by Ven. Pannyavaro
Loving-kindness is a meditation practice taught by the Buddha to develop the mental habit of selfless or altruistic love. You can find in the Metta Sutta the teaching the Buddha gave on how to develop loving-kindness: “Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness. It dissipates if we supplant it with thoughts based on loving-kindness”. Dhp.
It is a fact of life that many people are troubled by negative mind states yet do little about it in terms of developing skills to deal with it. Yet even when the mind goes sour it is within most people’s capacity to arouse feelings of loving-kindness to sweeten it. Loving-kindness, as a meditation practice, specifically retrains the mind to overcome all forms of negativity. It brings about positive attitudinal changes as the meditation systematically develops the quality of ‘loving-acceptance’. In this way, it acts as a form of self-psychotherapy, a way of healing the troubled mind to free it from its pain and confusion.
Loving-kindness is practised as the first of a series of meditations that produce four qualities of love: Friendliness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Appreciative Joy (mudita) and Equanimity (upekkha). The quality of ‘friendliness’ is expressed as warmth that reaches out and embraces others. When loving-kindness matures it naturally overflows into compassion, because it empathizes with people’s difficulties; while on the other hand one needs to be wary of pity, as its the near enemy, merely mimicking the quality of concern without empathy. The positive expression of empathy is an appreciation of other people’s good qualities or good fortune rather than feelings of jealousy towards them, which is the enemy of appreciative joy. This series of meditations comes to maturity in the state of on-looking equanimity. This equanimity has to be cultivated within the context of this series of meditations or else it tends to manifest as its near enemy, indifference or aloofness. It remains caring and on looking with an equal spread of feeling and acceptance toward all people, relationships and situations without discrimination.
Systematic Loving-kindness Practice
To receive the full benefits of loving-kindness meditation it needs to be developed systematically to the level of meditative absorption or one-pointedness. By developing the five absorption factors of concentration through the systematic practice it will counteract the Five Mental Hindrances: Sensuality; all forms of Ill Will, Mental inertia; Restlessness and Skeptical Doubt. When the meditator achieves full concentration five absorption factors are present: the first two are casual factors: Applied thought and Sustained thought, followed by three effects: Rapture, Ease-of-mind and One-pointedness or unification of mind. The five absorption factors have a one to one correspondence to the five mental hindrances or obstacles for the meditator: Applied thought, by arousing energy and effort, overcomes the hindrance of sloth and torpor; Sustained thought, by steadying the mind, overcomes skeptical doubt which has the characteristic of wavering; Rapture with its uplifting, effervescence, prevails over feelings of ill-will; Ease-of-mind, by relieving accumulated stress, counteracts restlessness or agitation of mind; while One-pointedness holds the mind wanderings in the sense-fields to inhibit sensuality. The benefit of achieving deep concentration with this positive mind set is that is will tend to imprint the new positive conditioning while overriding the old negative patterns. In this way, old negative habits are changed freeing one to form new positive ways of relating.
How to do loving-kindness meditation
The practice begins with developing loving acceptance of yourself. If resistance is experienced then it indicates feelings of unworthiness are present. No matter, this means there is work to be done, as the practice itself is designed to overcome any feelings of self-doubt or negativity. Then you are ready to develop loving-kindness to others.
Four Types of Persons are chosen to send loving-kindness to:
Starting with yourself, then moving systematically from person to person in the above order will have the effect of breaking down the barriers between the four types people and yourself. It is at the same time breaking down the divisions within your own mind, the source of much of the conflict we experience. Just a word of caution, it is best if you choose a member of the same sex or if you have a sexual bias to your own sex then a person of the opposite sex. This is because of the risk that the near enemy of loving-kindness, lust, can be aroused. Try different people to practice on as some people do not easily fit into the above categories, but do keep to the prescribed order.
Ways of arousing feelings of loving-kindness:
The visualizations, reflections and the repetition of loving-kindness are devices to help you arouse positive feelings. You can use all of them or one that works best for you. When the positive feelings arise switch from the devices to the feelings, as it is the feelings that are the primary focus. Keep the mind fixed on the feeling, if it strays bring it back to the device or if the feeling weakens or is lost then return to the device, e.g. use the visualization to bring back or strengthen the feeling.
The second stage is Directional Pervasion where you systematically project the aroused feeling of loving-kindness to all points of the compass: north, south, east and west, up and down, and all around. This directional pervasion can be enhanced by bring to mind friends and communities in the cities, towns and countries around the world.
Non-specific Pervasion follows, which tends to spontaneously happen as the practice matures and is not discriminating. There is no specific object but just naturally radiating feelings of universal love. The practice has then come to maturity in that it has changed particular love, preferential love, which is an attached love to an all-embracing, unconditional love!
Loving-kindness is a heart meditation and should not be seen as just a formal sitting practice removed from everyday life. So take your good vibes outside into the streets, at home, at work, into your relationships. Applying the practice to daily life is a matter of purposefully directing a friendly attitude and having openness toward everybody you relate to without discrimination.