metta

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

 

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

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.

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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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The Urban Retreat, Day 5: Looking with loving eyes

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

I’d like to share a way of relating that I call “loving gaze.” This is borrowed from Jan Chozen Bays, who writes in How to Train a Wild Elephant of the practice of “Loving Eyes.”

In her book she says:

We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?

So what we can do is to recall, or even just imagine, the experience of looking with loving eyes. You can recall (or imagine) looking at a beloved child, or a lover, or even a pet. I find that the sense of care, and appreciation, and non-judgement is very transferrable, so once you’ve evoked a loving gaze you can turn that sense of looking lovingly upon yourself. As you notice the body, your breathing, your thoughts, etc., you can look at them with loving eyes.

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And once you’ve evoked that for yourself, you can now turn your loving gaze upon others: friends, people you don’t know, people you have difficulty with, animals, all beings…

This, I find, is a very quick way to help lovingkindness to emerge.

And when we do this, everything we experience seems to become gentler and softer. The world appears to be a lovelier, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, place. Even the ugly bits of life seem beautiful in their ugliness. And we start to realize that the world is our experience of the world, which is not separable from ourselves. And so when we change, the world we perceive changes too. The world of our experience becomes more loving, more tender.

There’s something Chozen says about this that always blows me away:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out? [Emphasis added]

Give it a try, both in your sitting practice and as you go about your daily life. You can start right now, as your eyes scan the words in front of you. Look with love. And then carry that loving gaze into your next activity.

Additionally, here’s a recording of the first guided meditation hangout that we did as part of our Urban Retreat:

If that doesn’t work for you (which is sometimes the case on mobile devices) then here’s a direct link to Youtube.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 4: “Protecting oneself, one protects others. Protecting others, one protects oneself.” The Buddha

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

The Buddha said, “Protecting oneself, one protects others. Protecting others, one protects oneself.”

Lovingkindness helps us protect others, and it helps us protect ourselves.

At one time I used to have the New York Times delivered to my house every morning. It was one of my great pleasures to have a leisurely breakfast with a cup of tea, toast, and some intelligent analysis from the Op-Ed pages. But first I had to get the newspaper, which was tossed onto (or near) the front porch every morning by the delivery driver.

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It was always an awkward moment for me walking out onto the porch in my bathrobe and slippers, with my hairy legs and knobbly ankles exposed to the world. I somehow felt judged by the passing drivers. And even though I’m sure they never noticed me, I’d get a bit grouchy as I retrieved my rolled-up copy of the Times.

This was fear, really. It was the fear of what people thought of me, whether they judged me, whether they disliked me or laughed at me. You can tell yourself that all this is silly: that the drivers are too busy driving to notice you, that they’ll probably never see you again, that they’re probably not petty enough to care about how you look. You can tell yourself that it doesn’t matter; even if people have unkind thoughts about you, that’s their stuff, not yours. But still, there’s fear.

Sometimes I’m rather slow on the uptake, and it can take me a while to realize that I’m suffering. So it probably took a few weeks of grumpily retrieving the Times before I noticed what was going on. And my first response, once I did notice that I was suffering, was to wish the passers-by well. As drivers swished by, or as neighbors walked their dogs past the house, I’d slip into saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace.”

And the fear vanished. Instantly. As long as I kept repeating those phrases, there was no more worrying what people thought about me. There was no grumpiness. There was just me, picking up my paper, feeling joy as I wished others well.

The thing is that there’s no room in the mind for both well-wishing and worrying. If you fill the mind with well-wishing, there’s no mental bandwidth left for worrying what people think about you. And if the fear and the well-wishing coexist, them the fear is lessened.

I highly recommend cultivating lovingkindness at all times — or at least as much of the time as you can. Whenever your mind has room to wander, replace your normal “monkey-mind” thoughts with thoughts of lovingkindness. It provides a kind of mental buffer against anxiety and also against anger and other unhelpful mental states. And in this way we protect ourselves.

And if we do this, then in our interactions with others we’re more likely to take their wellbeing, their needs, and their feelings into account, and we’ll be less likely to cause them suffering and more likely to benefit them. So we protect others, too.

