Loving-kindness contemplation

All this thinking about karma makes me wonder about what I left for the students who came after me; I’d like to make it better. I’ve come to campus today to try a “loving-kindness contemplation,” an exercise to improve both personal and shared karmas.

I was introduced to the contemplation a few nights earlier during a “joy class” at a center directly across the street from campus. This particular organization teaches a version of Buddhism tailored for a secular audience. While its founders claim that the practices are rooted in the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, they have been tweaked and elaborated upon to appeal to Westerners, particularly those who might want to focus on the benefit to society at large. Individuals are taught a variety of contemplative tools not just to promote their own joy and peace, but to help create a culture of kindness, generosity, and courage.

They call those who engage in this work “spiritual warriors.” I can see why they say it requires bravery: to do it properly one must face painful realities. I had thought reviewing my past behaviors and actions would be the hardest task but I see now that those never existed in isolation. My private dramas were unfolding alongside these communal events, their causes and effects crisscrossing and overlapping in mysterious ways. Did those events influence me? Did my thoughts and actions contribute to them? A Buddhist would answer “yes” to both—though no one can know precisely how or to what extent.

Having come to the end of my recollections of my college years, my heart feels a bit battered and sore. This, I am told, is a good place to start. In my joy class, I learned that spiritual warriors are those willing to wade through the muck turned up by their own tender hearts. It is important to keep going even when the journey gets tough, to learn to dwell in the discomfort. This is fertile ground for compassion.

A loving-kindness contemplation transforms the pain into something positive. You might channel it as contentment or good will or the absence of suffering, but the idea is to share the feelings that radiate from an open heart in some systematic fashion; experts generally suggest starting with a recipient for whom it is easier to summon kind feelings and move out from there.

In the version we practiced in class, guided by the instructor, we were told to start with ourselves by thinking these words: “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.” For about a minute I concentrated on that sentiment, but I couldn’t feel any tenderness for myself. My heart softened when we were told to repeat the statement, but replace ourselves with someone we love. Then we were instructed to direct happiness to those for whom our emotions are “neutral” and, finally, to those we find “challenging.” I was able to scrape up a sense of compassion for both categories—certainly more so than I had for myself.

Sitting on Sproul Plaza, I put my own spin on the exercise. My recollections have left a delicate ache in my chest, and I know I must use that sensation. As uncomfortable as it might seem, I must kindle it—cup my palms around that spark and see if I can’t help it ignite. Because I’ve been thinking of the earthquake and the fires, I turn that raw softness to the victims of those tragedies. I expand my feelings to encompass everyone affected by those events, all who were attending school here at the time or lived in the region. Then I think of the participants in my joy class, some of whom seemed so sad, and I send them this warmth that oozes from my broken heart. I offer it to all the students, every drop of the river that continues to flow through this institution. The flame of my tenderness is stoked; now I picture a map of the United States and I see it spread out from where I sit. I send it across the land and over the ocean; it travels North, South, East and West. I keep going until the light that emanates from my heart wraps around the entire globe.

At the end, I have one person yet to be officially included: me.

Then I realize there’s no reason to treat myself separately. By extending my compassion to everyone, I’ve included myself. I’m part of the network of humanity. When I see it like that, I feel a surge of sympathy for the girl I was and the woman I am. I’m just another person doing the best she can.

9 thoughts on “Loving-kindness contemplation

  1. APPLAUSE! APPLAUSE! I love the conclusion and I hope it has filled that “empty” space you spoke of when you first started your journey or, at least, made you feel more complete with yourself.

    • Thank you. Reading this brought tears for the pain, and for your willingness to go with it and through it – to compassion for humanity, including yourself both past and present.

  2. Beautifully said! “By extending my compassion to everyone, I’ve included myself.” So true! I heard someone say that to devalue one human is to devalue ALL humans…so, I guess the opposite is true, to extend compassion to one is to extend it to all. peace!

  3. Good morning, Corinna. Your post brought vividly to my mind this phrase: “a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Psalm 51.17

    As always, I enjoy your writings.

    Yours in Christ

  4. Corrina,

    That was a wonderful teaching and piece of writing. I get the feeling that the Buddhist view of spirituality has touched you more deeply than any other you have mined so far.

    Your visualization of “the light that emanates from my heart and wraps around the entire globe” is more powerful than perhaps you realize. It is worthy of continued practice because one’s compassion for others has great power to heal.

    • Hi Blair, Just back from a couple days unplugged, so pardon my delay. I don’t know if Buddhism has touched me more deeply than the others because I feel like various aspects of all the faiths have touched me deeply. But, in a funny way, I feel like Buddhism helped me better understand some of the messages of Christianity and Judaism. I think struggling through the meditation practices has been really useful to my spiritual growth overall and something I can return to again and again.

  5. Hi Corinna…I too have been a little out of circulation….catching up on my facebook etc., and now some of your posts.

    I’m intrigued by a number of things here. A question: When you speak of different “versions” of Buddhism, is this like different denominations in Christianity, or is there really not much distinction between these different versions. Denominations within Christianity are often not very friendly (and some hostile) to others, which I think you know from your dipping in and out of different churches.

    Contemplating happiness for different ones seems as though you are seeking to extend grace to them. (Patti’s comments come to mind). I do think there are some parallels, as she mentions. I wondered at your hesitancy to be able to do this toward yourself at first. It reminds me much of myself. I’ve had such a low opinion of myself until I began to understand the love and delight of God my father toward me (about 7 years ago)–that I’ve created a lot of barriers toward extending grace toward myself. I ran into that just the other night again….

    • Hi Walt, I think the different versions of Buddhism are very comparable to denominations in Christianity…in some instances, I bet there’s even some negative feelings between believers of one version and believers of another (though I did not encounter evidence of this).

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