An antidote to fear (Day 71)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

An ancient Buddhist commentary, the Path of Liberation, says of joyful appreciation, or mudita, that “non-fear is its function.” Joyful appreciation is an antidote to fear. It gives courage.

I remember precisely the first moment I noticed this in the context of cultivating lovingkindness, which is of course related to joyful appreciation, since both qualities are part of the “four immeasurables.”

At the time, I was having 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 the front porch every morning by the delivery driver.

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, even though I’m sure they never noticed me. And so 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 be free from suffering.”

And the fear vanished. Instantly. 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 you can’t appreciate people and also think the worst about them at the same time. You can see people in a positive light — they’re beings who want to be happy, trying to be happy as best they can — or you can see them in a negative light, where you assume that they’re obsessed about you and your bony ankles. But you can’t do both at the same time.

And mudita — joyful appreciation — works just the same way. We can’t appreciate and rejoice in the good qualities of others and also think the worst of them. Mudita protects against fear.

And a spirit of appreciation affects not just how we see others, but how we see ourselves. So rather than focusing on our imagined deficiencies (I may obsess about my hairy calves but I’m sure no one else does) we just don’t notice those things, and instead focus on what’s positive in ourselves. Mudita is joyful, and when you’re happy you just don’t obsess about your faults.

Mudita connects us with everything positive in life. It opens us up to our full potential, and to others’ full potential. Rather than relating to our own or others’ faults, real or imagined, we see them as capable of boundless kindness, compassion, and wisdom. When we see the world with joyful appreciation, we see life as something to be lived, not feared.

PS. You can see a full list of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Self-compassion is not selfish (Day 35)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In his book, Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, Sangharakshita has some advice for those who feel guilty about wanting to be happy. I have to confess that I’d forgotten that it was possible to feel this way…

“How can we wish for the happiness of others if we are alienated from our own desire for happiness?

“Unfortunately, many of us in the West were given to understand when we were young that it is selfish to want happiness for onself, and we therefore feel unnecessarily guilty about wanting it. As a result, we can feel guilty even about BEING happy. ‘After all,’ the perverse logic goes, ‘with all my selfish desires for my own happiness, how could I possibly deserve to be happy?’ This further produces the still more perverse belief that if we are to make spiritual progress, we will necessarily have to subject ourselves to great suffering. Such a deep-down belief that you are undeserving, even basically wicked, will inhibit your practice of the Dharma from the very beginning.”

There are lots of connections with compassion and lovingkindness here, but the main one is the simple point that our kindness and compassion should include ourselves, and so we should learn to embrace our desire for happiness, and our desire to be free from suffering. Happiness here doesn’t mean one single thing, and it’s certainly not limited to going through life with a smile on your face. It includes joy, yes, but also a sense of meaning, and fulfillment, and purpose, and peace — including the peace of accepting being unhappy. We can be happy in the face of our own unhappiness.

Learning to embrace our desire for happiness is something I suggested earlier that we can do as a conscious act as we begin a session of lovingkindness practice. And learning to embrace our innate desire to be free from suffering is likewise something we can contemplate as we begin to cultivate compassion.

When we accept the truth that we want happiness, and that happiness is rather hard to find, that we want to be free from suffering, and yet can’t avoid suffering, we’re connecting with the most vital part of our being — that deep-down drive that gives rise to every action we perform. These desires fuel everything we do.

There’s a sense of vulnerability when we reflect in this way. After all, this being human is not an easy thing. It never has been and never will be. It is hard to want happiness and freedom from suffering in a universe where happiness is elusive and suffering is almost omnipresent. Accepting vulnerability opens the heart. But there is always some part of us, when we open up to our fragility, that is willing to give us kindly support and encouragement as we go through life. And we all need such support.

And having connected with these truths, having opened the heart, having connected with the part of us that wishes us well, it’s not hard to do the same reflections for a friend, a suffering person, someone we don’t know, a person we have problems with — anyone. Any person we can think about wants to be happy, and finds happiness elusive, wants to be free from suffering and is held captive by suffering. But the miraculous thing is that there is some inherent part of us that wishes them well. There is some part that all of us come equipped with, as part of our evolutionary heritage, that resonates with the sufferings of others, and that wishes freedom, peace, and happiness for them.

