“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’” – – Aldous Huxley

When I first began my Buddhist practice, the idea behind loving-kindness meditation wasn’t all that attractive to me.  I couldn’t make any sense out of it.  What did it mean to chant “May all beings be happy?”  Did saying or thinking that somehow magically make beings happy?   How could all beings be happy, since happiness is a mental state  dependent on causes and conditions?  Isn’t suffering an inherent part of life?  If you had to wish for something, wouldn’t it be better to wish for everyone to be mindful?  There was a fairy-tale element to loving-kindness meditation that didn’t jibe with my empirical-pragmatic approach to life.

It took me a long time to come to terms with loving-kindness.  The first step on that journey was understanding how Western notions of feeling and emotion interfere with  understanding what loving-kindness actually is.  Western notions of feeling and emotion have been colored by nineteenth-century Western Romanticism in art, music, poetry, philosophy, and psychology.  Novels of sentiment first emerged in the late eighteenth century with the publication of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther — novels in which the protagonist was intimately in touch with a powerful and often tormented emotional life.  Music underwent a metamorphosis from the sacred beauty and mathematical elegance of Bach to the powerful emotional drama of Beethoven, Wagner, and Mahler.  Poetry was transformed by Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Shelly.  German Romanticism provided the underpinnings for Freud’s theories of the unconscious, the passions, and the will.  The ideal of romantic love transformed Western marriage, often trumping the importance of familial obligations and financial considerations.  It all came down to being in touch with feeling — being genuine and true to one’s emotional life.

So I was surprised years ago when I heard Sharon Salzberg quip that (in regards to teaching loving-kindness) she wanted the following words engraved on her tombstone: “It doesn’t matter what you feel.”  What she meant by that was that you didn’t have to feel anything special as you practiced loving-kindness.  The point was to just do it.

I’ve been told there’s no word corresponding to our Western category of “Emotion” in Pali, Sanskrit, or Tibetan.  There are words for individual emotions — compassion, anger, greed, happiness — but no category of “Emotion” to which they all belong.  In the Abhidharma, for example, there are just the categories of skillful and unskillful mental factors.  Emotions are lumped together in the same category with other mental factors relating to volition, perception, and concentration.

It’s better to think of loving-kindness as an attitude we’re trying to cultivate than a feeling we’re trying to “have,” with all the issues of false consciousness and inauthenticity that arise when we try to “create a feeling.”  It’s unrealistic to think we can actually “love” everybody in the same way.  How can I feel the same way emotionally about my insurance broker as I do to my wife or my children?  That’s crazy.  And then try to think about other people who are even harder to love —  you can make your own list, ending with someone like Hitler, for example.  No way that’s going to happen.

On the other hand, I can cultivate the idea that all beings deserve my non-hatred.  I can disapprove of them and their actions, and do what I can to stop them from inflicting harm, but I don’t have to afflict myself and the world with the venom of my hatred.  I can work on the idea that all sentient beings should be treated humanely.  I can start working on that with the people nearest and dearest to me.  Then I can work my way up to my insurance broker.  I can save working on Hitler for last.

Motherly love, and love for one’s mother, play a significant role in traditional Asian descriptions of loving-kindness.  The Metta Sutta states, “As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings.”  Tibetans argue that we should treat all beings like we would treat our mother.  The argument that accompanies this is that since we have already lived an infinite number of lifetimes, and since all other beings have also transmigrated over infinite lifetimes, then every other being has at one time or another already actually been our mother. We should therefore treat all beings with impartiality as if they were our mother.

This argument sometimes falls on deaf ears in the West. Besides the issue of non-belief in reincarnation, we’ve been through the Freudian revolution in which all our troubles have been laid at our mothers’ doorsteps.  It’s hard to remember a time in our culture when mothers were unalloyed objects of veneration.  This veneration is still present, however, in Indian culture.  You can see it reflected in the Indian cinema, from classic films like “Mother India,” to Bollywood hits like “Kahbi Kushi Khabi Gham.”







Mothers  in Mother India (L) and Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (R)

However you may personally feel about your actual mother, this imagery is intended to serve as an encouragement to take the person who best embodies love or is most worthy of love, and use this person as the standard for the kindly treatment of others.

One beautiful aspect of traditional metta practice (see below) is that one begins by extending loving-kindness to oneself.  For some people, this is the hardest aspect of loving-kindness to cultivate.  Airplane flight attendants advise us that, should an emergency arise, we don our own oxygen masks before putting them on our loved ones.  People who are the most demanding and unforgiving of others are often, first and foremost, the most demanding and unforgiving of themselves.  If we are to be truly kind to others, we need to first extend the same courtesy to ourselves.

