Love and Meditation

This article is about looooove. It’s also a no-nonsense article about how to meditate. If talking about love feels a little fluffy, stay with me. We’re looking at love from a pragmatic angle, as a positive emotion that’s good for our mental and emotional health. There’s a reason all the world’s major spiritual traditions encourage us to love others: not just because it’s nice, but because it’s useful.

How Feeling Love Benefits Us 

Like generosity, love for others loosens our fixation on the self and its petty concerns. That suffocating fixation is the root of most (maybe all?) of our suffering. Releasing it brings enormous happiness and relief. A mind that isn’t stirred up by resentment rests calmly in the present moment.

Like generosity, love is a win-win: it makes us feel good, and it inclines us to treat others well. I’ll repeat this quote from an earlier article because the Dalai Lama nailed it:

“If you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish: care for others!”
-The Dalai Lama

Defining Love 

Love is a notoriously hard-to-define concept. But in the mindfulness tradition, love has a clear definition: it is the heartfelt wish for others to be happy, without demanding anything in return or imposing any conditions. This sort of love doesn’t ask what someone has done for you lately or even whether someone is a good or bad person. It’s enough that the other person is a living being just like you, experiencing suffering and seeking happiness just like you. 

To differentiate this simple, unconditional well-wishing from other conceptions of love, we’ll use the classical term from the mindfulness tradition, “lovingkindness” (metta in the Pali language, maitri in Sanskrit).

Love is Trainable

It may seem weird to think of love as something trainable. Luckily, the Buddha was a weird guy. He developed a practice that cultivates our ability to extend lovingkindness toward others, even when they don’t make it easy for us. It’s called, appropriately enough, “lovingkindness meditation.”

Meditation masters from the Buddha to my own teacher have praised lovingkindness meditation. Still, it used to turn me off. The practice involves visualization and silent repetition of certain phrases. That didn’t seem like real meditation to me. It struck me as a little “kumbaya.”

I finally gave lovingkindness practice a real try during a meditation retreat. It was so powerful that I started crying on the cushion. It isn’t that impactful every time I do it, and it doesn’t need to be. But that intense experience convinced me that lovingkindness practice was for real.

If the practice doesn’t seem appealing to you, reserve judgment and try it. It may bowl you over right away, or it may not. But I bet you’ll at least enjoy it and see what it could grow into.

How to Practice 

Traditionally, we do lovingkindness meditation seated in a quiet place. Lately I’ve enjoyed practicing it on the go. Practicing lovingkindness during my daily activities is actually easier in a way. The practice normally involves visualizing different people and offering lovingkindness toward them. But when you’re out in the world, there’s no need to visualize. You can offer lovingkindness toward the people coming and going around you.

I especially like practicing lovingkindness on the subway. It makes my commute more enjoyable. Often our default mode on the train is annoyance: at the guy who swiped the last seat, at the old lady blasting dubstep on her headphones, etc. It’s more pleasant to feel warmth and friendliness than irritation.

Lovingkindness, Step-by-Step 

Here’s how I practice lovingkindness on the subway. For those of you who don’t take public transit, it’s easy to adapt the practice to other environments.

1. Lovingkindness toward myself

I start by taking a mindful pause to ground myself in the present moment. Then I offer lovingkindness to myself, which is the foundation for being able to offer it to others. I close my eyes and silently say:

May all my suffering melt away.

May I overflow with happiness.

2. Lovingkindness toward someone else

Next, I open my eyes and find someone else on the train. I keep the person in my field of vision — without being creepy — and offer lovingkindness. For this step, I incorporate a visualization element adapted from the Tibetan technique tonglen (“sending and taking”). The imagery helps me keep my attention on the practice amid the craziness of the subway. Here’s how it works:

When I inhale, I silently say, “May all your suffering melt away.” I imagine that I’m breathing in the person’s suffering as a thick, black cloud. I’m taking their suffering from them so that they can enjoy peace, comfort, and relief. (Note: this will not actually transfer their suffering to you. We are not Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light.)

When I exhale, I silently say, “May you overflow with happiness.” I imagine breathing out happiness and joy toward the person in the form of sunny, yellow light.