It can be painful for many people to come through their resistance and to accept that happiness (whatever that may mean for them) is a worthy and right motivation and goal. There are layers of guilt that have been erected to prevent this very realization, and peeling away those layers can be agonizing. It can be hard to accept feeling vulnerable, for we can confuse being vulnerable with being weak, and so we try to hide our vulnerability from ourselves and others. But when we do so — when we pretend that we’re not suffering, that everything in our lives is sorted, our defenses become an armor that bruises and harms others. We become callous and cold and driven, and we’re unwilling to see the vulnerability of others. At our worst, we despise the fragility of others.

Accepting our own tender and fragile desires to be happy and to be free from suffering is the beginning of true compassion. And in the end there is no self-compassion or other-compassion. There is just compassion:

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
– The Buddha

Attānaṃ rakkhanto paraṃ rakkhati.
Paraṃ rakkhanto attānaṃ rakkhati.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Meditation as an act of love

lantern with heart-shaped window illuminated by a candle inside

“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”

– Bob Sharples, from Meditation: Calming the Mind

If you’re participating in the 100 Days of Lovingkindness, it’s because you want to become a nicer person, right? I’m right there with you.

Here’s the thing, though. Anytime we take on a practice with a goal in mind, we can get subtly sidetracked. We sit on our cushion and try to feel more warm-hearted. We try to think kinder thoughts. We try putting ourselves in our difficult person’s shoes. All that trying can make us a little tight, maybe even anxious. We’re striving to reach some imagined wondrous state that isn’t where we are now. And that probably doesn’t feel all that good. Or kind.

Hmmm…. what’s wrong with this picture?

What if you dropped all that self-prodding and just loved yourself, as you are? Rather than trying to make yourself into something else, how about just being loving, right now? When we stop reaching for that something else (which is a subtle form of self-flagellation), we can touch down into that “endlessly delightful and encouraging” place. And there you are. There’s the lovingkindness you were seeking.

Meditation isn’t a tool we whip out to help us achieve some goal off in the future. It’s a way of being that draws out our inherent nature – which is aware, warm, open, kind. Can we embody those qualities, right now?

OK, that’s easy for you to say, you might be thinking. What if I’m depressed or don’t like myself? What if I really don’t want to be where I am now?

Well, no matter how bad things are, we all have some sense of what feeling good inside is like, don’t we? What if just for one moment, you set aside all those yammering unhappy thoughts – maybe imagine putting them in a box off to the side – and giving yourself a break from them for even just three seconds. Doesn’t it feel good to stop beating your head against the wall? What if you took a deep breath, and felt what it’s like to relax those tight, wound-up muscles in your body? If you have a dog, go pet him and note how it feels when you get those adoring eyes back at you.

See what I’m getting at? No matter how depressed or unhappy you are, there’s something inside you that knows what it’s like to feel good. Why not go visit that place in your mind and body? What can you do, in this moment, that would be a simple and kind thing for yourself?

And what if those nasty self-critical or cynical thoughts keep intruding? First, you can forgive yourself that they arose. Blame doesn’t belong here at all. But from this moment forward you could choose not to buy into those thoughts so much. How about labeling them as just another thought, and loosening your grip on them a little? Old habits take a long time to unwind. You can be patient. They’ll subside eventually, as long as you don’t indulge them. But remember, NO beating yourself up!

What if you’re ill, in pain, or grieving the loss of a loved one? And you can’t find any way to feel comfortable in your own skin? Then you could imagine how you’d respond if a friend showed up at your doorstep in your current state. What would you do for her? Wouldn’t you want to give her a hug, sit her down, and show her how much you care? How about doing the same for yourself? Can you sit yourself down and give yourself a metaphorical hug? Maybe even have a good cry if that feels good in its own way?

