metta

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

loving touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I’m up to three things:

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

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

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

So now I had four things:

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

And then my shower was over.

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

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

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Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia, March 2017!

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Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The components of self-compassion

sunflower like the sun in hands isolatedThis post is taken from one of the emails from our online course, How to Stop Beating Yourself Up: Learning the Art of Self-Compassion.

Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the kindness, respect, and gentleness that we would offer to those we most love.

There are four components of self-compassion.

There’s mindfulness, which is the ability to observe our experience rather than merely participating in it and being swept along in it. Mindfulness requires that we stand back from our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and see them as objects separate from ourselves, rather than as what we are.

There’s equanimity, which involves accepting difficult experiences rather than denying them, ignoring them, or obsessing and ruminating over them.

There’s self-kindness, where we treat ourselves with gentleness, understanding, and compassion. Self-kindness requires that we recognize that we are feeling beings and that happiness and well-being are states we desire. These states can only arise when we treat ourselves kindly.

There’s the ability to put our suffering in perspective, which is where we recognize that we, like everyone else, are doing this difficult thing of being human. We all desire happiness, and find happiness elusive. We all wish to be free from suffering and yet encounter suffering over and over again. When we lack perspective, we tend to assume that there’s something uniquely inadequate and even broken about ourselves. We see our difficulties as a sign of failure. When we have a wiser perspective, we don’t judge ourselves, and in fact we may find that we have compassion not only for ourselves, but for others too.

These four factors work together in order to produce self-compassion. They’re not entirely separate from each other, but are manifestations of each other. For example, mindfulness, equanimity, and perspective are all expressions of self-kindness. When we’re kind to ourselves, these three other qualities are how we act.

These four qualities will be woven into all of the writings and guided meditations in this course, although at different times some will be emphasized more than others. Our first meditation, the “kindfulness of breathing” from yesterday’s email, principally brings together mindfulness, equanimity, and kindness.

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Bringing more kindness to the world

metta-sutta-nolinkWe could all do with being kinder to ourselves, and with being more patient and forgiving with others in our lives.

My forthcoming album of guided lovingkindness meditations, “Harnessing the Power of Kindness,” includes my latest teachings on how to become kinder. It’s the result of over 30 years of practice and of having taught lovingkindness meditation to many thousands of people. I’m perfectly happy to say that I think it’s very effective!

Wildmind is run on a shoestring (all of our courses are offered by donation) and the moment we’re fundraising to cover the production costs of this album, which will be available in CD and MP3 formats. Those costs include the recording and audio editing expenses, plus the design and (in the case of the CD) manufacturing costs. We use a local recording studio, a designer who lives just around the corner, and a US-based CD duplicator, since we’re keen to keep money in the local economy and keep Americans employed.

The total costs are around $2,500, and that’s what we’re aiming to raise. At the time of writing we’re 90% of the way to meeting that target, with five days left to go! (The inset image to the right will give you the up-to-date figures).

We’re not asking for something for nothing! We offer perks to each of our donors.

  • Our most popular perk is for a $25 donation: We’ll mail you a copy of the CD, anywhere in the world. (The CD will be mailed out in August.) We’ll also provide you with a link to download the tracks as high-quality MP3 files. Each file will be in a standard, abridged, and extended version, so that you have three lengths to choose from. That way you can choose which meditation fits the time you have available. You’ll receive the download links as soon as our fundraiser is completed.
  • For a $10 donation you have the choice of either getting the CD or getting a download of the album.
  • For $15 you get both the CD and the MP3 version of the album. I know, you can rip the CD yourself, but this way you get the CDs as soon as our campaign is over, and then you’ll have the CD as a backup.
  • Lastly, for a $250 donation we’ll give 50 copies of our CD to an educational project helping teens from low-income families to prepare for college. One of the challenges these young people face is developing emotional coping strategies to help them deal with challenging circumstances at home as well as in the educational system. Self-compassion and self-kindness in particular are valuable skills in this regard. Your donation can be anonymous, or we can give them in your name. So far two people have generously donated $250!

