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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Three Different Approaches to LovingKindness Practice

I've heard different opinions over the years about whether lovingkindness meditation should be considered part of mindfulness practice. Here’s my perspective on this: I think lovingkindness or compassion is the main point of mindfulness. We pay attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds in order to be kinder to ourselves and others.

Sometimes compassion can arise naturally during mindfulness meditation. Other times it's beneficial to intentionally focus on sending good wishes to ourselves and other people.

The Basics Steps of Lovingkindness Meditation

  1. First, extend good wishes toward yourself. For some people, this can be the most challenging part of the practice.

  2. Next, extend good wishes toward someone you love without reservation. This might or might not be a particular friend or member of your family, depending on the day. It's normal to sometimes feel angry or frustrated with someone you deeply care about; on those days, you might choose this individual as your 'difficult person' in step four.

  3. After that, extend good wishes toward someone you feel neutral toward, perhaps a neighbor or a local shopkeeper. Someone you see from time to time but don't have strong feelings about. 

  4. Then do your best to extend good wishes toward someone who really pushes your buttons. I like to remember a Swedish proverb that says, "Love me when I least deserve it, for that is when I need it most."

  5. Finally, extend good wishes to a large group of people. You might think about a circle of compassion getting bigger and bigger until there's no one left outside of the circle. You could even include other living creatures in your ever-widening circle of compassion. (Many Buddhists refer to 'sentient beings,' but non-Buddhists often bristle at that phrasing. You can choose whatever phrasing feels right to you.)

First, Do No Harm

If you'd like to share these practices with others, there are a couple of basic guidelines I've heard consistently from the many mindfulness teachers and teacher trainers I know.

  • If you've never taught meditation before, please don't just grab a ‘script’. Before leading any type of meditation, establish your own personal meditation practice and seek appropriate training.

  • Follow the principles of trauma-informed teaching, including not insisting that participants close their eyes.

I'd like to add something to this from my own perspective: Please be cautious in how you describe the feeling of lovingkindness.

Many meditation teachers will use phrasing like "unconditional love, the love of a mother for her child." There are several reasons why this might not be the most skillful explanation:

  • Think about a woman who's had a miscarriage;

  • Or a woman with an unwanted pregnancy;

  • Or someone whose beloved mother recently died;

  • Or someone who may never have had a positive maternal presence in his or her life.

This also gets into a more general issue: not assuming that everyone is having the same experience during any type of guided practice. The first time I did a body scan, I kept feeling an annoying and distracting tingling sensation in my hands and feet. I was surprised when the instructor said, "You may feel a pleasant sensation, like tingling."

Three Ways to Approach Lovingkindness Practice

Approach #1: Metta Meditation

There are compassion-based practices in every religious tradition. However, the phrasing of lovingkindness meditation in secular mindfulness classes tends to be adapted from Buddhist teachings on metta. This is a Pali word that can be translated as lovingkindness, benevolence, or friendliness. (Pali is a classical language from India, related to Sanskrit.)

In his book on Secular Meditation, Rick Heller suggests the following phrasing for non-Buddhists:

"I'd like you to be safe.

I'd like you to be healthy.

I'd like you to be happy.

I'd like you to be at ease in the world."

Approach #2: A Faith-Based Blessing

Some people of faith prefer to integrate lovingkindness and compassion with their existing devotional practices.

To give just a few examples:

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman equates the concept of metta with the Hebrew word chesed.

Asghar Ali comments on the centrality of rahmah (compassion) to Islam.

And I've had a lot of discussions about compassion and lovingkindness in Christianity with my sister, a Presbyterian pastor who regularly participates in interdenominational and interfaith events.

In one of her sermons, she suggests,

"In the midst of rush hour traffic some morning, try catching a glimpse of a nearby driver or two, imagine how their days may have begun, and say a blessing for them: 'The Lord bless you and keep you.'

Say a blessing for the big bunch of kids goofing around at the bus stop: 'The Lord make his face to shine upon you.' And another for the student standing at a distance by herself. 'May the peace of Christ be with your spirit, sweet girl.'

Pray God’s blessing on a family member or a friend, simply asking that they would feel God’s presence with them. 'The Lord bless you and keep you."

You can read Rev. Sunoo's full sermon on the Magnolia Presbyterian Church website.

Approach #3: I Wish You Peace

I don't know about you, but I can find it a bit challenging (OK, way more than a bit challenging) to send good wishes to people I don't actually like very much.  I find it helpful to use the phrase 'I Wish You Peace.' If they were at peace, they’d probably treat me a lot better, right?

And let's face it, I'm not exactly sweetness and light twenty-four hours a day, either. When I feel at peace, I'm a lot nicer to other people, and to myself.

Often I’ll use just one word: "peace," or "love," or even "hug!" as a quick reminder to show myself or someone else compassion and kindness in a difficult moment. This could be when I catch myself feeling angry or unloving toward someone, or when I see a situation where someone is suffering. (And there’s certainly no shortage of suffering people these days.)

Other times, I’ll take a couple of minutes to do a brief lovingkindness meditation:

I wish for peace.
I wish for peace.
I wish for peace.
My friend, I wish you peace.
My acquaintance, I wish you peace.
My “enemy,” I wish you peace.
Everyone, I wish you peace.
I wish for peace.


Practicing lovingkindness can help us:

  • empathize with the suffering of people who may behave in ways that we find bothersome or even offensive; and

  • treat ourselves gently during those times when we don’t live up to our own ideals.

Practicing lovingkindness doesn’t mean denying feelings of anger or frustration or disappointment. It means choosing to focus our attention and energy on what unites us all.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)