metta

Day 33 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 033Sometimes people have problems with the final stage of lovingkindness practice — developing goodwill for all beings. Because how can you possibly relate to all beings! It’s impossible!

I think the language of “all beings” can be misleading. We can’t literally have metta for all beings because we don’t know who they are, or where they are, or even if they are!

The final stage is called, in the commentaries, “breaking the bounds” and I see it as breaking the bounds of one-to-one relationships. The middle three stages all include a one-to-one relationship with someone: a friend, a neutral person, and someone you have difficulty with. A visual comparison (not that I’m saying it has to be visualized this way, or visualized at all) would be a ray of light going from you to that person. But in the final stage, at least the way I experience it now, after many years of evolution in my practice, I drop the sense of one-to-one relationships altogether.

What I do, in essence, is simply to have a sense that my mind is imbued with lovingkindness, so that whoever I call to mind, or whoever is physically in my presence, is touched by a mind of lovingkindness. So a visual comparison here would be light radiating out from us in every direction. Whoever enters the range of the light is touched by it. Again, I don’t actually visualize light at all in my meditation, I’m just trying to find a metaphor to illustrate the difference between metta “bounded” by a one-to-one relationship and metta that has “broken the bounds” and that is simply part of our awareness, touching whoever enters that awareness.

How I’ll enter the final stage is to become aware of the space around me, including the light and sound on all sides, simultaneously. My awareness now feels spacious: I’m conscious of a field of awareness that in a sense expands all around me. And I’ll have a sense of letting that field of awareness be filled with lovingkindness. I’m doing that now as I type. Shantikirika and Eric are in the office with me, one to the left and one to the right. I am aware of their presence, and I’m doing that with a gentle “touch.” If I could hear the guys in the office upstairs, I’d be doing the same with them, although they’re unusually quiet this morning. And then I call to mind myself, the friend, the neutral person, and the person I have difficulty with, and rather than “send” them metta I simply receive them in a loving awareness. And from there I can call to mind various people and places, and similarly let them be touched by the light and warmth of my mettaful consciousness.

In in principle, all beings are touched by my lovingkindness, in the sense that whoever enters my mind is met with love. But I don’t have to literally imagine “all beings.” Thank goodness!

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Day 11 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 011It astonishes me how much time I spend making judgements about people, but the truly surprising thing is that although it makes me feel bad, I keep doing it. And it leads to unfortunate interactions with people which ends up causing them suffering too.

One thing that protects us against this kind of self-imposed suffering is lovingkindness (metta) practice. Lovingkindness is an important complement to mindfulness practice.

To cultivate metta we can do something as simple as repeat to ourselves, “May you be well; may you be happy” as we see others. We can do this while walking or driving, for example.

We can take a more reflective approach to cultivating lovingkindness. I often consider the truth of the following statements:

  • I want to be happy;
  • I don’t want to suffer;
  • I often find happiness elusive;
  • I find suffering hard to avoid.

I drop these thoughts in one at a time, giving myself time to feel their reality on an emotional level. And then I allow the part of me that wants me to be happy to wish myself well — basically allowing a sympathetic attitude toward myself to emerge. Somehow recollecting that it’s a difficult thing to live a human life allows me to be more tender, and to be more caring and appreciative of myself.

Then I can apply the same thoughts to another person: This person wants to be happy; he/she doesn’t want to suffer; he/she often finds happiness elusive; he/she finds suffering hard to avoid. I find that quite naturally I want to “root for” this person as they do this difficult thing of living a human life. I want them to be happy.

This might sound a bit complex, but it isn’t really. The important thing is to give yourself time to let the thoughts have some emotional reality. With a little practice these reflections can be done in a few seconds, and having been thought about in a conscious way, they can then remain in the back of our minds, having a positive effect on our attitudes to others without needing to be consciously articulated.

This is something that I do at the start of each stage of my lovingkindness (metta) meditations. It’s also something I do during my daily activities. It makes lovingkindness practice much more real and effective for me.

