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The non-judgmental quality of mindfulness is very important. However, the absence of judgment toward unwanted experiences is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to cultivate the presence of kindness, compassion and love – toward ourselves, toward others, and toward the inevitable unwanted, painful and otherwise distressing experiences in life.
There are two especially important ways of loving others and ourselves, known to all of the religious and spiritual traditions of the world. Buddhists refer to them as ‘lovingkindness’ and ‘compassion.’ These are ways of relating to ourselves and others that promote acceptance, calmness, happiness, and freedom (especially from suffering-causing reactions and compulsions).
While lovingkindness and compassion are moral and ethical ideals for relating to others, they are also mental qualities essential for achieving greater peace, freedom, and genuine happiness. Therefore, encouraging oneself or others to cultivate these qualities – as I’m doing here – is not about ‘preaching’ or ‘moralizing’ or pushing people to be ‘good’ or ‘nice.’ Rather, the encouragement and suggestions that follow are intended to help you to discover how cultivating these qualities will help you to achieve much more peace, freedom and happiness in your life.
‘Lovingkindness’ is an English translation of the word metta from Pali, a language used to record the early teachings of Buddhism. The word has two root meanings, ‘gentle’ and ‘friend.’ The foundation of lovingkindness is being a gentle friend to yourself, no matter what kind of experience you happen to be having in the moment.
Lovingkindness refers to an unconditional and open love, with the wish and motivation for another person (or oneself) to be happy.
This is not the kind of ‘love’ that has requirements and conditions attached to it (“I love you because…”, “I’ll love you if…”), or that only accepts pleasant experiences and thus distorts one’s perceptions based on wishes and illusions.
Lovingkindness is not bound up with personal agendas that involve imposing our views or wishes. Lovingkindness does not want things – including unwanted experiences – to be anything other than they actually are, in the present moment. Instead, even as one wishes happiness for the future, the present moment and current experience are embraced. Paradoxically, this makes even unwanted and painful situations more ‘workable,’ by providing other options for responding than automatic and habitual reactions focused on escape from the present, which cause more problems and suffering.
In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that practices designed to cultivate lovingkindness were first taught to help people to overcome fear. Such practices can be extremely helpful to those with histories of childhood hurt and betrayal, or anyone else who continues to struggle with fear in his or her life. In fact, many of the automatic and habitual reactions that make situations worse are based on fear of being hurt, exploited or otherwise mistreated, even if one is not aware of this at the time.
Before going further, it is important to clarify what lovingkindness is not. It is not about accepting or condoning other people’s hurtful behavior. It does not mean becoming more vulnerable because you no longer experience or respect your fear or anger and simply ‘let down your guard.’ As suggested above, exactly the opposite is true:
- The mental quality of lovingkindness allows one to accept the reality of what is happening in the present moment, including one’s potentially intense negative emotional responses.
- Accepting rather than rejecting what is happening in the current moment does not mean believing or ‘accepting’ that one can do nothing to prevent the situation from continuing or getting worse in the next moment. Nor does it mean blindly accepting and simply allowing one’s own automatic and habitual responses free reign – no matter how compelling or ‘justified’ such responses may initially feel. Just the opposite: accepting the current moment enables you not to allow the external situation, or your internal reactions, to rob your capacity for freedom and movement toward happiness in the next moment.
- It’s not about ‘letting down your guard,’ but rather guarding your mind – guarding it from being carried away with automatic, habitual, and unhelpful responses based on reactions to past hurts; guarding it from being consumed by fear and self-defense rather than being supported by clear perception, effective reasoning and wise choices about how to respond skillfully and without worsening the situation.
- With lovingkindness, taking care of oneself and responding kindly and compassionately to others are not in conflict, but go hand in hand. Most of us sometimes ‘defend’ ourselves when it’s not necessary, or respond with more extreme self-protective measures than are required or helpful in a particular situation. And most if not all of us think, “I was just trying to defend myself,” when attacking another person. Lovingkindness practices can reduce and even help to eliminate these habitual ways of thinking and behaving.