So, feel free to head over to our Indiegogo campaign page and choose your perk!

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“Lovingkindness” is simply “kindness”

woman holding butterfly

Our Indiegogo crowdfunding project—aimed at helping us to cover the production costs of our forthcoming album of lovingkindness meditations—is getting close to being 100% funded! Please do visit our campaign page to check out the great perks we offer to donors.

Although the Pali word “metta” is most often translated as lovingkindness, I think that the simple term “kindness” works much better.

“Kindness” is a more natural part part of our vocabulary than lovingkindness. We use it all the time in ordinary conversation, while we only use “lovingkindness” when we’re talking about metta. This has the effect of making metta look as if it’s something removed from our everyday experience. (It doesn’t help that, historically, the term “loving-kindness”—sometimes hyphenated, sometimes as two separate words—was used only to describe God’s love for humanity.)

The word kindness is experiential. We all know what it’s like to be kind, or to be on the receiving end of someone’s kindness. These are common experiences. On the other hand, the term lovingkindness seems more remote, as if it’s reserved for some special kind of experience that we have to strive to bring into being.

Also, the word kindness accurately reflects what metta is. What is kindness? It’s a recognition that we are all feeling beings. We all feel, and we all prefer feelings of happiness, security, well-being, etc. to their opposites. It’s an empathetic recognition that we all feel happiness and sorrow, and prefer the former to the latter.

Others’ feelings are as real to them as ours are to us. Their happiness is as important to them as ours is to us. Their pain is as real and as unpleasant to them as our own is to us. When we recognize this, we want to support their desire to be happy and to avoid suffering. We therefore think kindly, speak kindly, and act kindly.

And this empathetic attitude I’ve described—this kindness—is metta. Metta and kindness are the same.

Metta is kindness. There’s really no significant difference that I can see between the two terms.

And we all embody kindness. We may often act unkindly—as if the feelings and wellbeing of others doesn’t matter—but at least some of the time we’re kind. This manifests in a hundred small ways that we don’t even think about. We do things like hold open a door for the person behind us, we nod and smile when people are talking to us in order to reassure them, and we say “thank you” to acknowledge a favor that’s been done for us. These are all very ordinary everyday acts. In a way they’re nothing special, but in another way they’re very special indeed because they make social interaction bearable. They show us that we matter to each other.

Of course we often forget to be kind. We get so wrapped up in our own inner dramas that we forget that others are feeling beings, and act in ways that cause them suffering.

The task of lovingkindness meditation—or simply kindness meditation—is to strengthen our recollection of beings’ feeling nature. This generally starts with ourselves. If we don’t first remember that we want happiness and don’t want to suffer, then we’ll fail to recognize that others are the same as us in sharing those desires. And so, in developing kindness through meditation, we remind ourselves of our deep-rooted desire for well-being, peace, and joy. We remind ourselves also that it’s not easy to be happy; one thing that causes us a great deal of suffering is thinking that happiness is an easy thing to attain. We’re not failing when we suffer; we’re simply showing that we’re human.

Having recognized that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human, we then naturally feel the desire to give ourselves support and encouragement as we go through life. In other words, we relate to ourselves with kindness.

And when we call others to mind in our practice, we remind ourselves that they are just like us: they want to be happy; they find happiness elusive; they too are doing this difficult thing of being human; they too need support and encouragement. And so we relate to them with kindness too.

This is how we develop kindness. This is how we cultivate metta: by connecting with our own nature as feeling beings, and by empathetically recognizing that others share our deepest wishes from happiness and share our existential situation as being for whom happiness is elusive, and suffering all too common.

Our Indiegogo crowdfunding project—aimed at helping us to cover the production costs of our forthcoming album of lovingkindness meditations—is getting close to being 100% funded! Please do visit our campaign page to check out the great perks we offer to donors.