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The extraordinary rewards of ordinary friendliness

Golden Retriever Puppy isolated on a blue backgroundFriendliness is a down-to-earth approach to others that is welcoming and positive.

Think about a time when someone was friendly to you – maybe drawing you into a gathering, saying hello on the sidewalk, or smiling from across the room. How did that make you feel? Probably more included, comfortable, and at ease; safer; more open and warm-hearted.

When you are friendly to others, you offer them these same benefits. Plus you get rewarded yourself. Being friendly feels confident and happy, with a positive take on other people, moving toward the world instead of backing away from it. And it encourages others to be less guarded or reactive with you, since you’re answering the ancient question from millions of years of evolution – friend or foe? – with an open hand and heart.

In its own quiet way, ordinary friendliness takes a stand that is almost subversive these days: that the world has many more opportunities than threats, that most people want the best for others, that simple informal human connections tie this battered old planet together much more than jumbo corporations or mass media flickering on the walls of our upholstered caves.

How?

You can be friendly with intimates and strangers, co-workers and in-laws, babies and bosses – even those you know only in the abstract, like people on the other side of the world. Of course, it is not always appropriate to be friendly with someone, such as to an adversary, or to someone who would misunderstand you. But opportunities for greater friendliness are probably all around you this week.

To warm up your brain’s circuits of friendliness, you could try one or more of these:

  • Recall being with someone who cares about you.
  • Remember when someone was friendly to you.
  • Bring to mind a time when you were friendly to someone.
  • Get a sense of the posture, movements, gestures, and facial expressions of a person you know who is naturally friendly.
  • Relax your body into a feeling of friendliness: leaning forward a little, rather than back; softening and opening your chest, face, and eyes; breathing goodwill in and out.

Then look for everyday opportunities to be friendly. Often you’ll just give a smile, handshake, or nod – and that’s plenty. Maybe it’s offering a few minutes to talk. Or a morning hug, or goodnight kiss. Or an extra touch of warmth in an email.

Stretch yourself, but stay within the range of whatever is authentic. Remember that friendliness is not agreement or approval; it does not mean you have given up on whatever your stances may be in the relationship. Friendliness does not equal friendship; in truth, most relationships are with friendly acquaintances.

Consider your family and friends. What about being more friendly with your lover or mate? Having worked with couples for many years, it’s painful to see how often basic friendliness is a casualty in a long-term relationship. Or being more friendly toward parents, siblings – or your own children? Again, it’s startling how easily friendliness can be crowded out of our most important relationships by busyness, little irritations and hurts, or weariness from working too hard. But bits of friendliness, sprinkled here and there, can be absolutely transformational in a relationship. Try it and see!

Also consider being friendlier toward people you might normally ignore or treat with distance, even coolness. Such as wait staff in restaurants, someone shuttling you to the airport, or – breaking the big taboo – strangers in an elevator.

See what happens. Take in the rewards, like one small log after another, fueling that warm glowing fire on the hearth in your heart.

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Apology as a spiritual practice

Yesterday I lost my temper with my daughter and yelled at her. I even snatched out of her hands the baby monitor that she and her brother had been using to make a noise with.

I’m not proud of losing my temper. In fact I’m ashamed when that kind of thing happens.

It’s true that I’d asked her several times to stop, but that’s still no excuse.

It didn’t help either that I’d been trying to get a little work done in the living room and was trying hard to stay focused on a message I was writing. But that’s no excuse either.

I messed up. I communicated in an unskillful way and shocked and distressed my little girl.

These things are going to happen, though, so I don’t beat myself up about them. Saying I feel ashamed doesn’t mean I think I’m a terrible person, but simply that I recognize that my action was wrong. I feel ashamed, not guilty. Unfortunately, things like this are going to happen again, though. That’s just how things are.

