Updated: Nov 14, 2019
Meditation is something that I've had a tricky relationship with. I've practiced on and off, experimented with different techniques, have become overly frustrated, and sometimes just gave up. I never know if I should try to make meditation a Godly experience versus a secular one and it always seems like my persistent brain is freaking out over a job, a test, or a boy instead of being "at rest."
"WHY CAN'T YOU SHUT UP?!!?!!?!" my brain would yell at my own brain (weird). And that is how I knew that I had failed my first attempt at loving-kindness meditation.
I didn't fail because my mind wandered or because I opened my eyes and peaked. I didn't fail because I checked the time or because I fell asleep. I wasn't supposed to sit quietly in a corner and turn off my brain switch. I wasn't supposed to awaken each time having discovered the answers to all my problems and the meaning of life. In fact, I would have succeeded if my brain had instead said to my brain, "it's okay that you're distracted, let's try again to get back on track. You're here, you're practicing, you're learning, you are enough, I love you."
After studying loving-kindness and reading Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, I finally understood what it meant to meditate.
What Makes Loving-Kindness Meditation Unique?
What makes Loving-Kindness meditation one of my favorites is that it goes beyond introspection and the self. Its main focus is unconditional love, period. Yes, this includes yourself, but more importantly it includes all other beings in our world. This is the real power of love. Something that is meant to be shared beyond yourself, beyond your friends, beyond your lovers, beyond your family. Love in this sense is meant to break boundaries- to forgive your enemies, to accept your neighbors, and to wish the best for strangers. Loving-kindness teaches us that love is happiness and love is joy. To love is to be alive.
By adapting this loving mindset, loving-kindness goes beyond meditation itself. It provides guidelines for an alternative way to perceive life. It questions how we understand life's relationships, cultural norms, and ideas of happiness. We can train our minds to avoid feeling frustration or anger in situations we can not control. We learn to see life as it is, accept what we cannot change, and react in a mindful, compassionate, and loving manner.
While both of these aspects of loving-kindness go hand in hand, the physical act of meditation and the knowledge of living a life of compassionate love can be practiced in whatever way you feel you need in your life. For a while I was meditating every day. Then I began to meditate only when I felt myself feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or hastily reacting to situations. Now, I return to meditation to help ground me when I am feeling like I am floating through life as a body who has lost touch with its mind and soul.
So if you want to close your eyes before bed and send love to the world for 5 minutes a day, go for it! If you want to lay on the floor for an hour and send love to yourself, go for it! And if you want to push yourself to simply avoid feelings of anger at work next week, go for it! That is what is so beautiful about the loving-kindness practice. You take from it what you need in your life and the end result will be the same- a bit more love in our not always loving world.
How do I do It??
There are three things you need to know before you begin your loving-kindness meditation practice. First, where are you going to be? Second, what position will you comfortably sit in? Third, once you're all set and comfy, what mantra will you repeat in your head?
Number one and two are easy, basically do whatever you are comfortable with (but try to keep that spine straight). You can be sitting on a bench in a public park, laying on your bed, sitting in a waiting room, at a desk waiting for class to start, or even on a walk. The more relaxed of an environment you are in, the easier your time will be. My personal preference is sitting somewhere outside on a nice day or laying in the grass, but to each their own!
The process of this meditation begins by sending love to yourself. Next, sending love to someone you love. Third, sending love to someone you feel neutral towards (the guy who delivered your package, the clerk at the grocery store, the person who sat by you on the bus). Then, sending love to someone you have negative feelings towards. And finally, sending love to all living beings.
When picking who these people are that you will think about and imagine in your mind, I find it easiest to just let names arise. Sometimes I stick to one person for the whole time and sometimes I send the message to 10 people I love, each mantra changing the name. Whichever way you decide to practice is okay!
The mantra you choose can be worded in any way that feels more natural and flowing to you. All it has to cover is asking for safety, happiness, health, and ease.
"May I be safe"
"May I have happiness"
"May I have good health"
"May I live with ease"
After repeating this mantra for as long as feels right, you move on to the next person or set of people to send this message to.
"May you be free from danger"
"May you have mental happiness"
"May you be healthy and strong"
"May you live peacefully and with ease"
As you can see, there are different options to how you word your mantra. Try a few out and pick whatever feels natural for you.
Sending love to a person you have conflict with or to all beings might be hard. Sending love to yourself might be hard. This does not mean you have failed. As you end your practice, take time to notice how your mind and body reacted to different people and what it felt like for you. There is no right and wrong way to practice, just as there is no right or wrong way to feel afterwards.
I could write a whole book on why the ideas behind loving-kindness are extraordinary and why these ideals could create a world of joy and peace. Unfortunately for me, I don't have time to write a best-seller. Fortunately for you though, it's already been done. I'm going to mention some of my favorite things that Sharon Salzberg mentions in her book, but you're going to have to read it for yourself to get all the juicy details.
1- Ditch desire
We often spend so much time looking for happiness outside of ourselves. "When I get this," "When I do that," then I'll be happy. Instead, look for it right where you are. Instead of looking for a change to bring you joy, try to change how you look at what you've already got.
2- Let it go
It can be easy to try to hold onto pleasure and avoid pain. At the end of the day though, life is one big rollercoaster ride and no matter how hard we all try we are going to have both highs and lows. Try to let go of some of that desire for control and accept where your path is at this moment.
3- Redefine love
What does love look like in your life? Is it passion? Is it validation? Is it confident? Is it a gift or present received? Is it coming from yourself or others? Ask yourself these questions and really consider if you like the answers. Love should be unconditional.
4- Connect the dots
Try to view everything as being connected. In your personal life, things like work, friends, family, sex, and hobbies are all connected. On a larger scale, remember the humaneness of all beings. Can we be happy if others are suffering? Can we be happy if work rocks but we don't feel like we have friends to love? Try to find love and joy in all places and all people.
5- Don't react with anger
Try to halt an anger response in difficult situations. Think about who this feeling of anger is going to hurt. The answer is probably both the person you feel anger towards and yourself. Is it really worth it to bring negative energy and feelings towards yourself as well? Before defining your reaction as anger, consider if it might have another name. Maybe you feel disappointed, a loss of control, or frustration. Remember that you are not perfect, we've all made mistakes.
7- Know empathy, don't BE empathy
Be aware of how other people feel in their individual situations, but don't let it run your life. You have to care for yourself before you can care for others, which means being able to establish healthy boundaries while also attempting to understand others.
8- Give! Give! Give!
Don't keep a tally of give and take or whose turn it is. Try giving more and see how it makes you feel. I don't mean shiny new gifts or extravagant plans. Start simple. Give more of your time, more of your knowledge, more of your listening ear, or more compassion. Even better, give your friends the link to this article so that they also feel compelled to try this whole generosity thing!
Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness By Sharon Salzberg