week 4 theme
Lovingkindness is sometimes described as extending friendship to ourselves and others – not in the sense of liking everyone, or dispensing universal approval, but more as an inner knowing that our lives are all inextricably connected. Lovingkindness is a power of the heart that honors this connection. When we practice it, we acknowledge that every one of us shares the same wish to be happy, and the same vulnerability to change and suffering.
In the movie Dan in Real Life, starring Steve Carell as a single dad, there’s a line that seems to sum up the nature of lovingkindness. One of the characters says, straight from the heart, “Love is not a feeling, it’s an ability.” Lovingkindness isn’t the same as passion or romantic love, and it’s not sappy sentimentality. We don’t necessarily have to like or even approve of everyone to whom we offer lovingkindness. Focusing our attention on inclusion and caring creates powerful connections that challenge the idea of an “us/them” world by offering a way to see everyone as “us.”
The key to lovingkindness is recognizing that all human beings want to be part of something fulfilling or meaningful; that we’re all vulnerable to change and loss; that our lives can turn on a dime – in an instant we could lose a loved one, our life savings, a job.
Take a few moments this week to look back over your week of practice with two guided reflections from Sharon.
Recommended reading for Week Four of the Challenge is pages 152 – 160 and pages 177 – 183 in the second edition of the book, “Real Happiness”.
I believe that Lovingkindness is being developed in any skillful practice of meditation, even if it’s not named or articulated. If we go back to the first exercise we practiced, developing concentration by settling our attention on a chosen object, like the feeling of the breath, we see the quiet role of lovingkindness. When we discover that it usually isn’t 800 breaths before our minds wander. More commonly, it is one breath, maybe two or three, and then we are gone. Then comes the moment when we realize we’ve been distracted. Our common response would be to feel that we’ve failed, to rail against ourselves.
What we practice, though, is letting go gently rather than harshly, and returning to the object of concentration with kindness and compassion for ourselves. Thus, those qualities deepen even if we don’t give voice to those words.
Lovingkindness is also present in mindfulness of the body and thoughts and emotions. This is the non-judgmental quality within mindfulness, that sees what our experience is without adding shame, or blame, or comparing, or reifying negativity, as in “I am such an angry person and always will be.” The more mindful we are, the more kindness and compassion towards ourselves, we are cultivating.
And of course, there are meditation techniques that are specifically devoted to the strengthening of qualities like lovingkindness and compassion, and that’s what we will dedicate this week of practice to. Lovingkindness opens our attention and makes it more inclusive, transforming the way we view ourselves and the world. Instead of being so caught up in the construct of “self” and “other” and “us” and “them” that we tend to walk around with, we see things much more in terms of connection to all. And the transformation from alienation to connection begins with ourselves.
In contrast to our usual ways of thinking, which might regard lovingkindness and compassion as gifts, we can do nothing to cultivate, or immediate emotional reactions we enjoy but can’t stabilize, these qualities are seen as skills we can develop through meditation. Not in the sense of forcing ourselves to feel, or even worse, pretend to feel something that is not there. Instead, if we learn to pay attention in a different, more open way – seeing the good within ourselves instead of just fixating on what we don’t like, noticing those we usually ignore or look right through, letting go of categories and assumptions when we relate to others – we are creating the conditions for lovingkindness and compassion to flow. It is worth undertaking the experiment for this week. At the end of the week, it will be time to reassess your experience throughout, and if you wish to pursue meditation, think about which technique seems most inviting for now.
YOUR SUBWAY CAR
Oftentimes, patterns in our lives have us returning to a “crowded subway car”—a public place that triggers negative emotions toward our fellow human beings. Let’s anticipate the next time we enter such a space. Where in your commute, workday, familial responsibilities, or elsewhere do you often feel anger or impatience towards strangers? Envision entering that space and silently extending lovingkindness to all within it. How does this change how you feel here? Apply this practice the next time you find yourself approaching this space.
PREDICT YOUR GOOD
Ponder an upcoming social event, job situation, or intimidating activity. Are you already rehearsing potential negative outcomes? Let’s change that. Write a note of appreciation to yourself, such as I worked really hard on this presentation or I was nervous to try this class but showed up anyway. Tuck the note where you’ll see it shortly after the event so you can pull it out and see what happens when you include a positive perspective.
Journal prompt Transcript
A CIRCLE OF COMPASSION
Struggling to cultivate self-compassion? Write out a current painful or challenging situation, detailing your experiences and emotions. Now, picture a trusted loved one sitting next to you. Imagine they are describing this scenario to you as if it was theirs. How do you respond? Write down what you imagine your reaction to be. Now compare how you speak to this friend and how you have been speaking to yourself in facing this challenge. If you’ve been harsh, try responding to yourself as you would to your friend. What’s it like to speak kindly to yourself?