What if you’re bored with your practice? Well, you could ask yourself, what’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now? Am I falling prey to a habitual tendency to seek distractions? Do I want to recommit to my longer-term intentions? Can I turn my attention in a kind way to something I know feels pleasurable and interesting (as described above)? Or would I prefer to give myself a break today, as an act of kindness, and keep my sit shorter than usual?

See also:

So those are some examples of ways to BE kindness, instead of seeking it out. The real challenge of this practice is to find a genuine connection to an experience of gentleness, forgiveness, warmth, caring, and nurturing, — right now, no matter what state you’re in. And the emphasis is on “genuine connection,” as opposed to “find.” True, it might take some exploring and experimenting to figure out what’s most helpful for you. But if you do it with an attitude of warm, open curiosity, that in itself becomes an act of kindness.

When we respond to everything with this sort of soft touch, lovingkindness gets rooted more deeply into our being. It becomes more and more the way we just are. And that’s how we get there without trying.

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Lovingkindness as a path to awakening (Day 25)

Stone carved with a mantra, which has been painted in red.

The Buddha is recorded as having said:

For one who mindfully develops
Boundless loving-kindness
Seeing the destruction of clinging,
The fetters are worn away.

If with an uncorrupted mind
He pervades just one being
With loving kindly thoughts,
He makes some merit thereby.

But a noble one produces
An abundance of merit
By having a compassionate mind
Towards all living beings.

The “fetters” are mental habits that hold us back from attaining enlightenment. Lovingkindness practice, the Buddha is saying, wears away these fetters. So lovingkindness practice helps us become enlightened.

The way I think of the Buddhist path of practice these days is that it’s all about “un-selfing.” Normally we are “selfing” all the time — “selfing” being a rendering of “ahamkara,” which literally means “I-making.” Every time we experience craving or aversion, we are creating, from an essentially undifferentiated mass of experience, a sense of a separate self. We have a mass of undifferentiated experience, and some of those experiences we have aversion towards, or try to push away. In the act of pushing, there is a sense that we are pushing them away from “us.” And so there’s a reinforcement of the sense of “I.” I don’t like this. I don’t want this. Similarly, with craving there is some experience that is clung to, held onto. And in the act of clinging or holding there is a reinforcement that there is this thing called “me” that is appropriating the experience. I like this. I want this.

All practice helps us to “un-self.” Lovingkindness “unselfs.” When we’re experiencing kindness we’re not capable of experiencing ill will or craving. Our ill will and craving, not being exercised, become weaker. “The fetters are worn away.”

Lovingkindness practice also helps us to do more “we-ing” (and I apologize for the infantile sound of that term, but I also hope it brings a smile). When we’re “we-ing” we’re not selfing. In lovingkindness practice we recognize that all beings are like ourselves. We all want to be happy; we all find happiness elusive. And knowing this to be true, we feel less inclined to obstruct others happiness, and want to assist others in finding happiness if we can. Our concerns move from being all “in here” (how can I be happy) and move “out there” (how can we, or they, be happy). We become kinder.

In the final stage of the practice, having a compassionate mind towards all living beings, there is an emphasis on spaciousness, as I’ve explained in the last two posts.

In the approach that the Buddha seems to have taught, we become aware of each of the directions, and we pervade each with lovingkindness. What I’ll tend to do in this stage of the practice is to become aware of the actual space around me. I’ll notice the the light, the space, and the sound. I’ll notice sounds in particular in a non-reactive way, simply allowing them to exist. I don’t try to hold onto sounds, nor do I try to push them away. This in itself is a form of unselfing, since craving and aversion are being dropped. And I’m aware that there are living beings in the space I’m aware of (both in the physical space I’m attending to and in the mental space of my mind, in the form of memories or imagination). And I’m wishing them well. The space I’m perceiving is pervaded with kindness, because my mind is pervaded with kindness.