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Don’t try to like yourself. Just be kind to yourself

girl holding flower

The way to get past not liking yourself isn’t trying to like yourself more: it’s being kinder to yourself.

Last week I was having a conversation with a friend who was experiencing loneliness. She said she liked herself, but she also said at one point, “I have a sweet dog in my life. Maybe that’s all I’m allowed.”

I suggested that she might ask herself whether that was something she would say to a friend who was lonely.

You wouldn’t do that, would you? To say to someone, “Maybe the universe doesn’t want you to have anyone in your life but your dog. Maybe you’re meant to be lonely,” would be very unkind and hurtful.

What does liking yourself mean?

First, liking means that something gives you pleasure. You like food that you find pleasurable. You like people it’s pleasurable to be with.

But what does “yourself” mean!

Your self is an incredibly complex thing, full of contradictions. It contains love and hate. It contains patience and anger. It contains compassion and cruelty, ignorance and delusion, intelligence and wisdom, happiness and pain.

“Yourself” isn’t one thing. In liking “yourself” are you liking all of the things I’ve mentioned? Are you finding all aspects of your being pleasurable? Probably not!

Maybe “liking yourself” means that on the whole you like what you see when you turn your awareness toward your own being. But what happens when you are forced to see the uncomfortable stuff, as my friend was? What happens when you see the loneliness and the neediness (as in her case)? What happens when you see harshness and self-hatred? It’s hard to like those things (and I’d argue you shouldn’t). More likely, you’re going to not like them. And that’s going to be a source of conflict and pain.

You might, in order to preserve the sense of “liking yourself,” ignore the parts of you that you don’t like, and end up with a skewed sense of who you are. I don’t think that’s very healthy.

It’s also possible, as my friend found, to “like yourself” (i.e. to find your being as a whole to be pleasing) but be unkind to the parts that of yourself you can’t like. And then, often, people switch to disliking themselves as a whole.

I think we cling to the ideal of “liking ourselves” because we’re aware of the pain that is caused by not liking ourselves (or parts of ourselves). In wanting to like ourselves we hope to find inner harmony — a break from inner strife. The aim is noble.

But I’d suggest that “liking yourself” isn’t a particularly rational aim to have in life. You can like parts, but not all, of yourself, and so we can never have self-liking without self-dislike. In fact, the pursuit of the one, as we’ve seen, can lead to the other.

But you can be kind to all of yourself, including what you don’t like.

You can see the parts of yourself that are hateful, angry, cruel, and deluded, and offer them kindness. You can see your own pain, and relate to it with compassion. And this brings the inner harmony that we try, but fail, to get from liking ourselves.

Being kind to ourselves means developing patience and understanding. It means recognizing that having hate, anger, confusion, etc. isn’t a sign of failure, but simply a part of being human. None of us asked to be born with these tendencies. We all have them. They’re something that we all have to work with. So there’s no point blaming ourselves.

Being kind also means recognizing that harshness and self-blame are counterproductive. We might think that in being harsh on ourselves we’re training ourselves to be better in the future, just as some people think that beating children or animals is “corrective.” But the best examples of child-rearing and animal training tell us that harshness and punishment tends to be counterproductive in bringing about positive change.

Self-kindness doesn’t require us to “like” the more troublesome and destructive parts of ourselves. We don’t have to pretend that they are good for us. And we don’t have to pretend they don’t exist. Self-kindness allows us to accept who we are, not as something fixed, but as something we’re currently passing through on our journey through life.

But how do we cultivate greater self-kindness?

One thing we can do that helps with self-kindness is recognizing that we are not our feelings, and we are not our habits. We are not defined by those things. They’re merely temporary manifestations within our being.

