A guest post by Daniel Zandt of Stillminds.
As a society, we spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be happy.
Take the burgeoning field of positive psychology, which seeks to lead us on the path to exceptional mental health, not just freedom from disorder. We don’t want to simply survive. We want to thrive as happy, productive individuals. We want meaning and purpose, as well as fulfilling relationships and experiences.
There are as many opinions on how to find happiness as there are scientists and researchers. Yet one simple dictum has been cited again and again in ancient wisdom and modern science: if you want to feel happier, do more for others. As the old Chinese proverb reminds, “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.”
Says happiness researcher and bestselling author of The How of Happiness, “When it comes to pursuing activities that can boost our happiness, the proverb gets it right: helping someone else is a surefire strategy. Studies that I and others have conducted show that practicing kindness generates significant increases in happiness.”
Helping others doesn’t necessarily mean donating millions to charity or volunteering for fifty hours a week. Rather, it can involve approaching life with a fresh generosity of spirit, a simple giving-ness that is its own joy.
But how can we develop these qualities? Loving kindness meditation, or “metta bhavana,” offers us the key. The sanskrit word for meditation is “bhavana” which literally means “to cultivate.” In this reading, we can see meditation as a process of cultivating positive qualities of mind, rather than some state of hyper-concentration. So “metta bhavana” means the “cultivation of loving kindness.” Loving kindness itself can be defined as judgmental, compassionate acceptance and awareness of ourselves and others.
How do you practice loving kindness meditation? Here are the steps:
Begin your meditation by sitting in a comfortable position, either on the floor with your legs crossed and your hands sitting loosely in your lap, or sitting up straight in a chair with your legs uncrossed, feet on the floor, and hands resting in your lap. Avoid lying down or getting too comfortable, as you don’t want to fall asleep.
Once you are seated, close your eyes and take two or three deep cleansing breathes, and then begin counting each breath going from one to ten. (Count on the out breath.) Do this two or three times until you feel calm and relaxed. Then begin the loving kindness practice as outlined below.
The Short Version
The practice comprises a simple method in five stages. We cultivate an attitude of kindness towards . . .
- a good friend;
- someone to whom we hold no particularly positive or negative feelings;
- someone with whom we are struggling;
- and finally, to all living beings.
Bringing to mind each of these people as you are in a meditative state, we say to ourselves: “May I/they be happy,” “May I/they be well,” “May I/they be loved.”
There are no hard-and-fast rules. You might wish to do progress through all stages or just one, dwelling on each for seconds or minutes. Equally, there is nothing wrong with altering the words slightly. Different teachers will have different variations. But the goal is the same — to offer kindness, compassion, and unconditional love. Steven Smith, a guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society, describes loving kindness as “love with wisdom.” He writes this on The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website:
It has no conditions; it does not depend on whether one “deserves” it or not; it is not restricted to friends and family; it extends out from personal categories to include all living beings. There are no expectations of anything in return. This is the ideal, pure love, which everyone has in potential. We begin with loving ourselves, for unless we have a measure of this unconditional love and acceptance for ourselves, it is difficult to extend it to others.
The basic method outlined above can provide a good basis for deepening the practice of loving kindness. We can bring a more varied, open approach. Ultimately how you incorporate other elements (if at all) is up to you. I was fortunate enough to learn the value of not always seeing meditation as a fixed thing. The following are some of my own suggestions and some that I’ve learned from others.
If we are torn by resentment, self-blame, frustration or any other poisonous emotions, we cannot give in a positive way with others. Especially in Western culture, where we are bombarded by images of “ideal” people in all we see and hear, it is easy to feel inadequate. We may find it beneficial to begin by naming any hurtful feelings in ourselves, before bringing to them the gaze of kindness.
Furthermore, the exercise of reflecting on all in our lives for which we are grateful can provide an enriching precursor to loving kindness practice. Gratitude helps dispel the negativity we experience at a perceived lack on our lives. As you meditate on compassion toward yourself, you might say:
May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
Somebody We Like
You may want to begin this stage by deepening your appreciation of your friend. Bring to mind a person to whom you wish to send loving kindness and consider their positive qualities — the light of goodness you see in them. If they are experiencing difficulty you can wish them a speedy recovery and inner healing. Us the same statements above, replacing the word “I” with the name of your friend. Allow some time for reflection on your friend after you make these statements.
A Neutral Person
This part of the mindful practice presents its own unique challenge — that of feeling loving kindness to someone whom we are indifferent towards. It is unusual not to harbor some kind of feeling to a person we know, even if the acquaintance is only a slight one. It’s likely, then, that whoever we choose is only a passing figure in our life — a store clerk, the mailman, or someone we pass on the street.
It can help to spend a few moments to imagine what this person’s life is like, to foster a sense of your shared experience. How might they be like you? Do they have a family, children, a life outside the role you see them in? What might their dreams, hopes or ambitions be? Come to view them not as a stranger to you, but as someone who could be your friend or part of your family.
If you don’t know the person’s name, give them a name, visualize them in your mind’s eye, and repeat the above statements using the name you give them.
A Difficult Person
In this stage we attempt to replace feelings of ill-will with kindness. This can be a supremely difficult thing to do. Repeat the statements above, using the person’s name, as you visualize them. I always like to keep the phrase, “As best I can,” in mind if the hurt runs particularly deep. It can also prove beneficial to start with someone who you find only mildly antagonistic, graduating to more difficult people from there.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the only effect of holding negative feelings is to hurt yourself. Acknowledge (call by name) any pain that arises in response to thinking about this person. Notice where in your body this feeling manifests and breathe awareness and peace into that place.
If it feels appropriate, you may wish to consciously bring to mind any ignored positive qualities of this person or to adopt their point of view. Keep in mind the fact that all human beings, knowingly or unknowingly, are acting in accordance with what they believe will make them happy.
To All Beings
In this final stage we foster a sense of kindliness to all beings. This is a very nourishing feeling to have. I prefer to visualize rays of loving kindness emanating from my body in all directions as I say the phrases above. You might also add, “May all beings in the air, on land, and in the water be safe, happy, healthy, and free from suffering.” This stage is particularly helpful in connecting you with all other living things through the power of loving kindness and compassion.
This meditation, practiced regularly, can develop in us an attitude to life that is infinitely beneficial to our emotional well-being, peace of mind, and joy. How you adapt the practice to your personal circumstances is ultimately up to you, but it remains at its heart a deeply enlivening and potentially transformative process.
Bio: Daniel Zandt writes at Stillmind, a blog about meditation for very busy people.