If I find that my attention has wandered, I just recall that mind wandering is a natural part of the practice and gently escort my attention back. Wandering isn’t a failure. It’s a useful opportunity to practice coming back to the present.

Sometimes I feel flickers of warmth toward the person. Sometimes I don’t feel anything in particular. It’s not important that I feel a certain way. I don’t hold onto expectations of some emotional “result” then and there. My only job is to repeat the phrases. They will sink into my subconscious and transform my attitude over time, even if I don’t feel it in that moment.

3. Lovingkindness toward the whole car

Next, I open up my gaze and take in everyone sharing the subway car with me, or as many of them as I can see. I remind myself that everyone here is a human being like me, enduring suffering and deserving happiness. I offer lovingkindness toward my fellow passengers the same way I did toward the individual. I breathe in their suffering as a black cloud while silently saying, “May all your suffering melt away.” Then I breathe out happiness as yellow light while silently saying, “May you overflow with happiness.”

4. Lovingkindness toward the whole train

Next, I let my imagination take in the entire train, filled with hundreds of people just like me, all experiencing suffering and seeking happiness. I don’t need to actually visualize all these people; I just feel a sense of their presence. I offer lovingkindness to them all, breathing in their suffering and breathing out happiness.

5. Post-Practice

Even after you’ve finished the formal practice, you can keep the vibe going in a relaxed way if you like. Let yourself radiate a feeling of gentle friendliness toward everyone you see. You might add the silent phrase, “May you be happy” — a condensed version of the lovingkindness phrases. Let your eyes drift from person to person and wish them well. Eventually, you may find that you start feeling spontaneous warmth toward strangers on the street. It’s a nice habit to have.

Practice Details 

When choosing an individual to offer lovingkindness to, it’s best not to pick someone you find attractive. Sexual desire has an element of craving something for yourself. This craving clashes with the simple well-wishing of lovingkindness, which seeks nothing in return. It’s possible to offer lovingkindness to someone you’re attracted to — just tricky.

Sometimes during the practice, I’ll notice someone who seems to be having a hard time. I like to take a few moments to silently wish that person well. Maybe someone looks exhausted but can’t find a seat. Maybe someone is being rude or shoving another passenger, which unfortunately happens pretty often. In that last case, there are two people having a hard time: the person enduring the harassment, and the person whose inner experience is so unpleasant that it compels that sort of behavior. I like to offer lovingkindness to both of them.

Generosity and lovingkindness are two great tastes that go great together. More than that, they need each other. If you don’t practice lovingkindness, your acts of giving can feel hollow or mechanical. Eventually, you might stop bothering.

On the other hand, if you don’t cultivate the habit of generosity, your lovingkindness practice can get stuck as a pointless mental exercise. You might wish relief to suffering people but not bother to actually help. You just stand there shooting lovingkindness rays at them. Lovingkindness feeds generosity, and generosity turns lovingkindness into action.

Another nice practice: When you have a happy experience — eating something delicious, seeing a cute puppy, whatever — send out that happiness to all the people around you. Form the wish that they share in that happiness. If you like, imagine that you’re breathing out the happiness as bright yellow light, like in the subway lovingkindness practice. You’re sort of surfing the waves of these happy moments and using them to propel your lovingkindness practice.

Finally, an experiment: The next time someone is inconsiderate or mean to you, instead of reacting with ill will of your own, pause for a second. Remind yourself, “This person is a human being like me. She’s just trying to be happy and avoid suffering, like me. She’s acting badly toward me because she’s suffering.” Then, silently say, “May you be happy.” Just try it sometime.

Lovingkindness is a beautiful practice with a lot of depth to it. I tend to be more analytical and less emotional/intuitive, so this practice didn’t seem like my cup of tea at first. I was wrong. As I practice, friendliness and warmth become more and more my default. Resentment and hostility trouble me less and less. I can’t express how good this feels, or how much I endorse this practice.

If you enjoy doing lovingkindness on the go, you may want to try the seated practice sometime. Check out this short article from Sharon Salzberg for simple instructions. Sharon is a legendary meditation teacher who literally wrote the book on lovingkindness.

I hope you find this practice as helpful as I have. May you be happy.