All of the descriptions above are fairly abstract, so let’s reflect on a typical experience in everyday life, and how lovingkindness can radically change it:
- You are walking down the street, partly paying attention to where you’re going but mostly focused on concerns about the past and worries about the future, when suddenly someone bumps into you. In response, you automatically do one or more of the following: (a) say something like “Hey, watch where you’re going!” or “What’s wrong with you?!” (b) think to yourself something like “I can’t believe she did that!” or “People are such jerks!” or “Just another example of how I get pushed around all the time.” We’ve all had experiences like this. Our mind and brain, already in a state of distraction and stress, are vulnerable to responding automatically in ways that only increase our stress and, should we say something out loud, could escalate the situation by evoking anger and aggression in the other person. We really don’t know why the person bumped into us, but our distracted and stressed mind assumes ill intent, perceives an attack which must be defended against, and reacts by directing anger toward the other person and/or our self.
- You are walking down the street, feeling calm and happy, enjoying the sights and sounds, when suddenly someone bumps into you. As you watch the person continue past you, you notice how your body immediately swerved to the side and tensed up; how the thought, “Hey, watch where you’re going!” automatically arose in your mind and is now quickly followed by attempts at explanation with thoughts like, “What a pushy person,” “Maybe she’s in a hurry,” and “Maybe she’s distracted and stressed.” Mindfully observing the conditioned responses of your body and mind, you maintain the background of calmness and acceptance and, with an attitude of gentle friendliness, simply notice that your body has tensed and your mind is attempting to assign meaning and blame – then go back to enjoying the sights and sounds of walking down the street. You might even look at the person who bumped into you and think, “I hope you have a nice day.”
Sometimes it can be hard to feel kindness (especially if you’ve experienced a lot of hurt and betrayal in your life). Try starting with something simple…
The starting point is to imagine a person or animal that spontaneously and irresistibly evokes feelings of kindness. Picture the being in a peaceful and quiet setting, like a nice field of grass.
- This could be a person – for example, a baby, a niece or nephew, another little child, or a much-loved grandparent who is still living or has passed away. If you choose a person, it’s important that it not be someone for whom you have any mixed feelings, otherwise they could get in the way.
- Or it could be a cute little puppy, kitten, or other baby animal, or a group of them.
- It could be a picture you find on Google images.
Notice the feeling you get when you imagine this person or animal. Notice whether your body changes, any internal sensations of kindness.
If you can feel this kind and warm feeling, give yourself a minute to continue imaging the person or animal and feeling that warmth, and the attitude of gentle friendliness that goes with it.
If you don’t feel the kindness and warmth initially, give yourself some time, and experiment with images, until you find one that helps you have some feelings of safety and comfort. Then give yourself a minute to continue having those feelings, and imagine wishing them for a lovable person or animal. Notice the kindness behind your wish, and give yourself some time to experience that kindness and any feelings of warmth that go with it.
Next you could try bringing to mind an image of yourself as a young child, and moving the kindness from the other person or animal to yourself. If the image of yourself is too young to understand words, simply hold your hands over your heart. If you wish to use words, gently add a phrase like, “May I love myself just as I am,” while holding your heart. Other lovingkindness phrases are, “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe.” But feel free to make up your own. Whatever works for you is best.
It is important not to force the lovingkindness. If you can’t feel anything or it feels routine or cold, try compassion practice instead (described below). If you have felt a great deal of pain in your life, you may be more naturally able to feel compassion. For example, as one woman with a history of severe child abuse observed, “At certain times, working with lovingkindness felt like silencing the pain. Paradoxically, though, as soon as I listened to and cared about my suffering with compassion, then the lovingkindness naturally arose.”