But noticing the space and sound in particular contribute to a sense that my consciousness is no longer something that’s “inside” me, but is something that extends out into the world. I can almost feel my mind filling the space around me. This is not simply imagination. All experience happens in the mind. Whether an experience is a thought or the sound of a passing jet plane, the experience happens in the mind. We perceive the thought as being “in here” and the sound of a jet being “out there” only because of a more subtle kind of selfing that divides experiences into “self” and “other.” When we simply pay attention to so-called inner and so-called outer experiences at the same time, eventually we mind puts less and less effort into making this distinction. As we pay less attention to whether our experiences are “in here” or “out there” these two concepts cease to have so much (or sometimes any) meaning.

And so there are several kinds of unselfing going on. There’s the unselfing that consists of dropping the selfing activities of craving and aversion. There’s the unselfing of “we-ing” — of seeing other beings as having the same basis needs as ourselves and, with a mind of kindness, being prepared to help them find happiness. And there’s the unselfing of no longer considering ourselves to be “in here” while the world is “out there.” We allow there to be “a mass of undifferentiated experience” that we don’t divide into a self and an other. All thought of there being a self may be lost. At first this loss is temporary, but this can become a permanent state. At this point the fetters (or at least some of them) have been broken, and the experience of awakening has begun.

So lovingkindness is not a “basic” practice. It’s one that can take us all the way.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Lovingkindness meditation: Breaking the boundaries (Day 24)

bird breaking out of its shell

Yesterday I wrote about how, in the fifth stage of the development of lovingkindness practice where we’re cultivating metta for all beings, it’s enough simply to sense the space around you and to allow that space to be filled with kindness. Your mind is filled with kindness. Your mind is aware of the space around you. And so the space you’re aware of is filled with kindness. Therefore, any creature that is in that space will be received kindly. And the same is true for any being you call to mind. You’re receiving them into kindness as they appear in your mind.

I find this helpful when it comes to the transition from focusing on one person at a time — yourself, the friend, the neutral person, the person you find difficult — to wishing many beings well.

As we move into the final stage of the lovingkindness practice we’re asked to cultivate lovingkindness equally for all four people, not favoring self over other, other over self, friend over ourselves, the neutral person, or the difficult person. And this is a step that many people find a bit awkward, because you may find that the mind is hopping from person to person.

But traditionally this step is called “breaking the bounds.” Breaking the bounds of what? In my view what we’re doing is breaking the bounds of the one-to-one relationship. Having focused on one person at a time, we’re now embracing in our kindly awareness all four people. And this is where my perspective of noticing space, and letting that space be filled with kindness, is useful, because this approach doesn’t require us to focus on one person at a time. In fact it requires us not to do this.

In making this transition what I do is move from cultivating metta for the person I find difficult to simply sensing the space of my awareness, which includes the space around me and also the “virtual space” of the mind in which images and other thoughts appear. And I sense this space with kindness.

Then I simply invite the friend, neutral person, and difficult person to be in this space, and because my awareness is imbued with kindness they are perceived kindly. I too am in the sphere of my awareness, and so I too am perceived kindly.

So I don’t have to “beam” metta to any of the four people, or to make any spacial effort to ensure that I’m wishing them all well to an equal extent. My lovingkindness is “omni-directional.” It is simply a property of my consciousness, and whoever is in this space of consciousness is held kindly. The boundaries have been broken. Kindness flows everywhere that my attention is.

And from here it’s easy to become aware, in a kindly way, of the wider space around me, and to receive all beings in that space, and beings that appear in my mind, with love — with a recognition that they are feeling beings who desire happiness and who find happiness elusive. And recognizing this I feel no desire to obstruct their happiness and wish to help them find happiness if I can.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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The expansive mind of lovingkindness (Day 23)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The Buddha’s instructions on lovingkindness — at least those that have been passed on to us — don’t include the five stages of cultivating lovingkindness for oneself, the friend, the “neutral person,” the person we have difficulty with, and then all beings. There are some scattered instructions about cultivating lovingkindness toward people we harbor anger toward, but the bulk of the instructions concern what is, for us, the final stage of the practice: cultivating lovingkindness to all beings.

