Why It's Worth Practicing Loving-Kindness
When we practice meditation, it can take some time to see the long term results.
Sometimes mindfulness meditation can bring us to an experience of calm, cool peace and relaxation.
Lovingkindness meditation can bring us to a state of peace, warmth and kindness toward ourselves and perhaps others.
That’s great as what psychologists and neuroscientists would call a ‘state’ experience’, but sometimes we get thrown when we get off the meditation cushion and five minutes later we’re caught in the turmoil of the games in our mind, or we react to an article in the news, or we hear something someone says to us and we get frustrated or angry, or, or, or…
And sometimes we think we’ve failed, or we’re a bad meditator: I did all this work and I felt really good but then the dog ate the cushion and now look at me, angry and upset…
We also might go through periods when we do the meditation practice and… nothing happens. Nothing changes, nothing different, we feel exactly the same and we get discouraged: this isn’t working. Maybe this mindfulness thing doesn’t make any difference after all.
Thich Nhat Hahn writes that we carry seeds of mindfulness and lovingkindness within us. He also writes that these seeds grow and expand when we water them with our attention. Like the seeds in our gardens, the seeds in our unconscious may not spring up immediately from the soil. They need regular tending and focus of mindfulness.
I’ve written about the importance of paying kind attention to yourself, your body, your thoughts and feeling, how you are right now, as a first step of love toward yourself. It may not feel like love. It may not feel like anything. But paying attention gives you the space to be aware and grow internally.
The more awareness we bring to our selves, the clearer we become about what helps us and what makes us suffer. The worlds of neuroscience, positive psychology and transpersonal psychology have both concluded that although you may experience difficulty in your life, you don’t have identify with that difficulty as my self.
A grounding in mindfulness can help you to realise that, although things may feel bad at the moment, that doesn’t mean you have to feel bad, or worse, believe that you are bad for feeling this way. Instead, you can be clear enough to realise that this is happening now, but, even if it’s a thought or feeling that’s happening in you, it doesn’t have to be happening to you. You can be aware – mindful – of the thought or feeling or event and allow it to process.
So what about lovingkindness, then? Shouldn’t it help us to feel better?
The practice of lovingkindness is very helpful and important – and we may also need to water the seeds of our lovingkindness for a while before we notice a difference in our lives. Especially if we’ve been conditioned not to be kind to ourselves, it can take a little while for lovingkindness to bear fruit.
One of my favourite stories of lovingkindness comes from Sharon Salzburg, and fortunately she’s put it into an article so I can share it with you. Sharon Salzburg is widely regarded as perhaps the leading teacher of lovingkindness in the USA, but the beginnings of her practice was very simple. She writes that when she first practiced lovingkindness on retreat:
“I sat up in my room and I knew that it was done in successive stages and I began by dedicating a week of sending myself loving-kindness. All day long, I would go around the building—sitting in my room, sitting in the hall—saying the whole thing, may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be liberated, and I felt absolutely nothing.”
Then something happened after a week of practicing and Sharon was called back to New York:
“I was running around upstairs in the flurry of having to leave. I was standing in one of the bathrooms and I dropped a jar of something, which shattered into a thousand pieces. The very first thought that came up in my mind was: “You are really a klutz, but I love you.” And I thought, “Oh wow! Look at that.” All those hours, all those phrases where I was just dry and mechanical and I felt like nothing was happening. It was happening. It just took a while for me to sense the flowering of that and it was so spontaneous that it was quite wonderful.”
My own start with lovingkindness was also pretty humble. I had been reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s book Teachings on Love but hadn’t been able to bring myself to meditate or concentrate on the teachings in anything more than a cerebral, thought-based way. I finally made may way to Plum Village on retreat and on the second morning of sitting in the meditation hall I had an ‘Ah-Ha’ moment about what mindfulness and awareness meditation could be for me. I thought I had really found something.
On the third morning, one of the monastics gave us a couple of very simple guiding sentences to work with. After about fifteen minutes of meditating and being aware of our breath and body, he said, breathing in, I’m aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my body.’
I couldn’t do it. I tried, of course, but I couldn’t smile to myself and mean it. It took a while, and a combination of mindfulness and lovingkindness meditations using images and gently repeating phrases from Teachings on Love and other places, before I was able to smile at myself on the cushion and have a sense that it was okay to do that.
There were some difficult feelings in that moment, and I saw that I was really questioning whether I was capable of having an experience of lovingkindness toward myself. A lot of old conditioning came up during that time, and it’s still a work in progress.
But the principle is the same. Gentle, consistent repetition and work wishing well to yourself will, over time, mean you soften and allow the feelings to grow within you.
It might take a little time. But it is happening. There’s no need to struggle for a result right now, or at all. It’s coming. Sit with it and let it happen. Have the patience you would have for someone you love who is learning this for themselves.
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