The Gift of Loving Kindness Meditation
When I’m in the field working in a group and I look at a face of apathy, I’m looking at the 17 year old Elise. I remember feeling so done with the world around me. Yup, my depression in a nutshell.
When I began clawing my way out of my 2 ½ year bout of depression at 18, I realized a couple fundamental truths. The most salient was this: I had become so stressed, scared, hurt, overwhelmed…. *fill in the blank here*, I forgot that I could feel love and forgot what love felt like. Sounds sappy but I promise I am not about to launch into a Hallmark movie plot. I forgot how love felt as it sits inside me – viscerally – and how that feeling can be profound, satiating, saucy, peaceful, relaxing, expanding, ecstatic, quiet, divine. Now, I’m not relating the experience of being in specific relationships that engender love. I’m expressing this highly personal, separate-from-circumstance, physiological phenomena that can change a moment from mundane to magic, can change perspective from bleak to hopeful.
Photo by Elise Mitchell
The Buddhist meditation known as Loving Kindness, or Mettā, has been one practice that speaks directly to this concept of re-connecting to the feeling of love and benevolence as a way of transmuting apathy into connection, misery into comfort. First written down around 29 C.E., the practice of loving kindness arises from a story in the Pali Cannon in which the Buddha is instructing his followers. Much like the clients and students with whom I work (and my adolescent self), the Buddha’s followers had come into a time of great distress. During one of their forays into the wilderness to go meditate, the monks had disrupted deities that dwelled in the forests. At the hands of these aggravated forest spirits, the monks were assaulted by negative thoughts, memories, nightmares, emotions which fed the most agonizing and despairing plights of their souls. Trying to flee their suffering, they returned to the Buddha and explained that they needed a completely different forest in which to meditate or else they could not complete their task as the Buddha had instructed. Instead of offering the monks a new circumstance to bandage their pain, he instructed them on the practice of Mettā, focusing on thoughts and feelings of benevolence, compassion, and love for all being including themselves and the nasty forest spirits. They were further challenged to go right back into the forest from which their misery began while immersed in this new meditation. As suspected, they were no longer at odds with the spirits (their mental torment), their perception of their surroundings changed as did the response of those around them. They were able to carry out the task of meditating as the Buddha prescribed. Ultimately, they were able to overcome what seemed a daunting and impenetrable misery and transcend their circumstance by re-directing their focus, cultivating feelings of benevolence, kindness, compassion, and love.
So powerful and long-lived is this practice, that it is now showing up in a growing body of empirical data regarding how by just focusing on feelings of compassion for short durations, consistently over a short period of time (a few weeks), symptomatologies varying from PTSD to back pain can subside. Regardless of the countless articles on Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), experience is the only way to regard something as important or valid so… please, check out a previous blog I wrote to try it for yourself.
What I find so inspiring about this practice is that even the most numb, apathetic, checked-out person I meet in the field will often find themselves smiling over the thought of their favorite pet or crying over missing their baby sibling. And it’s not all roses and lollipops. At the core of re-connecting to love and compassion, is an acceptance of what is – our flaws, our wounds, their misdeeds, their meanness, our rejection, our longing, their absence, our grief. With the ability to connect to and hold the feelings of love and compassion, comes the ability to hold and connect with those harder emotions. The difference in embracing hard emotions versus ruminating in them comes when someone realizes that all emotions and sensations are accessible at will (such as experienced in the LKM). Seeing the fluidity and transience in our emotions while experiencing the mastery of connecting to the “feel-good” at will changes one’s perception of pain/fear/stress into something more manageable. When the resources for feeling love and connectedness are built up from a practice like LKM, the curiosity and hope about future connections and future cultivation of love outweighs the fear and overwhelm of life’s challenges. This is the gift of LKM.
Especially during the holiday season when the experiences of stress, grief, longing are often most raw and abundant, remember to take space and refocus on the love you have for others, deepen your compassion toward yourself. Be gentle and accepting… even accepting your lack of acceptance. See the mean or obnoxious person at the store as someone in pain. See a bit of yourself in all beings around you and send love to them as you would send love to your beloved. Most importantly, send your love inward to the dark corners, the scars, ignored pain, confused or stressed parts of you that need it most.
With much Mettā,