What I did get right, I think, was that I apologized swiftly. That’s something I try to do. When I have my little outbursts they take me over for just a split second, usually, but then what seems to happen is that I return almost at once to a more ethical perspective. And when I’ve hurt someone, especially my kids, I let them know that I regret my actions. Often the apology comes mere moments after the thing I’m apologizing for, as it did this time. And my daughter was instantly fine, and harmony was restored.

This incident was fresh in my mind when I came across a passage in an article by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on lovingkindness (or as he prefers to call it, goodwill). I’m reproducing it here, reformatted to help bring out more clearly the points he makes.

As for the times when you realize that you’ve harmed others, the Buddha recommends that you understand that remorse is not going to undo the harm, so if an apology is appropriate, you apologize. In any case, you resolve not to repeat the harmful action again. Then you spread thoughts of goodwill in all directions.

This accomplishes several things.

  • It reminds you of your own goodness, so that you don’t — in defense of your self-image — revert to the sort of denial that refuses to admit that any harm was done.
  • It strengthens your determination to stick with your resolve not to do harm.
  • And it forces you to examine your actions to see their actual effect: If any of your other habits are harmful, you want to abandon them before they cause further harm.

In other words, you don’t want your goodwill to be just an ungrounded, floating idea. You want to apply it scrupulously to the nitty-gritty of all your interactions with others. That way your goodwill becomes honest. And it actually does have an impact, which is why we develop this attitude to begin with: to make sure that it truly animates our thoughts, words, and deeds in a way that leads to a happiness harmless for all.

I see apology as being a reorientation of our being toward the good. Our minds and selves are modular: some parts of us see the way to happiness as lying in selfishness and aggression, while other parts of us see the path to happiness as lying in mindfulness and compassion. When the unskillful takes hold of us, it’s crucial to re-establish as quickly as possible that this was a deviation, and to redirect ourselves toward awakening. When we try to justify what we’ve done, by rationalizing or weaseling our way out of admitting fault, we actually strengthen the unskillful within us, and end up perpetuating our own and others’ suffering.

Another way to deal with our unskillful actions is confession. Confession’s what I’m doing here, in part. When we confess we’re being honest about what we’ve done, so that we can own it and move on.

When I first did formal confession, I was terrified that the people I was confessing to (we did it in a group) would stop liking me if they knew what I was “really” like. But in fact, I discovered that they loved me more for having been honest with them. In confessing we’re not looking for forgiveness, just to have what we’ve done out in the open, rather than festering inside us. I don’t need you to forgive me; I just need you there to hear me.

The power of confession, like that of apology, lies in re-establishing our connection with who we truly want to be. It gives the reins of our being back to the wiser, kinder, and more honest parts of ourselves.

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Tuning in to the love that fills and surrounds you

Baby swaddled in white fabric

Take a breath right now, and notice how abundant the air is, full of life-giving oxygen offered freely by trees and other green growing things. You can’t see air, but it’s always available for you.

Love is a lot like the air. It may be hard to see – but it’s in you and all around you.

In the press of life – dealing with hassles in personal relationships and bombarded with news of war and other conflicts – it’s easy to lose sight of love, and feel you can’t place your faith in it. But in fact, to summarize a comment from Ghandi, daily life is saturated with moments of cooperation and generosity – between complete strangers! Let alone with one’s friends and family.

Also see:

Love is woven into your day because it’s woven into your DNA: as our ancestors evolved over the last several million years, many scientists believe that love, broadly defined, has been the primary driving force behind the evolution of the brain. Bands of early humans that were particularly good at understanding and caring for each other out-competed less cooperative and loving bands, and thereby passed on the genes of empathy, bonding, friendship, altruism, romance, compassion, and kindness – the genes, in a word, of love.