I hope you’re enjoying and benefiting from these Urban Retreat posts. If you’d like to participate in Wildmind’s online courses, and to be part of an international community of meditators, please check out our Meditation Initiative.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 3: When the rubber hits the road

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

When the rubber hits the road is a great time to practice lovingkindness, and I mean literal rubber and a literal road.

There’s a lot of irritation involved in driving, even far short of the extreme of road rage. It can be irritating to be in slow traffic, or busy traffic, or to be cut off, or to be held up by roadworks, or stuck at traffic lights.

We’re emotionally cut off from other drivers because we’re all in our own semi-private metal boxes, and so we don’t have access (usually) to their body language and facial expressions. So we often take things personally that aren’t necessarily personal. As comedian George Carlin said, “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

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And the mind wanders when we’re driving. We drive “on autopilot” and the mind gets distracted. And you might think that the mind, having meandered away from the unpleasant grind of the daily commute, would find something enjoyable to think about. But research shows that most of the time we think about things that make us even unhappier! So our internal experience is unpleasant, and we don’t much like what’s going on around us.

Next time you get a chance, look at drivers’ facial expressions. They’re often frowning, or at best neutral. You’ll rarely see anyone smiling while they’re driving. It’s a serious business. It’s an unhappy business, for the most part.

Driving lovingkindness practice can liberate us from all this. When I do driving lovingkindness, I keep myself mindful by remaining aware of my surroundings, and I say the phrases, “May you be well, may you be happy,” as I drive along. Sometimes it’s “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”

I might just have a sense that I’m imbuing my field of awareness with lovingkindness in this way, and every perception of a person (or a vehicle that a person contains) is simply touched by my kindly awareness. Or I may focus my attention on various vehicles as they pass in either direction, and wish the drivers and passengers well.

This can become very joyful. One of my meditation students wrote:

For my entire 30 minute ride to work I sent lovingkindness to each passing driver on the road. I can’t tell you the effect the that it had on me … I felt like a protective mother sending all of her children off on their day.

That’s rather lovely.

It’s so much more satisfying to wish drivers well than to have thoughts of ill will about them. When I’m driving with lovingkindness I find I want to let drivers merge, and it feels great. I can see why the Buddha described lovingkindness as a “divine state” — I feel like a gracious deity bestowing blessings as I slow down to create a space for a driver to enter the road. Even if it looks like the other driver is trying to cut the line, I have a sense of magnanimity and forgiveness as I let them in. It feels so much more enjoyable than trying to “punish” the driver by refusing to let them cut in.

And the act of well-wishing also helps prevent the mind from wandering into areas of thought that cloud my sense of well-being. The constant stream of thoughts like “May you be well, may you be happy” make it much harder for my mind to drift. So, despite some people’s fears to the contrary, I find I’m able to pay more attention to my driving, because I’m not getting lost in thought.

And smile! Smiling helps activate our kindness, and it makes us happier. And if some driver or pedestrian happens to see us smiling, they may be reminded that life doesn’t have to be cold, grim, and distracted, but can be warm, kind, and mindful.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 2: Authentic lovingkindness

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

In yesterday’s post I talked about the fact that many people have misconceptions about what metta (lovingkindness) is, and how those misconceptions can lead to disappointment, despair, and to giving up on the practice. The main misconception I addressed is that lovingkindness is an emotion. Actually, lovingkindness is a volition. It’s classically defined as the intention that beings be happy. So it’s something we want, not something we feel. Although the volition may lead to certain feelings, like warmth, an open heart, a sense of cherishing, joy, etc., the feelings are secondary.

Another thing that often happens is that we try too hard to make something happen. This may have happened to you if you’ve been under the impression that metta is an emotion. You think you’re “meant” to feel an emotion, and so you try really, really hard to make something happen. Perhaps you even succeed at times.

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And sometimes people think that metta in daily life involves “being nice” in a false way. But that’s not the case.

Actually, genuine lovingkindness involves, well, genuineness. It involves being honest about what we feel. It involves being authentic.

