A year of lovingkindness

Artwork by Carrie Marill

2018 was the year I decided to practice lovingkindness every day. With the year coming to a close, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on what I’ve learned, gained, and let go of in the process.

Lovingkindness is one of the four brahmavihāras in Buddhism, along with compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. Often translated as the divine abidings, these are capabilities that we all possess, and there are specific practices for how we can nurture them and learn to abide in them.

I must have been very ripe for this because I’ve always been a little skeptical about lovingkindness practice. But life has become stripped down to the basics these days and I’m feeling like kindness and compassion are what are most essential. So, if there’s a practice to get better at them, why not try?

How it happened

In January of 2018, I embarked on a 7-day retreat at the Forest Refuge, where I do silent meditation retreats a couple of times a year. This time, I found myself experimenting (which I have been wont to do with spiritual practices over the years) with lovingkindness (LK) practice, rather than the mindfulness or Vipassana practices I have been doing of late (though to be sure, these practices are all synergistic).

When I went for my interview with the meditation teacher, she encouraged me to just go for it with the LK, providing me with the validation I needed to practice it for the whole retreat. And so I did.

From my first conscious waking thought in the morning at 5:30 through lights out at 9:00 at night — sitting practice, walking practice, work practice, eating — I tried to silently repeat these words: “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease…May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.” During formal practice times, I offered the words first for myself, then a benefactor, a person in need, a neutral person, a difficult person, and for all beings. The approach I took was perhaps somewhat Tantric, articulating the words energetically in the heart space, creating a sense of openness and an internal positive glow around my heart and head. I would say the words, get lost, and start again. Say the words, get lost, start again. Say the words, “this isn’t working,” start again. Say the words, “boring!”, start again. (To be sure, LK is a concentration practice too, so one gets the added benefit of focused concentration from doing it).

The teacher had told me that getting started with the practice is kind of like riding a bike up a hill. It’s hard. There’s no groove or impression for lovingkindness, or maybe there is, but you have to find it. By the end of the retreat, I had found the groove. In fact, I had found a basic happiness I hadn’t known before. I had come in contact with a dimension of my being that was essentially kind.

So when I came home from retreat, I decided to keep it going for the whole year as part of my daily meditation practice.

It’s been a game changer.

Make no mistake, I’m not perfect by any means and the exact opposite of lovingkindness arises countless times a day, but something has shifted.

Also, I want to make it clear that the practice is not a magic bullet nor the only thing I am or have been doing for my healing, awakening, and wellbeing. I have been doing compassion-centered yoga and other kinds of meditation and getting support from self-help groups and professionals. This is not a controlled study of LK. It’s been a long journey, and this is another chapter. Also, it’s not all about me, as I embrace healing as a social justice issue that can deepen our commitments to community and capacities to create social change.

What did it take?

Privilege. The privilege to have quiet time every morning and the freedom not to have to worry about my basic needs like food, shelter, clean water, paying bills, and safety.

Like any practice commitment, it took intention and persistence. Already having an almost 20-year meditation practice, getting to my cushion in the morning isn’t a challenge at this point. But sometimes I didn’t want to do lovingkindness, I wanted to do an easier, less involved kind of practice. So, I had to remember my commitment and be persistent.

I also brought some curiosity into the mix, about how the practice would go each day, what the challenges would be, what rewards might await, and checking in with my intentions. I have an insatiable curiosity about the potential and limits of human consciousness and this was another empirical investigation for me to take part in. I generally looked forward to the practice.

And, I had to have a little bit of faith. Surely, I could believe that silently whispering kind words to myself on the regular could be more fruitful for my wellbeing than silently whispering distorted and abusive ones. “May I be safe, happy, healthy, and live with ease” versus “I’m not doing enough, I need more, I’m better than you, I’m a bad person.” For so long, I didn’t even realize that this negative self-talk was even present, as it has so often been masked by obsessive and neurotic behaviors, in my case, addictions of many varieties. I was willing to suspend disbelief and give it a try. What else am I going to spend those 20 minutes a day on? Another mediocre Netflix show?

I had to be adaptable. When we had company visiting and the only time alone I could find was when walking the dog, I did it while walking the dog. Occasionally during the year, I found myself sick, exhausted, or in pain. Such is life. And so I did the practice lying down. Actually, there was always a special potency in these times. I’ve learned that sickness and vulnerability are ripe for LK. It flourishes in these conditions.

What were the fruits?

When conscious and intentional seeds of kindness and compassion are planted, kindness and compassion come forth of their own accord. In the midst of life, I have found myself letting go of deeply entrenched resentments about people, cultivating more patience, trusting that others have their own path, and realizing that shutting up and not saying anything is sometimes the kind thing to do.

Though, I have to admit that the spontaneous moments of kindness and compassion have tended to be more moments of compassion for myself than others. I have found my self-talk transformed — “you’re doing the best you can,” “hang in there,” and “it’s okay, we all make mistakes.” Some re-parenting, I suppose. I see LK as a kind of aid in healing attachment wounds, learning to hold space for myself with a grandmotherly expansiveness.

I’ve begun to have a better understanding of my own limits. I’ve been prone to grossly exaggerate the thresholds of what I can do or accomplish in a year, a week, or a day. Meditation teacher Ajahn Chah famously said, “don’t pretend you have the capacity of a ten-ton truck when you only have the capacity of a wheelbarrow.” I continue to learn that sometimes the kindest, most just thing to do is to rest, to not take any actions or process more data.

When a fruit falls from a tree, it is a kind of release, a letting go. The key ingredient for any meditation practice is letting go, letting go of what does not serve, letting go of fixation. LK creates fertile ground and a safe environment for letting go.

Benevolence, Kind-Hearted Awareness, and Loving Presence

It’s clear to me that consciousness is by its nature benevolent. It is through expanding our experience with its dimensions that we can begin to understand its ability to hold so many contradictions. The three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, and the habitual patterning scaffolded around them, obstruct our abilities to see this. Is this a dualistic view? A non-dualistic view? Is this neuroplasticity at work? Is it a “neural hack”? A real transformation? I don’t know, but I know that a practice like LK can open up our awareness of what truths might be possible, and more importantly, our capacity for kindness.

There are many excellent resources out there for learning LK. Sharon Salzberg’s work is second to none (see her book on Lovingkindness as well as her chapter in Real Happiness on the subject). Many of the meditation apps, such as Insight Timer, have guided meditations, or just go to YouTube and there are plenty of options to choose from.

I’ve heard kind-hearted awareness described as something akin to inviting a neighbor that you don’t necessarily like into the house for tea when they come to the door. You’re not that into them and you would probably prefer not to have them there, but it’s the kind thing to do. There is so much difficulty and suffering involved with being human and in order to survive we have evolved to push this difficulty and suffering away. But LK practice, like mindfulness, is at its very base, a practice of helping us to accept things as they are, not in a cold or indifferent way, but in a kind-hearted way. This is a powerful place from which we can then act.

We can transform our internal climate into that of loving presence, not a mushy or maudlin kind of loving, but something that can help us to access a place that is always okay regardless of what is happening. And that’s not so that we can retreat from the world, but so that we can engage fully and be of service with fewer hindrances.

May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.