As the pace of our lives continues to accelerate, driven by a host of forces seemingly beyond our control, more and more of us are finding ourselves drawn to engage in loving-kindness meditation, in this radical act of being. We are moving in the direction of meditative awareness for many reasons, not the least of which may be to maintain our individual and collective sanity, or recover our perspective and sense of meaning, or simply to deal with the outrageous stress and insecurity of this age.
By stopping and intentionally falling awake to how things are in this moment, purposefully, without succumbing to our own reactions and judgments, and by working wisely with such occurrences with a healthy dose of self-compassion when we do succumb, and by our willingness to take up residency for a time in the present moment in spite of all our plans and activities aimed at getting somewhere else, completing a project or pursuing desired objects or goals, we discover that such an act is both immensely, discouragingly difficult and yet utterly simple, profound, hugely possible after all, and restorative of mind and body, soul and spirit right in that moment. It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.
Formal loving-kindness meditation can function to soften one’s relationship to overwhelmingly afflictive mind states, so that we can avoid succumbing completely to their energies. It makes them more approachable and it makes them less intractable.
Loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity are rigorous meditation practices, used for the most part to cultivate one-pointed concentrated attention, out of which the powers of these evoked qualities emerge, transfiguring the heart. Just naming these qualities of heart explicitly and making their role explicit in our practice may help us to recognize them when they arise spontaneously during mindfulness practice. As well as to incline the heart and mind in that direction more frequently, especially in difficult times.
These practices, and in particular loving-kindness meditation, can often serve very practically as a necessary and skillful antidote to mind states such as ferocious rage, which may, at the time of their arising, be simply too strong to attend to via direct observation unless ones practice is very developed. At such times formal loving-kindness meditation can function to soften one’s relationship to such overwhelmingly afflictive mind states, so that we can avoid succumbing completely to their energies. It makes them more approachable and it makes them less intractable.
But with practice direct observation itself, on its own, becomes the embodiment of loving-kindness and compassion all by itself, and is capable of embracing any mind state, however afflictive are toxic. And in the seeing of it and the knowing of it—in open-hearted non-reactive, nonjudgmental presence—we can see into the nature of the anger or grief for whatever it is. And in the seeing, in the embracing of it, in the knowing of it, as we have seen, it attenuates, weakens, evaporates, very much like touching a soap bubble or like writing on water. What emerges in such moments is nothing less than loving-kindness itself arising naturally from extended silence, without any invitation because it’s never not already here.
A 40-Minute Loving-Kindness Meditation
1. In a dignified sitting posture or lying down, whatever you prefer, bring your awareness to the breath and the body as a whole. Breathe and rest here, establishing a relatively stable platform of moment-to-moment awareness, riding on the waves of the breath.
2. When you feel comfortable resting with the flow of your breathing, picture someone in your life who loves you, or who loved you unconditionally. Evoking and giving yourself over to feeling the qualities of the selfless love and kindness they accord you, or accorded you, and the whole aura or field of their love for you—right here right now breathing with these feelings, bathing in them, resting in the warmth and radiance of their heartfelt embracing of you just as you are. Or drinking in the experience that you are unequivocally and unconditionally loved and accepted as you are—without having to be different, without having to be worthy of their love, without having to be particularly deserving.
In fact, you may not feel particularly worthy or deserving. That does not matter. It is in fact irrelevant. The relevant fact is that you were or are loved. Their love is for you, just as you are. For who you are now, already, and perhaps always have been. Allowing your own heart to bask in these feelings, to be cradled in them, entrained into them. To be rocked moment by moment in the swinging rhythmic beating of the loving heart of another. And in the cadences of your own breathing, allowing your heart to be held and bathed in this way, by the warmth of this radiant pulsing field of loving-kindness meditation.
3. If you encounter some difficulty in bringing to mind or conjuring up such a person from memory in this moment, then see if you can imagine someone treating you in that way. And imagine with great vividness the feelings of love and kindness and regard. And that can actually serve equally well in this practice.
4. Whenever you feel ready, see if you can become the source as well as the object of these same feelings. In other words, take on these feelings for yourself as if they were your own rather than those of another. Lingering as best you can with the rhythmic beating of your own heart. Cradling in your own heart these feelings of love and acceptance and kindness for yourself beyond judgment of any kind. Just basking in feelings of loving kindness akin to the all-loving embrace of a mother for her child—Where you are simultaneously both the mother and the child. Resting here in these feelings as best you can, from moment to moment. Bathing in your own kind regard. Your own complete acceptance of yourself as you are right here in this very moment. Letting this feeling be self-sustaining, natural, in no way forced or coerced.
Rest in Loving-Kindness Meditation
5. In resting here in this field of loving-kindness, this embrace of loving-kindness, you may find it useful to whisper to yourself the following phrases, or hear them being whispered to you by the wind, by the air, by your breath, by the world, or even asserted more strongly with great feeling: May I be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May I be happy and contented. May I be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May I experience ease of well-being.
