6 Components Of Loving Kindness, With Sharon Salzberg
Renowned meditation teacher and bestselling author Sharon Salzberg recently presented a workshop at 4th Street Yoga in Berkeley. What is a more effective way to deal with an enemy, inner or outer, than locking into separation, hatred and fear on the one hand, or becoming completely tangled up and overwhelmed by it on the other. Salzberg, with a knack for applying wisdom of ancient texts to challenges we face in everyday life, charted the path for us to find the place in the middle through mindfulness, loving kindness practice, and compassion.
Quick to note that most definitely some very hurtful things happen to us in life, she points out that simply changing our attitude is not going to make them stop hurting. But there are ways in which we exacerbate our suffering and add to our misery.
To provide a convenient structure to look more closely at challenges we face in everyday life, Salzberg pulls from her book Love Your Enemy, which uses a Tibetan Buddhist system to outline the inner and outer enemies.
External Enemy: The external enemy is someone who seeks to hurt us or cause us harm.
Internal Enemy: The internal enemy is the force of certain mind states such as anger, greed, jealousy, or fear. It is not the original feeling itself that is the ‘enemy,’ but being overcome and swept away by it.
Secret Enemy: The secret enemy is present when we do not recognize that we are part an interdependent universe and we construct a separate self. This involves a misinterpretation of our experience of life so that we feel cut off and alone and results in feeling like we should be in control of things we cannot control.
Super Secret Enemy: The super secret enemy is present when we lack confidence in our capacity to change and grow and love in a different way and comes with a great deal of self-loathing.
We explored ways to respond when we encounter one of these enemies. With mindfulness, it is possible to know our anger is bubbling up, yet not be swept away by it and not repress it. Mindfulness helps us peel away the layers of reactivity and find the middle ground. In that space between what happens and how we respond is where we find our power and where we create our lives, moment by moment. We can learn a great deal as well. Perhaps when we look beyond our anger we find fear, grief, sadness, or helplessness. Or maybe we explore alternatives to anger such as compassion.
Sometimes this is far easier in concept then when a real life situation arises that has us seething. This is why a practice like loving kindness is such a great support.
Loving kindness is based upon the assumption that all beings want to be happy, to belong to something bigger than themselves. Loving kindness helps us to build a reservoir within ourselves so that when we face adversity, an enemy, we are more able to be present without adding to our suffering. If we feel we are depleted and exhausted, we are more likely to snap or numb ourselves and less likely to bounce back from a challenge with resilience.
There is a classical sequence within which we offer loving kindness. It is not to be done in one sitting in its entirety, as that would likely be overwhelming. Following is the general order of the rotation of loving kindness practice.
1. Ourselves. We begin with friendship toward ourselves. There is a famous quotation attributed to the Buddha: “You can search the entire universe for someone who is as deserving of your love and affection as you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere. You yourself are deserving of your love and affection more that anybody.”
If starting with yourself is too much of a struggle, do something easier first, such as begin with a benefactor.
2. Benefactor. This is someone who has helped us. The assistance may have been in person or from afar. The Buddhist texts say this is someone who, when you bring them to mind, makes you smile. This may be a child, an animal, an adult, whoever makes us smile.
3. Friend. Next we offer lovingkindness to a friend, someone with whom there is a sense of comfort or ease. We may divide this portion of the practice into two parts. First, we may choose a friend who is doing well, and experiencing good fortune. They may be experiencing some sort of success. This allows us to practice rejoicing in their happiness, rather than feeling jealous in a reflexive way. We can also offer lovingkindness to a friend who is not doing well. This portion of the practice may take on a more compassionate tone.
4. Neutral Person. In this portion of the practice we choose a neutral person, someone we do not particularly like or dislike. This can be the dry cleaner, a shopkeeper, someone we encounter now and then. These people are often those we look through rather than actually connecting with them.
5. Difficult person. We are reminded here of the instruction to do this practice in the easiest way possible. Therefore, we would not want to begin with the most difficult person we could possibly imagine, or someone we cannot even dream of wishing compassion or loving kindness. Ultimately we can build up to the most challenging people, but first, choose someone more manageable with whom to practice.
6. All beings everywhere. The final step of the practice is to offer loving kindness to all people and creatures in existence.
Generally we start with ourselves, and conclude with all beings. In the middle we can choose one or two people for offering our practice in one sitting. The nature of the practice is one of offering. It is like a gift giving.
When we practice loving kindness, we rest our attention on certain phrases. The phrases are ways of changing how we pay attention. So for those individuals we might ignore or look right through in the ‘Neutral’ category, we include them, “May you be happy, may you be peaceful…” Or for people like ourselves, who we may think we are not good enough, we shift the way we pay attention, “May I be happy. May I be peaceful.”
The structure of the practice is the repetition of the phrases. We usually choose 3 or 4 phrases general enough so that they can be broadly applied to different people.
We were led to begin our loving kindness meditation with a reflection of anyone who played any role at all to us being in the room that evening. The longer we contemplated, the more people came to mind.This helped become aware of the web of interconnectedness of which we are a part.
It is in that context that we began the loving kindness meditation. With closed eyes in a comfortable upright meditation posture, we began to silently repeat phrases we most wished for ourselves.
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.
There is no need to manufacture a feeling, just keep coming back to the phrases.
Then we moved on to the benefactor. “May you be safe…May you be happy…May you be healthy…May you live with ease.”
And this is how we proceed, concluding with all beings.
Such a simple practice can indeed transform our lives. We have a great deal of power in that we can make choices that do not add to our suffering. Do we hold someone in compassion or bitterness? Do we feel completely cut off and alone and isolated or do we feel we are part of a community, part of the human experience? Loving kindness offers a practical, simple way to build within ourselves a reservoir of good will, so that we can piece together one powerful choice after the next, creating lives filled with more ease, peace, and comfort.
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