self-metta

Looking with loving eyes (Day 3)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

For today’s adventure in 100 Days of Lovingkindness I’m going 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.

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.

[See the previous 100 Days post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Taking kindness to heart (Day 2)

Woman holding string of LED lights in shape of a heart

Today, as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, where we focus on the development of basic kindness and compassion, we’ll continue with the practice of self-metta.

I’m suggesting a simple practice today to help you bring a more kindly attitude into your daily life.

It’s simply this: be aware of your heart.

I’m not talking about noticing your heart beating, but about bringing awareness to the central part of your chest, and coming back to that over and over again during the day.

This area of the body is very important in terms of emotion, which is why “emotion” and “the heart” are virtually synonymous. And even more crucially, “love” and “the heart” are also virtually synonymous. The heart symbol — ❤ — means “love,” after all.

One reason for this is that there’s a large nerve called the vagus that runs down the center of the chest. The vagus is an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body back to calm, rest, and balance. And the vagus is very important in mediating feelings of love and compassion. When it’s activated, there can be a feeling of warmth and openness around the heart.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that lovingkindness meditation significantly increased “vagal tone” over a period of seven weeks. Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of the vagus nerve and is a sign of good vagal health (it’s analogous to “muscle tone”).

Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago has said that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion.

And Dr. Dacher Keltner, the author of Born to Be Good and Codirector of the Greater Good Science Center, points out that young children who have a stronger vagal tone are the ones who step in when they see another child being bullied. They’re also more cooperative and helpful to their peers.

Simply taking your attention to the heart can help to activate the vagus nerve. So try this:

  • Become aware of the heart area.
  • Notice what emotions and sensations are present — without judgement. It doesn’t matter what’s there: whether you’re feeling neutral, or even feeling crappy. That’s just where you happen to be starting from in this moment.
  • Let go, as best you can, or any tension, letting a sense of softness emerge.
  • Send thoughts of lovingkindness to that part of the body, saying “May you be well; may you be happy; may you be at ease.
  • Repeat many times daily, whenever you pause, or whenever you’re taking a break or doing some routine task, like driving or showering, where your mind would normally wander.

Let go of any yearning for results; that’s simply grasping, and it’s also a rejection of your experience. Just let things unfold in their own time.

You also might want to bring this into your sitting practice of lovingkindness, which (as part of the challenge) we’re doing for at least five minutes a day. I’d recommend doing more than this, but five minutes is your emergency fall-back position for those days when it’s especially hard to get on the cushion.


[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]

If you’ve missed the previous posts for 100 Days of Lovingkindness, you can start here.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Bringing kindness to mind (Day 1)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

In one of the Buddha’s teachings on purifying the mind, he said that the basic attitude we should be cultivating can be summed up in the thought:

‘May these beings be free from animosity, free from oppression, free from trouble, and may they look after themselves with ease.’

Traditionally this kindly and loving attitude starts with how we relate to ourselves. If we carry around a harsh attitude inside ourselves, in the way we talk to ourselves internally, then it’s harder for us to have kindness for others.

So apart from doing some sitting metta practice today as part of 100 Days of Lovingkindness, I’d encourage you to cultivate kindness toward yourself throughout the day.

The phrases I most often use in cultivating lovingkindness towards myself are:

  • May I be well
  • May I be happy
  • May I feel at ease

Try saying those to yourself now. Let the rhythm of the words sink into your mind. Build that intention to be kinder!

And see if, throughout the day, you can keep coming back to dropping those thoughts into the mind at odd moments. I was doing it this morning as I was walking to the office. From time to time as I’ve been writing this article I’ve paused for a moment and dropped in one of the phrases. Every time I do it, I feel happier. Now I’ve been doing this practice for 30 years, so you may or may not feel happier, kinder, and more at ease as you repeat these phrases, but they will have an effect, and often quite quickly.

Apart from anything else, these phrases, when we have them running through our minds, reduce the normal stream of thoughts — often critical or self-critical — that tend to bubble up all day long. With less of that critical thinking going on we feel happier.