So the way I teach the practice, I stress the importance of accepting where you’re starting from. At the start of your practice, as you check in with yourself in order to ground the mind in the body, and to see what you’re working with, whatever you happen to find — that’s fine. If you’re feeling happy and loving and expansive, then of course that’s fine. If you’re feeling down, that’s fine. If you don’t know how you’re feeling — that is you’re feeling neutral — then that’s fine. Every feeling is fine. As I like to say, the only place you can start is the place you are, which makes where you are the perfect starting place.

So this is the start of authentic lovingkindness. We accept whatever we find at the beginning of the practice.

Then as we work on cultivating metta, we do this in an authentic way as well. We don’t try to make anything happen. If you use the approach that I suggested yesterday, which involves connecting with the fact that you want to be happy, and that happiness is elusive, then this is authentic as well. We just drop those thoughts into the mind, and see what happens.

Often what happens is that our defenses dissolve away. We forget we want to be happy, even though he yearning is there all the time. It’s a kind of defense mechanism; happiness is elusive, so just ignore it. Or we tell ourselves that we are actually happy (even when we’re not) because it feels like not being happy is a sort of failure. So that’s another defense mechanism. So all we do is we drop these thoughts in — “I want to be happy; happiness is hard to find” and let their truth become evident. We don’t try to convince ourselves of these truths — we already know them. What we need to do is to reconnect with them.

And as we reconnect with these truths, there may be, as I mentioned yesterday, a sense of tenderness and heartache. And in the spirit of authenticity we accept that as well. It’s OK to feel discomfort. It’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong, or that we’ve failed.

And then as we’re cultivating lovingkindness for others, we similarly don’t try to make anything happen. We just drop in the thoughts, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace” and see what happens. Maybe we’ll feel something that we call “love” — but maybe not. It really doesn’t matter. It’s the intention — the wanting others to be happy — that’s the main thing. And even if that intention doesn’t seem to be strong, it’s actually the cultivating of the intention that’s the main thing. As long as you keep doing the practice, things will shift.

As we cultivate the intention of lovingkindness in this way we may find that there are various feelings that arise. We may find ourselves bored. That’s OK. Just accept it. Allow the boredom to be there, but don’t let it determine how you act; continue to cultivate lovingkindness for the other person. This particularly applies to the neutral person, although it can happen in any stage of the practice.

You may feel hurt or unsettled as you call to mind the difficult person. That’s fine. Just be with the discomfort, mindfully and with self-compassion, and keep wishing the other person well. You don’t have to like someone to wish them well.

So all through the practice there’s this attitude of authenticity. We can’t control how we feel, so we don’t try. But we can control (to an extent) what we do, and what we do is to cultivate this attitude of wishing beings (ourselves included) well. The more honestly and authentically we can do this, the more effective the practice will be.

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The Urban Retreat, Day 1: Demystifying lovingkindness

Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

This post is part of our Urban Retreat, running from Nov 9 to 16, 2013. To subscribe to our Urban Retreat posts, which will be delivered to your inbox each day of the retreat, go here.

The Urban Retreat is set up to help you bring more depth of practice into your life. In particular we’re focusing for the week on lovingkindness (metta) practice, so that we can move towards having a heart that “blazes like the sun.”

I was surprised recently on a retreat, when I asked how many people practiced lovingkindness meditation regularly, to find that fewer than half the participants did. I’d expected almost every hand to go up, since in the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana) is regarded as a key foundational practice, along with mindfulness of breathing; alternating the two practices is the standard recommendation.

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It turned out that a lot of people had difficulty with the metta bhavana practice. They felt a sense of failure and despondency around it, and so they tended to avoid it. And as I talked to those people it turned out that this sense of failure came out of a misunderstanding of what metta was. They believed metta to be an emotion. They believed it to be an emotion they hadn’t yet experienced; it was something grand and awe-inspiring and deeply moving; it was something powerful and even over-powering. And because they’d sat there, trying to make this grand emotion happen, and seeing “nothing” happen (actually we never have “nothing” happen, but let’s set that to one side for now) week after week, month after month, year after year, they came to think that experiencing metta was something they just weren’t capable of.

