Opening the Heart

O Magazine
Dec 1, 2000

Lovingkindness meditation gives you a new way to connect with everyone – even the difficult people in your life.

Rachel, who is one of my meditation students, surprised me with her enthusiastic greeting. “I’ve fallen in love with my dry cleaner!” she said. I’d last seen her six months earlier at a retreat I’d taught on the power of lovingkindness, or metta, a Buddhist term for boundless friendship toward oneself and others. Noticing how puzzled I looked at her sudden confession, she laughed. “No, I haven’t fallen in love with him romantically. My dry cleaner was the person I chose to focus on at the lovingkindness retreat.” I had instructed the participants to focus on someone they didn’t have strong feelings about, someone they normally might hardly notice, and to direct wishes for well-being toward that person. “Now every day when I meditate, I hold this man in my heart and consciously wish him well,” Rachel said. “I find that I’m eager to go into the store to see him. I really care about him.”

Rachel hadn’t deepened her relationship with this man because she owed him something, or felt obliged by a favor he’d done. She didn’t know the particulars of his life, his challenges or his sorrows. Rachel came to care genuinely for the dry cleaner simply because she’d begun including him in the attentiveness of her heart. By doing so, she awakened to the humanity of someone who’d barely registered before.

The practice of lovingkindness meditation brings to life our innate capacity for connecting to ourselves and others. The lovingkindness we cultivate breaks through the habit of indifference or judgment that keeps us feeling separate from others. A capacity for friendship and kindness exists within each of us, without exception. No matter what pain we might have gone through in our lives, that capacity is never destroyed. It may be – and often is – obscured, but it’s there.

The key to uncovering this potential is paying attention in a positive way. So often we don’t have the time or the patience to take an interest in people; instead we look around them or right through them. Being attentive to someone opens the door to discovering who she or he actually is. Like Rachel, we find that the people we relate to at work, at school, while doing errands no longer seem so much like strangers. Something happens to our world, and we don’t feel so alone.

The practice of lovingkindness meditation is simple and pragmatic. You can try it this way: Sit comfortably and close your eyes. You are going to recite silently certain phrases that express your heart’s intention to connect more deeply with yourself and others. Some examples are “May I be happy” or “May you be peaceful” or “May you find contentment.” Say the words without anticipating any particular response. If you try to force a warm, cuddly feeling, it could be totally false. Just see what emerges from this particular way of paying attention.

We begin with ourselves because truly caring for ourselves is the foundation for being able to care for others. Repeat silently, over and over, “May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I live with ease.” It’s fine to use any phrase or phrases that are significant to you.

After a few minutes, begin silently offering the phrases to someone you respect and love, a benefactor or good friend. “May you be happy. May you be safe. May you live with ease.” Following that, choose someone you feel fairly neutral toward, as Rachel did with her dry cleaner.

Then make a bold shift and call to mind people you don’t get along with, those you have hurt, those who have hurt you. This might call up an immediate surge of resentment or annoyance. Rather than giving up, go back to offering lovingkindness to yourself in the face of your own anger, impatience and distress. Over time our anger begins to subside as we care for ourselves and again practice opening our attention to those from whom we’re estranged. This part of the meditation can be hard, but it’s the place where we deeply contact our innate capacity for lovingkindness. Venturing beyond our preconceived limitations, we see how much love we have within.

Finally, offer the phrases to everyone, without exception and without distinction: “May all beings be happy. May all beings be safe. May all beings live with ease.” The care and kinship Rachel felt toward her dry cleaner, we feel toward everyone. As the Japanese poet Issa said, “Under the cherry blossoms’ shade, there are no strangers.”

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May all beings be happy ♡