Cultivating Compassion: Opening Our Hearts – Lovingkindness for Our Loved Ones & Selves

Opening Meditation (2:17-7:55) Lovingkindness Meditation (19:30-32:20)

This week’s talk begins with a brief settling and intention setting practice. Intention is our innate capacity to harness and direct our energy and effort at will. And as shared in session 1, intention is one of the three pillars of mindfulness – intention, attention and attitude. We began this series of talks with the basic definition of mindfulness as the act of purposefully paying attention in the present moment with non-reactivity and balance. Last week, we explored mindfulness practice as a way to better understand and know ourselves. This week, we add the element of choice. Mindfulness is not only about how we pay attention, but what we pay attention to. We have a choice as to where to place our attention. And tapping into our intentions is vital to exercising this choice.

Sometimes intentions can be simple and short-term, such as at the beginning of a sit. My intention is to practice with kindness. Other times, intentions can be deeper and long-term, such as May I continue to show up in conversations with compassion and an open mind. Setting an intention is another invitation for us to turn inward and access the wisdom of the heart, body and mind. For an entire year, I committed to writing down a daily intention as a way to gain clarity on how I wanted to show up that day or how I wanted to support myself and others. I have continued this practice because this informal practice has affected the way I relate and respond to my experience. Click here to read a post I wrote last February about this practice.

Opening Practice

I invite you to listen to the guided practice (begins at minute 2:17, ends at minute 7:55) or try it on your own with this guidance. Find a comfortable and dignified posture. Close your eyes if that helps you feel at ease. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Allow your breath to find its natural pace. Drop into the body. Feel yourself sitting, your feet touching the ground, visualizing them as tree roots, grounding into the Earth, providing stability and strength. Scan through your body beginning at the crown of the head down to the feet. Noticing any sensations and using your breath to release any tension…Now asking yourself “What do I really care about, that I value deeply? What, in the depth of my heart, do I wish for myself, loved ones, and for the world?” Stay with these questions for a moment and see if any answers arise. Perhaps place your hand on your chest, over your heart center. This tender touch can relax the body and allow the wisdom of the heart to be heard. If nothing specific arises, that’s ok. Simply stay open to the questions, listening with loving awareness to whatever arises….

Talk

This talk begins our exploration of compassion practice. This builds upon the last two talks focused on cultivating courage through listening with kind curiosity to the wisdom of our bodies and experiencing loving presence through connecting the mind and body. Specifically, this talk focuses on the heart opening practice of lovingkindness.

Here is a portion of a handout I created to illustrate the interdependence of mindfulness and compassion.

Compassion is the act of turning toward suffering as small or as huge as that suffering may be. It is the general wish for someone, including ourselves, to be relieved of emotional or physical burden. As we begin to access the sensation or feeling of compassion in the body, we may notice a tugging at the heart, a motivation to respond with care. Compassion is innate to us. It accesses our care response and it is a psychological resource that can be strengthened. It can be viewed as another muscle to be exercised. We can deepen our capacity to be compassionate. Mindfulness plays an important role in cultivating compassion. It supports our ability to come face to face with suffering. Therefore, mindfulness gives rise to compassion through the attitude of kindness and non-judgement. Compassion relies on mindfulness to help sustain us when in the face of suffering. Together, we gain the courage to turn towards suffering with strength, resilience and stability.

Lovingkindness practice helps us to access the wisdom of the heart. It helps us undo our false sense of separation, to honor our interconnection. Thus, lovingkindness supports our aspiration to live wholeheartedly and the wish for others to live wholeheartedly, too. Sharon Salzberg, a well-known meditation teacher who is attributed to bringing this beautiful practice to the West, shares, “To reteach a thing its loveliness is the nature of metta. Through loving-kindness, everyone and everything can flower from within.” Metta is the Pail word for lovingkindness. It is often translated as friendliness, an unconditional friendliness. From my experience, lovingkindness is about connection; it is love in action.

When I was considering how to dig deeper into these ideas of love and kindness, I turned to a recent book I purchased by Charlie Mackesy, a British visual artist, entitled The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. On the surface, this book is about friendship. Once you read through it, one learns that it is about lovingkindness. On the last page of his book, one of the characters shares this message, “Sometimes all you hear is the hate, but there is more love in this world than you could possibly imagine.” I believe this message is incredibly important for us to remember right now as we are bombarded with news (social media, television, print media) with what feels like an unrelenting hate in the world. We have become so polarized, at least here in the US, that our connection is undermined. We may even, unknowingly, hate aspects of ourselves or of other people; this subtle hate lays beneath our field of awareness. Lovingkindness helps bring this to light so we may heal these divisions and transform the hate. I believe love is not passive. It is active. In fact, love is an act of courage!

