Loving kindness practice has always been difficult for me. Even the language of "loving kindness" makes me squirm because it conjures images of holding hands and singing kumbayah in a circle, or rainbows and unicorns. So when I ended up at a 5-day silent retreat focused on loving kindness this past week, it was not a conscious choice, but was simply because the retreat aligned with my winter break. I am always amazed, of course, by how often I end up finding not what I seek or like, necessarily, but what I need.
My first introduction to this practice was at a retreat four years ago. I found myself continuously more agitated by other participants on the retreat with me. They would inefficiently move through dinner lines, cut me off when walking back to sit, and crowd out my space in the hall. The most egregious action was taken by a woman who refused to follow the walking meditation rules. We were given strict guidelines to find a space that does not cross the path of others, 10-20 paces long, and focus on the sensations of movement as we walked back and forth. I happily took to this task, as an opportunity to be outside and out of a seated posture.
That is, until out of the corner of my eye I saw this one woman wandering rather aimlessly across the field. I could feel my heart rate increase as she slowly wove her way in my direction. My jaw tightened. My muscles tensed. And then, she walked directly in front of me. So that I had to stop. Even though she was going through my walking path. Heat rose to my cheeks. Do I say something? I should definitely write a note to the teacher because this woman obviously is not just throwing off my game, but bothering others too. I worked myself up into a frenzy for the rest of the walk, until the bell indicated it was time to head back inside. This bell brought me back into my body, back into the present moment, and I rather sheepishly went on my way.
Why was I so worked up? It wasn't really that big of a deal.
When a time for questions with our teachers arose, I put my hand up. I shared this experience and laughed as I recounted how agitated I was. Vinny Ferraro listened to me with bemused patience, and after assuring me this was not an unusual experience, said,
"You need to get on the cushion and love the shit out of yourself."
After recovering from my delight at him using such coarse language in such an unexpected environment, I reflected on this. It wasn't that I had to immediately send love this woman, it was that I had to direct that love inward, first, to myself. My irritation was mine to suffer from, and until I could hold myself gently, and take myself less seriously, it would be hard for me to be accepting of all that arose.
Loving kindness is repeating phrases, often silently, to generate wholesome states of mind. The belief is that our minds incline to negative states, or what psychologists call a negativity bias. It is theorized that is arises from the conditioning in our life, and in our evolution as a species, that was once prey and in desperate need of wariness. By repeating these phrases with earnestness and intention, we can cultivate a particular way of being in the world that will more naturally arise when we are off the cushion.
There are many variations on these phrases, and the ones I landed on are as follows:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be peaceful.
May I feel love.
These phrases, while initially directed inward, are then meant to be shared. They can be directed to one who you love easily, one who you have neutral feelings towards, one who you struggle with (like my wandering friend), and ultimately all living beings.
This was the beginning of my semi-regular practice with loving kindness. Of course, it's one thing to hear advice, and quite another to follow it. I would occasionally throw it in at the beginning or end of a sot, repeating a few phrases, and sometimes mean it. For me, it has still always been the more difficult anchor to bring awareness to. That is, until this most recent retreat.
Loving On Yourself All of the Time???
This retreat, I fell into some habits of mind with which I now am intimately familiar. I am inevitably annoyed by other participants harmlessly going about their business. I immediately find myself reactive to my teachers and am irritated by their voice/phrasing/volume/message/etc. Because I see these things, and recognize them as patterns, I am less distraught by my annoyance. I can generally laugh at myself, rather than indulge in those frustrations. This is a sweet relief.
I also tried something new this retreat. On the third day, in one of the evening talks, it was suggested that we could practice loving kindness all day long, not just during the once/day guided practice, but during our own formal sitting, walking, and even as we move through the day. This practice could be continuously directed inward, to ourselves.
When this was said, I noticed a barely perceptible reaction skim through my mind: Why should I get to practice kindness for myself all day long? I am the one who has been throwing all this shade, albeit internally, at others.
This kind of thinking, that I am unworthy of continuous love, because I am "bad," is the crux of precisely why I need to target myself with this practice. I get to love myself when I am being good— kind, considerate, compassionate— but not when I am having unkind thoughts or, even worse, action towards others.
My awareness of this sentiment was so slight, I could easily have missed it, as I have many times. But this time, I saw my resistance to the practice so clearly. It isn't just that it is cheesy or silly. It is that I don't think I am allowed it.
For the remainder of my time at the center, I practiced fervently. I didn't always believe what I was repeating in my mind, or "feel" anything. We were assured that even just repeating those phrases cultivate a positive mind state. Even if saying it felt rote or mechanical. Even if we found them cheesy.
As I opened my eyes during our closing ceremony, I was struck by how joyous I felt. How connected. How delighted. This glow stuck with me the whole three hour drive home. I felt a deep abiding sense of gratitude and affection for my experiences and others around me. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't experienced it myself. Of course, 24 hours after the retreat, without that intensive support, I have felt some of those feelings recede.
But I am convinced. It's not just a nice add on. It is quintessential to the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness without heartfulness is like __ without ___
To cultivate nonjudgemental, kind awareness, it is essential that we develop this soft quality of heartfulness in ourselves. We can glare inward with great intensity, but until we soften our gaze, we will not find relief from our suffering. We cannot have the mindfulness without the loving kindness.
I petitioned some of my fellow practitioners to describe the importance of heartfulness, or loving kindness, to mindfulness practice by completing the following phrase.
I have included a few of my favorites:
Mindfulness without heartfulness is like...
"...a harsh bare lightbulb rather than the warm glow of clear moonlight."
"...a bird with a single wing."
"...a seed without any rain."
."..a flower without fragrance."
"...an Oreo cookie without the creamy center filing."