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The Power of Loving-Kindness
By Sharon Salzberg
"There is a saying in the Buddhist tradition: `You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere.'"
The power of love or loving-kindness has been denigrated in our culture. There's a sense that a loving person is abused, allows tyranny to reign without protest, and isn't strong. It's almost a sense that love is a weakness. Sometimes there is the idea that the loving heart makes people kind of smirky and sentimental — that because of love, they can't look at suffering clearly or at difficult things within themselves or in the world. I think we have to do a radical re- visioning and come to understand the power of the loving heart. Not only is it innate, but it cannot be destroyed, no matter what our life experience has been, no matter how many scars we bear, how much suffering we have gone through, or how unloved we have felt. We have the capacity to love and to receive love in return.
Living in fear is like being frozen. It's said that the Buddha taught love — particularly metta, loving-kindness — as the antidote to fear. There is a beautiful line in a poem by Mary Oliver: "When the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive." We're oppressed by our fears, our judgments, our guilt — guilt being considered in the Buddhist psychology a quality of self-hatred — and when that oppression lifts, we are so alive. That's the force of love.
Sometimes, if we're fortunate, weexperience this love with another person. We might have one being in our life who is a model of unconditional love, so that we don't fear rejection if we're truly honest with this person or if we don't present ourselves in a certain way. We have enormous respect for this person, who means safety and maybe clarity — not mushiness or a phony veneer or an inability to look at difficult and painful things. This person may perceive the difficulty and pain in us, but there is the feeling that he or she views them alongside us, rather than from across some enormous gulf of separation. That is really the essence of a loving heart — the understanding of our nonseparateness.
There is a saying in the Buddhist tradition: "You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere." We ourselves are as deserving of our love and affection as anyone else. A spiritual practice based on self-hatred can never sustain itself. We have to begin with loving ourselves, being able to embrace all parts of ourselves as well as all parts of the world, in order to understand our capacity to love.
The Buddha said, "If you truly loved yourself, you would never harm another." Harming another is like harming ourselves. Buddhist psychology distinguishes between the force of guilt and the force of remorse — remorse being a full consciousness and sensitivity that we've hurt somebody. Feeling that pain, we let go and then have the energy to move on. Guilt is something else entirely — a continual rehashing of some event, mental flagellation, with tremendous self-hatred. It leaves us strained and exhausted, without the energy to go on and be different.
If self-judgment, criticism, and self-hatred were liberating, we would all have been freed long ago. I don't have anything against those mind states personally — except that they simply don't work. Don't get me wrong; I don't have a philosophical stance that we have to love ourselves, but the fact is, love works and hatred doesn't. Self-hatred may not arise from anything in particular — it may just be a sense of personal humiliation about the fact that we grow older, get sick or disabled, feel that we failed, get angry, or get jealous. We can easily hate, judge, and condemn, but unfortunately, it doesn't end the problems — in some strange way, it intensifies them.
The Buddha said, "Develop a mind so filled with love, it resembles space." We use the words mind and heart synonymously; the meaning is to develop a heart so filled with love that it resembles space, which can't be marred, can't be ruined — just as if someone were standing in a room throwing paint around in the air. There's nowhere in space for the paint to land. We can develop a mind or heart so filled with love that it's like space —boundless, open, vast, free. Any amount of paint, any irritant, any inner or outer trouble, won't land.
Recently I was in Israel teaching a forgiveness meditation. During the session, someone said he had survived a terrorist attack — he still had some bullets in his body and was in constant pain. He said he didn't think it was possible to forgive, but he did know it was essential to learn to stop hating.
It's clear that if we don't stop hating, nobody will. It has to start with us because not only are we ourselves suffering horribly from the limitation and burning of all that anger, but the world is never going to change unless one person somewhere starts to stop hating.
We develop a loving heart by some form of meditation practice, a process distinct from reading about something or admiring it in a distant way. By meditating for even five minutes a day on a pragmatic level, so that it's not theoretical or even devotional, we can see for ourselves, "What happens when I say this phrase or do this reflection on everybody wanting to be happy? What happens when I sit down for five minutes and wish myself love and safety and peace? What happens when I think of this person I care about so much and am grateful to, or when I think of somebody I really don't like and reflect on the fact that he or she also wants to be happy?" It's an experiment.
