The Buddha taught that we can develop loving-kindness by visualizing how a caring mother holds her beloved child. Love is our true nature, but it is often covered over by a protective layer of fear. The Buddhist path uses systematic trainings to cultivate love. These trainings are found throughout the Buddhist world. They strengthen our capacity for love, compassion, joy and peace. The practices that develop these qualities combine repeated thoughts, visualization and feelings. These trainings have been employed by millions of practitioners to transform their own hearts.
Loving-kindness is the first of these trainings. In loving-kindness practice, students visualize themselves and repeat four or five traditional phrases of well wishing, such as “May I be safe and healthy. May I be happy.” Along with the recitation, a bodily sense of love is established and the feelings of loving-kindness are invited.
Loving-kindness develops as we repeat these phrases thousands of times, over days and months. Initially it can feel difficult to offer love to ourself—it can trigger feelings of unworthiness. Yet it is important to practice with ourself in this training, because whatever we do not love in our own self, we will not accept in another. Buddhist teachings explain, “You can search the whole universe and not find a being more worthy of love than yourself.”
But because loving-kindness is difficult for some people, you can also begin by sending loving wishes to someone else—whoever most easily evokes your care. This can be a child or a dear friend. The general principle in loving-kindness practice is to choose whatever most easily opens the heart.
If you do begin with another person, then after a time you can imagine how they naturally would wish the same for you. And taking their love in, you can shift and direct the phrases of care and loving-kindness to yourself.
After many repetitions, a strong, caring love for yourself can be established. Then the loving-kindness practice is systematically extended to others by categories. First we visualize and offer love to our benefactors, then loved ones, friends, neutral people, and eventually difficult people, and even our enemies. Next, we extend the well wishing of loving-kindness further, to humans, animals and insects, to beings of the earth, water and air, to beings large and small, young and old, visible and not visible, until beings in every direction are included. At each step of the process, we deliberately extend our field of loving consciousness. If we find difficulty opening to the next area of the loving-kindness, we try to gradually let go and forgive, repeatedly offering loving intentions until the obstacles dissolve.
The experience of practicing of loving-kindness in this way illuminates new possibilities. For example, when we shift our attention from benefactors and friends to neutral people, a whole new category of love opens. In loving-kindness practice, neutral people are defined as people we see regularly but don’t pay much attention to. We might use our regular bank teller or a waitress at a local restaurant as our first neutral person. On one long retreat, I chose an old local gardener. I spent several days and nights picturing him and wishing him well in my meditation. Later I unexpectedly ran into him. Even though I didn’t know his name, I was so happy to see him, I swooned. “Oh, my beloved neutral person!” Then I realized how many other neutral people I had ignored. As I included them in the practice of loving-kindness, my love grew deeper around me.
From neutral people, the practice of loving-kindness extends to difficult people and enemies. But this is not where we start. In working with love, we start with the easiest subjects, ourselves and those for whom we most naturally feel love. Only then, when our heart is open and our loving-kindness is strong, do we bring in someone for whom we have strong aversion, someone by whom we’ve felt wronged, someone we’ve come to think of as an enemy. As we do, at first the heart shrivels and closes. “After what they did to me, I’m never going to love and forgive them, ever.” But as this hatred arises, we lose the joy of our own open heart. Seeing this, we understand the cost of hatred. We realize for our own sake, that the cost is too high. Finally, we think, “OK, I’ll forgive, I’ll let even you into my loving-kindness—a little at first—so that I can keep my heart open.” Through this repeated practice we learn to keep our heart open even in difficulty. As we cultivate this training in kindness, eventually we can end up radiating love to all we meet.
I often recommend a year of developing loving-kindness for oneself. Because of the shame and unworthiness we carry, loving ourselves becomes a particularly powerful practice. It doesn’t create love. It opens the pathway to the gold of our natural love. Then it can spill over to bless all we touch.