The Concentric Circles of Connection and Lovingkindness

Monday, September 28, 2015 - 6:00pm

The Concentric Circles of Connection and Lovingkindness

The widespread use of the words "meditation" and "mindfulness" is continuing apace, a trend that of course I find very gratifying — and also sometimes amusing and even bewildering. I have a Google alert on "mindfulness," and every single day brings forth a trove of mentions: pro, anti, provocative, connected to the mindfulness I’ve studied, and completely disconnected to anything I’ve studied or heard about.

Most recently (and with arguably the most verve), I’ve read about mindfulness meditation as a practice that can help us all be more productive, better focused, and less stressed out in our lives — often in the context of work. My teaching experience points to the truth of these studies for people who actually put the principles into practice.

But, mindfulness is more than just a buzzword. In its popularization, mindfulness is generally thought of as the practice of “being present,” which is definitely part of it.

Classically, mindfulness is really about being present in a certain way, about tuning into our experiences, interactions, emotions, and thoughts with a sense of curiosity and equanimity. It’s an overall sense of openness, and that’s what helps provide us clarity and space to cultivate insight, resilience, and compassion for ourselves and others. If and when distractions arise during our practice, which they do, inevitably, we can begin again and again without rumination, self-judgment, guilt, or regret. There’s a lot of heartfulness interlaced throughout skillfully practiced mindfulness.

That “certain way” relies on a suffusing of mindfulness with lovingkindness. Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard suggests more accurately calling the practice “warm mindfulness.” To be mindful, to let go more gracefully, to open all of our emotional landscape without judgment, to relinquish the corrosive and often prevalent narrative of self-condemnation, we are counting on kindness to support us. Matthieu Ricard urges us to name it rather than just imply it or know it wordlessly; that way there is less misunderstanding.

But if kindness, especially towards ourselves, is not our habit, where will it come from?

People may be taught this underlying kindness as a part of mindfulness implicitly or explicitly. They may ferret it out for themselves. Or, they may be taught a lovingkindness meditation as a distinct method upon which one can build the scaffolding for clear and kind awareness to flourish.

Much of my own life’s work has been about looking at the particular relationship between mindfulness meditation and lovingkindness meditation. The quality of lovingkindness is the secret sauce in mindfulness meditation. Of course, one can also practice lovingkindness primarily to deepen the benefits said to come from that training: fearlessness, generosity, and a kind heart.

Evidence of the power of a lovingkindness practice isn’t just anecdotal; multiple studies have shown that lovingkindness meditation has both short-term gains and long-term benefits when it comes to feeling increased positive emotions, social connection, and empathy.

Even after I first learned mindfulness meditation in 1971, I longed to have more instruction in lovingkindness. Somehow I intuitively sensed it to be the particular thing I needed — to be more free, to be happier, to experience myself — in my meditation practice and in my life, without the sting of so much judgment and the sense of not being good enough, which was my steady companion for so many years.

I was also drawn to the practice because the Buddha, according to legend, taught lovingkindness as the direct antidote to fear, and I knew I had fear aplenty. I would sit under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, the spot where the Buddha became enlightened 2500 years before, and ponder the Buddha’s unconditional love for all and not his omniscience or his great wisdom or powers. I did bits of lovingkindness meditation for years. Then I went to Burma in 1985 and completely immersed myself in it.

Admittedly, extending lovingkindness to myself struck me as a challenge, a ritual for which I’d have to “suck it up.” Through conceiving of lovingkindness as the anchor of my meditations, I learned that the practice has nothing to do with narcissism or self-aggrandizement. In fact, most cutting-edge research on lovingkindness emphasizes its remarkable ability to activate areas of the brain responsible for emotional intelligence (not to mention its anti-aging benefits!).

In my experience, lovingkindness meditation really became about revitalizing my sense of inner wholeness, deeply caring about myself regardless of what I felt I might do well to change or alter. There is a quotation from Zen master Suzuki Roshi I really like:

“Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement.”

By extension, lovingkindness meant getting in touch with everyone else’s innate desire to feel whole and connected, regardless of how anyone may act due to ignorance. Gently acknowledging this essential interconnection of existence is the essence of lovingkindness meditation.

The goal of lovingkindness is not to think of self-love as a prerequisite for loving others, but to cultivate a sense of balance, resilience, spaciousness, and comfort in the idea of unity. Unsurprisingly, lovingkindness has been scientifically-proven to put the brakes on self-criticism while at the same time increasing our capacity to empathize with others.

