Lovingkindness is the 9/10 Paramis (Perfection) practice that we have been studying in our Evolve mindfulness courses this year. Lovingkindness is sometimes otherwise known as goodwill, benevolence, or simply, kindness. It is one of the practices that help us to reveal and preserve an open heart and a calm mind. In the Yoga Sutras lovingkindness is included as one of the 4 Brahmaviharas or Supreme Abodes of the heart. It is one of the places where we most belong.
Perfection practices like lovingkindness are expressions of wise action. They give us a way to orient towards our intentions. The mind as a result, gets to do what it does best, which is strategize. The body gets to enjoy the peace and well being that come when the heart is at home.
The Yoga Sutras teach that we should specifically practice lovingkindness towards those who are happy. Perhaps this strikes you, as it did me when I first learned it as odd. Why would it be necessary to be specific here? Why might it be difficult to direct goodwill towards those who are happy? Nischala Joy Devi is her translation of the Sutras: The Secret Power of Yoga, A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras, offers illumination. I’ll share a personal version of a scenario that she suggests.
I was in Rome! It had taken me years to get there, decades really but I’ll try to focus in on this specific trip. I signed a contract to lead a retreat to Italy early in 2019. This was Spring 2022. Two postponements later (I know you know why) and I finally made it. I had dodged not only one but two close contacts on the way and had no fewer than a dozen negative rapid tests behind me. I arrived early on Easter morning to the most generous hostess who shared her Easter brunch with me and then strolled over to the Vatican to see the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. He was no less than 50 yards away, sitting and waving from the Popemobile while I stood, with tens of thousands of others and marveled at the spectacle.
I had about a week on my own in Rome to get oriented to the time zone and the place before my retreat participants were to arrive. I set out on foot, as I usually do when I am in a new place, to explore. I set the Botanical Gardens as my destination. I guess you can take an Alaskan gal out of wilds but can’t keep her from looking for them! It was early spring and the gardens were beautiful. There was a dinosaur exhibit, a fantastic succulent collection, and so many roses! It was in the Rose Garden that I was reminded of this teaching.
I thought I was alone with the flowers. I was crouched down low, angling my camera (and my nose) in an attempt to capture one’s beauty. Then, a vrtti hit me. Vrttis are fluctuations that disturb our sense of peace. This particular vrtti was the sound of kids playing. They were chasing each other around on the path that wound through the garden. “Where are their parents?” was my first thought. No one seemed to be tending to them and clearly, I thought, this is inappropriate behavior for a scene as serene as this.
Thankfully, the paramis practice was relatively close to the surface of my mind and arose spontaneously to save be from my self. I, in fact, was the one who was disturbing my own peace. I was reminded that I could practice extending love, kindness, and goodwill towards these happy beings. I did.
My perspective was reoriented towards feelings of well-being. I also realized that I was thirsty and hungry from the long walk to the garden and therefore, more sensitive and easily disturbed than I might have been otherwise. The solution was simple, drink, eat, extend lovingkindness towards those who are happy.
I first learned a formal lovingkindness practice from the enlightened Sylvia Boorstein who learned it from her teacher, Sharon Salzberg, who is credited with bringing it to us from her teachers in the East. Sylvia taught me these phrases:
May I be safe and protected. May I be happy. May I be healthy and strong. May my path unfold with ease before me.
She taught me to repeat these phrases over and over again until I memorized them. She told me to personalize them so that they resonated and had meaning. She then taught me to extend these wishes to a benefactor and then to a neutral person, then to a difficult person and then to all beings. Over the course of a week of practice with these phrases, myself and all beings became more associated with them.
You may not have a week to take to practice lovingkindness meditation but what if you started to do it for just a few minutes a day?
Neuroscientists have taught us that neurons that fire together, wire together. What they’ve found is that brain cells that activate at the same time develop pathways between them that make it easier to activate in the future. The brain is always looking for shortcuts to save energy! The more often that we practice associating thoughts, the stronger the connections get.
This is why we practice. Over and over again we practice repeating the phrases of intention. We orient our minds and hearts towards what is possible. Kindness is possible. Benevolence is possible. Goodwill is possible. Perhaps not in a moment of reactivity. Probably not when hungry, thirsty, jet-lagged, etc… However, if/when we practice consistently, over a long period of time, the orientation of the mind towards goodwill becomes second nature. Your mind, as mine did, will direct itself back towards what is easier and where it feels more contented and at home. This practice may not prevent you from ever getting annoyed again (I have!) But, it very well may prevent you from suffering any more than is necessary.
On behalf of all beings, thank you for your practice.