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The Concentric Circles of Connection and Lovingkindness

The widespread use of the words “meditation” and “mindfulness” is continuing apace, a trend that of course I find very gratifying — and also sometimes amusing and even bewildering. I have a Google alert on “mindfulness,” and every single day brings forth a trove of mentions: pro, anti, provocative, connected to the mindfulness I’ve studied, and completely disconnected to anything I’ve studied or heard about.

Most recently (and with arguably the most verve), I’ve read about mindfulness meditation as a practice that can help us all be more productive, better focused, and less stressed out in our lives — often in the context of work. My teaching experience points to the truth of these studies for people who actually put the principles into practice.

But, mindfulness is more than just a buzzword. In its popularization, mindfulness is generally thought of as the practice of “being present,” which is definitely part of it.

Classically, mindfulness is really about being present in a certain way, about tuning into our experiences, interactions, emotions, and thoughts with a sense of curiosity and equanimity. It’s an overall sense of openness, and that’s what helps provide us clarity and space to cultivate insight, resilience, and compassion for ourselves and others. If and when distractions arise during our practice, which they do, inevitably, we can begin again and again without rumination, self-judgment, guilt, or regret. There’s a lot of heartfulness interlaced throughout skillfully practiced mindfulness.

That “certain way” relies on a suffusing of mindfulness with lovingkindness. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard suggests more accurately calling the practice “warm mindfulness.” To be mindful, to let go more gracefully, to open all of our emotional landscape without judgment, to relinquish the corrosive and often prevalent narrative of self-condemnation, we are counting on kindness to support us. Matthieu Ricard urges us to name it rather than just imply it or know it wordlessly; that way there is less misunderstanding.

But if kindness, especially towards ourselves, is not our habit, where will it come from?

People may be taught this underlying kindness as a part of mindfulness implicitly or explicitly. They may ferret it out for themselves. Or, they may be taught a lovingkindness meditation as a distinct method upon which one can build the scaffolding for clear and kind awareness to flourish.

Much of my own life’s work has been about looking at the particular relationship between mindfulness meditation and lovingkindness meditation. The quality of lovingkindness is the secret sauce in mindfulness meditation. Of course, one can also practice lovingkindness primarily to deepen the benefits said to come from that training: fearlessness, generosity, and a kind heart.

Evidence of the power of a lovingkindness practice isn’t just anecdotal; multiple studies have shown that lovingkindness meditation has both short-term gains and long-term benefits when it comes to feeling increased positive emotions, social connection, and empathy.

Even after I first learned mindfulness meditation in 1971, I longed to have more instruction in lovingkindness. Somehow I intuitively sensed it to be the particular thing I needed — to be more free, to be happier, to experience myself — in my meditation practice and in my life, without the sting of so much judgment and the sense of not being good enough, which was my steady companion for so many years.

I was also drawn to the practice because the Buddha, according to legend, taught lovingkindness as the direct antidote to fear, and I knew I had fear aplenty. I would sit under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, the spot where the Buddha became enlightened 2500 years before, and ponder the Buddha’s unconditional love for all and not his omniscience or his great wisdom or powers. I did bits of lovingkindness meditation for years. Then I went to Burma in 1985 and completely immersed myself in it.

Admittedly, extending lovingkindness to myself struck me as a challenge, a ritual for which I’d have to “suck it up.” Through conceiving of lovingkindness as the anchor of my meditations, I learned that the practice has nothing to do with narcissism or self-aggrandizement. In fact, most cutting-edge research on lovingkindness emphasizes its remarkable ability to activate areas of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence (not to mention its anti-aging benefits!).

In my experience, lovingkindness meditation really became about revitalizing my sense of inner wholeness, deeply caring about myself regardless of what I felt I might do well to change or alter. There is a quotation from Zen master Suzuki Roshi I really like:

“Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”

By extension, lovingkindness meant getting in touch with everyone else’s innate desire to feel whole and connected, regardless of how anyone may act due to ignorance. Gently acknowledging this essential interconnection of existence is the essence of lovingkindness meditation.

The goal of lovingkindness is not to think of self-love as a prerequisite for loving others, but to cultivate a sense of balance, resilience, spaciousness, and comfort in the idea of unity. Unsurprisingly, lovingkindness has been scientifically-proven to put the brakes on self-criticism while at the same time increasing our capacity to empathize with others.

When we do this practice, we begin by directing lovingkindness to ourselves, using phrases like “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be strong. May I live with ease.” as the anchor for our meditation. Through nourishing ourselves with love and acceptance, we ultimately prepare ourselves to offer lovingkindness to others and recognize our shared desire to be happy and supported in this life.

Traditionally, the practice moves from offering phrases of lovingkindness to ourselves to a person who has been very good to us: a family member, a friend, a teacher, or a kind stranger. From there, we move to the next concentric circle of connection — a neutral person, someone who does not fill us with an immediate feeling or judgment. With each step, we strengthen our muscle for compassion. Almost like lifting weights, lovingkindness is a repetitive exercise that strengthens us.

This step prepares us for the next and often the most difficult step: offering phrases of lovingkindness to someone toward whom we feel anger, fear, or aversion of any kind. The final stage moves one step further: inviting us to direct lovingkindness to all beings. These last two steps in particular challenge us to tap into our infinite capacity for connection — to not only understand but to experience the distinction between conditional and unconditional love.

Most of us tend to think of the world in terms of a dynamic of “me versus you,” “us versus them,” and so on. We may also tend to think of happiness as triumphing over others in some way. Whether or not we think in these terms consciously or not, our culture teaches us to think in this way on some level. Lovingkindness is about developing the art of friendship. It invites us to practice courage, to recognize our shared instability and vulnerability, as well as our fundamental desire for belonging.

However it is cultivated, lovingkindness invites us not only to gather our scattered attention and be more present, but to do so in a way that actively strengthens feelings of love, connection, self-acceptance, and unity among all beings.

A woman gives change to a homeless man on Wall Street in New York City. Image by Chloe Muro/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

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