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Opening the Heart with Lovingkindness

by Sharon Salzberg: I’ve always said that lovingkindness and compassion are inevitably woven throughout meditation practice  Happiness -awakeneven if the words are never used or implied, no matter what technique or method we are using. Everyone’s mind wanders, without doubt, and we always have to start over. Everyone resists or dislikes the thought of or is too tired to meditate at times, and we have to be able to begin again. Everyone loses touch with their aspiration, and we need the heart to return to what we really care about. All of this is based on developing greater lovingkindness and compassion.

This has intrigued me from the beginning of my acquaintance with meditation practice: the big life lessons we learn to embody through meditation come in these itty bitty little packages. If we are trying to settle our attention on the feeling of the breath, for example, and find we have to continually start over after every two breaths opens the door to a bout of distraction, that doesn’t seem like a very big deal. But it actually is.

What we are actually practicing is the art of beginning again, not accumulating a tally of more and more breaths before our attention wanders. As we hone the ability to let go of distraction, to begin again without rancor or judgment, we are deepening forgiveness and compassion for ourselves. And in life, we find we might make a mistake, and more easily begin again, or stray from our chosen course and begin again. We are practicing this in meditation whether we are working with the breath, or awareness of body or emotions, or doing the formal phrases of lovingkindness practice.

This is the meta-lesson, forged in the crucible of our effort, our openness to trying, the tenderness of our expanding hearts, our laughter at ourselves, our tears, our humility: we can always begin again. And we will have to.

As the first 28 day challenge based on my most recent book, “Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program,” is drawing to a close, this is the thread I see repeated in the words of the participants, as they describe their final week, and the results of the practice:

In “Real Happiness” Sharon tells us about one of her students who thought “the whole idea of lovingkindness meditation seemed hokey and rote to her, but she focused on the phrases nevertheless.” I’ve thought the same exact thing about lovingkindness meditation. It’s a group hug, mushy, mawkish. As much as I like the idea of lovingkindness in theory, I’ve never taken it very seriously. I might say to myself “May I be happy,” a few times and think of my mom for a while, but sooner or later — usually around the time I start trying to extend that warm feeling to some jerk or other — it just starts to feel silly and I go back to the serious business of trying to develop concentration.

Not today. Today I’m going to try to do some lovingkindness in earnest. Why the change of heart? To be honest, it’s because it’s been a long week. I’ve felt defeated and have been harder on myself than usual — mostly about perceived transgressions against my body. You’re not sleeping enough. You’re not working out enough or meditating enough. How can you eat so much crappy food? It’s endless and it’s exhausting. So today I’ve decided to try to meet that negativity head on and give myself a little love for once.

As I was I was doing the dishes on Monday morning I was thinking about who I might think of during Loving-Kindness meditation this week. I was thinking of one person particular, a mother at my children’s school who has made some very insensitive remarks regarding my 10-year old’s seizures. (I am being really polite here, As one friend asked — did you hit her?) I was all set to really focus on her when I was set to bring to mind a person whom you might have a difficulty or conflict with. I was ready!

But something happened, she faded far away as did her behavior, but during the sequence where we think of someone we have gratitude for there seemed to be a never ending parade of people that came to mind.

I learned how easy it can be to put all our energy into the negative, even though the positive so far out weighs it. I saw that fear and ignorance have very little power when they are set against the landscape of love and goodwill.

— Christine Califra-Schiff, Writer

Love is a verb. Like cooking, painting, gardening — when love is present, there is evidence. When I am loving, I am doing something.

I regularly do the lovingkindness meditation for my Grandmother. Often times I hear and see her saying the phrases for me.

So often, we don’t know what to do in life. We don’t know what to say or how to respond to a situation or person. Sometimes that person is ourselves. Whatever else is being called for, now you can say the phrases with sincerity and certainty. This is your blessing. This is your seal. This is your love made sustenance. This is your love made real.

— Elesa Commerse, Meditation Teacher Working with Cancer Patients

Lovingkindess meditation… continuing with me. Not so easy tonight. Find myself just going back to the breath… trying some gathas… mountain… solid. In… out. Then very vividly… there is my dad. I can see him as sure as he is sitting there. He died 15 years ago. I just stay with it. My thoughts are about how he would always be at school early… in his classroom… eat his lunch in his classroom… and be in his classroom after school was out. He made sure his students knew he was there if they wanted some help or come in and chat. I had not had such vivid thoughts of him for quite awhile. It was nice to have him there. He was sitting at his desk. I remembered how much I loved him. I was feeling calmer… and then the thought… “I am here if you need me.” I know it sounds a little nuts… but I just felt warm… calm… like I had just been hugged. I needed that. It was nice to have him there for a few minutes. It reminded me I am worth loving… if that makes sense. May I be safe from harm. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. It just made more sense and I could genuinely wish these things for myself.


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