Finding happiness in the midst of life’s difficulties (part 4): the practice of lovingkindness

We will spend the next few weeks exploring the practice of loving kindness as a pathway to happiness. As you know, the cultivation of kindness and loving presence is a central part of our mindfulness practice. It determines the quality of our attention, how we relate to the present moment. If you remember the two wings of mindfulness: the first wing is the wing of awareness, seeing clearly what’s happening, and the second is allowing with loving presence, not judging, not resisting, but rather opening to and accepting our experience with the kindness of our heart. In Asia, the words “present heart” are used to describe the practice of mindfulness, they are totally interwoven.

You can sense it for yourselves, right from the beginning, for us to keep going with our meditation practice, we need some warmth and kindness towards ourselves.  Our minds keep getting distracted over and over again. If we start judging ourselves and criticizing ourselves, we are more likely to give up on our practice.  Some self-compassion must arise if we are to keep going.

Recent studies show an improvement in the moods of people who practice loving kindness or compassion as a regular practice.

The practice of loving kindness is an intentional practice to open and awaken our heart and grow feelings of caring and warmth, first towards ourselves, then towards others, and to the whole of life. Today we will focus seeing the good in our ourselves and close ones, as a support to practicing lovingkindness.

The practice of loving kindness deconditions the negativity bias

We have spoken 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.

The psychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson  is famous for these words: “The brain is Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive”. Positive experiences don’t stick with us, we don’t notice them as much, or if we notice them, we tend to glance over them as we scan the rest of our experience for potential dangers and disappointments.

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. Most of us have recurring doubts about our worth, we worry that we are not good enough, successful enough…

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 gold underneath the clay

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.

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”. Or we can move forward and visualise the person at the end of their life, lying on their deathbed, open and vulnerable.

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.”

In her book Loving kindness, the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explains how we often serve as mirrors to each other in our lives. When we see the goodness in others, we are enabling them to become in turn aware of their inner goodness: “to flower from within, of self-blessing.”

I remember attending one of my first retreats a few years ago, as I was embarking on this journey to become a meditation teacher. I was in awe of one of my teachers and retreat leader, for gathering and guiding a large group of meditation teachers in training. As I expressed my admiration to her, she paused and looked at me deeply, and said: “What you see and admire in me is already in you.” I did not quite believe her at the time, but it stayed with me and inspired me.

Seeing the goodness in someone does not mean denying their difficult qualities or unskilful actions. It means that we choose to focus on the positive, while being fully aware of their negative or unwholesome qualities. This allows us to connect to the other person, instead of harbouring disappointment or resentment towards them. With that connection, it is easier for us to look at their more negative traits or actions through the eyes of a kind and caring friend.

Jack Kornfieldeach time we meet another human being and honour their dignity, we help those around us. Their hearts resonate with ours in exactly the same way the strings of an unplucked violin vibrate with the sounds a violin played nearby”. It is called limbic resonance.

You might be familiar with the Indian greeting Namaste, whereby people put their palms together and bow, when they meet each other. Namaste means “I honour the divine in you”, it acknowledges the true nature of each one of us, our innate goodness.  And when we treat others around us with respect and dignity, honouring their inner beauty, it creates a channel for their own goodness to come through and shine.

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.

Jack Kornfield tells this beautiful story of a high school teacher who did something similar for her students. One afternoon, she asked the students to stop their academic work and to copy the list of the names of all their classmates on a sheet of paper. She instructed them to use the rest of the period to write beside each name one thing they liked or admired about that student. At the end of the class she collected the papers.

Weeks later, she handed each student a sheet with his or her name on top. On it she had pasted all twenty-six good things the other students had written about that person. The students were deeply touched to read all the beautiful qualities their friends saw in them.

Three years later, one of the students was killed at the Guld War, and the teacher and many classmates attended the funeral. The mother of the student who had died approached the teacher and showed her a worn piece of paper, that had been unfolded and refolded many times. She explained that it was found in the student’s pocket after he was killed. It was the list of the twenty six things his classmates had admired. Another former student took her purse and pulled out her own carefully folded page, that she had always kept with her. Another student said that hers was framed and hanging in her house.

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 loving kindness practice

The capacity to love that is inherent in every one of us can be awakened and developed through the practice of loving kindness or metta, which is a 2,500-year-old practice. It is meant to cultivate a state of mind that radiates kindness, wishing well without wanting anything in return. Over time it helps awaken love when you are not feeling it, and deepen and amplify it when you are. It uses repeated phrases, images and feelings to evoke loving kindness and friendliness towards oneself and others. Traditionally, we begin with ourselves and continue opening our hearts to eventually include all beings.

In this practice it helps to remember our fundamental wish to be happy and safe, and how this is a universal longing. You might like to picture yourself and others as the little child you used to be, filled with hope and dreams and innocence, bringing to life this spirit within yourself. And you might imagine directing your love toward this child, maybe holding her, as you do so. 

If you find it hard to awaken these feelings of love for yourself, it can also help to bring to mind a person or a pet who loves you or loved you dearly. It could be a grand-parent or a parent, a carer, a sibling, a dog or cat, a teacher…bringing to mind the feeling of being loved and cared for unconditionally, knowing that it’s possible.

I invite you to experiment with this practice to see if it is useful to you.

At first this meditation may feel mechanical or awkward and even bring up its opposite, feelings of irritation and anger. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be held in a spirit of friendliness and kind affection.

Typical phrases for sending lovingkindness include:

May I be filled with lovingkindness

May I be well

May I be at peace and at ease

May I be happy

May I be safe

May I accept myself just as I am

Each time we say these words, we are planting seeds that will eventually blossom into love. You are welcome to choose different words that resonate with you. The more fully we can embrace the meaning of these simple good wishes, touching the feelings behind each word, the more effective they are. This is a practice of generosity, you are giving yourself and others a gift of loving attention.

Also remember that the heart opens and closes naturally. The idea is not to have the heart open all the time. The heart is like a beautiful flower that opens in the sun and closes at night. So the idea is to drop any expectation of what we should be feeling during the loving kindness meditation. Simply to include it all. The practice is to recite and bring the quality, the best of your intentions, and to love what is.

And remember there is no hurry in this, what we are doing is planting seeds. It is a practice:

Just as water drops on a stone and gradually wears it away, or just as the raindrops accumulate in the water jar, so too, drop by drop, the practice of love begins to bring the heart to flower.


Sharon Salzberg: Loving kindness, 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

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