6. Gently at your own pace, over and over, inwardly whispering, inwardly hearing, feeling, sensing, affirming: May I be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May I be happy and contented. May I be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May I experience ease of well-being.
May I be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May I be happy and contented. May I be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May I experience ease of well-being.
7. At first, it may feel artificial to be saying such things to yourself or even thinking about them. After all, who is this “I” who is wishing this? And who is the “I” who’s receiving these wishes? Ultimately, both vanish into the feeling of being safe and free from harm in this moment, into the feeling of being contented and happy in this moment, the feeling of being whole in this moment, since you already are whole. The feeling of resting in ease of well-being far from the dis-ease and fragmentation we endure so much of the time. This feeling, this very feeling, is the essence of loving-kindness.
But, you might object, if this is a selfless practice, why am I focusing on myself? On my own feelings of safety and well-being? On my own happiness?
8. But, you might object. If this is a selfless practice, why am I focusing on myself? On my own feelings of safety and well-being? On my own happiness? One response would be: because you are not separate from the universe that gave rise to you and so are as worthy an object of loving-kindness as anything else or anyone else. Your loving-kindness cannot be either loving or kind if it does not include yourself. But at the same time you don’t need to worry. It’s not limited to yourself. Because the field of loving-kindness is limitless. If you like, you can think of the loving-kindness meditation, as we’ve been engaging it up to this point, on a relative level at least, as tuning your instrument before you play it out in the world. In this case, tuning the instrument is itself a huge act of love and kindness not a means to an end.
9. Once you have established a fairly stable field of loving-kindness around yourself and have lingered here for a time in the feeling of being held and cradled and rocked in its embrace, you can intentionally expand the field of the heart just as we sometimes expand the field of awareness in the mindfulness practice. We can expand the field of loving-kindness around our own heart and our own being, inviting other beings either singly or en masse into this growing embrace. This is not always so easy to do. And so it’s helpful to start with one person for whom you naturally harbor feelings of loving-kindness, and only if you care to explore it. Otherwise, you can simply keep embracing yourself as the recipient of your own love and kindness, either using the phrases we are already using or modifying them to suit yourself.
Open Your Heart
10. So, if you are open to expanding the field of loving-kindness out from your own heart and your own body and your own being, in your mind’s eye and in your heart, evoking for now the feeling or image of an individual, a person for whom you have great affection, someone you were close to emotionally. Can you hold this person in your heart with the same quality of loving-kindness that you have been directing towards yourself? Whether it is a child or a parent, a brother or a sister, a grandparent or other relative near or distant, a close friend or a cherished neighbor, singly or together. Breathing with them or him or her in your heart. Holding them in your heart. Imagining them in your heart as best you can. Because, just to let you know, this practice is so intrinsically powerful that none of the imaging of yourself or others needs to be very vivid for it to be hugely effective. And wishing them well: May she, he, they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May she, he, they be happy and contented. May she, he, they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May she, he, they experience ease of well-being.
Linger, moment by moment, in the field of loving-kindness within your own heart. With these phrases as you voice them silently to yourself, and even more with the feeling behind them. Repeating them in order over and over, not mechanically, not like a mantra, but mindfully with full awareness, knowing what you’re saying. Feeling the intention behind the feeling, the intention and feeling behind each phrase. May she, he, they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May she, he, they be happy and contented. May she, he, or they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May she, he, or they experience ease of well-being.
11. Here, whenever you’re ready, if you care to, you can invite into the field of the loving heart, those for whom your relationship is more neutral, or even people you don’t know at all, or who you have only heard of secondhand friends of your friends for instance. And again, cradling him, her, or them in your heart, wishing them well: May she, he, or they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May she, he, or they be happy and contented. May she, he, or they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May she, he, or they experience ease of well-being.
If you find the mind wandering or you find yourself struggling at a certain point, just as in the cultivation of mindfulness, just notice what’s going on in the mind.
12. If you find the mind wandering or you find yourself struggling at a certain point, just notice what’s going on in the mind. Perhaps feeling the sense of struggling in maybe even maintaining your focus or your concentration. And simply, over and over again, including yourself in the field of loving-kindness and coming back to the phrases whispered, spoken inwardly to yourself, resting in the feeling radiating out of those phrases, and underneath that, out of your heart. Moment by moment by moment, with whoever it is, singly or together, to whom you’re sending loving-kindness.
13. And from here, if you care to, you can once again expand the field of awareness to include one or more individuals who are actually problematic for you in one way or another, with whom you share a difficult past, perhaps. Who may have harmed you in one way or another who for whatever reason you consider to be more of an adversary or an obstacle than a friend. This does not mean that you are being asked to forgive them for what they may have done to hurt you, or to cause you or others harm. You are simply recognizing that they too are human beings, that they too have aspirations, that they too, in all likelihood, desire to be happy and safe.
14. So, as best you can, and only to the degree that you feel ready for it, or at least open to experimenting with it, extending loving-kindness to them as well, for all the difficulties and problems lying between you: May she, he, or they be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May she, he, or they be happy and contented. May she, he or they be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May she, he or they experience ease of well-being.
