The older I get, the more I find my mind spontaneously calling up thoughts of loving-kindness. What do I mean?
Loving-kindness is an antidote to ill-will and anger.
Here’s an example. As I wake up in the morning, my mind is often restless, even irritated. My family conditioning along with the many years I spent cultivating negativity, anger, and defensiveness make this so.
Even now, before I get out of bed, my mind can be deeply fogged with resentment, conflict and criticism.
Yet, because I’ve been practicing mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation for years, I now can actually feel the pain that is in my mind when it’s fuming with conflict. So, I can swiftly move out of the pain of early morning agitation.
Negative thoughts are filled with suffering
And, because I feel thoughts of loving-kindness as a pleasant refuge, my mind easily moves away from the pain caused by agitated negative thoughts. My thoughts spontaneously move into skillful and pleasant reflections like, “May I be happy and free from conflict. May my mind be at ease and free from fear.”
In other words, because I’ve been practicing steadily for so long, the practice is much less effortful, more felt and spontaneous than thought out in advance. And the benefits are often more immediate and clear.
I can confidently say that mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation has brought a deep sense of balance, steadiness, connectedness, and trust to life in my practice and in my relationships with others.
Growing in trust
And, since I’ve never been a trusting person, the growth of trust in my life is a big thing. Trust in what? The Buddha promised that we grow in wisdom and compassion if we practice. More and more I trust in this promise. More and more I trust in the wisdom and compassion that seems to simply arise in my life as I practice.
The wisdom and compassion I’m talking about is really quiet ordinary, yet surprising. I think that because of practice, I’m less confused or self-conscious in the everyday, ordinarily confusing, or embarrassing circumstances of day-to-day living.
Times that once provoked paralyzing confusion or embarrassing uncertainty now are much lighter. At these times I find myself more confident, more quizzical and surprised than stuck or defensive, angry, or offended. Of course I still make mistakes and act in unskillful ways, but nothing’s as heavy or filled with drama as it used to be.
Preparing for difficulties
Which helps me think that a very good way to prepare for life’s difficult challenges, including life’s difficult moral and political challenges is not necessarily to try to plan out a sophisticated scheme of response for each challenge in advance, though that might be helpful to a point. No, I think a worthy way to prepare for life’s challenges is to practice mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation. And, especially loving-kindness meditations wherein we imagine sending our loving and compassionate wishes to difficult people making difficult circumstances—even our enemies.
That’s Wise And Compassionate Action
The Buddha did not spend time developing an elaborate ethical scheme to try to describe how one should act in response to the infinitely complex and changing circumstances of life. What he did do was discover practices that give rise to wisdom and compassion and to skillful, beneficial responses to puzzling and complex circumstances on the spot.
He discovered that because he cultivated three qualities he could rely on wisdom and compassion to take root in his life. He discovered that wisdom and compassion would guide his actions.
What three qualities? First, he cultivated right intention, that is, a complex intention on which he based his actions. The right intention for action is free from selfishness, free from anger, and free from harming. Second, he developed ever-present mindfulness. And third, the Buddha cultivated a mind that is “imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill-will.” I like to think of this quality of loving-kindness as the positive and active counterpart of right intention.
As Sharon Salzberg says, “We drop our self preoccupation and just pay full attention wishing well–that’s loving-kindness.”
Right Intention, Mindfulness, and Loving-kindness
Because the Buddha was imbued with these qualities, he was known as virtuous, noble, wise and compassionate, harmless, a sage at peace. These qualities prepared the Buddha for a 45-year teaching career wherein he met with and taught every kind for person, from murderers to kings, from naked ascetics to vengeful relatives, even extremely cantankerous spiritual seekers. Moreover, he seems to have always been helpful, courteous, and gentle with everyone he met.
Notably, there is no indication in the voluminous record of the Buddha’s life and teaching that he ever stopped cultivating right intention, mindfulness, and loving-kindness. He practiced these skills and qualities to the end. Why? Because these practices are the best preparation for all the circumstances of life. They are the gateway to wisdom, compassion, and Awakening.
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