metta bhavana

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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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 comment 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

urban retreat 2013

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:

  1. Urban Retreat: Day 1: Demystifying lovingkindness
  2. Urban Retreat: Day 2: Authentic lovingkindness
  3. Urban Retreat: Day 3: Lovingkindness: When the Rubber Hits the Road
  4. Urban Retreat: Day 4: Protecting others, you protect yourself.
  5. Urban Retreat, Day 5: Looking with loving eyes
  6. Urban Retreat, Day 6: The tender heart of lovingkindness
  7. Urban Retreat, Day 7: The practice of gratitude
  8. Urban Retreat, Day 8: Developing compassion

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. Click here to learn more about the Year of Going Deeper.

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. Sign up for our special World in Balance newsletter and we’ll reveal the secret in due time! (There won’t be many mailings.)

3. Join Wildmind’s Community on Google Plus
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? We have a special fundraising project at the moment called the Free Bodhi Fund, which will help us to employ more staff so that Bodhipaksa can be freed up from admin and concentrate on teaching. You can contribute to the Free Bodhi Fund here. Oh, and donors can opt to receive perks as rewards for their donations!

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

urban retreat 2013

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.

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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The Urban Retreat, Day 7: The practice of gratitude

urban retreat 2013

One quality that’s closely related to metta is appreciation. We often take things for granted when they’re going right, and then focus on what’s not going the way we want it to. And that makes us unhappy and makes our relationships with others less warm and appreciative.

At our worst we’ll say things like “Nothing ever goes right in my life.” And in the moment we’re saying those words we’ll ignore that we have air to breathe, we’re alive, we’re probably healthy, we’re living in a fairly civilized society (it’s far from being Mogadishu), we’re sheltered from the elements, we have water, electricity, the internet, friends, family, etc. The specifics of what we have change from person to person and day to day, but we always have a lot more going for us than we choose to appreciate.

So one thing I do in my practice sometimes (and this is something I explore in the video below) is to consciously appreciate what’s going right, and to say “thank you.”

I’ll take a trip around the body, basically doing a body scan meditation, and say “thank you” to each part of the body in turn. I’ll thank my feet, legs, hips, abdomen and lower back, chest and upper back, throat, head. I’ll thank my heart and lungs and other organs. I’ll thank my senses. If some part of the body isn’t functioning well, then rather than give it less thanks, I feel especially grateful; the body shows up for you every day. It tries its best to serve you even if it’s not well or damaged. It’s always trying to heal and repair itself. That’s the best kind of friend you can have — one who turns up to help you even when they’re sick.

And I appreciate and thank everything around me, from the furniture I’m sitting on (think of all the people involved in making it possible for you to do something as simple as sit on a chair!), to the building I’m in and all the utilities in it, to the society around me with its roads and sidewalks and sewers.

You can thank the air for being breathable. You can thank the sun for shining. Really, there’s no limit to the things we can express gratitude towards.

And as you do this practice (I assume you will) notice how you feel. There may be some initial resistance (it may seem silly to say thank you or you may not want to acknowledge your dependance upon others) but when you get into the practice of saying thank you you may start to notice a sense of warmth, or softness around the heart, or even joy.

If the video isn’t displaying (which can sometimes happen on mobile devices) then you can go straight to Youtube.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 6: The tender heart of lovingkindness

2013-urban-retreat

In previous posts I’ve suggested an approach to cultivating lovingkindness that begins with contacting our innate lovingkindness. Now the expression “contacting our innate lovingkindness” is a problem for many people, because they look inside themselves, don’t see anything at that moment that they could call “metta” or “lovingkindness,” and then conclude they don’t have these qualities. Which can start a downward spiral of rumination and pain: I don’t feel any love; Therefore I don’t love myself; Therefore I must be unlovable; Therefore no one will ever love me; Therefore my life is horrible.

I think almost everyone has experienced that kind of emotional nose-dive at one time or another.

But I think that when this happens we may be looking within in the wrong way, and for the wrong thing.

I think the potential for lovingkindness is always there. It’s an innate part of us. But we have to awaken it. It’s sleeping, dormant. It’s wrapped in blankets of denial and self-protection.

And my current approach to awakening our innate ability to be kind is one I’ve mentioned before: a pair of simple reflections, followed by an invitation.