But the phrases also work in their own right, not just because they reduce critical thoughts. Every time you are dropping one of those thoughts into the mind, you’re strengthening your desire to be kind to yourself. And this has effects. When we use particular parts of the brain repeatedly, those parts actually get bigger. So when you cultivate loving thoughts for yourself, you’re strengthening pathways in the brain, and bringing about long-term change. You can trust this process! It works.

So keep coming back to these thoughts at odd moments. You’ll forget to do it for long periods. That’s all right. Every time you do actually remember, you’re building an intention to be kind to yourself. And that’s going to benefit not just you, but everyone you’re in contact with.

What are you doing to be kinder to yourself today?

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post :: See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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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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How to love yourself (guardian angel not supplied)

Someone on Facebook just introduced me to this very moving clip from Luc Besson’s 2005 film, Angel-A, about an angel, played by Danish actress Rie Rasmussen, who intervenes to rescue, André (played by Jamel Debbouze), a self-loathing scam artist on the verge of killing himself.

This makes me long for the days when I used to live around the corner from the Glasgow Film Theatre, where I enjoyed many fine foreign movies…

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Don’t beat yourself up

Most people know their less than wonderful qualities, such as too much ambition (or too little), a weakness for wine or cookies, something of a temper, or an annoying tendency to rattle on about pet interests. We usually know when we make mistakes, get the facts wrong, could be more skillful, or deserve to feel remorseful.

Some people err on the side of denying or defending these faults ( a word I use broadly here). But most people go to the other extreme, repeatedly criticizing themselves in the foreground of awareness, or having a background sense of guilt, unworthiness, and low confidence.

It’s one thing to call yourself to task for a fault, try to understand what caused it, resolve to correct it, act accordingly, and move on. This is psychologically healthy and morally accountable. It’s another matter entirely to grind on yourself, to lambaste your own character, to fasten on the negative and ignore the good in you, to find yourself wanting – in other words, to beat up yourself. This excessive inner criticism tears you down instead of building your strengths; it’s stressful and thus wears on your mood, health, and longevity.

Nor does beating up yourself help others. Most of the time, they don’t even know you’re doing it, and if they do, they usually wish you’d stop it. Harsh self-criticism can also be a way to avoid feeling genuine remorse, taking responsibility, making amends for the past, and doing the hard work of preventing the fault in the future.

Further, the charges and scorn we throw at ourselves are often based on nasty scoldings, shamings, rejections, and humiliations experienced as a child: bad enough that they did this to you back then, and even worse that you’re doing it to yourself today.

How?

Pick a small fault – such as being a few minutes late, interrupting, or having too much dessert – and then try on two approaches about it. First, talk to yourself about it like a supportive but no-nonsense friend, coach, teacher, or therapist. Notice what this feels like, and what the results are for you. Let’s call this the encouraging approach. Second, talk to yourself about it like an alarmed and intense critic – maybe like your dad, big sister, or a minister or teacher talked to you. What’s this approach feel like, and what are its results?

Let the differences between approaches sink in. How do you feel inside when you’re “listening” to each one? What’s your sense of the influences in your life that have created each approach? What are the distortions or fixations on the negative in the critical approach?

Let a real conviction form as to which approach is better for you – and a real resolve to truly use the one that’s best for you.

Then, when you find a fault in yourself – no need to go looking, they appear on their own! – really try to use the encouraging approach. Name the fault to yourself and admit the facts of it unreservedly. Open to any appropriate remorse. Commit to skillful corrections for the future.

And then take a big breath and very deliberately name to yourself three strengths or virtues you have. Let the sense of them, and of your natural goodness, sink in.

And then take another big breath and move on.

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Learning to love ourselves

Young girl in a green jacket catching a bubble

It happens so often among spiritually-minded people. We give our all to love and care for others, and yet when it comes to ourselves, we’re full of criticism and judgment. Sunada shares her experience of working with the practice of loving kindness, specifically learning to love herself.

It’s important to note that when the Buddha taught how to practice compassion, he always began with ourselves. This isn’t selfish. After all, if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others? Any reticence, anger, or doubt we carry — no matter how hidden – will color all our relationships. As a colleague aptly puts it, “we can’t be the solution until we stop being part of the problem.”

if we can’t trust and open our hearts to ourselves – the one person on this earth that we know the best and are closest to – how could we possibly know how to do it for others?