Nonetheless, even though the resting state of your brain – its “home base” when you are not stressed, in pain, or feeling threatened – is grounded in love, it’s all too easy to be driven from home by something as small as a critical comment in a business meeting or a frown across a dinner table. Then we go off to a kind of inner homelessness, exiled for a time from our natural abode, caught up in the fear or anger that makes love seem like a mostly-forgotten dream. After a while, this can become the new normal, so we call homelessness home – like becoming habituated to breathing shallowly and forgetting the richness of air that would be available if we would only breathe deeply.

So we need to come home to love. To recognize and have confidence in the love in your own heart – which will energize and protect you, even when you must also be assertive with others. To see and have faith in the love in others – even when it is veiled or it comes out in problematic ways. To trust in love that’s as present as air, to trust in loving that’s as natural as breathing.

How?

Take a breath. Notice how available air is, how you can trust in it. Notice the feeling of being able to rely on the air.

Bring to mind someone who loves you. Feel the fact of this love – even if it is, to paraphrase John Welwood, a perfect love flowing through an imperfect person. Can you feel your breath and body relaxing, as you trust in this person’s love for you? Can you feel your thoughts calming, your mood improving, and your heart opening to others? Let it sink in, that trusting in love feels good and refuels you. Then if you like, do this same reflection with other people who love you.

Bring to mind someone you love. Feel the reality of your love; know that you are loving. As in the paragraph just above, absorb the benefits of recognizing and trusting in your love. Try this with others whom you love.

Scan back over your life and notice some of the many times when there was love in your heart – expressed one way or another, including generosity, kindness, patience, teamwork, self-restraint, affection, and caring. Appreciate as well that there have been many times when you wanted to love, were looking for someone or something to love (friends and good causes, too, not just romantic partners), or longed for more love in your life. These are facts, and you can trust in them – trusting in the lovingness of your heart.

In situations, open to your own lovingness. Privately ask yourself questions like: As a loving person, what is important to me here? Trusting in love, what seems right to do? Remember that you can be strong – and if need be, create consequences for others – while staying centered in love or one of its many expressions (e.g., empathy, fair play, goodwill). What happens when you assert yourself from a loving place?

Tune into the lovingness in others, no matter how obscured by their own homelessness, their own fear or anger – like seeing a distant campfire through the trees. Sense the longing in people to be at peace in their relationships, and to give and get love. What happens in a challenging relationship when you stay in touch with this lovingness inside the other person? Notice that you can both feel the lovingness in others and be tough as nails about your own rights and needs.

Don’t sentimentalize love or be naïve about it. Trusting in love does not mean assuming that someone will love you. It means confidence in the fundamentally loving nature of every person, and in the wholesome power of your own lovingness to protect you and touch the heart of others. It means coming home – home by the hearth of love.

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Kindness is not weakness

Baby's hand holding onto an adult's finger.

Recently I received a few questions about the relationship between lovingkindness and “toughness.”

1. When practicing lovingkindness, how do you respond if people around you warm to you, but misconstrue your kindness and friendliness, and then become disappointed that you don’t want a “relationship” with them?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I suppose the short answer is “kindly.”

It’s great if people are noticing you becoming friendlier and are responding. But these things can be complicated, especially when people have strong emotional needs (because they’re lonely, for example) or where friendliness is being interpreted as an overture to romantic involvement.

And sometimes we may need to look at the signals we’re giving out. Are we just being friendly, or is there an element of flirtatiousness? It’s hard to say from the inside, sometimes, because we’re often not aware of all our motivations and habits. It may take a lot of internal scrutiny and perhaps feedback from friends before we can sort that out.

Also see:

But assuming that you’re just being friendly, we just need to be kind and clear and to set appropriate boundaries. So you could thank the other person for their interest and say, kindly, that unfortunately you don’t have time in your social calendar to have coffee with them, or that you’re not interested in dating at the moment, or whatever seems appropriate for the circumstances.

Some people are not good at taking rejection, so the other person may be hurt or angry or become more persistent, so you may have to be very firm. But it’s still best to be gracious.

