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Loving-Kindness: Cultivating the Open and Wise Heart

by Donald Rothberg

In the classical tradition, loving-kindness is the first of the four brahmavihara, or "divine abodes," the four qualities of the open heart, and it expresses a basic warmth and friendliness. When it encounters suffering, it becomes compassion (karuna), the second of the divine abodes, understood as the quivering of the heart that is in contact with suffering. When loving-kindness meets beauty or happiness, particularly that of others, it becomes mudita, or joy, especially joy in the joy of others. Equanimity (upekkha) is the fourth of the brahmavihara and serves particularly to balance loving-kindness, compassion, and joy with wisdom.

Exercise: The Practice of Loving-kindness

The practice of loving-kindness works with short phrases that one repeats constantly, first in reference to oneself and then in reference to various others, gradually extending toward all beings. We choose phrases, either the traditional ones or of our own creation, that seem best to open our hearts, which resonate emotionally with us. The traditional phrases, as collected in the 5th century text by Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification, are these, with some possible alternative phrases added (the alternatives are in parentheses, below):

May I (or you) be free from danger.
(or May I be safe and free from harm.)

May I have mental happiness.
(or May I be happy.)

May I have physical happiness.
(or May I be healthy.)
(or May my body and mind support my awakening.)
(or May I accept my limitations with grace.)

May I have ease of well-being.
(or May I live with ease.)

Other possible phrases include:

May I accept myself just as I am.
May I be free.
May I be loving.
May I be peaceful.

Typically, we use four phrases like the classical ones which express several different nuances of well-being: safety, happiness, health, and ease.
Taking a comfortable posture, repeat these phrases silently and internally, over and over again. Start with yourself, and move in a sequence of bringing metta to those in different relationships with you, following this general order:

  • Yourself.
  • A benefactor (mentor, teacher, guide, etc.).
  • A close friend (usually not initially a partner or someone with whom there is a complex relationship).
  • A neutral person (perhaps someone at work or in one’s neighborhood that you give little attention).
  • A difficult person (traditionally identified as an “enemy,” but usually initially a mildly or moderately difficult person).
  • All beings (you can either gradually expand your awareness outwardly in space in all directions—to the front, back, to either side, above and below—or bring your metta to different classes of beings—all females and all males; all humans, all non-humans; all beings known to you, all beings unknown to you; and so forth).

One helpful way to work with the phrases is, for each phrase, to first develop an image of the being (human or non-human) toward whom you are directing metta, then to bring your attention to the center of your chest (sometimes called the “heart center”), then to say the phrase, and finally to listen for the resonance in your body, heart, and mind. You can just take a moment for each of these steps.

Do this practice initially for 10 minutes at a time, before or after your main contemplative practice. You can do the practice for longer periods, for 30 or 45 minutes daily, or even for an extended retreat of a day, a week, or longer. You can bring metta practice into the world, doing periods of metta while driving, at meetings, or taking a walk.

Excerpted with permission of the author from The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World by Donald Rothberg.

Donald Rothberg, PhD, has practiced Insight Meditation since 1976, and has also received training in Tibetan Dzogchen, Mahamudra practice and the Hakomi approach to body-based psychotherapy. Formerly on the faculties of the University of Kentucky, Kenyon College, and Saybrook Graduate School, he currently writes and teaches classes, groups and retreats on meditation, daily life practice, spirituality and psychology, and socially engaged Buddhism. An organizer, teacher, and former board member for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Donald has helped to guide six-month to two-year training programs in socially engaged spirituality through Buddhist Peace Fellowship (the BASE Program), Saybrook (the Socially Engaged Spirituality Program), and Spirit Rock (the Path of Engagement Program). He is the author of The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World and the co-editor of Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers.

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