But we can cultivate kindness toward the difficult in ourselves by connecting with some painful habit or feeling, and then doing three things:

  1. We can place a hand where any difficult feeling, such as hurt, anger, or craving is manifesting in the body, and let it rest there tenderly, offering kindness and reassurance. The more primitive parts of our being respond to touch in much the same way as a frightened animal.
  2. We can look with kindness on our difficult habits and feelings, seeing them with loving eyes. You know how unsettling and threatening it is to have someone look at you with hostility, or even with a blank, emotionless gaze? You know how it makes you tense and defensive? The same applies when it comes to observing your own being. Having a kindly gaze (something I teach on my forthcoming guided meditation album) helps us to feel more at ease with ourselves.
  3. We can talk kindly to ourselves. We can say things like “It’s OK not to be perfect. We all mess up. I know you’re suffering, and I wish you well. I just want you to know that I love you and want you to be happy.

These things, done together, constitute a powerful self-kindness practice.

The funny thing is that if you stop trying to focus on liking yourself, and instead place more emphasis on being kind to yourself, you’ll find you experience less self-dislike. Our deepest fear is that we are unlovable, but when we practice self-kindness we discover that there is no part of us that is unworthy of compassion and kindness.

Self-kindness is transformative. It allows us to recognize that we can’t be perfect, and that it’s therefore OK to be imperfect. It allows us the freedom to be patient with our own being as we gently strengthen what is best within us, and as we make the effort to let go of unhelpful habits that cause us and others pain.

And if we can learn to relate kindly to what we find difficult in ourselves, then we find that we become more skillful in relating to what we find difficult in others. The kindness that begins in ourselves does not end there, but permeates all our relationships and our entire lives.

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The power of self-kindness

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How we look at ourselves makes a huge difference to how we feel. I’m talking principally about how we regard ourselves internally—how we each relate to ourselves as an individual human being—rather than the way we look at ourselves in a mirror, although the two are of course related.

For a moment, think what it’s like to sit having a conversation with a friendly person. We get lots of little signals from them, acknowledging us. They smile. They nod. They make little noises to let us know we’re being heard. They look concerned when we talk about our difficulties.

Now think of what it’s like to talk to someone who is staring blankly at you, not giving you any feedback. Although it’s a neutral gaze, we perceive neutrality as hostile. The other person is failing to acknowledge your reality as a feeling being. It may become difficult to speak. Your bodies produces adrenalin, and you’ll feel our heart racing, there will be butterflies in your tummy, and you’ll feel shaky.

An actual hostile encounter, where we’re faced with contempt, sneering, eye-rolling, and put downs, can leave us emotionally reeling for weeks.

Now, which of these three scenarios — the positive, neutral, or overtly hostile encounter — best describes the way that you relate to your own being?

For many people it’s the third. Our self-talk can be brutally contemptuous. “Oh, I’m such an idiot. There I go again! I’ll never get this right.” Imagine if we had someone following us around saying, “You know you’re going to fail. There’s no point trying. Nobody likes you anyway.” We’d describe such a relationship as abusive. And yet, for many of us, that’s the way we talk to ourselves. Most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves.

This is something we can undo.

Jan Chozen Bays, in her lovely book of weekly mindfulness exercises, “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” suggests a practice called “Loving Eyes.” It’s a beautiful and simply way to evoke a sense of kindness, so that we’re looking at ourselves in the way a dear friend would, rather than the way a neutral interviewer or a critic would.

Chozen suggests that we recall an experience of looking with love, kindness, or affection. I usually think about what it’s like to look at my children while they’re sleeping, but you can think of looking at a lover, a dear friend, or even a pet. As you recall an experience of that sort, notice how it feels around your eyes, and around your heart.

Now, stay in touch with those feelings as you turn your attention toward yourself. Looking with the “inner eye” of awareness, become conscious of your body, and the sensations arising within in. Regard your body with friendliness, with kindness, with love.

Try placing a hand gently on your heart, and say to yourself things like, “I care about you. I want you to be happy. You deserve happiness. I want to support you and offer you kindness.”

