Sunday, May 19, 2019

Three Different Approaches to LovingKindness Practice

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

by Catharine Hannay

I've heard different opinions over the years about whether lovingkindness meditation should be considered part of mindfulness teaching or a complementary practice. I've sometimes even seen it dismissed as "just a 'feel-good' practice." 

In my opinion, lovingkindness or compassion is the reason to practice mindfulness.  I want to pay attention to my thoughts, words, and deeds so I can avoid harming myself or 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.

  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 and head off to class. 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. 

I think 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." 

The Basics Steps of Lovingkindness Meditation

(This section is intended as an explanation, not as a meditation script.)
  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, someone you don't bear any ill will or hold in deep affection.
  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 will refer to 'sentient beings,' but non-Buddhists often bristle at that phrasing.)

Three Ways to Approach LovingKindness Practice

Approach #1: Lovingkindness 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."

If you'd prefer to use a recording, there are many options available online that are appropriate for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Here are a couple of recommendations:

Approach #2: A Faith-Based LovingKindness 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. 

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 kid 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 the full passage in a post on 'Five Common Misunderstandings about Christians and Mindfulness.' And you can read Rev. Sunoo's full sermon on the Magnolia Presbyterian Church website.

Approach #3: A Quick On-the-Go LovingKindness Practice

This is what I do personally when I catch myself feeling angry or unloving toward someone, or when I see a situation where someone is suffering.

Often I'll use the phrase 'I Wish You Peace' to silently send good wishes to myself and to the other person.

Recently I've started using just one word: "peace," or "love," or even "hug!" as a very quick reminder to show myself or someone else compassion and kindness in a difficult moment.

If you found this post useful, you might also be interested in:

 Compassionate Image: A Guided Visualization Practice

and Two Powerful Empathy Practices to Awaken Compassion

as well as the many resources on practicing and teaching mindfulness and compassion.