In the words of MLK, Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This is how compassion changes the world – the world within us and the world in which we participate. We are not separate from each other, we are interconnected. And yet, this is easy to forget because we are brought up in a culture that promotes staunch individualism. So what do we do? Charlie Mackesy’s horse reminds us, “Nothing beats kindness…It sits quietly beyond all things.” As we begin to flex and strengthen our compassion muscle, we can take refuge in this simple truth that through the challenges, the hate, the hurt, the exhaustion, the pain, and the grief, we can still find kindness. It is there. It is always there sitting quietly within us. Lovingkindness practice is the seed that grows kindness, bringing it into our actions. And over time, our hearts open up to let love flow in and out.

Take a pause right now. Close your eyes. Tune into your body. What is arising in you right now? Can you be with it with a kind curiosity?

Here is a beautiful poem written by Chien Hong entitled Metta (Lovingkindness). Please take a moment to read it and notice with loving presence what arises for you.

In lovingkindness practice, our object of attention is two-fold.
1. We imagine someone (loved one/friend, ourselves, a neutral person, a difficult person, or all beings).
2. We send them general wishes of well-being, such as May you be happy, May you be free from pain, May you be healthy.

These phrases or wishes are an invitation to cultivate good intentions, to move our hearts in a positive direction. The phrases are designed to evoke goodwill, not good feelings. We are not trying to convince ourselves of anything or force a particular feeling to occur. Sharon Salzberg describes this feeling tone as “one of generosity or gift-giving, like handing someone a birthday card and saying, ‘May you have a great year.'”

My dear friend, Theresa Griffin, a mindfulness teacher, describes it this way, “The words serve as a conduit and guide for paying attention differently. Paying attention with heartfelt awareness. When we give our heartfelt attention and awareness to something or someone, it connects us. We see beyond the veil.” What is beyond the veil, is their humanness. We begin to tap into our common humanity, our interconnection.

In lovingkindness meditation, we are simply planting seeds and seeing what grows. Sometimes we experience growth within the practice itself and sometimes later on. Lastly, for some, lovingkindness can feel mechanical or awkward. If this is your experience, see if you can bring a loving and kind awareness to whatever arises for you.

Guided Meditation

Feel free to listen to me guide us through this practice (begins at minute 19:30, ends at minute 32:20), or you may try it on your own by following these brief instructions.

Find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and spend a few minutes tuning into your body and breath. Finding an anchor for your attention, perhaps turning toward an area that feels pleasant or neutral. And as your mind wanders, gently and kindly return it to your ancho, and take delight in this moment of waking up.

Now bring to mind one person who you care for, a loved one or friend. Hold this person in your mind’s eye. And as you do, allow any feelings of care and love to arise. Consider placing a hand on your chest, over your heart center to access the wisdom of the heart. As you picture this friend or loved one, silently repeat the following phrases (or any phrases that you come up with) as many times as you’d like –

May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe and secure
May you be free from suffering
May you live with ease

See if you can be with whatever feelings arise. You may feel a tug at the heart, a tear in the eye, or it may feel awkward. All is well and good; this is something to notice. Remember that you are planting a seed.

Feel free to repeat this with another friend or loved one…

Now, visualize yourself sitting in the center of a circle, surrounded by the most loving beings in your life (alive or deceased). This circle is one of safety and care so you can become the receiver of these offerings. Notice any feelings that arise as you take on the role of recipient. Silently repeat the same phrases (see above) for yourself…Repeat as many times as you want. Then you can let go of the visualization, take a deep breathe in and out, noticing any shifts that occurred.

Informal Practice

Lovingkindness practice can be integrated throughout your day. Before sending an email or text, pause and offer the recipient lovingkindness. When you pause throughout the day and tune into your body, offer yourself lovingkindness. When you are passing someone on the street, silently offer them lovingkindness. This is how you cultivate the garden of the heart, how you plant more seeds. Listen to Sharon Salzberg as she shares this informal practice. It is less than 2 minutes and worth the time!

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