Would you take a magic pill that made you happier, calmer, eased chronic pain and mental health disorders, slowed aging and had no side effects? I would. Alas, as I bemoaned in my last post, there is no such pill.
But there is a science-supported practice that has these benefits, and it is completely free, simple, and takes five minutes. For a short overview of some of the science, check out this article on benefits of loving kindness meditation.
What is loving kindness? Don’t worry, you don’t have to go around hugging people. It’s a practice based on the Buddhist practice of Metta which has gone mainstream (and secular). It was popularized by Sharon Salzberg whose books go into depth about the whys and hows of the practice. I have my own simple version of the practice which I find useful. There are a number of phrases and techniques one might use, but below is what I do. Feel free to adapt it to whatever feels comfortable to you. The most important idea is to send out a genuine hope for the wellbeing of others and for yourself.
You might find a quiet place and begin by finding a comfortable position seated position. (Or if you’re me, you might be lap swimming, but I’ll get to that quirky method below). You will be repeating phrases which you’ll want to memorize: (I like the simplicity of these three)
May you be free from physical and mental suffering.
May you find peace.
May you be happy.
- I start by sending out these phrases to the people I am closest to. You can do this in any order, but I start with what is easiest for me. As I say the words to myself, I bring up images of my friends and for sincere, heart-felt hope. I think this important. Repeating words over and over doesn’t have any effect on me unless I really feel them. I imagine what it would look like as my friends reach these states. For instance I might imagine the pain from from my friend’s back surgery leaving her body.
- I like to start with those closest to me because I already am pretty much committed to their well-wishes. As I go further outward to acquaintances, strangers, and even enemies, it gets more challenging. I follow the same phrases and brief imaginings as I move outward from loved ones to those who are furthest from me. I might think of the people I know from they gym and then the people I haven’t met and people in the community and the country and the world. Or if I’m going more quickly, I go straight from loved ones to strangers all over the world.
- At my furthest point are people I don’t know at all, see as enemies, have hurt me, and/or I feel anger towards. This step may seem strange. Does anyone really “love thy enemy”? Sometimes I cheered by this practice because I believe that if these hopes came true for everyone, those “enemies” would not be so hurtful. Sometimes wishing good things for someone I’m struggling with just makes me feel instantly calmer. Maybe I am releasing a lit of the bad feelings which I’m storing up inside me–those feelings that were eating away at me (and not, of course the person they were directed towards).
- Just as vital is to wish these sincere hopes for oneself. Am I the only one who finds this the most difficult? Maybe a lot of us are stuck in the trap of forgetting to desire our sufferings gone, finding peace, and experiencing happiness. It’s easy to want things, but when do we wish for what would really change our lives? When I get to myself, “May I be free from physical and mental suffering…” I have call upon my most vivid imaginations, using all my senses, to imagine what being free from pain and anguish, finding peace, and being truly happy.
So do you have to do this with your butt on a meditation cushion? Or at least in a sitting position? Many (most?) people probably do it this way. I practice this meditation while I’m swimming. The motion and rhythm on my laps helps me stay focused and I’m already in the pool swimming, so no special trip to land in a chair. It’s hard for me to discipline myself to carve out these simple minutes if I have to sit down. I think of it like the old saying about a camera: the best camera is the one that you have with you. In this case, the best meditation practice is the one you’re going to actually do. Mindfulness–paying full attention to the present moment–is another type of meditation, as I mentioned in my recent swimming meditation post.
There…I offer you another meditation to try. And let me know.