But metta isn’t an emotion. It’s a volition.

OK, so what’s a volition? A volition is a wish or desire (it’s from a Latin verb volere, which means “to want”). Specifically, it’s the wish that beings be well, happy, and at peace. Now that wish may be accompanied by certain feelings, like a warmth in the heart, or it may not. Whenever you act in a way that values someone’s well-being and happiness, you’re acting out of metta. So to take a very ordinary example, you’ll hold open the door for the person behind you. You wouldn’t want to let the door slam on them because that would kind of suck for them. And most of the time you don’t want to cause them to suffer. But there’s not usually any great upwelling of emotion when you hold open a door for someone. Maybe you get a little glow of happiness, but maybe not.

And this is all very ordinary. This quality of wishing that beings be well, happy, and at peace is woven into the fabric of our lives. Metta is not some strange new thing that you’ve never experienced. Of course, if you discount all the metta that’s woven into your life, then you’ll think it’s something otherworldly. That’s unhelpful, because cultivating metta is not about creating something from scratch. It’s about growing and developing something that’s already there.

“Cultivating” is an agricultural metaphor. When you cultivate plants you don’t start with nothing. You start with seeds. And the seeds of metta already exist within us, in the form of the ordinary kindness we experience from day to day.

Our task, in cultivating metta, is to connect, or perhaps reconnect, with our ordinary kindness, and to encourage it to grow.

Here’s how I do that, and how I encourage other people to do it. I start with two reflections:

  • I want to be happy.
  • Happiness is hard to attain.

I take these one at a time, and drop them into the mind. I allow them to resonate, and I feel their truth. I recognize that each of these statements is true for me. I connect with the yearning I have to be happy, to be at peace. I notice that this yearning is often frustrated in small ways — that happiness is elusive.

And this can cause a slight heart-ache, but that’s OK. That sense of vulnerability is us connecting with the fragility and difficulty of human life; it’s not easy to do this thing we call being human.

So having dropped these thoughts into the mind, and felt the truth of them, the part of me that wants me to be well, happy, and at peace starts to wish me well. And so I then start to drop metta phrases into the mind — phrases that help the seeds of metta to grow.

These days the three phrases I most often use are:

  • May I be well.
  • May I be happy.
  • May I find peace.

The exact words don’t matter, though, and you can choose whatever works for you.

After I’ve wished myself well, I move onto a friend, and I consider that my friend too wants to be happy; that my friend too finds happiness elusive.

And then I do the same with a person who I don’t have any strong feelings for, then someone I have difficulty with.

Then I have a sense that whoever I was to meet, either in the external world or in my thoughts, I’d meet them with kindness, and there’s sense of taking my awareness out into the world.

And then finally I bring my metta into the world, as I get up and return to my normal activities, allowing the practice to inform my thoughts, words, and actions.

And I may find that feelings arise (and often they do) but they’re a bonus.

So that’s how I do the practice, with a recognition that metta is something inherent to us; something that we all experience.

Below you’ll find a video of guided lovingkindness meditation that I led a few months ago:

If for some reason this doesn’t show up, you can go straight to Youtube.

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Words of kindness, words of compassion

Indian cave wall painting of Avalokiteśvara as Padmapani, Ajaṇṭā Caves, 6th century CE.

There are many ways to develop metta (kindness, or lovingkindness), which is the desire that beings, ourselves included, be happy. Kindness arises from a basic realization that all beings want to be happy, and that their happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own happiness and suffering are to us. Recognizing those facts, and knowing that we ourselves want to be happy, we naturally wish happiness for others.

Kindness is inherent in us all, and in the meditation practice we’re strengthening what’s already there, not bringing something entirely new into being.

The most well-known way to cultivate metta is drop phrases into the mind that strengthen and develop our kindness. When I was taught the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) meditation practice, the phrases I was given were: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.” (In the first four stages “all beings” is replaced with “I” or “you.”)

