“True love is like the sun, shining with its own light, and offering that light to everyone.” Thich Nhat Hanh
If you prefer to listen
If you’re like me, you act kind to other people. You cook, clean, take care of their needs. But you may be doing this out of duty or expectations, not out of loving kindness. To be the super partner or parent, we go above and beyond what is asked for or expected. We think this will make us feel loved and connected. In my experience, it often made me feel resentful, taken advantage of. It wasn’t offering the light of my love to them.
Think about a time you did a favor for a loved one or friend that you really didn’t want to do. How did it make you feel? When you were performing the task, was your body open or tight? Could they sense that you really didn’t want to do it? Did you do a good job?
Cultivating loving kindness for ourselves and for others will help us set healthy boundaries. We won’t be taking care of others at our own expense. We will take care of others because we care for them. We perform out of love or caring, not duty. And thus, we will also take care of ourselves.
Think about a time you did a favor for a loved one or friend because you wanted to show you care. How did it make you feel? When you were performing the task, was your body open or tight? Could they sense that you care for them? Did you do a good job?
Sometimes it is difficult to figure out whether you did a favor out of love or out of duty. It could be the same favor that is sometimes done out of love and sometimes done out of duty. It all depends on you and your feelings toward it. It is very easy when you are starting a relationship to have everything come from caring and loving. But eventually, they become expectations. And suddenly, they are coming from duty, not love. But you can bring it back to having them come from love by simply what you pay attention to.
Kindness starts with what you pay attention to. When you hug or kiss a loved one, are you present? Or is it just a habit? Do you intentionally feel their love for you and send your love to them? At the start of a relationship, this happens automatically. But when the newness wears off, we sometimes just go through the motions. But we can change this through practice.
My Path to Loving Kindness
When I started my loving kindness practice, I didn’t start with myself or with a benefactor like is recommended. I started with a difficult person. There was a guy I worked with who was a jerk. Whenever I walked to his office, I could feel my body tense up. I would wish I didn’t have to talk with him as I knew he would be a jerk. This was about the time I was learning about loving kindness. So, I decided to experiment and try loving kindness on him. Every day for about a month I sent him loving kindness. One day I was walking to his office and noticed that I wasn’t tensing up. I even chit chatted with him before getting down to business. The loving kindness didn’t change him, it changed my reaction to him.
My mom had dementia, so I began sending her loving kindness every day. Over the couple year period, I had to change the phrases I used so it was realistic. I started with “May you be safe and free from infections.” Once that was resolved, I started saying, “May you be safe and free from falls.” There came a point where that wasn’t realistic so again I changed phrases.
It wasn’t until I went to meditation teacher training that I started doing loving kindness for myself. Only because it was one of the things we did at the teacher training. It was really, really hard for me to do because I wasn’t used to it. I grew up in a culture and a family where you were not supposed to have any needs. You weren’t supposed to think of yourself. You were just supposed to take care of other people. So, taking care of myself or sending kindness to myself felt really weird.
I had over the years build up layer after layer of defenses to keep myself from being hurt or rejected. And because I had all those layers, I could not get deep down into that inner goodness that is inside of me. I honestly believe that is what love is. Letting your inner goodness shine on another person or shine on yourself. It took a long time of working with self-compassion, RAIN, dealing with difficult emotions and sitting with hurts from the past that I was finally able to strip away some of those layers. Then I was able to show some kindness to myself.
Practicing Loving Kindness
Kindness is a skill we can all develop. It all starts with how you pay attention. If I give Walt a hug while my mind is on drinking my tea, I am not sending loving kindness. If I give Walt a hug and focus my attention how much I care for him, it actually makes how much I care for him grow. And it sets a whole different tone for my whole day. Because I started the day feeling loved, connected and like I belong. And that is something that for a lot of my life, I didn’t feel.
You want to get in the habit of intentionally sending love. You get in the habit of kissing someone goodbye. Do you really kiss them, or do you just put your lips together? Do you really hug someone? It is all about how you are paying attention.
Loving kindness practice aims to increase feelings of caring and warmth for our self and for others. We increase feelings of caring by mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards ourselves and others by silently repeating a series of phrases. Sometimes when we begin, we don’t feel those feelings, so we just express an intention, planting the seeds of loving wishes over and over in our heart. These loving wishes are not positive affirmations like:
- I refuse to give up
- I am adventurous
- I don’t sweat the small stuff
Kindness phrases are wishes for something that is universally desirable for all beings.
