Shambhala Sun | July 2014
SPECIAL SECTION: YOUR GUIDE TO BUDDHIST MEDITATION
Loving-Kindness: It Starts With You
JOSH KORDA on how to
free your naturally loving heart and expand your goodwill to include all
I haven’t had a drink or a self-prescribed mood-altering
drug in nineteen years. I make that statement with both pride and wonder, given
the amount of suffering that preceded my renunciation of booze, pills, and the
like. I mostly attribute my sobriety to my spiritual practice, the support of
my Buddhist community, and our local twelve-step gatherings. But if one practice
or tool has helped me get and stay sober, it is the practice of Metta, or
I grew up in an unpredictable household. My father, an
alcoholic, could shift from pleasant joviality to rage-induced violence over
the course of a few glasses of wine. I vividly remember plates suddenly flying
toward my head during tense dinners and the sound of my mom’s muffled cries
while locked in a bathroom. In short, the stuff that leads to years of analysis
later in life.
By my teens I was hypervigilant of others and self-absorbed,
the victim of a self-critical inner tyrant. I felt unworthy of others’ love and
worked hard to hide emotional states my father couldn’t tolerate during his
“episodes”—any sign of weakness, frustration, or sadness.
My underlying assumption was simple: if others could see
these authentic energies, they wouldn’t accept me either. Yet I desperately
needed emotional tolerance and interpersonal bonding. My life around others
became a self-conscious performance. Suppressing so much resulted in an
agitated mind, which set me up for addictive behaviors. Alcohol and drugs, I
found, relieved the stress created by my concealment and self-judgment.
The underlying darkness was kept at bay, until my world fell
apart and I wound up in my final detox stint, everything and everyone lost as a
result of my heedlessness.
My early days of sobriety were buoyed by the Buddhist
practice I had developed over the years. But breath concentration and Vipassana
practice weren’t enough to deal with my deeply embedded feelings of low
self-esteem. The self-critical tyrant remained on his throne, barking his angry
rebukes and rebuttals, which I continued to believe, despite having a path in
which I cultivated virtue and volunteerism. I was deeply despairing and incapable
of lasting relationships and deep friendships. And so, when I heard of
loving-kindness practice from wonderful teachers like Ajahn Sucitto and Sharon
Salzberg, I dove in.
Metta is a powerful meditation practice that heals agitated
minds with the development of goodwill toward ourselves and others. Of great
therapeutic benefit, Metta relieves our stressful thought patterns and can
result in immediate improvements in well-being.
How to Do Loving-Kindness Meditation
Traditionally, we begin loving-kindness practice by taking a
comfortable seat. We can quietly shift positions when necessary, as this is not
a time to investigate physical discomfort.
Once seated, we start by inwardly directing loving-kindness
and goodwill to ourselves: perhaps toward a visual sense of our appearance or
toward an area of the body where we experience core emotions, such as the chest
During initial forays into Metta the mind will often rebel;
thoughts critical of the meditation’s value or stories of our unworthiness are
swift to arise. All this means is that we need this practice, for, as the
Buddha taught, we each deserve goodwill and if we cannot summon it easily for
ourselves, we’ll never feel true compassion for other beings.
When I first started my loving-kindness practice, developing
thoughts of self-regard was a struggle, to say the least. Finally it occurred
to me that I was addressing myself, in my thoughts, in ways I would never
address anyone publicly, even those I detested. I made a pact in my practice
that I would say the same things to myself that a good friend might say. My
first choice of phrasing was begrudging, along the lines of “I suppose you
deserve some happiness.” It’s a sign of the degree to which I’ve healed that my
phrase of choice these days is “I love you, keep going.”
Once some self-compassion has arisen, we bring to mind
images of friends, mentors, or others we hold in high regard. This stage of
Metta is generally uncomplicated, requiring little effort, as the admiration we
feel for these people naturally results in goodwill.
Next, though, we direct goodwill in more challenging
directions. We start with people we are indifferent toward, about whom we have
neither positive nor negative feelings. This stage requires more effort, as the
human mind is quite facile at developing opinions about people. Choosing a
neutral person—for example, someone we see regularly during a commute or in a
store we frequent—may require memory jogging.
Finally, we move to the most challenging stage of Metta practice:
radiating goodwill toward those we’ve reviled or struggled with. (Dick Cheney
and the Doobie Brothers almost instantly come to mind, but maybe that’s just
me.) This part of the practice is as essential as developing self-compassion,
since holding resentment is a primary source of agitation and suffering. The
limits of our goodwill form the ultimate boundaries of our peace of mind, for
we cannot achieve peace while aversion is present.
The goal of Metta practice is to free our natural feelings
of benevolence from their limited confines. Loving-kindness and goodwill
conditioned by agendas or expectations are not deeply beneficial. In Metta, we
work to develop feelings of ease and love as boundless as the oceans that
nourish and sustain our world.
Josh Korda teaches in the Theravada Buddhist tradition at
Dharmapunx NYC + Brooklyn and is a regular visiting teacher at Against the
Stream in Los Angeles.