When we do this practice, we begin by directing lovingkindness to ourselves, using phrases like “May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be strong. May I live with ease.” as the anchor for our meditation. Through nourishing ourselves with love and acceptance, we ultimately prepare ourselves to offer lovingkindness to others and recognize our shared desire to be happy and supported in this life.


Traditionally, the practice moves from offering phrases of lovingkindness to ourselves to a person who has been very good to us: a family member, a friend, a teacher, or a kind stranger. From there, we move to the next concentric circle of connection — a neutral person, someone who does not fill us with an immediate feeling or judgment. With each step, we strengthen our muscle for compassion. Almost like lifting weights, lovingkindness is a repetitive exercise that strengthens us.

This step prepares us for the next and often the most difficult step: offering phrases of lovingkindness to someone toward whom we feel anger, fear, or aversion of any kind. The final stage moves one step further: inviting us to direct lovingkindness to all beings. These last two steps in particular challenge us to tap into our infinite capacity for connection — to not only understand but to experience the distinction between conditional and unconditional love.

Most of us tend to think of the world in terms of a dynamic of “me versus you,” “us versus them,” and so on. We may also tend to think of happiness as triumphing over others in some way. Whether or not we think in these terms consciously or not, our culture teaches us to think in this way on some level. Lovingkindness is about developing the art of friendship. It invites us to practice courage, to recognize our shared instability and vulnerability, as well as our fundamental desire for belonging.

However it is cultivated, lovingkindness invites us not only to gather our scattered attention and be more present, but to do so in a way that actively strengthens feelings of love, connection, self-acceptance, and unity among all beings.

A woman gives change to a homeless man on Wall Street in New York City.

(Chloe Muro / FlickrSome rights reserved.)

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Monday.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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I just want to thank you and extend my gratitude, Sharon Salzberg, for your wisdom and your message. Loving-kindness meditation was introduced to me close to a decade ago and has been an incredible gift to my practice. Once we gain understanding that we have the ability to cultivate wholesome states of being, life in all its ups and downs, never quite looks the same again. Loving-kindness is truly a game changer.

Sharon, this is beautiful. I have been practicing mindfulness for several years now, and I am still practicing...your ideas of lovingkindness promote the 'one world' perspective that is such a boon for happiness. Thank you for this. Your video is wonderful too. This energy of love has the strength to connect us all- You are an inspiration.

In the course of some intense psychotherapy in which I hoped to move from functional but joyless, to an enthusiastic embrace of life, I became aware of the way in which I keep falling into old patterns of thinking, of burying, avoiding, cutting off all my emotions. Not just ignoring them, but shutting them down before they could even happen. So when Pema Chodron's course on the 3 difficult practices was offered for download. I settled down to meditate and what I met was fear. The emotion I was running from was not unhappiness, rejection or sadness, but fear. I have been in denial of fear for most of my life. And while I know what needs to happen, I need to meditate, I need to sit with that fear, face it down and overcome it, I am afraid. I cannot motivate myself to begin. I am afraid of my own fear. How can the practice of loving kingness for myself help me past this hurdle?

In my experience, trust is the opposite of fear. So I adjust my lovingkindness meditation (sometimes right through tears) to say, May I have trust, may I learn to trust as well as the other phrases.

Dear Gail, I literally do feel so much compassion for you and what you're going through. I have been challenged by fear almost every day, but remain as you say, "functional." Until I gave myself the gift of committing to my meditation practice I never felt life was worth living, but instead just found it to be mostly a struggle, and a sad one, with a few pleasant, happy times mixed in. I think the only thing I really want to say to you is keep trying. Every effort you make is worthwhile though it may not seem like it. And one day a little light will blink on and you'll know you're doing the most beneficial thing you can for yourself and the world. I also suggest the Insight Meditation "app" for your phone. Sharon has a 15 minute Lovingkindness meditation on there that might help you get started and stay with it. You may have to pay the extra $3 to get hers, I'm not sure, but anyway, it's well worth the $3. May you be happy...

As a yoga teacher, I use a loving kindness meditation to end my class and always connect it to the traditional way to end class saying, "Namaste". I always define namaste in case there is someone in class who just says it but never had an explanation. Your video is perfect for explaining Namaste...the light in me sees the light in you!

