Of all the skills we learn in life, perhaps the most important one is to develop loving kindness. If you have ever succumbed to bouts of self-doubt, then you know what I mean. Often, we are not very kind or loving toward ourselves at all.
What Is Loving Kindness?
Loving kindness is the simple aspiration to be happy. This includes wishing for our own happiness, as well as the happiness of all sentient beings. But it’s more than a wish – it is the confidence that we can actually be happy – that we deserve to be happy – and it involves an active participation in that process. And it is more than temporary happiness we seek. True happiness is not dependent on outer circumstances; it comes from within. We must learn to recognize true happiness before we can aspire to it. This recognition of what makes us happy is called developing loving kindness. When we can extend loving kindness to our selves, then we can extend it to others.
What Inhibits Loving Kindness?
Essentially, whenever we judge or compare ourselves to others, we inhibit loving kindness. Pressure to fit in, or look a certain way, or accomplish goals can make us feel like we fall short. Often, that pressure is our own state of mind responding to the “outside” world. Our family, our work environment, our friends, and our culture all influence us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to behave in certain ways. When we deviate from the established norm, we may punish ourselves harshly for not measuring up.
It’s so easy to get caught up in all the influences in the world these days and feel like we must try to fit in. We have access to news now 24/7. All this noise can wreak havoc on our state of mind. It induces fear, anger, hope, insecurity, jealousy, comparison, competition, judgement. Getting caught up in the background noise of the world culture takes us out of the present moment. It takes heroic discipline to avoid getting hooked.
How Do We Avoid Getting Hooked?
By developing loving kindness. Recognizing that you are whole and complete just as you are, right here and right now. Make a habit – a practice – of returning to awareness in the present moment without elaboration. In short, we avoid getting hooked by practicing meditation. (And it wouldn’t hurt to schedule periods of internet abstinence!)
Sometimes it seems easier to be kind to others than it is to be kind to ourselves. If this is true for you, try looking at yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you, and see what they see. When you can give yourself a break for not being perfect, you are on your way to developing loving kindness.
In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, there is a practice called the 4 Immeasurables (Brahma vihara) to work with developing loving kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeksa.) Each of these qualities counteracts negative emotions that conspire to make us suffer from hatred, passion, jealousy and arrogance. In the next few weeks I’m going to share a simple practice to invite each of these 4 immeasurable wisdoms into our lives.
How Do You Develop Loving Kindness?
Essentially, the way to develop loving kindness is to give space to situations and accept things exactly as they are, flaws and all. When you notice that you are being hard on yourself, take a mental step back and let the situation or circumstances breathe. You don’t have to immediately rush to fix a problem, or react to a strong emotion. Giving things space allows for new perspectives to arise. When you are able to give space, you invite the possibility of acceptance, which is the ultimate act of love. Then you realize that your happiness is not dependent on outside circumstances. That experience is pure freedom.
A Practice To Develop Loving Kindness.
Years ago while on retreat I learned a wonderful mantra that helps remind me to return to loving kindness when I start getting hard on myself. I offer it here in case it might help you remember that you are perfect just as you are, and exactly where you are meant to be:
May I be happy,
May I be well,
May I let go of the past.
You can also make this aspiration for others:
May you be happy,
May you be well,
May you let go of the past.
Try reciting this while sitting in traffic, or waiting in line at the pharmacy. Watch how your attitude shifts when you keep loving kindness in your heart as you go about your day. You will be amazed at the difference it can make.