What we’re doing here is being a friend to ourselves. Rather than treating our own being as if it were an enemy that needs to be relentlessly criticized, we treat ourselves as someone whose happiness and wellbeing is important to us.

Treating ourselves this way is not selfish. When we treat ourselves with kindness, this naturally becomes the way we treat others too. And letting go of self-criticism frees up our emotional energy so that we can be more engaged with and concerned about others.

Remember the way that you feel when someone is looking at you in a friendly, encouraging way, smiling, nodding, and giving visible signs of support and encouragement? You can access that anytime, just by changing the way you look at yourself.

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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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On becoming disconnected from oneself in meditation

I often receive questions by email. Although I’ll sometimes reply directly to them, it strikes me that the best use of my time is to share my responses publicly, so that others might benefit.

Here’s the question, which came from someone who I’ll call Josh.

For a while now, I have been meditating and my body has remained tense – as I am usually quite tense – but my mind relaxes, but in a negative way; it is as if I begin to mentally and emotionally feel numbed out and lost. I would like to be able to meditate on the tension, on emotions, on really anything that’s going on within me, but I end up frustrated and confused because I feel that sense of numbed out and unable to reconnect. I wanted to ask if this is as at all common and if you had any suggestions on how to reconnect and deepen the practice regarding this issue.

Decades ago, when I was first starting to practice meditation, I’d occasionally hear warnings from my teachers about how certain approaches to practice could result in emotional “alienation.” The founder of the tradition in which I practice had come back to the UK from India, and came across (or heard about) a few individuals who had become disconnected from their own experience to the extent that they were “robotic.” One of the things they’d been doing, apparently, was “noting,” which means adding a silent mental note, describing what’s going on in one’s experience.

Noting in this way can be a valuable practice, helping us to be more mindful and clear. But in the case of these people, the mental experience of noting became a replacement for the actual physical experience that was being described. While saying “arm lifting, arm lifting” and “sipping tea, sipping tea,” the thoughts, rather than the actual physical experiences, had become the focus of attention. And having become disconnected from the body, emotional disconnection would follow. Apparently some people became hospitalized as a result of this emotional disconnection, which we now call “depersonalization.”

Despite having heard warnings about the danger of this, I never actually came across anyone who seemed to have suffered in this way. But in recent years (probably because on the internet you can find anything) I’ve heard several people say that this, or something very similar to it, has happened to them. The Brown University psychiatry researcher, Willoughby Britton, has started a project to document and study this and other troubling phenomena that may arise in meditation.

I don’t know if this depersonalization is exactly what’s happened with Josh. Most people who write to me about their meditation practice forget to mention what kind of meditation practice they’re actually doing, but probably he’s doing some form of mindfulness practice. He may not be doing “noting,” however.

But, mindfulness practice isn’t enough. The warnings I’ve referred to were in the context of emphasizing how important lovingkindness (metta), compassion, and other more emotion-based forms of meditation are. The Buddha himself taught a wide range or practices, and encouraged an all-round path of moral and emotional development.

The Triratna tradition in which I practice stresses the importance of balancing mindfulness practice with metta practice. I suggest to my students (as it was suggested to me) that practice consist of alternating metta meditation with mindfulness practice. One suggestion is to do these practices on alternate days, making sure that you don’t skip one of them because you find it more challenging. It may, however, be acceptable to focus on one practice more intensively if it’s genuinely needed. For example when you’re exceptionally distracted, you might focus more on mindfulness for a few days, or if you’re in a chronic bad mood or tend to be very critical you might want to do much more metta practice for a while—perhaps even for weeks or months.

There are other practices that are useful as well. Kalyana mitrata (spiritual friendship) is a valuable way to connect with others on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Devotional practice can also awaken the heart. Physical exercise and the enjoyment of the arts are also ways that we can stay in touch with our emotions.

