Loving-kindness and Compassion
In traditional teachings, loving-kindness is defined as unconditional positive regard toward oneself and others, including other non-human beings. It is a universal sense of openness that is both courageous and tender, whilst also a natural quality that can be cultivated through meditation practice.
When teaching mindfulness, we refer to loving-kindness and compassion as essential components of any practice. In many ways, we could see them as foundational to developing and maintaining a sense of care and open-mindedness in response to our whole experience.
In guiding meditation, we often instruct participants to gently, and with kindness, bring the attention back to the breath or body, if the mind has become distracted. We encourage participants to lean toward rather than retract from difficult and uncomfortable sensations and emotions, but with kindness and compassion toward themselves. We do so for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it is all too easy to fall prey to the ruminating mind; the mind that is self-critical and full of doubt: ‘I’m no good at this!’, ‘I’ll never make it’, ‘I’m not worthy’, we say in our inner dialogue. If we listen to too much of this dialogue we can find ourselves stuck in a downward spiral of thought, with sometimes disastrous consequences. We know for certain that we are not at our best when holding such self-doubt. Therefore, bringing a sense of loving-kindness to these thoughts, can help us to maintain a channel of self-care for ourselves no matter what life throws at us.
With training in loving-kindness we can guard our mind from unhelpful thoughts. We can learn to recognise that no matter what, we deserve to be happy, fulfilled, and prosperous. This can result in a self-forgiveness that, whilst not ‘letting us off the hook’ of our responsibility, enables us to remain buoyant in the face of difficulty, thus more resilient.
Secondly, we know how challenging it is to face difficult emotions or even physical pain. When we examine ourselves in meditation, we can find many subtle and sometimes gross layers of emotion that we may have been harbouring, sometimes even for years. These are sometime like open wounds that we daren’t touch and from which we seek anaesthetisation. To move toward such wounds we need the tenderness and courage of loving-kindness. We can learn that with a kind curiosity, we can begin to befriend the difficulties that we hold.
Ultimately, the practice of loving-kindness is one that leads us toward compassion and empathy toward other too. When we understand our own pain, our own challenges, we understand the pain of others. We develop insight into the root causes of our suffering, and thus see that others are susceptible to the same causes. Arising from this is a sense of universal and unconditional empathic concern - a sense that ‘we are all in this together’.