Loving-Kindness in the Western World

I went through a break-up three weeks ago. One that neither of us had expected, but was ultimately for the best.

During the first two and a half weeks, I did everything to productively distract myself. I ended up having so many amazing people and things to be grateful for, I almost found it insulting to feel any sadness.

I spent evenings at yoga, dance class, or my meditation group at the SF Zen Center. I increased the number of books I was reading, I saw friends on an almost nightly basis. I started planning my first solo trip to Barcelona in September. I found a studio in Hayes Valley walking distance to all the things I love, which I get to move into on Wednesday. To quote the Bachelorette, as I did to many of my friends, I was living my best life.

In Vipassana practice, they teach us to be aware of distractions, even positive ones. That’s one of the reasons there are no cell phones, no music, no books, no notebooks, no exercise, and of course no talking allowed on Vipassana retreats. Distractions, in whatever form, can be a very convenient way of rejecting or running away from emotions.

For the first time last weekend, a particularly beautiful and sunny one in San Francisco, I felt a deep sadness and loneliness that I hadn’t let myself feel. I had compulsively reached for my phone to call or text someone, just as I had done many times the past few weeks, when I suddenly became acutely aware of what I was doing. I was running away from sadness.

I had created all these positive changes in my life, but underlying them was the feeling that I needed to have these distractions to be happy. They were the conditions I’d created for my happiness and self-love. I needed to dance and go to yoga to feel good about myself. I needed to call my parents to fill the void of no longer having someone to talk to all the time, to text during the day or share details from our days at night.

The simple truth was I missed feeling loved and cared for.

On Conditional Love

May God bless you and keep you
May God make his face shine on you and show you his favor
May God lift up his face toward you
And grant you peace

The above prayer is one I heard my dad recite over my family during every Shabbat for as long as I can remember. The four of us children would stand up and my dad would make sure we were all within his embrace as he asked God to protect us. I still hear him say the prayer every time I’m in LA during Shabbat.

I thought about the prayer the other day while reading The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, which offers a history of the concept of god(s) from the primitive religions of the second millennium BCE, through the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism, up to today. One theme that I noticed throughout the evolving forms of god is that, despite the evolution towards a god that is “unconditionally loving,” the practice of acting in a way to please a god/gods in return for love and protection remained.

The indigenous cultures of Polynesia sacrificed humans to curry favor with this or that god; Jesus proclaims in Mark 16:16 that “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned”; and today, we Jews gather every Yom Kippur to ask God for repentance for our sins in order to be written into the book of life.

While human sacrifice to ask for greater rainfall is now recognized as a futile and barbaric practice, the latter traditions invite us to aspire to a set of higher morals. Yet with all of these, I can’t help but feel that despite the promise of unconditional love, there’s an implicit suggestion that we must offer certain actions or behaviors (a human body, true faith, fewer sins) to continue to receive it.

This brings me to the topic at hand: love. Specifically, the difference between the conditional love that pervades our society today (not just in religion, but also in our perceptions of self-worth and our romantic relationships) and unconditional love.

Let’s take the examples of self-worth and romantic relationships. Oftentimes, self-love depends on feeling that we are “worthy” of love. We can love ourselves when we feel good about what we’re doing (got a promotion, went to the gym) and switch to self-loathing as soon as we detect an aberration from our good behavior. We can be on a lover’s high when we first meet our partner, but watch as the feelings become more complicated the moment any values or expectations diverge.

Our attitude towards whether we choose to give love to ourselves or to others naturally shapes how we view ourselves on the receiving end of love. While in a passionate relationship, we might wonder how much the other person loves us and whether that will ever change, having seen it change for ourselves in the past. With friends, we might wonder if they’ll like us any less after too much complaining. At work, we might wonder whether our coworker or boss still views us as valuable after a particularly harsh piece of criticism.

This is love that is conditional on a set of actions or behaviors. What I mean by unconditional love is love that is not just reserved for those we are close to or have strong romantic feelings towards, but also those we feel nothing for — and even those we dislike.

Scratch My Back And I’ll Scratch Yours …

In Buddhism, this practice of unconditional love is called Metta, or loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is the intention to offer up happiness to others or to ourselves, regardless of whether we deem them deserving of it. It is one of the set of four highest qualities (Brahmaviras) that meditation practitioners are taught to aspire to, along with sympathetic joy, equanimity, and compassion. (I’ll be writing more on these in a future post).

The problem is, we hold tightly onto certain beliefs about what love is supposed to feel like — particularly romantic love. In contrast to the Buddhist perspective on love, the Western conception of love is something more similar to desire, craving, or attachment. In fact, when those elements are missing, we often feel that our love isn’t strong or true enough.

These notions of romantic love can limit our general notion of what it means to love, forcing us to believe that love is something that should happen to us, rather than something that can be cultivated. That we should give it sparingly, and only to a certain few that deserve it. It wouldn’t exactly be surprising if we feel this way. The idea of reserving love for only a very few that might deserve it is not a new one — it’s literally programmed within us.

According to evolutionary biologists, there are two innate mechanisms within human nature that incline us to act kindly towards others: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Kin selection refers to the sacrifices we are willing to make for relatives which, while decreasing our chance of survival, may increase the chances of the kin who share our gene pool. Reciprocal altruism refers to sacrifices made for another individual which, while decreasing our chance of survival, would increase the likelihood of similar repayment in the future.

