Daily life presents us with countless challenges.
From stressful work days to challenges with loved ones, unexpected curveballs, and the inevitable tragedy, if you hope to live a happy life, it’s not enough to just wake up each day and aimlessly follow along with whatever happens. You need to be intentional and take steps to cultivate the happiness you want to find.
The reality is, happiness is and has always been in your hands. You have the ability to cultivate both joy within yourself and within others.
And there’s no better way to do that than with the practice of loving-kindness.
Though we all have the fear and the seeds of anger within us, we must learn not to water those seeds and instead nourish our positive qualities – those of compassion, understanding, and loving-kindness.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
More than two-thousand years old, the practice of loving-kindness has been used as a form of meditation by Buddhist monks for quite some time.
As opposed to romantic love, loving-kindness is a general caring-in-action that can apply to anyone, even strangers. It’s not simply an emotion or state of mind, it’s the compulsion to take real action and help those you care about.
In recent years, a plethora of research has shown that loving-kindness meditation does far more than just encourage us to help others, though. It’s also been shown to make us happier and more fulfilled as well. And, like mindfulness, it’s a very accessible practice because it can be done anywhere, at any time, and in several different ways.
1. As a regular meditation
First and foremost, loving-kindness can be practiced as a formal meditation.
However, many people misbelieve that, like most other forms of meditation, you need to adopt some specific sitting position or posture. Much like mindfulness, you can practice loving-kindness as a meditation practice standing, sitting, or even lying down and really anywhere (provided you can focus).
What matters is simply that you follow the basic instructions of the practice, which can be adapted and applied to many of the proceeding points. The practice can be made more complicated, but when distilled down to its essence, this is really what it’s about:
- Generate love: Think of yourself or someone close to you that you love deeply. Place an image of that person in your mind and send them feelings of love and compassion. Imagine those feelings of love growing and expanding.
- Send that love to yourself: Imagine sending those feelings of caring and compassion for the person in the previous step to another person you love or care for while repeating a mantra that is used to cultivate said qualities such as, “Be kind. Be compassionate. Be loving.”
- Then send it to others: Lastly, send these feelings of love from that person to someone you’re less familiar with, such as an extended family member. From there you move on to a neutral stranger (perhaps someone you passed by at the store yesterday), and then finally someone you dislike.
Think of the practice as a progressive scale that moves out beyond you further and further until it encompasses all people.
2. Amidst sudden challenges
The qualities of loving-kindness and compassion are powerful forces for good, both within ourselves and when directed towards others.
When we’re faced with challenges, it’s these qualities of loving-kindness and compassion most of all that are needed to get through it. Challenges such as this can cause friction within ourselves and between ourselves and our loved ones. Coming from this base of stress and anxiety, we’re likely to snap back at others and attack…even if they don’t deserve it.
However, if you can take a moment to recite a simple mantra like we talked about earlier just after the event arises, and instead of progressively moving out you focus on the people involved in the challenge and pass love to them (including yourself), you’re able to ground yourself and come from a much better place as you continue to navigate the challenge.
3. While giving your time to a cause that is close to your heart
This is the most “active” version of the practice and it works a bit differently.
For this one to work you need to select something that you truly care about– a cause close to your heart because you or a loved one has been affected by it.
The idea is that you want to connect directly and personally with people in a way that allows you to feel and cultivate those same feelings of caring and compassion that you generate while practicing loving-kindness meditation.
This is a practice common to Zen monks and other practitioners, where such deeds actually become the practice itself. It’s a really fulfilling version of the practice that anyone can do with a little practice.
4. After heartbreak
We often beat ourselves up when we experience heartbreak, even if it wasn’t in any way our fault. We think, “what if I had…”, “I should have been more…”, or “if only I hadn’t…”
On the other hand, sometimes we blame our ex-partner and we can carry this hatred for them for quite a long time. In both cases, whether we blame ourselves or another, all we’re doing is hurting ourselves by holding onto these feelings.
In such cases, a dose of loving-kindness either directed at ourselves or another can be exactly what is needed (in which case, you’d simply remove the gradual expansion to others and place more time focusing on you and the other person involved). This is because loving-kindness allows us to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others, which is key to forgiveness.
Loving-kindness, whether as a formal meditation or simply as an on-the-go practice you use to bring yourself some peace and ground yourself, is a powerful practice that offers several useful benefits for navigating the challenges of daily life.
However you use the practice, I hope it helps bring you the same peace and joy that it’s brought me over the years.