Lovingkindness practice is a mantra-based practice, meaning that is based on the recitation of phrases in one's mind. These phrases are well-wishes for oneself or others. The practice is designed to incline the mind toward a particular form of positive thinking. I like to teach this practice in such a way that it implants in procedural memory (the area of memory where reflexes and automatic actions are stored) as opposed to chronological memory, so that it remains accessible in moments of stress. That way, the practice will eventually arise automatically when it is needed, whether the practitioner consciously "thinks of it" or not.
Here are some basic instructions to get started:
- Sit in a position which is relaxed but upright. Eyes may be closed or open. It is not necessary to keep your body perfectly still when doing lovingkindness practice, but it is still a formal technique, so try to find a position which can be maintained in relative stillness with minimal strain or effort.
- In auditory thinking, begin to recite the following phrase:
You are welcome to replace these phrases with your own.
- Keep some attention on the places where you feel emotion in your body. For most people, emotion arises along the midline of the body, across the stomach, chest, neck and face, and even the insides of the arms and legs. During practice, you may or may not detect emotion—either is fine.
- Additionally, keep some attention on visual thinking, bringing to mind an image of yourself—either as an adult or as a child. If you'd prefer, you can instead focus on the aspect of visual thinking which represents the outline of your body in it's current position. For some people, this is a visual representation of the body's position in space, centered at the head and looking down. For others, it is a rapid succession of visual responses to local physical sensations (e.g. you feel your elbow, you see an image of your elbow, you feel your face, you see an image of your face, and so on).
- If spreading the attention over all three of these focus spaces (phrases, emotional body, and visual thinking) is too challenging, it's ok to reduce it to two. As practice progresses, try to reintroduce all three focus spaces. It is this "multi-modal" aspect of lovingkindness practice which helps it to implant in procedural as opposed to chronological memory.
- If afflictive emotion arises during this practice, that's fine. If possible, let it arise in the background, and continue the technique in the foreground. If that's not possible, consider switching to forgiveness practice.
- Traditionally, this practice begins with oneself, and then extends to five more categories of people: teachers/mentors/benefactors, friends, family, neutral people, and difficult people. As practice moves to these other categories, visual thinking will be used to hold images of the various people to whom well-wishes are being sent. For a comprehensive practice, it's helpful to spend some time in each of the six categories. Any time afflictive emotion becomes unmanageable (e.g. while focusing on a particular person), switching to forgiveness practice is an option.
- It's important to note that lovingkindness practice may not feel sincere initially. That's fine. Even if it's completely dry of emotion, it can still serve to occupy verbal thinking, keeping negative stories from running. From a psychological perspective, this makes a big difference.
- If it feels more difficult to send well-wishes to yourself, it might be easier to start with a different category of person (e.g. friends). One major purpose of lovingkindness practice is to occupy the mind with something other than negativity. Even if you're sending well-wishes to someone other than yourself, the practice is still serving that purpose.
- Certain people find it easier to practice lovingkindness for self when they picture themselves as children. This is always an option. To help this process along, I often invite students to reflect on the simple wish we have as children to be happy, to be loved. Childhood is a particularly innocent, blameless time of life. However, as adults, even when our actions are unskillful, we all still share these wishes.
A Final Pitch
Lovingkindness is one of the four heart practices taught in classical Buddhist meditation. Some modern, secular mindfulness teachings in the west exclude these practices, focusing instead on the bare attention of mindfulness as the sole tool for contemplative work.
I have found the heart practices to be indispensable, regardless of whether meditation is being cast in a religious or a secular light. It's a terrific antidote to the afflictive habits of mind that so many of us (especially westerners) have been "practicing" all our lives. It's also an exceptional tool to regulate the nervous system, which can be thrown off balance by the difficult material that sometimes arises during insight practice. For a more in-depth justification of lovingkindness, see my blog post: A Justification for Compassion.