Why Loving-Kindness Takes Time: Sharon Salzberg - Mindful

Why Loving-Kindness Takes Time: Sharon Salzberg - Mindful

It's only after we've practiced many times that we'll begin to notice a habit developing—namely, letting ourselves off the hook once in awhile.

Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, offers a “Guided Lovingkindness Meditation” — Sending loving-kindess to people we feel neutral towards as well as those we have difficult feelings towards. 

Loving-kindness is meant to be done in the easiest way possible so that the experience springs forth most gently, most naturally. To do it in the most easiest way possible means first to use phrases that are personally meaningful. The traditional phrases as are taught, at least this one classical translation of them, begins with oneself:

May I be free from danger, may I know safety. Danger in that sense is both inner danger from the force of certain mind states, and outer danger. So, May I be free from danger. May I have mental happiness. May I have physical happiness. May I have ease of well-being—which means may I not have to struggle terribly, day by day, with livelihood, with family issues.

May I be free from danger, may I have mental happiness, but really, you should use any phrases that are powerful for you. They need to be meaningful not just in a very temporary way—May I get to this course okay—but something profound that you would wish for yourself and wish for others. Thoughts are very important in doing loving-kindness—not to struggle to get a certain kind of feeling. Let your mind rest in the phrases. You can be aware of the phrases either with the breath or just in themselves—the focus of the attention is the phrases. Let your mind rest within them. The feelings will come and go.

Sometimes it will feel quite glorious, it will be extraordinary.

Sometimes, many times, it will be very very ordinary, very dry or very mechanical—but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening or that it’s not working. What’s important is to do it, is to form that intention in the mind because we’re uniting the power of loving-kindness and the power of intention and that is what will produce the effect of that free flow of loving-kindness.

The first time that I ever did loving-kindness practice was without a teacher. We first opened up the center; a group of us decided to do a self retreat here for a month and I had never done loving-kindness before although I had heard about it. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to do it.

I sat up in my room and I knew that it was done in successive stages and I began by dedicating a week of sending myself loving-kindness. All day long, I would go around the building—sitting in my room, sitting in the hall—saying the whole thing, may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be liberated, and I felt absolutely nothing.

At the end of the week, something happened to someone in the community and a number of us, quite unexpectedly, had to leave the retreat. Then I felt doubly bad—not only did nothing happen but I never even got beyond myself, which was really selfish.

I was running around upstairs in the flurry of having to leave. I was standing in one of the bathrooms and I dropped a jar of something, which shattered into a thousand pieces. The very first thought that came up in my mind was: “You are really a klutz, but I love you.” And I thought, “Oh wow! Look at that.” All those hours, all those phrases where I was just dry and mechanical and I felt like nothing was happening. It was happening. It just took a while for me to sense the flowering of that and it was so spontaneous that it was quite wonderful. So: Not to struggle, to try to make something happen. Let it happen. It will happen.

Our job, so to speak, is just to say those phrases, to say them knowing what they mean but without trying to fabricate a feeling, without putting that overlay on top of it, of stress. Let your mind rest in the phrases, and let the phrases be meaningful to you.

I’d like to talk about sending a loving-kindness to the neutral person and a little bit about sending loving-kindness to somebody who we have difficulty with as we send a message to a neutral person.

The first task of course is to find one—sometimes that’s very interesting. I find that very often as soon as we either meet somebody or even think about them, if we haven’t met them, we have a judgment about them: I like them I don’t like them.

If you can find a neutral person, sometimes there’s a great refreshment in sending them loving-kindness because there’s no story about them.

See if you can understand that this person wants to be happy just as each one of us wants to be happy and open, extend that force of loving-kindness towards them.

After we do that for a little while, move on, just briefly, to sending loving-kindness to somebody that we have difficulty with. This is a very interesting place because it’s very difficult. It’s a very powerful place because that person, in some ways, symbolizes the difference between love or loving-kindness, which is conditional, and that which is on uncondition that which goes beyond having our desires met, having affection returned, having people treat us well. It is that person that defines the line between that which is finite and that which is infinite. Yet it’s not easy. Very often to think of this person and you enmity, or anger, or fear, whatever. As a suggestion, when we begin that part of the practice, in the spirit of doing it in the easiest way possible, it’s probably better to start with somebody where there’s mild irritation rather than the person who has hurt you most in your life.

And slowly begin to open in levels of difficulty. Sometimes when we send loving-kindness to a difficult person, we do feel all of these other feelings, like anger. If possible, see if you can let go of it. Return the recitation of the phrases. If it’s too strong, then you can drop the loving-kindness. Pay careful attention to the feeling until it begins to subside some, very much with the sense of compassion for oneself: You don’t need to judge it. Now when you can you can pick up the loving-kindness again, perhaps with an easier person.

To begin, take a comfortable seated position. Let’s begin by sitting comfortably, closing your eyes.

Find phrases you’d like to use to offer good wishes. Taking a few deep breaths, relaxing the body, finding the phrases that reflect what you wish most deeply for yourself. Very gently repeat them.

Bring someone to mind who’s been kind to you. If you have someone come to mind who has been a benefactor to help in some way, for whom you feel respect or gratitude, either hold an image of that person, or say their names in your mind. Direct that force of loving-kindness towards them, wishing them safety, happiness, and peace. Very gently, one phrase at a time, let the mind rest in the phrase.

And if a good friend comes to mind, someone who you care about, there’s mutual caring, hold a sense of this person, direct the phrases towards them, wishing for their happiness and their well-being.

Bring a neutral person to mind. Ideally it would be somebody here of course because you have an opportunity to run into them, to observe how a feeling of loving-kindness develops over the course of time. If someone here of if not here then someone in your life who you don’t have a strong sense of liking or disliking. See if you can bring that person to mind. Extend the feeling of loving-kindness towards them— just as we all want to be happy, so this person also wants to be happy. If nobody comes to mind in this category, then you can just stay with a good friend.

If it feels workable, bring to mind someone with whom you experience difficulty. If there’s somebody that you have difficulty with, perhaps not very grave difficulty at this point—someone with whom there’s conflict, there’s tension. There’s unease, there’s dislike. Remembering that his person, too, just wants to happy—that out of ignorance, we all make mistakes that create harm or suffering, and that causing suffering inevitably will bring suffering to that person. See if you can extend that force of loving-kindness towards them. To send loving-kindness does not mean that we approve or condone all actions, it means that we can see clearly actions that are incorrect or unskillful and still not lose the connection.

Calling someone to mind with whom there’s difficulty, repeat the phrases towards them. If you can find one good thing about this person, in the midst of everything else, if you focus on that one good thing, just reflect on it for a moment, you’ll find that there’s a feeling of drawing closer, opening up, and all the rest can be seen in that light.

If you can’t find even one good thing about this person, you can reflect on their wish to be happy.

Expand your awareness to all beings, everywhere, without distinction, without exclusion. May all beings be free from danger, may they have mental happiness, may they have physical happiness, may they have ease of well-being.

All living beings: may they be free from danger, may they have mental happiness, may they have physical happiness, may they have ease of well-being.

All creatures, known or unknown, near or far, some we like, some we don’t like, some we’re neutral towards.

All individuals… happy, suffering, causing suffering. Still they have this wish to be happy, to be free. May it be so. And all those in existence. Every being, all places, may they be able to realize the fruits of just what it is that we wish for ourselves.

Adapted from a talk from Sharon Salzberg at the Insight Meditation Society. Listen to the full talk.

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