Loving-kindness is not just an attitude, but a complex skill set with many component facets: generosity, attentiveness, caring, patience, open-heartedness, forgiveness, gentleness, abstaining from expressions of irritation and anger, expressing appreciation, offering advice and assistance, sympathetic joy, and trustworthiness.  We have the good fortune in this life to be surrounded by a sufficient number of imperfect and irritating people to practice and develop these skills daily.  While traditional meditations like reciting metta verses or practicing tong-len can be helpful in developing loving-kindness, they are no substitute for putting it into practice in real life with real people.  You are provided with the opportunity to do so every single day of your life.

“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”  —  Henry James



Imaya dhammanu /By this practice

Dhamma patipattiya/ In accord with the true Dhamma

Buddham pujemi /I honor the Buddha.

Imaya dhammanu/ By this practice

Dhamma patipattiya/ In accord with the true Dhamma

Dhammam pujemi /I honor the Dhamma.

Imaya dhammanu /By this practice

Dhamma patipattiya/ In accord with the true Dhamma

Sangham pujemi /I honor the Sangha.


Aham avero homi /May I be free from enmity

Abapajjo homi /May I be free from mental suffering

Anigho homi /May I be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharami /May I take care of myself happily.


Mama mata pitu /May my mother and father

Acariyaca ñatimittaca/ And teachers, relatives, and friends,

Sabrahma carinoca/ And fellow brahma farers,

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu /May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu /May they take care of themselves happily.


Imasmin arame, sabbe yogino/ In this grove, may all yogis

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu /May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu/ May they take care of themselves happily.

Amhakham arakkha devata /May our guardian deities

Imasmim vihare /In this temple

Imasmim avase /In this dwelling

Imasmim arame /In this place

Arakkha devata /May the guardian deities

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu/ May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu/ May they take care of themselves happily.


Sabbe satta /May all beings

Sabbe pana /All living things

Sabbe bhuta/ All creatures

Sabbe puggala/ All individuals

Sabbe attabhava pariyapanna/ All personalities

Sabbe itthiyo /All females

Sabbe purisa /All males

Sabbe ariya /All nobles ones

Sabbe anariya /All who are not nobles

Sabbe deva /All deities

Sabbe manussa/ All humans

Sabbe vinipatika /All those in unhappy states

Avera hontu /May they be free from enmity

Abyapajja hontu/ May they be free from mental suffering

Anigha hontu /May they be free from physical suffering

Sukhi attanam pariharantu/ May they take care of themselves happily.


Dukkha muccantu /May they be free from suffering

Yatha laddha sampattito/ May they enjoy safety and abundance

Mavigacchantu Kammassaka/ Have Kamma as their true property.

Idam no puñña bhagam /May this merit of ours be apportioned

Sabba sattanam /To all beings.

Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu! /Well spoken! Well spoken! Well spoken!


Credit: Top Photo courtesy of Nancy Zarider

Technorati Tags:


Working with Fear

My wife and I just spent two weeks traveling the Colorado Plateau, that astonishing five million year-old uplifting of sedimentary rock that makes Southern Utah and Northern Arizona (as well as parts of Colorado, and New Mexico) so amazingly unique.

We toured some of the National and Tribal parks that dot red sandstone country: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.  Those of you who have been there know words are inadequate to describe the awesome natural beauty of the high desert plateau with its myriad canyons, arches, windows and hoodoos.

A few days into our journey my wife and I decided to trek down into the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to get a closer view of the erosion-formed hoodoos at its bottom.

As we started snaking down the switchbacks that led to the canyon floor I became aware, for the first time in my life, of an overwhelming fear of heights.  I was terrified of the closeness of the trail rim and the precipitous drop that lay to my right.  My knees weakened and when I couldn’t see around a narrow stretch of switchback I became fearful I’d trip and fall, and refused go any further.  I apologized to my wife, who was enjoying the descent, and told her I had to turn back.

Now if you look objectively at me beginning down that trail (see below) you’ll see the trail is really fairly wide, but that I am nevertheless clinging to the left side of the trail where there’s a high wall and no drop off.  If I’d tripped and stumbled there’s no way I’d have plunged to my death.  I’d have skinned my knees at the worst.   I was suffering from a sudden case of acrophobia.  I was mystified!  Climbing up ladders or doing housework on the roof had never been my favorite activity, but I’d always been able to do it.  Young children were hiking that trail without any difficulty, for heaven’s sake!  I felt thoroughly ashamed!

This event reminded me of another time in my life when I’d experienced significant irrational fear.  I was on my second ten-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.  My first retreat had been heavenly bliss, so naturally I expected my second to be a repeat of my first.  Oh, dread beginner’s naiveté!  Beware of expectations!  They always come back and bite you!

A few days into the retreat I developed a paranoid fantasy about one of the other yogis, an eccentric individual who kept showing up at the outdoor spots I’d picked for my walking meditation.  Only he wasn’t doing walking meditation.  He was doing his own thing.  He’d stand motionless for ten minutes, then take off running towards me at full speed, then suddenly stop a few feet in front of me resuming his previous stillness.  I was baffled and unnerved, and began thinking that his intentions were malevolent.  Perhaps he was a serial killer and he’d selected me as his next victim?