This doesn’t invalidate what we do. The five (sometimes six) stage model has a long pedigree going back at least 2,000 years, and it may be that it goes back to the Buddha himself. We just don’t know. But it’s interesting to look back and see that there is, apparently, an early strand of teaching that’s quite different from what we do.

So here’s a typical direction for lovingkindness practice:

That disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of covetousness, devoid of ill will, unbewildered, alert, mindful — keeps pervading the first direction [i.e. the East] with an awareness imbued with good will, likewise the second [South], likewise the third [West], likewise the fourth [North]. Thus above, below, and all around, everywhere, in its entirety, he keeps pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will.

So there’s a lot of emphasis on directionality. Let’s call this the “compass approach” to lovingkindness. This is quite different from how I was taught the practice, which was to cultivate loving-kindness for those nearby, and then to work outward: neighborhood, town, region, country, neighboring countries, etc., until the whole world is embraced in a mind of lovingkindness. What I was taught is more of an “atlas approach.”

What may be the earliest meditation manual we have, the Vimuttimagga (path of freedom), which dates to just a few hundred years after the Buddha, includes this atlas-style approach to lovingkindness:

…he should gradually arouse the thought of loving-kindness and develop it for various bhikkhus [monks] in (his) dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for the Community of Bhikkhus in (his) dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for the deities in his dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for beings in the village outside his dwelling-place. Thus (he develops loving-kindness for beings) from village to village, from country to country.

The Vimuttimagga then goes on to take the compass approach. And I think switching from the atlas to the compass approach is a good idea, because I’ve always felt the atlas metod to be rather clunky. How do you conceive of having lovingkindness for all beings in, say, Europe or Africa, especially for someone who doesn’t live there? Do you picture a map? That’s rather detached from the reality of the beings that live in those places. Do you pick random scenes and wish the people you see well? That’s what I tend to do, but in a way you’re departing from the atlas approach, since you can’t exactly do this for every nation, going “country to country.” It is, of course, possible to over-think this!

But it occurred to me that at the time of the Buddha, knowledge of geography was rather basic. There would have been maps, even just mental maps, extending a few hundred miles in every direction from where one resided, but beyond that would have been rather mysterious, even mythic (“Here be nāgas”). So when the Buddha suggested to cultivate lovingkindness to all the beings in one particular direction, he wouldn’t (couldn’t!) have had a picture of the places he was contemplating. (There were mythic geographies around at that time, but they would have been very vague.) He didn’t have images from TV shows and movies and magazines to draw upon.

So perhaps the notion of just considering a direction is a good one! It frees us up from having to picture the world. We can let go to some extent of our visual sense, and have more of a spatial sense of the world around us. We can just be aware of each direction in turn, and have a sense that we’re wishing any beings in that direction well. We don’t have to see the directions. We can feel them. They’re inside our awareness already.

A sense of the space around us is one of our senses, although one people don’t talk about very much. But if you close your eyes right now, you still have a pretty good idea of where you are in relation to things around you. You know roughly how far it is to the wall in front of you, to the right, left, and behind you. You have a sense of the dimensions and orientation of the whole building around you, and of that building’s relation to the space around it, and to other buildings. You can even have a sense of the whole space above you — all the way up the sky.

So in a sense all of that space is “in” your awareness. And if your awareness is imbued with a sense of kindness, then (in a sense) the space around you is imbued with kindness as well.

So I tend, in my own practice of the fifth stage of the metta bhavana, to simply experience the space around me in all directions, and to regard those directions kindly. And whatever beings there may be in that space, human or animal, I wish them well. My mind becomes a field of lovingkindness, extending outside of my body, into the world.

It’s hard to say how far out from my body I sense this field of lovingkindness extending. You don’t literally have to have a sense of the whole world as part of the practice of “cultivating universal loving-kindness.” Your mind is your world, and all you have to do is maintain a loving awareness of that world, and of any beings that enter your senses, including the sense of the mind.

