Well-wishing practice is the cultivation of our capacity for loving- kindness. In spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness.
“It does not involve either positive thinking or the imposition of an artificial positive attitude. There is no need to feel loving or kind during loving kindness practice. Rather, we meditate on our intentions, however weak or strong they may be. At its heart, loving-kindness practice involves giving expression to our wishes for the well-being and happiness of ourselves or others.” Gil Frondsdale
While we may not feel loving and kind, by expressing our intention to wish ourselves and others well, we are watering the seeds of loving kindness. If the seeds are not watered, they will not grow. The well-wishing phrases become our anchor; just have we have used the breath as our anchor. When your mind begins to wander, just bring it back to the phrases. It feels awkward at first. Through practice you will find that recognizing and expressing goodwill have a softening effect on your heart.
To practice well-wishing, we have to include ourselves. Mr. Rogers believed that when we believe we are good and lovable, we will look on our neighbor as good and lovable, too, and we will wish them well. But, if we feel badly about ourselves, we will see our neighbor through eyes of accusation, and evil will spread and thrive. We practice acting kind to teach ourselves that we are lovable, and that our neighbor is lovable, too. Mr. Rogers said in every show, “I like you just the way you are.”
We probably won’t walk around telling people “It’s you I like.” People would react with suspicion or may try to take unfair advantage of us. That is why we build our lovingkindness muscle by sending silent well-wishes. And with practice we can learn to wish even difficult people well. As Nelson Mandela said, “It never hurts to see the good in someone, they often act the better because of it.”
If you think of your life as your artistic medium, you can shape it however you’d like. Each time you form the intention to wish yourself or others well, you are creating new neural pathways for happiness.
So How Do You Do It?
Ajahn Brahm suggests we start with the image of an imaginary kitten, puppy or baby. He says it is like the paper you use to start a campfire. When you have fanned the flames of a warm, loving feeling, replace your imaginary being with a real person for whom it is easy to generate and sustain loving-kindness. Sending well-wishes to a loved one will be the thin pieces of wood called kindling. Add a small log by sending well-wishes to a close friend. When the fire gets going, add another log so you have the energy to send wishes to a neutral person. Keep flaming the fan of the fire by returning to your imaginary being or loved one as needed. The next two categories are the hardest. The fire is now roaring and very hot and can now burn the wet and sappy logs. It is strong enough to allow you to send well-wishes to a difficult or disliked person. When the fire of metta burns strong, nothing can withstand it. Next, there is one final “wet and sappy stick” to be tossed into the fire of metta. Most meditators find that the hardest person to give loving-kindness to is themselves. Finally, as the fire is dying down, you send well-wishes to groups of people in ever expanding circles, your family, your community, your city, your country and the world.
The key to well-wishing is to really savor the feelings. Sustain the feelings for a breath or more. The longer you hold the feeling, the more ingrained it will be. This signals to the hippocampus that the experience is important and worth converting to a lasting change in neural structure.
“Focus on what is pleasurable or meaningful about it: As the sense of reward in an experience increases, so does the activity of two neurochemicals: dopamine and norepinephrine. This flags the experience for protection and prioritization as it moves into long-term storage.” Rick Hanson
Different teachers suggest sending well-wishes in different orders. I find that I change the order depending on how I feel. I often do myself after I do a loved one. If I leave it towards the end, I may conveniently run out of time or get distracted. I don’t do every category every time. Let’s explore each category.
Start with the image of an imaginary kitten, puppy or baby. Or maybe you choose a special place or a sunset. It may be someone you have never met who has inspired you. You can even choose to use a higher power. Then use the power of your imagination to create a story around that being/place that arouses a warm, loving feeling. Simply let yourself feel that feeling.
Choose a loved one with whom you have an uncomplicated relationship. If your relationships are complicated, simply think of a moment with a person where you felt unconditional love. Send them your sincere wish for their happiness, safety, health and ease. When your mind starts to bring up negative feelings or issues, switch the focus of your attention back to the story of the moment when you felt unconditional love.
Focus your attention on a close friend. Imagine them right before you as you wish them well. Look over the Kindness Phrases to see which ones resonate with you. Or simply make up your own. The feeling they evoke is more important than the words you say.
Choose someone in your life that you barely notice and begin to send them well-wishes. By choosing someone you see frequently, you will experience the fruit of this practice. Your main challenge with the neutral person will be to maintain the energy of loving-kindness, to keep the loving feelings burning brightly. If you do this regularly you will begin to feel a new strong sense of connection to them that comes from including them in your field of attention instead of overlooking them.
Next, we attempt the toughest challenge of well-wishing, sending goodwill to someone who has hurt us, we disagree with or is difficult to get along with. Begin by looking for one good thing in a person allows you to relate to them without feeling defensive. If you can find one good thing, it becomes hard to think of them as permanently bad. If you can’t think of anything, just remember that this person, just like you, wants to be happy and makes mistakes out of ignorance. Remember you are not denying their difficultness, you are simply seeing that their being difficult is simply their suffering overflowing. The world would be a better place if they were not suffering. You don’t have to like them to send well-wishes like:
- May you learn the error of your ways
- May you be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety
- May you let go of sadness and bad feelings
- May you learn the way to true happiness
In expressing this thought, you’re not wishing to love or have ongoing contact with this person. And, you’re not saying you’re going to be there for them all the time. You’re hoping that they will wise up enough to be there for themselves.
You send well-wishes to yourself, because without loving yourself, it is almost impossible to love others. Many of us have a tendency to focus on what we don’t like about ourselves. We criticize ourselves and focus on our shortcomings. But just as with the difficult person, we are not all bad. So, look for one good thing that a loved one would say about us. Allow yourself to feel good about this compliment. Take this warm loving feeling you have been cultivating and send it to yourself. It may help if you imagine your loved one sending you the well-wishes.
You may start your day by sending well-wishes to all beings you’ll meet during the day. Then expand the group you are sending wishes to in ever-expanding circles. Think of this wish as spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. But remember that all of those beings will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their actions. You can wish them well, but you can’t control their actions. Accepting this is how you develop equanimity as a protection for your well-wishing practice. The practice makes you feel more connected and loving, it does not change the people you are sending wishes to.
At the start of the day, take time to spread thoughts of goodwill to yourself and others you’ll meet throughout the day. Remind yourself of what goodwill is—a wish for true happiness—and that in spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness. You establish the intention to further true happiness in any way you can, within your own mind and in your dealings with others.
“Feeling shy or anxious in social situations, which everyone does from time to time, is another excellent opportunity to practice loving-kindness toward others. Why others at this time? A shy person is likely to be talking with an interesting person at a party and at the same time worrying whether he or she looks nervous. People feel abandoned when their conversation partners are self-absorbed. Ironically, it’s the disconnection from a listener, rather than anxiety itself, that makes shyness such a problem. To stay in connection despite feeling anxious, try loving-kindness. When you notice yourself absorbed in your own anxiety, look the other person in the eye and think, “May you and I be happy.” Practicing like this can help you feel less afraid on a job interview or a first date too.” Chris Germer
“Sometimes lovingkindness is described as extending friendship to ourselves and others – not in the sense of liking everyone, or dispensing universal approval, but more as an inner knowing that our lives are all inextricably connected. Lovingkindness is a power of the heart that honors this connection. When we practice it, we acknowledge that every one of us shares the same wish to be happy, the same vulnerability to change and suffering.” Sharon Salzberg
Remember you can shape your life however you’d like. Each time you form the intention to wish yourself or others well, you are creating new neural pathways for happiness.