In recent years, mindfulness meditation has exploded in popularity. It has found its way into schools, corporations, and even the military. I suppose if the military is teaching mindfulness than we can rest assured that it at least does something. But it seems like this popularity is mainly due to the more practical benefits such as stress reduction, better focus, and better memory (check out some evidence here). These benefits are no doubt good, but I think the deeper realizations of a meditation practice often get lost. Still, the fact that mindfulness meditation is successfully spreading into our culture — even if primarily for higher profits or better soldiers — is a net good thing.
But there is a different type of meditation practice, one that I am also guilty of neglecting, that hasn’t caught on in the same way. This practice, known as metta in the Pali language, is best translated as “loving-kindness”. There is also evidence showing the benefits of this practice, so why hasn’t it caught on? Perhaps the effects are not as practical. Maybe the practice is viewed as too cheesy. For me, I think I avoid this practice because of how awkward it feels. I don’t find it too awkward wishing loving-kindness onto others, at least not when I settle down and connect with my deep intentions. But I do find it particularly difficult to wish it onto myself in a genuine way. So I want to give a basic sense of what loving-kindness is, and then mention two tricks that have helped me to more successfully direct this energy towards myself.
The practice of metta, much like mindfulness, is about achieving a certain quality of mind. In the case of mindfulness, the goal is to achieve meta-awareness towards the contents of consciousness. In the case of metta meditation, the goal is to arrive at a sense of loving-kindness for all creatures. This is accomplished through continually repeating wishes of well-being towards yourself and others. The practice begins with yourself, and then progresses to loved ones, to neutral people, and even to people you dislike. The phrases exist in many different variations and most teachers suggest personalizing them. I particularly connected with the phrases —ones that I actually still use —from a Jack Kornfield guided meditation. They are:
- May I be filled with loving-kindness
- May I be well in body and mind
- May I be safe from inner and outer dangers
- May I be happy — truly happy — and free
The Two Tricks
It’s funny that the practice begins with ourselves because this is probably the hardest part for most people. I don’t think I hate myself, at least not most of the time. But in my experience, directing loving-kindness outward is much easier than directing it inward. Even directing it towards people I don’t like is easier—I can at least understand how they became the way that they are and find a way to genuinely wish them well. But the practice often feels so numb and awkward when directing it inward. Over time, though, I learned two tricks that really helped me open up and find a genuine intention of loving-kindness towards myself:
- Visualize the way a dog would love you. If you have owned or at least watched a dog, you know that there is such a simple and beautiful way in which they love you. Sure they sometimes want food or attention from you, but ultimately they love you just the way you are and only want to hang out by your side. So visualize a dog greeting you and licking your face and then try to feel the same loving-kindness energy towards yourself from this perspective of a dog.
- Visualize yourself as a child. Find a photograph of yourself from a young age (like 4 or 5). At this age, you already look like you, and you can even see elements of your personality forming in your face. Have this picture in your mind and send the loving-kindness and compassion towards that. It’s the same compassion that you would have for a suffering child in the present. And then realize that deep inside of yourself there is that same precious childlike energy that both needs and deserves these feelings of love, well-wishing, and acceptance.
Saying the phrases is the easy part. Really feeling them is the hard part. I don’t quite understand what tends to block the genuine feeling of them —that’s an entirely separate and confusing can of worms — but these two tricks create temporary moments of letting go in which genuine intentions of loving-kindness and compassion can shine through.
Acceptance not Complacency
“To send loving-kindness does not mean that we approve or condone all actions, it means that we can see clearly actions that are incorrect or unskillful and still not lose the connection”Sharon Salzberg from Why Loving-Kindness Takes Time
Like most things in life, this practice is about balance. Feeling loving-kindness towards ourselves does not mean that we become complacent and just resign to accept everything. Some things you should resign to accept in yourself, and others you should probably change. Wisdom can tell us which is which, and sometimes we might not know. But the point, as Sharon Salzberg says, is that we can correct for shortcomings without losing this connection towards ourselves and others. I think at a deep level our minds are already seeking this type of connection, and we often just need to let go of whatever is getting in the way. These two tricks help me to do just that.
Thanks for reading! -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast