We have spent a lot of time this year exploring loving kindness for self, and today I would like to start expanding the field of our loving kindness to other beings.
As you know, we often start our loving kindness practice by bringing to mind a benefactor, someone who loves us and whom we love easily, as this person helps us get in touch with the feeling of love in our body.
In this article we will explore the barriers to feeling love for others, and how we can use the practice of lovingkindness to help open our hearts to others.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need to belong is our highest priority once we have met our survival and biological needs. For most of us, this need to belong is met by connecting with other humans. It is a source of joy and happiness in our life. We also care about caring, we know that it matters.
In our modern Western society, the rise of mental health issues is in part attributed to the feeling of isolation and disconnect that a lot of people experience. Stress tends to shut down our sense of empathy and care, and sensitivity to others around us, whereas when we are not threatened, when we feel open and present, there is a natural flow of loving.
But when we are stressed, when we feel scared or angry or anxious, our survival brain gets activated and we try to control things to protect ourselves and get what we want, and we close our heart. Tara Brach calls it armouring of the heart, we cover our heart with protective layers and we stop being real and open and loving.
At the start of his book on Buddhist psychology The Wise Heart, the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a Buddha statue in a monastery in the north of Thailand in the mid-1950s. This statue was made out of clay and had been in the monastery for centuries. At one point the monks noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. One curious monk took a flashlight and shone it into the biggest crack. He was surprised to see something shiny reflecting the light. What the monks found was a solid gold statue beneath all the clay! The monks believe that this golden Buddha had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.
In much the same way, each of us has encountered threatening situations that lead us to cover ourselves with layers of protection. These layers are meant to protect us from harm, but they also cover our true nature, a nature of friendliness and kindness. Much of the time we operate from our protective layer, and we forget our original goodness.
The first principle of Buddhist psychology is to see the inner nobility and beauty of all human beings.
The Dalai Llama is known for saying that his religion is kindness. People of all backgrounds who have met the Dalai Lama report that he brings this respectful attitude and friendly heart in all his encounters. During a visit in San Francisco, before living the famous hotel he had stayed at, he told the hotel management that he would like to thank the staff in person, and took the time to meet each staff member from the managers to the maids and the cooks.
But for many of us, it can be difficult to believe in our inner goodness and the inner goodness of people around us, as we have become habituated to our layers of covering and we take them for who we are.
Jack Kornfield invites us to practice sensing the underlying goodness in ourselves and others by shifting the frame of time, and imagining ourselves and the people around us as small children, still young and innocent. “Such innocence is there in all people if we are willing to see it”.
“Beneath the fears and needs, the aggression and pain, whoever we encounter is a being who, like us, has the tremendous potential for understanding and compassion, whose goodness is there to be touched.” – Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart
As Nelson Mandela said “it never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”
Self-reflection: Seeing the goodness in others
Closing the eyes for a moment, and bringing to mind a moment when someone saw the goodness in you and let you know. Connecting with your body and noticing how it feels to be seen in that way.
And now bring to mind someone in your life, who is close to you. Bring to mind the qualities you admire or value in that person. Let it fill you. Imagine sharing it with them. How does it affect your heart, your relationship with them?
If you are in a good frame of mind, you might also like to try this practice suggested by Jack Kornfield in his book the Wise Heart. As you wake up in the morning, set the clear intention that during the day you will look for the inner goodness of three people. Carry that intention in your heart as you speak and interact with them. Notice how it shapes your interaction with them, how it affects your own heart and your mood. Practice first with people whose inner goodness and beauty is easy to see, and then move to people for whom it is more difficult.
Opening the eyes again.
The practice of loving kindness deconditions the negativity bias
We spoke about this before, our evolution has led us to develop a negativity bias as the survival strategies of our ancestors have left their imprint on our nervous system and brain. Through this conditioning, we tend to focus more on threats, things that can go wrong, doom and gloom scenarios, feelings of separation and aversion.
