Lovingkindness Week. Woot woot!
At the beginning of the yoga classes I teach, I often offer a reading from the yoga sutras, or a Buddhist text, or a Sufi poet, as an inspiration for practice. Though I grew up Catholic, my relationship with the church went awry in my teens and now, right or wrong, I often find it easier to connect with more “exotic” spiritual texts. So I’ve been trying to revisit some prayers I grew up with, to regard them as poems or metaphorical stories like I do with the Asian texts that inspire me, and see if maybe there isn’t something to draw from in my own family’s religious background that could be useful to me today.
Lately I’ve been hanging out with the Saint Francis Prayer, which I remember really feeling as a child. This time around, there was a line that caught my eye:
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
Seek to love rather than to be loved? On the week after VALENTINE’S DAY?! Oh, St. Francis. You’re a sweatheart. But you must be trippin. Not only do I seek to be loved, I seek to be adored. Preferably, by the One, who I do sometimes wish would hurry up and get here, while I still have tight abs and viable eggs. Yeah, I said it.
Meanwhile -- the meditation challenge in Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness book has been offering different technique for practice each week. Week Three was working with strong emotions in meditation practice. This week, Week Four, its lovingkindness meditation. And herein lies Sharon’s genius, because from this program structure one can deduce that lovingkindness meditation is not primarily about working with strong emotions (although certainly they can arise during this practice). If it were, we could just do a two-for-one deal in Week Three, and be done with it. But no, we need a separate week just for this.
So what is lovingkindness then? And what makes it different from working with emotions?
Well, the word lovingkindness is usually a translation of the Pali word metta, also translated as friendliness. But metta meditation is really a concentration practice. Salzberg describes it as cultivating an ability to look at ourselves and others with kindness – so that rather than practicing lovingkindness as a feeling, we are practicing lovingkindness as an action. In the first week of this 28 day challenge, we used the breath as an object of concentration. This last week, we use traditional phrases of lovingkindess as our object. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. We gather and unify our attention around these phrases, offering them to ourselves and other beings, and though thoughts and emotions may arise, we don’t veer off and explore them as we would during a more insight-oriented meditation technique.
Sometimes as I do metta practice, I think of myself as a gardener making my way down a row – digging a hole (may you be safe), dropping a seed in (may you be happy), covering it with earth (may you be healthy), sprinkling it with water (may you live with ease). And then, moving on to the next one, cuz like it or not, it’s my job for the next twenty minutes on this cushion. Often, that action will result in an open-hearted feeling. But not always. And the good news is, even if no loving feeling comes – I still planted a garden.
Too often I slip into thinking of love as a Thing, that comes to me by way of a Person, that one day I will Get, and thereafter, will Have. I know I didn’t come up with this all on my own – I live in a culture that encourages this view of love with every radio hit and reality tv episode I enjoy more often than I care to admit. And that’s why I am incredibly grateful to lovingkindness practice this week, because it provided me a way in to that line in the St. Francis prayer, and a way in to a mode of loving I need to be reminded to return to as often as possible.
When I open my heart to others, the payoff has nothing to do with whether or not they love me back. I wish them peace and happiness as genuinely as possible, but the most tangible benefit is -- I get to have an open heart. Rather than looking outside myself for a love I can obtain, I get to generate love. Become a love machine, if you will. And that’s an amazing two-for-one deal. Love others, BE love, all for the price of one.
May all beings know love, joy, and freedom in this life, just as it is.
- Kate Johnson