- May I be filled with kindness
- May I accept myself just as I am
- May I know the natural joy of being alive
Loving kindness meditation can help us to develop a selfless love. It does so by developing the quality of ‘loving-acceptance’. It acts like self-psychotherapy, a way of releasing our troubled mind from its pain and confusion. It has the immediate benefit of sweetening and changing old habituated negative patterns of mind. But that only happens if we do loving kindness meditation for ourselves.
By doing kindness for ourselves, we develop a calm mind, a mind free from anger, greed and jealousy. Only in the fertile ground of a peaceful mind can kindness flower. As long as we calm our mind, even if we ‘don’t feel loving,’ the practice will work anyway. If you keep doing it, staying with the intention and just repeating the phrases and making a connection with yourself, it will inevitably work. We set the intention to be better friends to ourselves and to others, by realizing that we all want to be happy and free of suffering
As we practice, we bring to mind different people or groups and we send them friendly wishes by silently repeating different phrases. Traditionally, the phrases come from each of the following four categories:
- Safe and protected
- Physically healthy
- Mentally happy
- Ease of well-being
As you say the phrases, connect with the felt sense of the goodwill we are sending. The feeling is more important than the words. Experiment to find the best words to open your heart to kindness. It may be that you have to adapt the phrases. I sometimes use phrases that send wishes of compassion or equanimity instead of kindness when that is what is needed to open my heart.
In the meditation, you will repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind. Kindness is not a one and done. Practice this meditation for several weeks, until the sense of kindness for yourself grows.
As we often have trouble feeling love for ourselves, we will start with a benefactor. A benefactor is a person, animal, place, scene, memory or divine being that allows us to feel unconditional love. It may be just a moment in time when you felt loved. You may not choose your spouse as life gets in the way and adds complications to that love. You may choose a child, a puppy, a sunset, a beach, or a spiritual leader to be your benefactor.
The benefactor will help us to wake up the feelings of love or innate goodness in ourselves that may be hidden under layers of defenses. The defenses may keep us from feeling the love, that is why we may simply set the intention and repeat the practice over and over until we penetrate the defenses.
Once we have developed a loving feeling, we turn our attention to sending kindness to ourselves. At first it may feel mechanical and awkward; it will feel that way until you penetrate your defenses. If your armor is really thick, you may not be able to reach in to feel the loving feeling of your inner goodness. That is okay. Be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection. If strong judgement, anger, or aversion toward yourself arise, turn your attention back to your benefactor. Simply allow the feeling of love, no matter how often your inner critic tells you that you don’t deserve it.
At any point that you are not feeling loving, simply go back to your benefactor and allow the feeling of love to penetrate your body.
After you have practiced kindness for yourself, practice sending kindness to a loved one. As you say the phrases, really feel the well wishes you are sending that loved one. And when your inner critic starts reminding you of the times the loved one did something wrong or hurt you, simply change the channel and go back to sending well wishes. This is not the time to ruminate about relationship issues. Our purpose is to develop our loving kindness by sending well wishes. Keep in mind that it may be necessary to modify the phrases you use so you can feel the good will that you are sending.
Next, we send kindness to a neutral person. Someone like a clerk at the grocery store, someone we see on the bus, at the health club, or at work. The idea is to develop our feelings of kindness toward all beings. Once you have practiced this, you may choose to send kindness to neutral people whenever you are waiting in line at the store, or at a red light.
The next group we select from to send kindness are people that we are having difficulty with. Some people call this group difficult people, but that makes them the problem. The real problem is how we relate to them. We may feel they don’t deserve our well wishes. When picking someone with whom you have a difficult relationship, start with someone who may be irritating and practice with them before moving on to someone who arouses strong negative emotions.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering to disarm all hostility.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Finally, we send kindness out to all beings everywhere. It may be easiest to start with small groups such as your family, friends, co-workers. Then move on to your city, state, country and lastly the whole world.
While you are learning kindness, it may be easiest to practice in formal meditation sessions. However, kindness can be practiced anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses, in stores, at work and on airplanes. You can use it at any time to calm your mind and keep you connected to your heart.
Sending kindness gives expression to our wishes for the well-being and happiness of ourselves or others. You will find that recognizing and expressing goodwill will have a softening effect on your heart. Usually it evokes feelings of love, tenderness, and warmth. But softening of the heart can expose difficult or painful buried emotions. Allowing all these emotions to surface in their own time is one function of kindness practice. It is paying attention to know when you are strong enough to be with the difficult emotion.
May practicing loving kindness help you to develop a selfless love.