Somehow we’re never good enough. I admit I often think this, though I’m getting a lot better about it. I’ve spent many long hours on my meditation cushion learning to love myself. The practice I’ve done is called the metta bhavana, or the Development of Loving-kindness. And I’ve spent a lot of time on that all-important first stage, which focuses on myself. The whole practice has never been easy for me, and to this day I still find it generally more elusive than Mindfulness.

I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned through this practice. What I describe is something I did in the context of a formal meditation (and specifically as the first stage of the metta bhavana), but I think it could also be done as an informal contemplation outside of meditation.

We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves.

First of all, it’s important that we find a time when we can quietly just sit and do nothing for a while. So don’t do this while jogging, doing yoga, or eating dinner. I mean we literally sit still with no other agenda.

We begin by bringing our awareness inward to ourselves. As a warm up, it’s helpful to start by sensing all the parts of your body from the inside, one by one, from your toes all the way up to your head. We allow ourselves to fall into a comfortable, relaxed, and open state of mind and body. What’s interesting is that by doing this, we’re already practicing kindness toward ourselves. This is a great start!

Next we notice how we’re feeling. Literally just notice. We don’t need to analyze, judge or change anything. Is it a good feeling – happy, easy, content, calm, or peaceful? Or an icky one – restless, angry, impatient, bored, or depressed? Or is it sort of gray or blank, with no particular feeling tone at all? Maybe you’re feeling “something,” but you can’t put words on it. That’s fine. Any of this is fine. We’re just noticing.

We … accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

What we’re doing is opening up to and receiving whatever we’re feeling RIGHT NOW. The degree to which we can be mindfully aware of what state we’re presently in, the better off we’ll be. How clearly are we seeing it? How willing are we to be with it, and not try to push it away or fix it, judge it as “bad” or “good,” but just be openly present with it?

Because we think this is supposed to be a practice of loving ourselves, we might be tempted to try to make ourselves feel happier and more lovey. Or that we somehow shouldn’t be feeling any of the bad feelings that might be there. In the traditional method, it’s suggested that we repeat the phrase, “May I be happy” to ourselves. That’s never worked for me, because it feels like I’m trying to change whatever bad feelings that are there. So I don’t do it. We need to start by simply accepting ourselves right now, in this moment, as we are, in whatever way works for you. There is no right or wrong.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way.

Once we have a clear picture of what’s happening, then what’s our response? Is it kind, positive, helpful? When we practice the Metta Bhavana, on one level we’re learning to see the difference between what we can and can’t change. We need to accept the feelings that have already happened, but then train ourselves to respond to ANYTHING that’s there in the kindest possible way. That’s the practice.

So then what if we can’t stop the judgmental, critical thoughts, or that “I must fix this” sort of feeling? Well, how would we respond if we found our best friend in that state? Would we tell her she’s being bad? Or tell her to just stop it? I doubt it. I’d want to sit down with her and be supportive, find out what’s underneath all those thoughts, and why she’s feeling that way. I’d want to at least just listen and let her know I care. Can we do that for ourselves? Now THAT is a practice of kindness.

Every time we turn to ourselves with patience and forgiveness for our supposed “failures,” we’re training ourselves to be kind. I find a sense of relief in being honest and authentic with myself in this way. It’s not an admission of failure. I’m not condoning my critical thoughts, but I AM forgiving the person who is having those thoughts.

When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion.

So the whole idea here is to learn how to BE kind, right now, and not to try to shape myself into some future-oriented image of what I think I should be. The more we practice the act of being kind now, the more it becomes natural to us. This is the practice.

The Buddha was right. He said that in all things, when we eliminate the cause, the result ceases to exist. When we stop our negative responses, our habitual negative tendencies begin to weaken and fade away. When we open up and receive life as it is – without adding anything to it — everything flows to its natural conclusion. Like water flowing downstream into a lake, it eventually settles to a naturally calm, clear, and peaceful state. Effortlessly.

And that’s how I’ve begun to learn how to love myself.

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