One thing to beware of is long periods of intensive practice that involve only mindfulness. Some people do fine with that, but if there’s a tendency to lose touch with the emotions, then it would be best not to be too “gung-ho” about practice, and to be gentle with oneself.

My advice to Josh would be to stop whatever practice he’s currently doing and to take up lovingkindness and compassion practice. I’d suggest focusing exclusively on those for at least six months. If possible he should connect with a sangha (a flesh and bones one rather than an online one) on a regular basis. A sangha that encourages discussion and friendship would be more valuable than one in which people merely sit together but don’t socialize or even communicate much. And the other things I’ve suggested—physical exercise and enjoyment of the arts—are something I’d also strongly encourage. Retreats focusing on lovingkindness and compassion might also be helpful.

Fortunately what Josh describes isn’t common. And I’m fairly sure that the approach I’ve described will be helpful. I’ve taught thousands of people to meditate and so far I’ve never heard of this kind of depersonalization happening to anyone I’ve known.

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Connection before kindness

love and relationships concept - closeup of woman and man holding handsI’ve had a lot of opportunity to teach metta, or “lovingkindness,” over the last two years. One thing I’m doing differently as a result is referring to metta as “kindness,” rather than “lovingkindness. The “loving” part of “lovingkindness” doesn’t, to my mind, add anything, but rather takes what’s a concrete experience and makes it seem rather abstract. It’s easy to picture what it’s like when someone is kind to you, but it’s harder to imagine someone relating to you in a way that demonstrates lovingkindness.

The simple word “kindness” seems to be an ideal term to translate “metta.” Kindness, after all, is simply relating to another being in a way that respects their desire to be happy. When we’re kind we take others’ feelings into account. We recognize that their feelings are not just important to them, but are as important to them as ours are to us. We want to act in ways that put them at ease and bring them happiness, and we don’t want to do anything to cause them pain.

Metta starts with empathy. I’ve realized that it’s common for us to try to cultivate kindness without first establishing a sense of empathy. We sit down, call someone to mind, and then wish them well. Now wishing someone well can lead to empathy arising, but if that doesn’t happen then our well-wishing can be dry and mechanical. In order to prevent that happening, I’ve been making a point of connecting empathetically with myself—and with others—before starting any well-wishing.

How do I do this? I drop in two reflections, and then extend myself an invitation.

The first reflection is this: “I want to be happy.”

I let this thought sink in. I check out whether it’s true for me right now. I think about times I’ve been happy or unhappy in the past. And I realize that I always have a desire for happiness (or perhaps something more like peace or wellbeing).

The second reflection is this: “It’s often not easy to be happy.”

I let that sink in, too. I recognize that happiness can be elusive, and the suffering can be an all-too-common visitor to my life. I realize that being human isn’t easy.

The invitation is this: “Recognizing that I’m doing a difficult thing simply in being human, can I offer myself support, encouragement, and kindness?” I find that there’s always part of me that wants to do this. The way of expressing support is simply to repeat the metta phrases. I’ll often say: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.” In this way I empathize with myself before beginning to wish myself well.

In the other stages of the practice I introduce the same reflections: My friend (or the neutral person, or the difficult person) just like me, wants to be happy, but finds happiness elusive. We’re both doing this difficult thing of being human. Empathetically knowing this, can I offer this person support and encouragement? Yes! “May you be well…”

There can be a sense of heart-ache when reflecting in this way—acknowledging that life is often difficult. Those feelings may be uncomfortable, but they aren’t bad. In fact they’re part of the empathy that makes metta possible. They should be accepted and received kindly.

The result of doing the practice this way is that my efforts to cultivate kindness feel much more grounded and real than ever before. My meditation is more heart-felt.

Cultivating connection and empathy before cultivating metta can bring our practice to life.


PS. A reader wrote complaining about my use of “kindness” instead of “lovingkindness” to translate “metta.” She said, “If it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama it should be good enough for you.” :)

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