I turned left onto a main road and merged into the flow of traffic. Quickly, I realized that I would need to be making a right turn in the not-so-distant future. I signaled to change lanes and, instead of slowing to let me merge, or speeding forward to make space, the man beside me honked his horn and flipped me off. I reflexively called him an asshole.
This all happened during the commute to my second week of Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, which was focused on loving kindness meditation. It turns out that I, and other drivers, would greatly benefit from engaging in this meditative practice more often.
What is loving kindness?
A genuine wish for someone else’s well-being, happiness, and safety.
But to take this understanding of loving kindness to a somatic level, we were guided through a meditation that went something like this:
- Bring to mind someone who evokes feelings of warmth and love. (For me, it was easy to access these feelings when thinking of my sweet baby nephew.)
- Experience what’s going on in the body when you think of this person. (This might bring a smile to your face, or a warm sensation throughout the stomach and chest.)
- Recognize how these feelings are associated with the unconditional acceptance and positive regard being extended toward the individual being brought to mind.
When we opened our eyes and returned to our group discussion, there was a softness in the room, a calm that wasn’t there before. We were reminded that we are the first recipients of the love we extend to others. Alternately, we are also the first to be burned by the heat of our anger. Herein lies an opportunity to more lovingly guide our inner experience.
Compassion & Loving Kindness
Being compassionate is difficult because it requires us to see where we and others are suffering. Generally, our culture is averse to suffering and is more inclined to want to do something about it – avoid it, fix it, change circumstances, etc. But being compassionate is not necessarily linked to doing anything at all. If we would allow ourselves to sit with discomfort, we would find that it has a lot to teach us.
We get to know the depth of our compassion only in the face of suffering.
Loving kindness meditation is an exercise in getting in touch with the feelings that correspond with a compassionate way of being. To really sense into these feelings, we again brought to mind the recipients of our loving kindness from the previous meditation, but this time imagined them in an unsafe or vulnerable position.
Inevitably, what this stirred in us was a strong desire to protect and care for these people. We wanted to reach out and ease their suffering. This response arose naturally in us because of our love for the people we brought to mind.
When love encounters suffering, the heart’s natural response is compassion.
Practice Loving Kindness Meditation
Bring a person to mind who you wish to extend loving kindness. As you hold them in mind, wish them the following:
- May you be happy
- May you be free from suffering
- May you find peace and joy
As you sense warmth and light filling your heart for this person, envision this warmth and light reaching out to them and meeting them wherever they may be. Then, rejoice in the thought of their receiving it.
Now, as I practice making loving kindness a readily available response to the world around me, I am able to be compassionate in the face of suffering and discomfort. I’m able to extend kindness not only to those whom I already love, but also to those who flip me the bird.