These are excellent phrases, although not everyone finds that they resonate and there’s no need to stick to those exact words. I’ve often encouraged people to experiment and to find phrases that are effective in evoking a sense of kindness and love. I’ve still tended, on the whole, to stick with those particular words, though. They’re deeply embedded in my mind, since I was taught them over 30 years ago and have repeated them probably hundreds of thousands of times.

But in recent years I’ve seen that there’s a good reason to change the phrases I use, and nowadays I tend to use, and teach, the metta phrases like this: “May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”

The reason I stopped using “May all beings be free from suffering” and started using “May all beings find peace” is because I’ve been doing more exploration of a practice related to the metta bhavana: the karuna bhavana. Karuna is compassion, and the karuna bhavana is the meditation practice in which we cultivate compassion.

Metta (kindness) is the desire that beings be happy; karuna (compassion) is the desire that beings be free from suffering. The relationship between the two is simply that when we want beings to be happy and are aware that they suffer, we want their suffering to be removed. Kindness naturally turns into compassion whenever we become aware of suffering.

Now the problem with using the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta bhavana practice is that it’s inherently a phrase that evokes compassion rather than kindness. Metta, strictly speaking, is about wishing happiness rather than removing suffering. When we use the phrase “May all beings be free from suffering” in the metta practice we’re actually cultivating both metta and compassion at the same time. This isn’t a huge problem, but it does muddy the distinction between metta and karuna. So purely from the standpoint of wanting to be clear in my teaching I prefer to avoid talking about wanting beings to be free from suffering as part of the metta practice.

Making this change to the phrases, when you start practicing the karuna bhavana practice you feel more of a shift in what you’re doing. It’s clearer that metta is kindness — wanting beings to be happy — and that compassion is another — wanting beings to be free from suffering so that they can be happy. In the karuna bhavana I use phrases like: “May all beings be free from suffering; May all beings have joy and ease.”

It’s a small shift, to reserve “May all beings be free from suffering” for the compassion meditation, but it’s one that I’ve find brings more of a sense of clarity to the practice.

Now as I’ve said, this isn’t a huge deal. Compassion is inherent in kindness. If we’re developing the desire that beings be well and happy then it’s natural to wish them freedom from suffering. And sometimes when you’re cultivating metta you’re going to be aware of someone’s suffering and compassion will naturally arise, since compassion is simply kindness meeting an awareness of suffering. I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t experience compassion during the metta bhavana practice! But there is a difference between metta and karuna, and I think it’s useful — without being too strict about it — to respect that difference.”

“May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings find peace.”

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What do you give?

A monkey handing something to a person

Giving — to others, to the world, to oneself — is deep in our nature as human beings.

When our mammalian ancestors first appeared, about two hundred million years ago, their capacities for bonding, emotion, and generosity were extraordinary evolutionary breakthroughs. Unlike reptiles and fish, mammals and birds care for their young, pair bond (sometimes for life), and usually form complex social groups organized around various kinds of cooperation. This takes more smarts than, say, a fish laying a swarm of eggs and swimming away – so in proportion to body weight, mammals and birds have bigger brains than reptiles and fish do.

When primates came along about sixty million years ago, there was another jump in brain size based on the “reproductive advantages” (love that phrase) of social abilities. The primate species that are the most relational – that have the most complex communications, grooming, alpha/beta hierarchies, and so on – have the largest cortex (in proportion to weight).

Then early hominids emerged, starting to make stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Since then, the brain has tripled in size, and much of this new cortex is devoted to interpersonal skills such as language, empathy, attachment to family and friends, romance, cooperative planning, and altruism. As the brain enlarged, a longer childhood was required to allow for its growth after birth and to make good use of its wonderful new capabilities.

This necessitated more help from fathers to keep children and their mothers alive during the uniquely long juvenile phase of a human life, and more help from “the village it takes to raise a child.” The bonding and nurturing of primate mothers – in a word, their giving – gradually evolved into romantic love, fathers caring for their young, friendship, and the larger web of affiliations that join humans together.