Namaste and Be well

The loving-kindness practice Sharon Salzburg describes in this blog is called Metta practice.

Last year I wrote a short essay entitled "Why Jews Shouldn't Do Metta." It's posted on my Facebook page, dated July 24, 2014.

On request I will post it here.

"The quality of loving-kindness is the secret sauce in mindfulness meditation." Absolutely love this phrasing. This is something the some us us more "gung ho" hard core types have to just keep re-learning. Sharon, you have been guiding me from a distance since the 1984 three month retreat and it's amazing how your posts and social media sharing have always hit the mark for me. Much gratitude. Tom

Oh Sharon! I'm sighing with relief. SO happy to read this. Things I've heard you say in person. Messages you've imparted in your books. Things I try to share with others in my own writing. However -- to read it again on this day -- to see it put in another way ... the same way ... any way other than my own voice in my mind is a gift. I needed it today. Thank you.

Sharon Salzberg wrote:

> The final stage moves one step further: inviting us to direct lovingkindness to all beings. These last two steps in particular challenge us to tap into our infinite capacity for connection — to not only understand but to experience the distinction between conditional and unconditional love.

Yesterday, two terrorists attacked a car carrying a family who were traveling home on a quiet road. They shot and killed the mother and the father at point blank range, right in front of their four children, aged four months, 4, 7 and 9 years.

If you unconditionally offer happiness and safety and loving-kindness to all beings, then you are offering that to the murderers.

Do you really think that's a good idea?

I'm not sure if I can answer whether or not it's a "good" idea. But I'll try. It's a painful idea? A hopeful idea? The ideal idea? But I don't know if my heart is big enough to do that.

I'm a survivor of ten years childhood sexual abuse. I had disassociated and cut myself off from the trauma up until 2 years ago. Since then I've been working on letting go of shameful, faulty beliefs about myself. There's more on that -- but it's not really relevant to your question. What I really want to address is this: Anger, Pain, Suffering, Joy, Love, Happiness -- they all come down to Choice. We always have the power to choose how we want to experience and be in the world. We have the capacity to control our relationship with ourselves. Our thoughts. Our actions. The lovingkindness mediation works deeply with this. However, to extend this lovingkindness out to my step-father and my mother seem improbable to me. I don't know if I can get to that place. I realize that forgiveness does not have to mean I will be in a relationship with them; it's more about coming to a place of letting go of anger so that my own heart can be free. I am the one who continues to suffer as long as I bind myself to my anger. So to address your question -- is it a good idea to offer loving kindness to the murderers, to my own abusers , yes -- it probably is -- because only then can I be free. And if I am free from anger, I will change my relationship with myself and how I interact with others and the universe as a whole. If I can soften my own heart I begin the ripple-effect of extending love, kindness and compassion out into the world. If we have more of that, isn't the hope then, that we will have less murderers and evil-doers in the world? I like to thinks so.

You've asked the most important question, Sharon. It's one I think about all of the time and struggle with. Thank you for holding a space for it here.

Take care! Jessica

> If we have more of that, isn't the hope then, that we will have less murderers and evil-doers in the world? I like to thinks so.

Sorry to say that hope isn't reality.

Empowering them with happiness and safety and loving-kindness makes them stronger.

I don't see it that way, Len. Do you think people commit acts of violence because they had an abundance of love and kindness growing up? Using the stress-diathesis model, even people who might be predisposed to committing violence (Sociopaths for example) require some kind of trauma to set into motion those behaviors.

Furthermore, I don't believe in evil. You can use that word but it doesn't really allow any room to understand the people you apply it to. I'm guessing you'd say that they don't deserve understanding, but that puts you in a position to never truly understand the dynamics of the problem....and that allows the problem to continue. Your suffering and their suffering are linked. Your ignorance and their ignorance are linked.

This speaks directly to loving-kindness meditation.

I have the honor of capturing poems that come to me. They are often valuable to me in life, as well as sometimes to others. One of my favorites is this version of the lovingkindness meditation:

May you be well
May your suffering cease
May you travel in joy
and arrive in peace.

One advantage of "LKM" is that it can be practiced by people of any tradition without discomfort. It can be a shared practice in a community that is sincerely divided.

Jewish tradition teaches that three things sustain the world: Torah, worship, and acts of loving kindness (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2).

Tamar: The Torah's "acts of loving-kindness" don't include empowering those who wish to harm you and your loved ones. Just the opposite.

great article

apples