A little less than ten years ago I enrolled in an online class on the subject of Loving-Kindness meditation. I was living in France at the time, on sabbatical with my family, with the goal of coalescing the amount of kindness-based material I had created over the previous 15 years into a book.
The working title of my book was “The Practice of Kindness” and each of my planned ten chapters was going to feature one of the ten lessons I had created for my most popular kindness class, also called “The Practice of Kindness.” I had envisioned the lessons starting at the center of a circle, core, or heart, and moving outward. Specifically, the first lesson was to do something kind for yourself, the second to do something kind for someone you loved, the third to do something kind for a friend, etc. Start inside and gradually move outward.
Significantly, the tenth lesson was to again do something kind for yourself, my hope being that by the tenth lesson the students would have recognized that each act, regardless of how far removed from their center, was also an act of kindness for themselves. In other words, completing acts of kindness, true acts of kindness, is always a win-win. Your recipient is benefited. And you are benefited.
So there I was, on sabbatical in France, working to put together my book on kindness. I enrolled in the online Loving-Kindness meditation class as a supportive activity, something that would help bring focus to my book project. Interestingly, what it did is help me realize that I didn’t want to write a book about kindness. What I discovered I wanted to do was find a better way to promote kindness. I had thought writing a book would do that.
A book, though, is a static thing. Once it’s written and published, it can’t be changed. That’s not what I wanted.
Instead, I built a website, one to which I continue to add content to this day.
If you aren’t familiar with Loving-Kindness meditation, it’s pretty simple to summarize. You sit quietly and silently repeat several phrases, statements like “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be happy. May I be safe from dangers. May I be healthy.” How long you sit and how long you silently repeat the phrases is up to you. You even tailor them for you preferred language.
We were told that those who practice Loving-Kindness meditation derive many benefits, some too hard for me to believe literally. Sleeping better certainly made sense, but not being stung by bees, not being bitten by a tiger, and having something catch me if I fell over a cliff were harder to accept.
Still, the concept of reducing conflict and being more consistently at peace made sense to me. And I remembered from watching episodes of my favorite TV show from the 70’s, “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine as a Buddhist priest, that the lead character once walked through a pit filled with rattle snakes without getting bitten because he was at one with them.
At the very least, the benefits provided food for thought.
In my class, as I describe above, we began by speaking in the first person, directing these positive messages to ourselves. As our lessons progressed, the teacher invited us to extend our good wishes to a loved one, then to a friend. One of the many things I appreciated about her guidance is that she said there was no one right way to do this. If we wanted to stay focused on directing loving-kindness to ourselves, that was what we were encouraged to do. As we practiced, we were told, we may feel drawn to extend our good wishes to others. If so, do so. Beyond loved ones and friends, we were invited to consider people we didn’t know well, then complete strangers, then people we didn’t like. If so moved, we could silently send good wishes to people we were mad it, those that have hurt us.
I was thrilled to see the overlap between the meditation class and my kindness class, how the practice started with the individual and moved outward from there. Also like my class, there was the obvious benefit the meditation students received as we extended loving-kindness to others. Of supreme interest, extending loving-kindness to someone with whom I was upset or who I felt had wronged me triggered forgiveness. I learned that resentment exists within me, has a hold on me. Loving-kindness is a way to let go of it.
Like I said, the class was nearly 10 years ago. As it wrapped up, I launched my Kind Living website. And like I said, I continue to add content to it. As to Loving-Kindness meditation, I return to it regularly, finding it to be a great calming and cleansing activity.
What prompted me to write this story, however, is an interview I read with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg earlier this week. Salzberg explained that Pali is the language of the original texts that brought forward Loving-Kindness meditation from the past. She said that there are lots of other English words that could be used for what is most commonly translated as loving-kindness. Love, good will, connection are all acceptable translations.
This got me thinking. Since I first learned of Loving-Kindness meditation, I’ve encountered a lot of people who are turned off by its name. Loving-Kindness sounds too woo-woo, they say, especially in combination with it being a meditation practice. On that note, I know a lot of people think that meditation requires them to sit in an uncomfortable cross-legged position for an extended period of time, their index fingers making a circle with their thumbs, and with their mind being blank.
That’s certainly not my experience. I can’t do that, don’t want to do that. Me, I just try to sit quietly, or lie quietly, and relax.
Anyway, setting the meditation structure aside, it was another of Salzberg’s translations that I started thinking might help the average westerner, maybe the average American, find the practice more approachable.
That translation is friendliness.
So instead of framing it as a meditation practice, what about simply saying to yourself, “May I be filled with friendliness” as you go about your day? If that resonates, you might feel drawn to silently wish your bus driver to be filled with friendliness, the cashier at the grocery store, your partner, your teacher. Maybe the person asking for spare change. Yes, maybe you’ll be drawn to wish the person with whom you are angry to be filled with friendliness.
Imagine everyone on your bus, in your school, around your city all expressing friendliness to themselves and each other. That’s a pretty great place to live.
I know it starts with me.
May I be filled with friendliness…