On Loving Kindness

/ February 10, 2017

Loving Kindness

‘Come sit down beside me
I said to myself,
And although it didn’t make sense,
I held my own hand
As a small sign of trust
And together I sat on the fence.’

– Michael Leunig

There are many prescriptions for living a good life but none resonate as much as those I take from my Buddhist practice. Practising mindfulness leads to cultivation of insight around the three characteristics of existence (interconnectedness, unsatisfactoriness, impermanence/change). There are also meditative practices which purposefully incline the mind to developing four key positive qualities – those of friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity.

As an educated Westerner, I have always been struck by this quote by H.H. 14th Dalai Lama:

No matter what is going on
Never give up.
Develop the heart.
Too much energy in your country
Is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart.
Be compassionate,
Not just to your friends
But to everyone.
Be compassionate.
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world.
Work for peace
And I say again
Never give up.
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up.”

Loving-kindness meditation (‘metta bhavana’), which develops friendliness, can be used in conjunction with mindfulness practice to help keep the mind open and compassionate. It provides balance, connection and grounding, allowing us to develop the mental habit of selflessness, or altruistic love. With practise, it acts as a way of healing the troubled mind, freeing it from pain and confusion.

So how do we apply this to our children? There are of course, many ways. But in terms of loving-kindness meditation, we need to be able to model and feel it ourselves, and to use skill in teaching it to our young folk. It is very important to introduce this meditation at a pace that is in accord with your child or children. As is the approach at school, the practices that we do should be fun and joyful, not arduous and a chore. Children need to want to do them; in fact, we do too.

I want to briefly describe this meditation practice and offer a reference to an essay by Gregory Kramer, in which he describes practising loving-kindness with his children over a number of years:

The traditional formulation for loving-kindness meditation is to start with what comes fairly naturally, which is to direct the intention towards oneself. Some people can , however, find it hard to start with themselves; all sorts of self-hatred and loathing can come up, obscuring the meditation and sending it off track. In this case, you could start by sending out unconditional positivity to a benefactor (someone in your life who has loved or truly cared for you) as expressing gratitude to our benefactors is a natural form of love. The rule in loving-kindness practice is to follow the way that most easily opens your heart.

Let’s say you are starting with yourself; the idea is relax into a comfortable meditative position and say phrases silently to yourself, such as:

May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be safe and free from fear.

May I be well in body and mind.

May I be happy and at ease.

Being patient and kind to yourself are important here, as is persevering. This is, after all, a form of concentration practice. As you repeat these phrases, you can picture yourself as you are now, or perhaps as a young and beloved child. You can be creative and skilful, adjusting the words and images in any way you wish that best opens your heart to kindness. And repeat. Over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind.

When you feel you have established a sense of loving-kindness for yourself, you can then expand your meditation to include others. You can picture this person and carefully recite the same phrases:

May you be filled with loving-kindness.

May you be safe and free from fear.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you be happy and at ease.

The traditional formulation is to work from the easiest person for you to direct your friendliness towards, to the most difficult, as your sense of loving-kindness gets stronger.

This order is: yourself, a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person (somebody you know, but have no special feelings towards, e.g., a person who serves you in a shop) and finally someone you are currently having difficulty with. You can also be creative and direct it to, for instance, ‘all people in Sussex’, then expand it outwards, to ‘all people in Britain, Europe, Asia etc.’

Applying the practice to daily life is about cultivating a friendly attitude and an openness towards everybody you relate to, without discrimination. One of my teachers told me that, as this was a concentration practice, it was about directing the mind rather than assuming that these feelings would just passively arise.

To finish, there are two key features of this meditation; the phrases that you say and the people that you direct them to. With children, it is possible to skilfully direct their minds to, for instance, their siblings, their school friends and their teachers. As a caring adult, this also gives you an insight into who matters in their lives, who they feel naturally drawn to and who they find more challenging. Patiently, we are developing the facility in them of undiscriminating friendliness.

Directing loving-kindness towards animals, in particular beloved pets, is also a good idea, as children generally love them. This may provide a strong basis for positive action as children often feel strong love and connection towards animals, nature and the planet. With care, it is possible to adjust the phrases to suit each child, to allow their hearts to open and strenghten.

I have personally found this practice really transformative and liberating. It is a blessed relief to be able to drop the heavy burden of negativity which is dislike, or hatred; these are habits of mind that do not serve me. One book that I would recommend is Sharon Salzberg’s ‘Loving Kindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness’; the title is no exaggeration!


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