How to Handle Difficult Emotions Part 8: Lovingkindness
An Essential Companion of Mindfulness
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 - towards ourselves, towards others and toward the inevitable unwanted, painful and otherwise distressing experiences in life.
There are two especially important forms of basic human kindness, which Buddhists refer to as "lovingkindness" and "compassion". There are ways of relating to ourselves and others that promote acceptance, calmness, happiness and freedom. 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 happiness.
"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" and 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. 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 or desire.
Lovingkindness does not want things – including unwanted experiences – to be anything other than they actually are, in the present moment. Instead, 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 which cause more problems and suffering.
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 – 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 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 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 we were "just trying to defend myself" when attacking another person. Lovingkindness practices can reduce and eventually help to eliminate these habitual ways of thinking and behaving.
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 them in a peaceful 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.
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 warmth 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 feelings of warmth that go with it.
Then bring to mind an image of yourself as a young child. Move the kindness from the other person or animal to yourself. If the young image of yourself is too young for words, simply hold your hands over your heart.
If you wish to use words, gently add the phrase "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, may I be free of suffering," but feel free to make up your own, whatever works for you.
Jeff Cannon writes, "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."
Here 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 and mind-body states with this unconditional love, like welcoming all your children home.
Offer compassion to the 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 a person at a time of pain and hurt. On the in-breath, breathe in that person's pain and suffering. On the out-breath send that person support and caring.
Finally, try directing compassion to the quality of your own mind, or the 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 that tendency 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 kindness, lovingkindness and compassion, are indeed essential companions to mindfulness. They will calm your mind and body. They will bring you peace, ease, and happiness. Like mindfulness, lovingkindness 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, loving and compassionate responses to a greater and greater range of experiences – ultimately even the most difficult and painful ones.
*Check back next week for part 9
* Artwork by Michael Parkes