This psychological mindset made perfect sense for the hunter-gatherer communities from which we evolved, in which any person the average hunter gatherer came across in his/her village would fit into either relatives (triggering kin selection behavior) or acquaintances they could depend on (triggering reciprocal altruism). Given that there were no more than 30 individuals in a hunter gatherer band if they were traveling by foot (or 100 if by horse), there was no such thing as an “anonymous” person they would have to treat kindly. Some historians suggest there wasn’t such thing as an “enemy” within the group that they would have to treat kindly either, since they likely would have left the band for another hunter gatherer village.

Loving-kindness invites us to expand our scope for love beyond the kin selection and reciprocal altruism we were biologically conditioned for. It’s the intention to offer up joy and happiness, to ourselves and to all 7 billion people in this world.

Practicing Loving-Kindness

But before we can wish happiness for those around us, we need to be able to offer up happiness to ourselves. Self-love and self-compassion are often seen as crucial aspects of loving-kindness, and compassion and loving-kindness are often talked about in parallel when discussing the four Brahmaviras.

Our culture encourages us to seek self-love from others — from our parents, romantic partners, friends, or from a self-validating action or behavior. Loving-kindness, in contrast, is not conditional on anything. It is simply a series of intentions we set beginning with ourselves, then expanding out to loved ones, those we don’t know, and even those we have difficulty with.

In the loving-kindness meditation I often use from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), you begin the meditation by imagining someone who makes you feel happy. It could be a friend, a close relative, a pet — any person who makes you feel happy when you think of them. You imagine their presence next to you and see what feelings come up. Maybe a warmth in your body, or a smile on your face, a sense of joy or contentment. This is loving-kindness.

You then begin to wish them well and have a sense of this loving-kindness touching your loved one:

May you be safe and protected from danger
May you be happy and peaceful
May you be healthy and strong
May you have ease and wellbeing

You can use whatever words resonate with you, and check in to see how you feel inside. If you are just beginning this practice, you might not feel anything. Even now, I often don’t.

That’s okay.

The practice is meant to plant the seeds of loving-kindness. This is where our Western vision of “love” can become problematic: we believe we don’t have the capacity to offer this sort of love based on what we think it should feel like. But it doesn’t need to feel like anything, and it doesn’t need to feel easy. Setting the intention can be enough to cultivate love in our thoughts.

Next, you begin to imagine that loved one sending loving-kindness back to you. They begin to wish you happiness and joy, freedom from stress or anxiety, freedom from fear. Peace and well-being. Let yourself take it in and see how it feels. Again, it’s okay if you don’t feel anything. Check in to yourself and see what it is that you are feeling.

Now it becomes time to offer loving-kindness to yourself. You can picture it flowing from your heart; sometimes I imagine it as a warm embrace around me. You then begin to wish yourself well. May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. Think about whatever you feel you need to be happy in that moment, and offer it to yourself. This loving-kindness for yourself is something that is accessible at any time. You can give it to yourself at any moment.

As you begin to expand your practice, you can see how it feels to offer happiness beyond yourself and your loved ones. You can try practicing loving-kindness on people you feel neutral towards, perhaps someone you have seen at work or on your daily commute, but whom you know very little about. Can you picture yourself wishing them well, wishing them happiness, and imagine them being touched as they receive it?

According to Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, practicing with neutral subjects allows you to see that the way you feel about a person can be completely up to you. You might know nothing about them, but as you continue to practice, you begin to see that this is independent of your ability to send them good wishes and loving-kindness.

Which leads me to perhaps the greatest challenge: practicing loving-kindness towards those we have difficulty with. Our meditation practice teaches us that just as we can learn to accept difficult and painful emotions in our body and to treat them with kindness, so too can we practice accepting and being kind to human beings we have difficulty with.

One way to practice this is to realize that every difficult person you face, any person who is practicing harmful words or actions towards you, is a human being who is suffering. Something within them is hurting. Like you, they will experience illness, sadness, and close deaths. Can you imagine them as a crying baby, the vulnerable 5-year-old child they once were, desperate for love and attention?

It’s hard to feel loving-kindness when you’re focused on the qualities that you don’t like in yourself or in another person. But what happens when you expand to focus on the whole, just as you would expand your attention to all parts of your body in a meditation session, even while experiencing pain in your back? Can we seek out and feel the good in these people? Can we see the vulnerability in these people? Can we wish love for these people?

Can we do the same for ourselves?

The Island of Self

“When we come home to ourselves, we can discover the island of self. The Buddha recommended, don’t rely on anyone or anything, rely on the island within.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

This past weekend, I just let myself feel it all. The sting of loneliness, the pain of feeling sad despite all the amazing people and activities in my life. This is the feeling I feel in my chest, a tightness that constricts my breath. There would be times after this one when I would reach compulsively for the phone again (as I did yesterday, and today), but I set the intention for this moment to resist.

I grabbed a cushion, found a vacant spot in my room among the sea of packed up moving boxes, and sat still for a moment.

In my island of self, imagining the warmth of my own embrace, I then offered a loving kindness meditation — from myself, to myself.

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I have joy and well-being
May I accept myself, just as I am

For loving-kindness and self-compassion meditations, please see the links below:

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center — Loving Kindness Meditation

UC Berkeley Greater Good In Action — Loving Kindness Meditation

Self-Compassion.org — Self Compassion Meditation