2. When practicing lovingkindness but still having to be part of the world work-wise, how do you reconcile others’ expectations that you must be “tough” to negotiate deals etc, that kind, gentle people are “pushovers” and should be taken advantage of, or treated with toughness?

There does seem to be a common assumption that if you’re friendly you can’t also be tough or firm, but that’s of course not the case. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Recently I had to lay someone off because of a financial crunch at work, which was a tough decision to make. But it needed to be done. I tried to do it as kindly as possible, and to give as much background information as possible so that she’d understand why I was doing what I was doing. The response was quite amazing: my former co-worker, when she heard about the financial difficulties we were going though said, “That’s terrible. What can I do to help?” This is not a testament to my communication skills and is more to do with the other person’s own kindness, but it shows that even a lay-off can be an affair free of bitterness.

Some business-people are tough to the point of being positively inhuman, because they are unable to empathize with others. One study reckoned that one in 25 business leaders may be psychopaths. In the long-term, business leaders like that are hugely destructive. They can make life hell for the people they work for. They can destroy trust with their own customers. They can bring their own companies down (Enron, anyone?). They can destroy entire economies.

There’s even a case for saying that corporations, which typically take returns to shareholders as the only meaningful benchmark of success, disregarding the welfare of their workers, clients, and the world generally, have psychopathic tendencies.

On the other hand, studies have shown that effective leaders are empathetic. One study showed that the most effective managers “consistently used the following four competencies: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.”

Being empathetic and kind is one set of skills. Being clear and tough is another. Having just one set of these skills makes you ineffective. But it’s possible to have both.

3. This all kind of rolls up to how much is it my responsibility to change my own behaviours based on what I perceive others expect of me? I know some people who do this unconsciously, and others who don’t do it at all a they have no consciousness of others perceptions. But once you are aware, how much is it my responsibility to change myself, and how much should I be “true to myself” and expect others to change around me – even knowing it may not get the response I seek?

If we confuse being kind with “getting people to like us” then we won’t be true to ourselves, and we’ll suffer. Being kind simply means recognizing that other people wish to be happy and don’t want to suffer. Being unkind means wanting others to suffer or not to experience happiness. Now we can be kind and still take actions that lead to other people being unhappy (you might need to lay someone off, and they probably won’t be happy about it) but it’s not our aim to make the other person unhappy, so we’re not being unkind. We recognize that the decisions we’re making are likely to evoke unhappiness, and so we try to take that into account in our speech and in other actions we take.

And being kind doesn’t mean negating your own well-being. If other people have expectations of you, you need to ask whether those expectations are right and reasonable. Your question’s rather abstract, so I’ve no idea what kind of expectations people have of you, or in what way they might want you to change. If they want you to fit in with some well-established and effective way of doing things, then yes, I think it’s reasonable for you to change to accommodate that. If they expect you to lose your sense of right and wrong, then you need to take a stand.

When we’re “being true to ourselves” we’re always being selective. In my opinion, we’re most true to ourselves when we’re true to the wisest and kindest parts of ourselves, rather than to the most rigid, grasping, or harsh parts. There’s inevitably conflict between these two sides. Pick a side.

But it’s a complex thing, this being human. Complex and difficult. There is a need for give and take, for compromise, for making concessions. But there’s also a need to be firm to your core values. If people don’t respect that, then sometimes the kindest thing you can do — for yourself — is to get the hell out of Dodge.

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The most fundamental thing you have in common with any other being

There’s a verse in an ancient Buddhist text that says something to the effect that we all want to be happy, and yet we destroy happiness as if it was an enemy, and we all want to avoid suffering, yet run towards it as if it were a dear friend.

This really resonates with my experience, and recently I’ve been incorporating a reflection based on this into my lovingkindness practice.

I start with myself. I recollect that I do in fact want to be happy and acknowledge how difficult it can be at times to experience joy and wellbeing. And then I ask whether some part of me is prepared to root for my own happiness and wellbeing. The answer is always “yes.”

