“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.”
– Bob Sharples, from Meditation: Calming the Mind
Many of us take up meditation because we want to become softer, kinder people. I’m right there with you.
Here’s the thing, though. Anytime we take on a practice with a goal in mind, we can get subtly sidetracked. We sit on our cushion and try to feel more warm-hearted. We try to think kinder thoughts. We try putting ourselves in our difficult person’s shoes. All that trying can make us a little tight, maybe even anxious. We’re striving to reach some imagined wondrous state that isn’t where we are now. And that probably doesn’t feel all that good. Or kind.
Hmmm…. what’s wrong with this picture?
What if you dropped all that self-prodding and just loved yourself, as you are? Rather than trying to make yourself into something else, how about just being loving, right now? When we stop reaching for that something else (which is a subtle form of self-flagellation), we can touch down into that “endlessly delightful and encouraging” place. And there you are. There’s the lovingkindness you were seeking.
Meditation isn’t a tool we whip out to help us achieve some goal off in the future. It’s a way of being that draws out our inherent nature – which is aware, warm, open, kind. Can we embody those qualities, right now?
OK, that’s easy for you to say, you might be thinking. What if I’m depressed or don’t like myself? What if I really don’t want to be where I am now?
Well, no matter how bad things are, we all have some sense of what feeling good inside is like, don’t we? What if just for one moment, you set aside all those yammering unhappy thoughts – maybe imagine putting them in a box off to the side – and giving yourself a break from them for even just three seconds. Doesn’t it feel good to stop beating your head against the wall? What if you took a deep breath, and felt what it’s like to relax those tight, wound-up muscles in your body? If you have a dog, go pet him and note how it feels when you get those adoring eyes back at you.
See what I’m getting at? No matter how depressed or unhappy you are, there’s something inside you that knows what it’s like to feel good. Why not go visit that place in your mind and body? What can you do, in this moment, that would be a simple and kind thing for yourself?
And what if those nasty self-critical or cynical thoughts keep intruding? First, you can forgive yourself that they arose. Blame doesn’t belong here at all. But from this moment forward you could choose not to buy into those thoughts so much. How about labeling them as just another thought, and loosening your grip on them a little? Old habits take a long time to unwind. You can be patient. They’ll subside eventually, as long as you don’t indulge them. But remember, NO beating yourself up!
What if you’re ill, in pain, or grieving the loss of a loved one? And you can’t find any way to feel comfortable in your own skin? Then you could imagine how you’d respond if a friend showed up at your doorstep in your current state. What would you do for her? Wouldn’t you want to give her a hug, sit her down, and show her how much you care? How about doing the same for yourself? Can you sit yourself down and give yourself a metaphorical hug? Maybe even have a good cry if that feels good in its own way?
What if you’re bored with your practice? Well, you could ask yourself, what’s the kindest thing I could do for myself right now? Am I falling prey to a habitual tendency to seek distractions? Do I want to recommit to my longer-term intentions? Can I turn my attention in a kind way to something I know feels pleasurable and interesting (as described above)? Or would I prefer to give myself a break today, as an act of kindness, and keep my sit shorter than usual?
So those are some examples of ways to BE kindness, instead of seeking it out. The real challenge of this practice is to find a genuine connection to an experience of gentleness, forgiveness, warmth, caring, and nurturing, — right now, no matter what state you’re in. And the emphasis is on “genuine connection,” as opposed to “find.” True, it might take some exploring and experimenting to figure out what’s most helpful for you. But if you do it with an attitude of warm, open curiosity, that in itself becomes an act of kindness.
When we respond to everything with this sort of soft touch, lovingkindness gets rooted more deeply into our being. It becomes more and more the way we just are. And that’s how we get there without trying.