Lovingkindness practice is a meditation technique which generates a friendly, calm, kind state of mind. Over time, it can become a powerful stress reduction tool when you are emotionally out of balance. It also helps to focus and concentrate the mind, particularly when done in the way described below.
This practice is different than an “affirmation” in that it is not story-driven, and we are not aiming to generate any particular feeling in the body (though pleasant feelings will sometimes arise). The calming, centering power of this technique primarily comes from the concentration it generates.
The practice can be done in any position, eyes closed or open. For the purposes of these instructions, let’s assume your eyes are closed and you are seated comfortably.
- In your visual imagination, review the people in your life, searching for someone who easily evokes a kind, calm, friendly state of mind. If you already have a person or a mental rolodex of people/resources, you can simply choose one and move to step 2.
- It’s fine to work with an image of yourself, either as an adult or as a child, if you find that thinking of yourself naturally evokes lovingkindness.
- It’s fine to work with a public figure, religious figure, mentor, or even a pet, if you find that helpful.
- You may find that the people closest to you do not reliably evoke lovingkindness. Partners, close friends and family members can sometimes cause stress, anger, jealousy, etc. No big deal. Feel free to choose someone farther out in your social circle, for the sake of reliability in this technique.
How do I know when the mindstate is present?
A mindstate can be thought of as a lens through which all experience is seen. For example, when we are angry, we see the world as aggressive. When we are afraid, we see the world as threatening. When the mindstate of lovingkindness is present, things are fine as they are. There is a perspective of kind openness and peace.
We may recognize the mindstate indirectly through its side effects—pleasant body sensations and pleasant emotions can sometimes clue us in to its presence. Kind thoughts may also arise in the background, signaling the presence of the mindstate of lovingkindness. However, it is possible to generate and maintain this mindstate without any particular thoughts or feelings arising.
Distractions come in many forms—external sounds, physical and emotional discomfort, errant thoughts (i.e. any mental images or verbal thinking other than that which is associated with the technique). None of these experiences is a problem. Best way to go is simply allow all distractions (yes, including errant thoughts) to run in the background. Just pay them no attention and return attention to the technique. No need to stop thinking from happening. No need to make unpleasant emotions go away.
How do I know when I’m concentrated?
Concentration is defined in different ways by different people. I like to think of it as a spectrum. We aren’t going for SUUUPER concentrated, but we need to be concentrated enough that our minds our calm and agile, so we can practice meditation (or whatever else we’re doing) productively. The most useful threshold to pay attention for is the moment when you are no longer pulled into any of the five forms of mental disturbance which can arise in practice. In Buddhist meditation, these are called the Five Hindrances. They are:
- Craving – Desiring physical comfort, pleasant sensations, pleasurable experiences.
- Aversion – The opposite of Craving. Pushing away discomfort, wanting to reject feelings, things, thoughts, people. Resentment, anger, harshness.
- Sloth/Torpor – Sleepiness, dullness, lack of energy.
- Restlessness/Worry – The opposite of Sloth/Torpor. Agitation, inability to settle.
- Doubt – Doubt or skepticism about whether one is practicing correctly, or whether or not meditation is useful.
In any moment when none of these hindrances are present during meditation, I would claim that concentration is stable and sufficient. And of course, some days will be more concentrated than others. That’s ok! All we can do is sit on our cushion and be sincere. I’ve been practicing for 8 years and I experience these hindrances regularly!
…If you’d like to read more on the Five Hindrances, the WikiPedia article is great.
- Mindstates often correlate with the sincerity of your intention in each moment. When you say your phrase, do you mean it? In a given moment, do you feel genuine in your well-wish? You may find that the mindstate switches on and off as you go from more sincere to more robotic.
- Pay attention to the level of effort. Sometimes, too much exertion can set up a mindstate of grasping, impatience, or subtle frustration. Relax, settle down, and see if this kind, open state of mind arises, almost on its own.
- As you come up with people who reliably evoke this state of mind, keep them in your mental rolodex. Each one is a resource for you. Different people can be more or less useful at different times.
- We are not purporting to “beam” kindness out into the universe. Even when practice is directed at someone else, you are generating a state in your own mind. That said, this practice is not selfish. Over time, it will result in more friendly, patient, and accepting responses to others, besides providing individual benefit in the form of concentration and well-being.