So for me the emphasis in the practice isn’t trying to connect with different geographic areas (which gets rather abstract), or with in some way trying to imagine the whole world (again abstract) or all the beings on it (which is impossible), but having a sense that my mind is this field of lovingkindness; and whoever was to enter my awareness, whether by physically entering the range of my senses, or by appearing in my mind’s eye, would be received kindly, with a recognition that this is a being that wants to be happy and finds happiness elusive, and with a sense that I am prepared to support that being, not obstructing their happiness, and supporting it if I can.

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The tender heart of lovingkindness (Day 22)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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.

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 they are 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.

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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Lovingkindness while driving (Day 21)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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, right up to 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?”

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. It’s very like the walking lovingkindness practice that I described yesterday. 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 the participants in 100 Days of Lovingkindness 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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Metta on the go: 6 simple ways to take lovingkindness off the cushion (Day 17)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

For the sixth day of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, we have a guest post from therapist Ashley Davis Bush.

What a wonderful feeling – you’re in your favorite meditation pose generating loving-kindness, starting with yourself and gradually turning to the world. A feeling of connection to your loved ones, your sangha, and to all sentient beings fills you with bliss.

The metta bhavana is a powerful meditation. It opens the heart and engenders feelings of love and openness.

But what about when you’re off the cushion . . . like when you’re late for work in that long line for coffee? Or when you’re stuck in traffic and just want to get home? Is the loving-kindness still radiating from within you?

Below are 6 simple ways to weave that loving feeling through everyday experiences. Until they become habitual, you might want to use Post It notes as reminders. Over time, you’ll find that metta is better than ever when it’s on the go.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall
When: when you look in a mirror
What: look yourself in the eye and say, “May you be happy. May you be healthy.”

Joy to the World
When: when you blow dry your hair
What: imagine the blow dryer as a large prayer wheel of sorts blowing out blessings. Say, “May all beings be happy. May all beings be safe from harm.”

Who is Your Mother?
When: when you’re standing in a line (especially if you’re in a hurry)
What: look at the cashier and think ‘who is your mother?’ Imagine his or her mother, that she may be alive or not. Imagine their relationship, good one or bad. Wish this anonymous mother well. Wish the cashier well. “May you both be at peace. May you both be healthy.”

Stop Drop and Roll
When: when stopped at a red light
What: ‘Stop’ the car, ‘drop’ down into your heart and ‘roll’ out some goodwill to your fellow travelers. Look at the people in other cars in front of you, behind you, passing you, and recognize that each one of them is just like you – they want happiness and they want to be free from suffering. Say, “May you know happiness. May you be safe.”

Bless Us Everyone
When: when you see or hear an emergency vehicle
What: wish those involved well — including the victims, their loved ones, the first responders, and associated medical or legal professionals. Say “May you be surrounded with love. May you be supported.”

Newspaper Clippings
When: when reading, watching or listening to the news
What: As you learn of distressing news, take a moment to send the people involved some peaceful wishes. Say, “I wish you peace. May you be safe from harm.”

Both on and off the cushion, the metta bhavana practice will keep your heart open, flexible, and radiant.

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Love letters to strangers (Day 16)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’ve been talking, in these 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts, of ways we can cultivate metta, or lovingkindness. But we also need to put it into practice. We need to practice kindness — to show kindness to others.

One of the participants in Wildmind’s online Community shared what I thought was a beautiful practice. She wrote:

For a few days I was surreptitiously writing love notes and dropping them in unlikely places for whoever found them. It was a challenge to my poetic nature and a source of delight to me.

It sounds crazy, but harmlessly loving, and since I’m in a bit of a funk today I think I’ll write a little love note. Here goes:

“This is to you. You are an extraordinary human being. The only one of your particular makeup who has ever been and who will ever be in all of time. You are totally amazing and I love you very much.”

Wow. This is something I’d never have thought of, but what a beautiful idea. I’m thinking of slipping notes under the doors of the other offices in the building where Wildmind’s “World Headquarters” are.

But I’m also trying to think of writing some of my blog posts here as “love letters to strangers.” I think it would change the tone of my communication

What would you write — in just a sentence or two — to a complete stranger, to communicate love and kindness?

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