Sometimes people feel odd — when they undertake a practice of a loving heart — they think it's artificial and it seems mechanical, but in fact, it's not. I often use the example of planting seeds through harnessing the force of our intention, like planting our garden of love. It will definitely blossom, but we have to take those first steps, to risk or be willing to explore what kind of development can occur in the loving heart.
One technique I like is developing metta toward a neutral person. It's interesting because sometimes we have difficulty finding a neutral person. As soon as we think of someone, we have an instant judgment about liking or disliking this person. That's an important revelation. It lets us see that we have an enormous number of neutral people in our lives on whom we've imposed judgments. This can come as a shock to us. It's interesting to consider someone about whom we have no story — just a generic living being, wanting to be happy, like all of us — and offering the same care and cherishing we've just offered ourselves and perhaps someone we love deeply. A sense of separation falls away. Some people, in intensive metta during a retreat, contemplate a neutral person and actually have the feelings of falling in love! Not romantically, but in terms of a loving friendship.
One of the tremendous understandings of spiritual practice is the power of the mind. Although we all live in the same world, our individual reality is a function not only of external events but of how they're held in our hearts — the degree of space in our hearts, the vastness or constriction, the contraction or openness of the mind receiving the external events. The spiritual perspective is not that we're sitting in traffic and are really angry and are trying to pretend we're not. Instead, it's an openness to what we're actually feeling; to understanding suffering; to having a great deal of love, kindness, and compassion for ourselves — not being stuck in that first reaction of anger. It's having options, choices — which is what an open heart means, as opposed to a narrow one — and realizing we can look at matters a different way.
In Lovingkindness, I tell a story about my friend Sylvia Boorstein being on a plane that developed a problem with its hydraulic system. It had to return to the airport, and every five minutes the pilot would announce the countdown over the PA system, "Thirty-five minutes left to land ... thirty minutes left to land." The whole time, Sylvia was consciously doing a loving-kindness practice for the people in her immediate family, enveloping them with care and concern and acknowledging her connection to all of them. When the pilot got on the PA system and said, "We have five minutes before we land," Sylvia realized that in five minutes she might be dead. She resumed her loving-kindness practice and found there was no way in the world she could limit herself to opening her heart to just her immediate family. The only thing she could do at that moment, when she might have only five minutes to live, was to open her heart to all beings everywhere. This was without any contrivance or force or pretentiousness.
Metta is not a fabricated decision like "Now I am a very spiritual person and therefore I will love all beings"; nor does it mean that if we're really seething with rage or filled with fear, we're somehow going to overlay a nice little veneer and pretend and be smiling all the time. It's not that at all. Metta is the moment Sylvia had when the sense of "us and them" crumbled. It was born of the understanding that she might soon be dead — so why bother upholding all those boundaries and barriers? With the collapse of those boundaries, the effortless, natural love for all beings wells up. That's the moment we look for. That's the moment when we are so alive.
Our practice shows us our own strength. Very early on, one of my teachers said something wonderful to me: "The Buddha's enlightenment solved the Buddha's problems; now you solve yours." Our practice shows us that "I do have the wisdom, I do have the strength, I do have the loving capacity, in real-time, real-life situations, to look at things in a different way." That's what our practice gives us.
|The Power of Loving-Kindness||3|
|The Heart Is Always Open||14|
|The Best-Kept Secret||23|
|To Love and Be Loved||33|
|The Wellspring of the Heart||44|
|The Basics of Love||54|
|Love Enough for All||59|
|The Birthright of Our Heart||67|
|The Smoke Around the Heart||73|
|God Is Love||80|
|Loving Inside Out||87|
|The Mirror of Love||92|
|Listening for Love||101|
|A Loving Prescription||112|
|Drawing from the Well of Self-Love||117|
|A Celebration of Love||133|
|The Dance of the Wounded Heart||140|
|Beginning with Love||145|
|Breathing in Love||150|
|The Atmosphere of Love||170|
|Love and Letting Be||177|
|Living from the Heart||183|
|A Mixture of Love||191|
|Love Is a Choice||196|
|About the Contributors||207|