Just as with the cultivation of mindfulness, where we can rest with one object of attention or expand the field to include varying levels of objects of attention, so in this loving-kindness meditation we can linger for days, weeks, months, or years at differing levels of the practice, all of which are equally valid and equally healing, and all of which ultimately include each other.
Turn Your Attention Inward for a Moment
15. So, if you wish to cultivate loving-kindness and direct it only toward yourself now, in this period of practice, that is perfectly fine and you can just keep and sustain that dimension of the loving-kindness meditation underneath my voice and what I’m saying. Or if you care to direct loving-kindness only toward those who you know and love, or even one person over and over again, that is just fine too. Any level at all at which you care to cultivate and direct loving-kindness is fine, is perfect. And ultimately embodies all the others anyway. For, over time, it’s likely (since your own capacity for loving, whether you know it or not, is infinite; that is simply the nature of love, that it’s limitless and therefore actually an infinite supply) that you may find yourself naturally drawn to invite more and more beings into the field of loving-kindness radiating from your own heart and your own being in all directions, inwardly and outwardly. Or you may find that at times they just slip in, unbidden somehow. This is interesting to note. If you are not consciously inviting them in, how come they are showing up anyway? And how are they getting in? Hmmmm… Maybe your heart is bigger and wiser than you think?
16. In the spirit of the boundlessness of the heart and of love itself, we can expand the field of loving-kindness even further to include our neighbors and neighborhood, our community, our state, our country, the entire world if you will. You can include your pets, all animal life, all plant life, all life, the entire biosphere, all sentient beings. You can also get very specific and include specific people, even political leaders in the field of your loving-kindness. Difficult as that may be if you differ strongly with them and find yourself judging them and even their basic humanity harshly. All the more reason for including them. Being human, they are worthy of loving-kindness and perhaps will respond to it by softening in ways your mind cannot possibly imagine. And perhaps the same goes for you as well.
You can also specifically include in the field of loving-kindness of those less fortunate than yourself who are exploited at work or at home. All those who are imprisoned justly or unjustly. All those who are at the mercy of their enemies. All those who are hospitalized or sick or dying. All those who are caught up in chaos, who are living in fear, who are suffering in any way shape or form. Whatever brought them to this point in their lives, just as we do, they all want to experience ease of well-being rather than dis-ease and fragmentation, just as we do. They all want to be happy and contented. They all desire to be whole and healthy. They all desire to be safe and free from harm.
So we recognize this way in which we are all united in our common aspiration to be happy and not to suffer and we wish them well: May all beings, near and far, be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May all beings, near and far, be happy and contented. May all beings, near and far, be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. May all beings, near and far, experience ease of well-being.
May all beings, near and far, be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May all beings, near and far, be happy and contented. May all beings, near and far, be healthy and whole to whatever degree possible. And man all beings, near and far, experience ease of well-being.
17. And it need not stop here. Why not include the entire Earth in the field of loving-kindness? Why not embrace the very earth that is our home? That is an organism in its own right, that is in a sense one body, a body that can be thrown off balance by her own actions, conscious and unconscious, in ways that create huge threats to the life it nurtures and to the intelligences embedded within all aspects of that life, animal and plant and mineral that interacts so seamlessly in the natural world. And so we can expand the field of the loving heart even further the field of our loving kindness.
Once again, to include this time the planet as a whole and out beyond that the entirety of the universe in which our Earth is merely an atom and we, not even a quark.
May our planet and the whole universe be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May our planet and the whole universe be happy and contented. May this planet and the universe be healthy and whole. May our planet and the whole universe experience ease of well-being. May our planet and the whole universe be safe and protected and free from inner and outer harm. May our planet and the whole universe be happy and content. Make our planet and the whole universe be healthy and whole. May our planet and the whole universe experience ease of well-being.
18. So, in the final moments of our time together, rest here in the radiance and luminosity of your own intrinsic beauty, your own intrinsic love, your own intrinsic kindness. Whether you are using words or not, at whatever level you choose or intuitively you are drawn to. Radiating loving-kindness inwardly and outwardly near and far. And as this formal period of practicing together comes to an end, with the sound of the bells, affirm inwardly that this practice can be nourished on a regular basis if you are drawn to keep it alive and vibrant. Just as can all the other practices we have been engaging in together and affirming for yourself and for others, if you like, the old Navajo saying, which I extend to you now: May you walk in beauty. May you and all beings near and far walk in beauty.
The above is adapted from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Guided Mindfulness Meditation Series 3, available here. This guided loving-kindness meditation is designed to accompany Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book The Healing Power of Mindfulness and the other three volumes based on Coming to Our Senses.
When he started MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn didn’t have a detailed plan—just passion and an inkling that lots of good would come of it. He recently spoke with Mindful about his new MasterClass and shared insights on mindfulness and meditation.
Loving-kindness is not a mystical quality reserved for sages and saints. In fact, you likely already experience it often. With practice, you can learn to recognize loving-kindness in yourself and others.
Explore these simple practices to embrace self-compassion, send love to the people you hold dear, and open your heart.
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