The phrase “some part of me” is important here, because if you just ask yourself “am I prepared to root for my own happiness,” you might get an ambiguous or negative response. We’re complex beings, and on the surface we may not detect much self-metta (lovingkindness) but one some level there’s always some part of us that’s looking after our interests, protecting us from harm, and keeping us going. Even when you’re depressed, you take care not to walk under a bus while crossing the road.

It’s this self-care, which is intrinsic to our being, that’s the basis of lovingkindness toward others. The Buddha put it like this:

Searching all directions
with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer
than oneself.

In the same way, others
are dear, each to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.

He also expressed a similar reflection in the Dhammapada:

Life is dear to all. Comparing others with oneself, one should neither strike nor cause to strike.

So I then apply the same reflection to others, starting with the friend: “Do I want to support this person in the struggle they are engaged in to find happiness and to avoid suffering? Is there some part of me that’s willing to root for them?” Again, the answer my heart gives is always “yes.”

Then the neutral person — the person we don’t really know as a person but perhaps as a role, such as a post-office worker, checkout clerk, or colleague. Although I don’t know this person, I’m considering something very fundamental about them. In fact it’s probably the most fundamental thing you could know about any being: they want to be happy, and find it hard to achieve that. They don’t want to suffer, but keep stumbling into suffering. And again, a sense of being prepared to root for this person tends to come quite easily and naturally.

And then the difficult person. Same thing. They are driven to find happiness, but find happiness elusive; impelled to avoid suffering, and yet they keep experiencing suffering. They’re just like me. Is there some part of me that can support them, root for them? And this is where the “some part of me” comes in handy again.

You don’t have to like the person you have conflict with. You don’t have to love them. You don’t have to think they’re a nice person. You don’t have to forget bad things they’ve done for you. It may actually cause you pain to call this person to mind (accept that pain!). But you can acknowledge that they want to be happy and find happiness hard to attain, and want not to suffer but cause themselves a lot of pain. And it’s not hard, recognizing that they’re just like us in this regard, to find that some part of us wants to support them.

I find this the most powerful way to connect with metta as something inherent. Although metta is something that needs to be developed, it’s not conjured from thin air. It needs first to be uncovered. This reflection helps reveal the lovingkindness that’s already within us. At our core we don’t want others to suffer, and want them to be happy, because in our hearts we know that what is true for them is true for us as well.

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“A Little Book of Love” by Moh Hardin

A Little Book of Love

This is the first book by Moh Hardin, an acarya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and teaches classes on Buddhism and meditation in Canada and the U.S.

Hardin tells us that A Little Book of Love is written for anyone who is interested in exploring wisdom from the Buddhist tradition for awakening, deepening and expanding love in our lives and in the world. Unfortunately, Hardin gives only tiny snippets of Buddhist wisdom and neglects to describe how this wisdom relates to his suggestions for deepening and expanding love.

Hardin begins by telling us we should be our own best friend, that our friendship with ourselves should not be based on conditions or a certain image we have of ourselves, not as we would like to be, but as we are. Making friends with ourselves is accepting ourselves just as we are, unconditionally in the same way we accept our children. While this is good advice, it is not an easy mission to accomplish. Buddhist wisdom teaches us that we are a product of our conditions including our upbringing, our relationships, our family interactions, our education, our work environments etc. To say we should love ourselves unconditionally without exploring how to do this falls short.

Title: A Little Book of Love: Heart Advice on Bringing Happiness to Ourselves and Our World
Author: Moh Hardin
Publisher: Shambhala (Dec, 2011)
ISBN: 978-1-59030-900-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Kindle Store (US), and Kindle Store (UK).

According to Buddhism, Hardin tells us, our basic nature is awake, enlightened, basic goodness, independent of conditions, naturally loving, compassionate, gentle, intelligent and wise. Confusion and suffering come when we are separate from this natural goodness and feel the need to protect ourselves and feel anger or jealousy. I agree with this premise, however, it is one thing to understand an idea and another thing to have the tools and time to integrate it. This would be a perfect place for Hardin to describe how meditation can help us to come to that basic nature.