He seemed to be everywhere.  I’d go for a walk around the loop of roads circling IMS after lunch and hear someone clearing his throat behind me.  I’d turn around, and there he was!

My paranoia intensified.  I was wearing  a baseball cap with the name of my daughter’s college written on it.  What a mistake!  After he killed me, he could go after her!

A part of me recognized that this thinking was seriously disturbed and I tried using logic to derail it, but to no avail.  Another part of me thought that my meditation had made me super-sensitive and that I could read his energy or thought waves.  I wasn’t being paranoid, I was just tapping into his aura!

This paranoid episode lasted for several days, and I was thoroughly miserable.  Then one evening one of the teachers at the retreat gave a talk about fear.  How perfect! How excellent! How well timed!  When the pupil is ready, the teaching appears!

The teacher, Michael Liebenson Grady, discussed his own fear of unleashed dogs on the loop around IMS.  Once when confronted by a growling dog, he recalled the tale of how Ajahn Maha Boowa recited metta verses to a tiger he encountered during his nightly walking meditation.  Maha Boowa had escaped unscathed.

Ajahn Maha Boowa

Michael decided to try the same method on the dog by reciting the metta verse “May you be happy!”  The dog bit him.  Michael quipped that perhaps that was what made the dog happy!

On a more serious note, Michael went on to say that the only way out of fear is through it. Instead of trying to argue the fear away, he suggested being mindful of the physical sensations and fear-generating thoughts, just watching them without any effort to change them.  That evening I tried Michael’s suggestion, and the fear magically dissolved and melted away.  It became completely insubstantial.  I was amazed!  I was at ease with my would-be serial killer for the rest of the retreat and saw him as just a harmless eccentric. The retreat ended with yogis being invited to share parting comments.  One older woman singled out my killer for praise, commenting on his great kindness to her during the retreat.

Several days later on the Colorado Plateau my wife and I went on a hike to see the petroglyphs that an ancient Puebloan had inscribed on one of the sandstone bluffs at Mesa Verde.  Our trail guide rated the hike as “easy.”  About fifteen minutes into the hike, however, the narrow trail began following the canyon rim with a precipitous drop off to my right.

Once again my knees weakened and I began to feel the fear I’d experienced at Bryce Canyon.  There was even one point when the trail went up 90 degrees over sheer rock.  One had to put one’s right foot onto a toe-hold off to one’s left and then pull oneself up the rock.  It was worse than Bryce!  They had to be kidding!

This time I was going to go about things differently, however.  I mindfully noticed the weakness in my knees as sheer sensation, and my thoughts of falling as just thoughts.  I also did some stimulus avoidance, trying to keep my eyes straight ahead and slightly to the left to avoid staring into the abyss off to my right.  Once in a while, however, when the trail widened a bit, I’d sneak a peak and appreciate the grand vista off to my right from a safe distance.

I wish I could say my fear totally vanished like it had during my IMS retreat.  It didn’t.  But it was manageable in a way it hadn’t been at Bryce, and I now look back on the petroglyph hike as one of the highlights of our trip

Ancient Puebloan Petroglyph

Behavior therapists say that exposure is the best cure for phobias, but the exposure has to be lengthy for it to work.  I guess the two-hour petroglyph hike was long enough for exposure to work some of its magic.

A few days later my wife and I walked part of the rim trail around Grand Canyon.

I was able to walk it comfortably, although I didn’t walk as close to the edge as my wife did.  There were some intrepid teenagers walking the same trail who stood on the rocks and ledges on the canyon’s edge posing for pictures, fearless as mountain goats.  How I envied their courage!  I wasn’t totally over my new-found phobia, but it remained manageable, and I enjoyed the hike.

So here’s a recipe for coping with fear: One part mindfulness, one part exposure.  Instead of believing the fear-talk, see it as mere thinking.  Notice the weakness in your knees as mere sensation.  Don’t get caught up in being fearful of the sensations and believing the thoughts. (“Oh, no!  My knees really will buckle and I’ll tumble into the abyss!”)   Don’t try to make the fear go away, but just mindfully observe it in all its manifestations. Mindfulness is itself a form of exposure: one accepts and explores the fear rather than pushing it away.

Lastly, do the thing you fear, don’t avoid it.  Expose yourself to it for a sufficiently long time (at least ninety minutes!) without avoidance.  I cheated a bit by avoiding looking to the right when I was climbing the Mesa Verde petroglyph trail.  But I was only cheating myself.  Who knows?  If I’d forced myself to look I might have become one of those courageous teenage mountain goats posing on the Grand Canyon ledge!

Technorati Tags: , ,