Additionally, our ancestors bred mainly within their own band; bands that were better at the give-and-take of relationships and teamwork out-competed other bands for scarce resources, so the genes that built more socially intelligent brains proliferated into the human genome. In sum, giving, broadly defined, both enabled and drove the evolution of the brain over millions of years.

Consequently, we swim in a sea of generosity – of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience, forbearance, and contribution – but like those proverbial fish, often don’t realize we’re wet. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, moments of not-giving – one’s own resentments and selfishness, and the withholding and unkindness of others – pop out with blazing headlines.

Plus modern economies can make it seem like giving and getting is largely about making money – but that part of life is just a tiny fraction of the original and still vast “generosity economy,” with its circular flows of freely given, unmonetized goods and services.

When you express your giving nature, it feels good for you, benefits others, prompts them to be good to you in turn, and adds one more lovely thread to the great tapestry of human generosity.
How?

Take care of yourself. Don’t give in ways that harm you or others (e.g., offering a blind eye to someone’s alcoholism). Keep refueling yourself; it’s easier to give when your own cup runneth over – or at least you’re not running on empty.

Prime the pump of generosity. Be aware of things you are grateful for or glad about. Bring to mind a sense of already being full, so that you’ll not feel deprived or emptied out if you give a little more.

Notice that giving is natural for you. You don’t need to be a saint to be a giving person. Generosity comes in many forms, including heart, time, self-control, service, food, and money. From this perspective, consider how much you already give each day. Open to feeling good about yourself as a giver.

Give your full attention. Stay present with others minute after minute, staying with their topic or agenda. You may not like what they say, but you could still offer a receptive ear. (Especially important with a child or mate.) Then, when it’s your turn, the other person will likely feel better about you taking the microphone.

Offer nonreactivity. Much of the time, interactions, relationships, and life altogether would go better if we did not add our comments, advice, or emotional reactions to a situation. Not-doing is sometimes the best gift.

Be helpful. For example, volunteer for a school, give money to a good cause, or increase your own housework or child care if your partner is doing more than you.

Do your own practice. One of your best contributions to others is to raise your own level of well-being and functioning. Whatever your practice is or could grow to be, do it with a whole heart, as a daily offering to whatever you hold sacred, to your family and friends, and to the widening world.

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How to make enemies

toy soldiers

I’ve been making a lot of enemies lately. People I don’t even know. A guy passes me on the street and looks a little too fashionably dressed and carefully coiffured. I pass a negative judgement (“what a poser”) and the world looks a little nastier. When cars overtake me at unnecessary speed I resent the fact that such idiocy exists and again the world has a few new enemies in it. A lady wearing expensive clothing and a fixed look of disgust on her face stares through me from the passenger seat of a car, and I feel my own face begin to crinkle in disgust. She’s one of them.

For every enemy I add, my world gets darker, more lonely, more frightening. I can feel it happening even as I am doing it. But when I step back and take a moment to consider what’s going on, I can see that the only thing happening is that I am painting the world black. I’m not making any discoveries about some outside reality – life continues all around me as before. I haven’t identified my enemies, I’ve created them.

I’m constructing my own reality and I’m doing it in an unskillful way. I’m feeding the wolf of hate (to use Rick Hanson‘s image) because some part of me believes that I am protecting myself from the things and the people I don’t like. But I’m not. Instead I’m just creating more things and people to dislike and surrounding myself with them. I feel like I’m under siege.

Yesterday, with the help of my Wildmind sangha, I started to break that siege. Yet another potential enemy approached me on the street: A young man with big shades and bigger hair, designer clothes and matching scowl.  I caught myself in the act of creating a new enemy and the phrase “Is this what I want to fill my mind with?” – suggested by a friend in the sangha – arose. Into that famous ‘gap’ between stimulus and reaction I introduced a new thought, aimed at the approaching youth – “may you be well”. I began to remember the stomach-churning pressure to fit in and look good that comes with youth, and I felt a wave of sympathy for him. The relief was instant. I can still feel it now as I write. There is more space in my experience. More warmth. More colour. The world continues to do what it always does, but I don’t have to paint it black.