Hardin tells how to love our partners. He states the most important ingredient for a good, healthy and long-lasting relationship is giving each other the gift of space by stopping habitual reactions and patterns and keeping things in perspective. He cites Chogyam Trungpa who said, “Being in love does not mean possessing the other person; it simply means appreciate the other person” and recommends giving a “flash” of generosity to our partner by looking at them as if for the first time and being receptive. I would have loved to have read examples of partners working on their relationships in the way Hardin suggests. Examples of people who have gone through difficulties and have used the tool of “flashes of generosity” would have brought this book to life.

Regarding loving our children, Hardin states, “We want to create situations to nurture children’s basic goodness and encourage their inherent curiosity and give them space for self-expression. He encourages us to ask ourselves “How do we manifest our love for our children in day-to-day life?” and to allow children to become our guides in teaching us how to perfect our love rather than seeking to perfect them. He also recommends spending time giving our children focused attention, thus enjoying genuine encounters. There is one example of Hardin doing this with his child, and more personal examples or examples from other parents would have been appreciated.

Hardin discusses the connection between our wishes, thoughts and motivation. What we wish for, according to Hardin, has a powerful motivating force in our lives and gives rise to our thoughts and our thought motivate us to action. Bringing love to ourselves, our partners, our children and the world is Bodhisattva (“awake being”) activity. The Bodhisattva path is based on: equanimity (a sense of balance and inner peace), love (desire for the happiness of others), compassion (a wish for freedom from suffering of others) and joy (a flow of free energy). Bodhisattva activity is a concept that deserves much more attention and discussion than was offered here.

As potential Bodhisattvas, according to Hardin, we begin to see through our own opinions and projections of who we think others are and develop “the mind of an awakened heart”. We begin to understand the interconnection of our worlds and gain confidence and trust in basic goodness (our own and that of other people). I wish that Hardin, as an acarya, would have taken the opportunity to share some of his experiences in this realm and also described how he has witnessed others develop Bodhisattva activity.

The ideas of unconditional love for ourselves, our partners and our children; generosity towards those we love and all people; skillful communication that comes from a place of open-heartedness and an open mind and Bodhisattva activity (including equanimity, loving kindness, compassion, and joy), are certainly important components of accepting and loving ourselves and others. They are inspired ideas, ideas I believe in and yet I finished the book feeling disappointed and uninspired due to the lack of depth of the exploration.

These ideas, these basic tenets of Buddhism, could have been explained in more depth and illustrated with examples from the author’s experience to provide inspiration and guidelines for increasing our understanding of and capacity for what we think of and know of love and Bodhisattva activity and offer a richer experience for the reader.

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The science of lovingkindness

on practice

Right at the very beginning of my meditation practice I was introduced to both mindfulness of breathing and the development of lovingkindness meditation. It was explained to me that both of these practices were equally important, that they were complementary, and that alternating these practices prevented imbalance in our approach. It was stressed, in fact, that sometimes lovingkindness practice is more important than mindfulness practice — especially for people who have a tendency toward being angry or over-critical.

I’ve never had cause to doubt any of that advice.

There are many meditators, however, who only practice mindfulness meditation, and often lovingkindness practice is seen as second-best. Generally in western Buddhist practice, there is a heavy emphasis on particular forms of mindfulness meditation. And no doubt because of this arguably narrow emphasis, that’s the form of Buddhist meditation that’s been most commonly studied in the burgeoning research on the effects of meditative practice.

But beside mindfulness there are traditionally many forms of meditation practice, with one common list — the kammaṭṭhānas (literally “places of work”) including no less than forty forms of meditation. And in the Buddhist scriptures generally, there is a heavy emphasis on lovingkindness (mettā) meditation, especially as part of the four brahmavihāras, or sublime abodes.