Also, if you sometimes don’t experience lovingkindness when you do exercises like these, it is important not to be hard on yourself, or to give in to thoughts or feelings of hopelessness that may arise. As Sharon Salzberg explains in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness:
“In practicing metta [lovingkindness] we do not have to make certain feelings happen. In fact, during practice we see that we feel differently at different times. Any momentary emotional tone is far less relevant than the considerable power of intention we harness as we say these phrases. As we repeat, ‘May I be happy; may all beings be happy,’ we are planting seeds by forming this powerful intention in the mind. The seed will bear fruit in its own time…
“Doing metta, we plant the seeds of love, knowing that nature will take its course and in time those seeds will bear fruit. Some seeds will come to fruition quickly, some slowly, but our work is simply to plant the seeds. Every time we form the intention in the mind for our own happiness or for the happiness of others, we are doing our work; we are channeling the powerful energies of our own minds. Beyond that, we can trust the laws of nature to continually support the flowering of our love” (p.39).
‘Compassion’ is an English translation of the Pali term karuna. As Sharon Salzberg explains, karuna means “experiencing a trembling or quivering of the heart in response to a being’s pain.” The compassionate response of the heart involves engaging with pain and suffering – gently, with acceptance and strength – not being overwhelmed by them.
While lovingkindness involves the motivation for happiness, compassion involves the motivation to reduce suffering – not because we find it aversive and are trying to escape it, but we have the loving motivation to reduce or end it.
Many of us have learned first hand that being overwhelmed by pain and suffering can lead to depression and despair, even anger and aggression directed against ourselves or others. Such conditioned responses, while understandable (especially if one was hurt as a child and has not yet learned to respond compassionately to one’s own suffering), must not be confused with compassion.
There is much to learn about developing compassion, from books like those listed below, from teachers of compassion-cultivating meditation practices, from therapists, and from many experiences in life and relationships.
Below are some compassion practices to try out and experiment with. Remember, don’t try to force things, and give the practices and yourself some time. It’s not helpful to judge yourself or give up hope – but if judgments or hopeless thoughts and feelings arise, don’t judge yourself for having them or lose hope!
- Simply repeat, with a genuine intention, a few phrases of kindness and compassion toward yourself. Some commonly used phrases are, “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be free of suffering.” Another option is, “May I have a calm, gentle, and loving mind.” Or you can make up phrases of your own, experimenting until you find ones that work for you. After a few minutes of repeating these phrases, and continually reconnecting with the intention behind saying them, you may find that feelings of kindness and love, a state of calm, and/or other nice things are happening in your mind and body. Doing this practice for 10 to 20 minutes once a day can be very powerful, and can create a resource to draw on during particularly stressful times.
- Offer compassion to your painful feelings. A common phrase to use is, “I care about my pain.” Again, you may be surprised to discover the power of simply repeating a phrase like this with a sincere intention.
- When difficult emotions arise, try holding them like you would a crying child. Hold the fear like you would hold a fearful child. Hold the anger as you would hold an angry child. Ultimately, it’s about learning to meet each one of your thoughts, feelings and mind-body states with this unconditional love, like welcoming all your children home.
- Offer compassion to a hurt part of yourself. Bring to mind an image of yourself at a time of hurt and pain, and offer compassion to the child or adult you were then. You might use phrases like, “May you find peace. May you be free of suffering.”
- Try a practice known as tonglen (which involves ‘sending and receiving’ coordinated with breathing). Picture another person or yourself at a time of pain and hurt. On the in-breath, breathe in that person’s pain and suffering (receiving). On the out-breath send that person support and caring (sending).
- Finally, try directing compassion to a part of you that can be mean or cruel to yourself or others. Recall a time that you were hurtful to yourself or someone else (start with a relatively mild case). Notice how you were responding based on past conditioning, feeling like you were defending and protecting yourself, or justly punishing yourself or the other person. Offer compassion to the part of you that tends to respond to pain or being wronged with anger and aggression. Offer compassion to yourself for how – like all human beings, especially those who have been deeply hurt – you can create more suffering because of your confusion and your limited ability to respond to pain compassionately.
These fundamental forms of human love – lovingkindness and compassion – are indeed essential companions to mindfulness. They can calm your mind and body. They can bring you peace, ease, and happiness.
Like mindfulness, lovingkindess and compassion require practice and discipline, as well as patience with yourself. But the practice and patience are well worth it. Gradually but inevitably, you will find yourself having kind and compassionate responses to a greater and greater range of experiences – ultimately even the most difficult and painful ones.