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100 days of lovingkindness … and more (Day 100)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Today is Day 100 of Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

For me it’s been a blast. Somehow I managed to keep to a schedule of having a blog post each day, which means that I’ve written enough material in the last three months to fill a 300 page book. On our first 100 day challenge I managed 35 consecutive daily posts before realizing that I couldn’t sustain the pace and slacked off to writing every five days. Somehow this time the 35 day mark came and went, and then the 50 day mark, then 75 days — and here we are. The time has flown.

I can only imagine that the energy for this writing came from the practice itself. It certainly helped that we were focusing on one set of practices, rather than having just a general theme of meditating for 100 days. When you focus on one narrow topic it forces the mind to dig deeply, and as they say, if you want to dig a well you make one deep hole, not many shallow ones.

My understanding of the practices has moved on immensely. It may be that I’ve got things entirely wrong, but I realized that mudita is not “lovingkindness meets joy” as I had thought it to be, and realized that it was actually “lovingkindness appreciating and encouraging the skillful qualities that bring happiness.” And I came to see upekkha not as equanimity, but as the vipassana equivalent of mudita: “appreciating and encouraging the qualities of insight that bring lasting peace.” It’s always deeply fulfilling to look into familiar practices and to see them in a new light — especially one that brings traditional formulas to life.

My own practice? Well, there have been so many complications and stresses in my life with family and work (I won’t bore you with the details) that my meditation practice, although regular, has not felt particularly deep. But I have noticed a greater ability to be calm in the face of major challenges, and have definitely felt more compassionate and empathetic. I seem to have much more creativity, as witnessed by all this blogging.

Reaching Day 100 seems less like an end and more like the start of something. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these practices, and to continue my writing (perhaps these blog posts will be an actual 300 page book at some point).

I’m glad to have been practicing with others. I’ve seen much kindness, compassion, and skillful rejoicing over the last 100 days, especially from members of Wildmind’s Google+ Community. And with permission, I’d like to leave you with some of their comments:

  • Adin: These last 100 days of have gifted me with an unshakable daily sitting practice, with a deeper understanding of this fleeting self, with more love for others, and with not just an acceptance of but a soothing, wiser appreciation of impermanence. I bow in deep gratitude.
  • Matthew: I’ve found myself deepening in compassion for both myself and others. I’ve always had major issues with self compassion but lately due to the practice of Brahmaviharas, I’ve noticed myself doing extra things around the house out of compassion for what situations may arise in the future vis-a-vis my health situation.
  • Melody: I’ve gone from ‘studying’ Buddhism out of curiosity to committing to this practice as a way of my life. I am immersed in the study of the words of the Buddha. I learned that I did not know how to love myself fully. I have committed to accept myself as I am here and now with present moment awareness. Applying compassion to myself changed the me I was familiar with, now things are bright and new and changing all the time. I found ill will to be too heavy and painful to carry and dropped it. Finally…I am growing an awareness of all beings and feeling a belonging I have never known.
  • Christine: This 100 days has completely upended my thoughts, feelings, and assumptions about metta practice, and about a lot of other things, too. (In fact, upending my thoughts, feelings and assumptions seems to have become part of my practice.) I used to fight shy of metta practice; now I love it. Curious and beautiful changes are seeping into my practice and my life as a result. All this is surely due to Bodhipaksa’s daily posts, for which I am profoundly grateful.
  • The 100 days project has taken me from an occasional meditator to someone for whom meditation has become a central part of life. I’m more aware of how I interact with others and find myself genuinely desiring good things for other people. Thank you so much, Mr. B, for guiding us through this process. Your words and example have been invaluable.
  • The 100 Days of Lovingkindness introduced me to the brahma-viharas (divine abodes, four immeasurables) expanding what I initially knew of metta, the lovingkindness meditation, exponentially. In learning the other aspects of lovingkindness, I truly see now just how much of a compassionate practice this is! I learned to root for others during their suffering, and during their successes. In honoring both, I also developed a deep desire that they have clarity. In particular, I applied these lessons at the source by learning to relate well to my own suffering. In doing so there was a letting go in which I found freedom. In finding freedom, I now desire it for all others.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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