Lovingkindness, fortunately, is becoming better known, and researchers are now studying the effects of practicing that form of meditation, showing that they positively affect health and well-being.

Here are a few highlights:

  • A study done at Stanford University used a brief lovingkindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers on both conscious and unconscious levels.
  • A Duke University Medical Center pilot study tested an eight-week lovingkindness program for chronic low back pain patients. Patients were randomly assigned to practice lovingkindness or were given standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress. There were significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the lovingkindness group — even after the study had ended. There were no improvements in the usual care group. An analysis of patients’ diaries showed that more lovingkindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.
  • Researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took working adults and assigned them randomly to a lovingkindness meditation group or to a control group. Her study found that lovingkindness practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions, which in turn produced increases in a wide range of personal resources, including increased mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. These increments in personal resources predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
  • In a study by Richard Davidson, scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to other parts of the brain.
  • The same study showed increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly in the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce reactions to inflammation and distress. An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress. Those who practiced the most meditation showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to stressors when compared to the low practice group and the control group. As one of the researchers noted, “If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes.”
  • A review by researchers in the US and Germany suggested that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation “may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.”

In some of these studies, the benefits were revealed after only twelve hours of meditation. Hopefully future studies will reveal yet more about the power of lovingkindness and compassion meditation.

If you’re interested in exploring lovingkindness practice in more depth, we have an extensive, free, self-paced guide, which includes audio guided meditations.

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When metta doesn’t mean “love”

I remember feeling very frustrated – and frankly a little baffled – when I was first learning the metta bhavana practice. Especially around the fourth stage, the difficult person. How was I supposed to feel warmth and affection for somebody I admitted not getting along with?

It was a tall order, and the whole idea left me feeling inadequate. I often sat there wondering what the heck metta was supposed to feel like, because I just didn’t get it. I figured there must be something wrong with me. I’m wondering if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar place.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with me or you. One of the problems stems from the typical translation of “metta” as “lovingkindness.” While that’s not incorrect, it’s a little misleading, especially in the case of the difficult person. I think many of us have such strong images of what “love” means that it limits our perspective.

I recently came across a story that beautifully illustrates what metta for a difficult person REALLY is. A Thai monk by the name of Ajaan Fuang tells of his encounter with a snake while on retreat. It had come into his room and taken up residence behind one of the cabinets. So the two of them lived together uneasily for a few days, avoiding each other as best they could. The snake didn’t seem to want to leave, even though Fuang left the front door wide open.

Finally on the third day, Fuang quietly addressed the snake in meditation. He said, “Look, it’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t have any bad feelings for you. But our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are lots of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.”

And as he said those words, the snake quietly slipped out the door and left.

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So this is metta for a difficult person. For some people (like that snake), it wouldn’t be appropriate to approach them with love and affection. They don’t want it from us. They don’t trust us, and we don’t really trust them either. We see the world in very different ways. In fact, if we try to hug a snake, it would probably bite us back! Obviously, that would not be wise.

But we can still wholeheartedly wish for their happiness and well-being — on their terms, not ours. Sometimes the best way for two people to be happy is to part ways. So in this case metta is more like respect and goodwill, as opposed to love and affection.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the Buddha was a very pragmatic man, and that his teachings reflect that. If I find myself struggling over my practice, then it probably means I’m barking up the wrong tree. There is no need for struggle.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is to accept my own limits. I don’t have the heart of a Buddha, and I’m not able to love all beings genuinely. Not yet at least. And that’s OK. I still have my aspirations and intentions. And they will bear fruit in time. But for now, to struggle and beat myself up over my inadequacies does no good whatsoever. Best to let it go and move on.

And that moving on in itself is a practice of metta. Metta for myself, that is. I’m learning how to face everything in life with gentleness and acceptance. Including my own failings and foibles.

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