So the first reflection is this: We drop into the mind the truth, “I want to be happy.” I’m presenting this as a truth, because I believe that deep down we all do want happiness. Even when we choose a destructive path that leads to pain, we’re doing this because we believe it will bring happiness, or at least a relief from suffering, in the long term. It won’t, of course, but that’s because we’ve chosen the wrong strategy to find happiness, not because we don’t want to be happy.

So we drop this statement — “I want to be happy” — into the mind, and let its truth resonate within us. Feel its truth in your life, not in an abstract way, but concretely: “Yes, it’s true. I do want happiness. Even in this moment I want happiness.” This may be experienced as a kind of tender ache, and that’s OK. We’ll get back in a moment to why that’s OK.

And the second reflection is this: “Happiness isn’t always easy to find.” So we drop that thought — that truth — into the mind in the same way, giving ourselves time and space to have a response to it, to sense the truth of it in our lives. Because this too is true. We want happiness, but happiness is often elusive. We keep expecting to be happy and it doesn’t happen. Happiness doesn’t arrive, or it passes too quickly, or unhappiness shows up instead. So this too many evoke an achey sense around the heart. That’s good. Again, we’ll come to the why in a moment.

The invitation that follows these two reflections is just this: there is some part of you that, realizing that you want to be happy and that happiness is elusive, is prepared to wish you well. There is a part of you — a very deep part of you — that is prepared to be kind and supportive as you go about this difficult thing we do — being human.

Because I think it is generally harder than we admit, this being human. Having this innate drive for happiness in a world in which happiness is hard to find is a tough thing to do. And happiness doesn’t necessarily mean going about with a smile plastered on your face. Yes it can mean joy, but it can also be meaning, purpose, satisfaction, connection, or peace.

And the ache I talked about, which comes, often, when we rediscover that we want to be happy and when we admit that it’s hard to do this, is very valuable. Because this feeling of vulnerability is the recognition of the truth of our existential situation, and it’s not until we recognize our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining that desire that we can be truly supportive of ourselves.

Often we don’t admit this truth, and we believe we have our lives “sorted.” We’re fine. Maybe we don’t admit that we’re not too happy right now. That would be an admission of weakness and failure! Or maybe we do grudgingly admit that things aren’t perfect right now, but once we lose that 10 pounds, or get that promotion, or get past this busy spell at work — well, then we’ll be happy. We can become a bit cold and hard, and judgmental. When we see others being unhappy, rather than feel sympathy for them we may feel contempt. Or if we’re magnanimous we may give them some advice: “You just need to…” Have you noticed how prone we are to give advice on how to be happy even when we’re not happy ourselves? How sure we are that we have it all figured out, even when clearly we haven’t? And when people are at their most alienated from their vulnerability, they can be cruel. It becomes enjoyable to watch someone else fail; it confirms that that person is weak — unlike us.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable (“Yes, I do want to be happy; yes, it is hard”) all this protectiveness is dropped, and we discover that we do want to support ourselves. We do want to be kind to ourselves as we do this difficult thing of being human. We do have innate lovingkindness and we have just contacted it. And it’s a bit achey, but that’s just what happens when we rediscover our deeper needs, and when we admit the difficulty of meeting them.

And then when we turn our attention to others and recognize that they are in the same situation as us — that they are struggling beings, desiring happiness but finding it elusive — we find that the vulnerability opens the way to a tender sense of kindess toward them: a heart-felt desire to wish them well as they do this difficult thing of being human.

So try this as a practice for the next few days, at least. When you meet other people, or see them on TV, or think about them, remember that this is another being who wants to be happy, and who finds happiness elusive, who wants not to suffer and finds the suffering comes visiting all too often. Try this and see how it affects your sense of yourself, and your attitude to others. Try this also when you become aware of yourself — particularly when you find life hard or frustrating or unsatisfying. Recollect that you want to be happy, and that happiness isn’t always easy to find. Accept the tender sense of vulnerability that comes with that awareness — and wish yourself well.

This is what “contacting our innate lovingkindness” means. It’s not looking inside and finding some pre-made emotion of love. It’s finding a way to our own achey, tender vulnerability, and letting the heart respond with kindness.

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