This negativity bias impacts how we see ourselves and others. We tend to judge ourselves and others harshly, focussing on mistakes and flaws and forgetting to notice the qualities within us and in others.
Loving kindness starts with the intention to be better friends to ourselves and to others. It counter acts the sense of separation and threat that come from our conditioning. It teaches us to let go of our self-judgment and critique of others, so we can be kinder.
The Persian poet Rumi wrote: “Your task is not to seek for love but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against love and to embrace them.”
“We have this longing to love without holding back” we all want to be free to love. We are born ready to love and be loved, it is innate, wired into our nervous system, we need connection.
But sometimes this connection can get cut off, if there is a lack of resonance with our caregivers, as our relationship with our caregivers sets the neural conditioning in our brains that allows us to be attuned and open to others.
So it can happen when the connection between parents and children gets cut off because of mental or physical disease, addiction, death, accident or separation. Or the cut off comes from the pressure that comes from the culture that we live in: having to go along with society standards of success, intelligence, money, education etc…we live in competition and comparing minds and we stop trusting our own goodness.
The training in lovingkindness
The training in lovingkindness has two parts:
The first part is to train ourselves to see the goodness in ourselves and others
And the second part is to respond with love to what we see and to do it in a way that others can know about it.
The Norwegian writer Arne Garborg says “To love someone is to learn the song in their heart and sing it to them when they have forgotten”
There is this tendency to not speak out our loving, to not show it, to not let others know. Our parents might have not known how to tell us or show us that they loved us, and this creates a feeling of separation. Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who described being with her dying dad and he had been ambitious and work-driven all her life. She struggled from that sense of “I don’t matter, I’m not important, not interesting, not loveable”. Then as he grew older, things softened and they got a little closer. And right before he died she asked him : ”what was the greatest achievement of your life?” and he said “why, you , of course”. and that saying out louds made a huge difference to her.
Wisdom from children: “You really shouldn’t say I love you unless you mean it, but if you mean it you should say it a lot. People forget.”
Developing a loving heart
The capacity to love is inherent, we all have it and it can be developed. The practice of loving kindness is a way to cultivate your ability to love yourself and others, by repeatedly evoking the spirit of love within you.
The same phrases we use to send wishes of lovingkindness to ourselves are then turned toward others to wish them well. There are different categories of people to whom you can send benevolent thoughts, we tend to start with those who are easiest for us to love, then a neutral person, then the difficult persons in in our life, and eventually all beings everywhere.
This practice does not have to be limited to times of formal meditation. During any encounter throughout your day, you can practice loving kindness by silently looking for the good in each person and wishing them well.
You will find that as you send thoughts of well-being to others, your own well-being increases.
So the first group of people you send loving kindness to includes those you feel grateful to for enriching your life in some way: it could be a family member, a good friend, a beloved teacher, a pet, or a spiritual or public figure who has inspired you….
Starting this practice with the ones we love helps us to know that experience in our body and mind, and to deepen our capacity to love.
As part of this practice, it is also beneficial to set our intention to be present for the people around us whom we are close to. We might try to see them with fresh eyes, be curious and interested in what is going on in their life, and really listen to their answers. And then we can practice letting them know what we like about them, showing appreciation and expressing our love to them. This creates a beautiful field of love for the benefit of all.
The neutral person
We then expand the field of our loving kindness to include a person for whom we have little or no personal feeling at all: someone we don’t know and may never know. It could be someone who takes the same tram than us on the way to work, or someone who serves us at the local supermarket. You can start by reflecting that just like you, this person has their sorrows and joys, disappointments and successes, and that just like you, they just want to be happy and safe.
You can try this practice HERE.
Sharon Salzberg: Lovingkindness, 2002
Jack Kornfield: The Wise Heart, 2008
Jack Kornfield: No time like the present
Christiane Wolfe & Greg Serpa : A Clinician’s guide to teaching mindfulness, 2015
James Baraz, Awakening Joy, 2012