of meditation designed to cultivate feelings of warmth and kindness to all people, including oneself, the researchers said. Practicing the technique may activate a soothing-caring regulation system that is probably deficient in chronic self-critics, they suggest.

Self-critical perfectionism is implicated in a number of psychological conditions, such as eating disorders, and can …

Read the original article »

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We can teach our brains to feel more compassion

wildmind meditation newsMindful.org: Scientific evidence shows that we can train the brain to feel more compassion—for others and for ourselves.

Another science-based reason to try loving-kindness meditation! In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, who was featured in Mindful’s August 2014 issue), participants were taught to generate compassion for different categories of people, including both those they love and “difficult” people in their lives.

After only two weeks of online training, participants who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control …

Read the original article »

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The Urban Retreat: Every ending is a beginning

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

This is not the end, but the beginning.

Here is a summary of where we’ve been, and a list of suggestions for continuing your exploration of meditation.

Where we’re been

We hope you appreciated and benefited from the material we sent you. Remember that even if you didn’t manage to read everything or watch all the videos, they’re always there for you. In fact here’s a handy list of all the posts we sent during the retreat:

And there were three guided meditations that we led as part of the event. You can access those anytime, here:

What’s next?

If you want to maintain and deepen your meditation practice and, perhaps, your practice of Buddhism more generally, here are a few options:

1. Wildmind’s Year of Going Deeper
Our Year of Going Deeper is a year-long series of meditation events, where we’ll explore various aspects of meditation. It’ll be like the Urban Retreat, but with more of a sense of community. There are eight events planned, spanning the whole of 2014. Some are introductory, while others are more in-depth. All the events are free, although donations are encouraged.

2. The World in Balance, March 20, 2014
The World In Balance is a special event we’re running on the March equinox: March 20, 2014, at 16:57 UTC (click on the link to add the event to your calendar in your local time). It’s a worldwide meditation event, taking place at the exact moment that the earth’s equator passes the center of the sun, the earth is perfectly upright, and the transit from the seasonal extremes is at a balance point worldwide — but at the moment the details of the event are a secret! All we can tell you now if that it’s going to be big.

3. Join Wildmind’s Community
Our community is the most civilized, sane, compassionate place you’ll find for discussing your practice, and for getting support and encouragement. Join here.

4. Subscribe to Wildmind’s regular, bi-monthly newsletter
Our regular newsletter goes out roughly every two weeks, and contains links to selected news and articles from our blog. As of the next newsletter, there will also be a special article in each edition that hasn’t been published on our blog. Sign up here.

5. Join us for a weekend retreat
Bodhipaksa will be leading a retreat in Florida (just south of Tampa) from Feb 21–23, 2014. You can find out more or register here. There will also be a weekend retreat in southern New Hampshire, May 2–4, 2014. To find out more, subscribe to our newsletter!

6. Make use of other Triratna resources
Free Buddhist Audio is a treasure-trove of audio and written resources on the theme of Buddhist practice. The Buddhist Center is Triratna’s central site, which you can use to find a Triratna Center near you, or to find other resources.

7. Help us to spread the benefits of meditation
Lastly, we’re put a lot of work into this Urban Retreat. How about giving something back, by making a donation of $5, or $10, or even $20?

May you fare well in the future, and may our paths cross again.

Yours,
Bodhipaksa

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The Urban Retreat, Day 8: Developing compassion

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

I’m going to write less today, because sometimes I go on a bit, and I know we’re all bombarded with information. So here are just a few words about the practice of compassion, and especially of self-compassion.

What is compassion? Like lovingkindness, it’s a volition (something we desire or will or intend). While lovingkindness is the desire that beings find happiness, compassion is the desire to relieve suffering. Compassion flows directly from lovingkindness; we want beings to be happy, yet they suffer, and so we want their suffering to be relieved so that they can find happiness.

The Urban Retreat series:

Compassion is not a sentiment. It’s not just a feeling. Volitions are what lead to actions, and so the volition of compassion will lead to us relieving suffering where we’re able to. You can be compassionate without feeling much!

It’s hard to have compassion for others when we don’t have it for ourselves. Just as the lovingkindness practice starts with kindness toward ourselves, so compassion starts with — well, if we’re not currently suffering then it starts with kindness toward ourselves, but if we are suffering then we often need to address our suffering before we are able to have compassion for others, so we start with self-compassion. This isn’t selfish — it’s like how in airplanes you’re asked to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your children. If you don’t take care of your own needs first then you won’t be able to help your kids.

Suffering isn’t always what you think it is. A lot of people think they don’t suffer. They thing suffering is what poor people and sick people and people in third world countries do. Suffering is having cancer or starving to death. Actually, those things are suffering, but so is worrying about whether people like you, or feeling grumpy, or wishing you weren’t at work, or feeling low and despondent. Now it’s suffering on a different scale, but it’s still suffering, and it still matters. If we care about someone’s wellbeing we want them to be free of all suffering.

We often don’t notice we’re suffering when we’re suffering. We’re too caught up in worrying that people might not like us, for example, to notice that in that moment we’re in pain. So we have to learn to recognize our own suffering.

And when you find yourself in emotional pain in the ways I describe, it’s very valuable — crucial, even — to treat your pain with lovingkindness. You haven’t failed by suffering. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of being alive and human. So accept your suffering. Accept that it’s OK to suffer. Say to yourself “It’s OK to feel this.”

And then wish your suffering well. By doing this you’re wishing the part of you that is suffering well. Here’s one way to do that:

  • Notice where in the body your pain is most strongly located. (Even emotional pain is located in the body.)
  • Accept the pain. “It’s OK to feel this.”
  • With gentle curiosity, notice the pain’s size and shape and texture.
  • Place a hand on the part of part of your body where the pain manifests.
  • Say, like an adult to a child, “I know you’re in pain; I love you, and I wish you well.”

If the pain has arisen in response to the actions of other people — for example someone may have said something you found hurtful — then call them to mind now. Recognizing that they, too, suffer, you can wish them well: “May you be free from pain; may you be free from fear; may you find peace.”

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