Today I woke up feeling inspired to write about something that’s been on my mind big-time. It was the topic of my most recent meditation class. It’s the point I wanted to get across to my granddaughter when we talked on the Telephone of the Wind. It’s a heartfelt message I sent to a friend this week. It’s what I’ve contemplated a lot since the beginning of the shutdown when people were sick and dying without loved ones at their side. And it’s something many may benefit from hearing in this time of deep division – and today on the 20th anniversary of 9-11, as personal and collective grief gets stirred up.
It’s a message of lovingkindness, empathy, compassion, and common humanity: how to send it, receive it, and realize it.
There are two wings of mindfulness training. One is awareness, and the other is compassion. Both are essential, and they go hand-in-hand. They strengthen and enhance each other.
The compassion wing encompasses lovingkindness (metta in Pali), which was taught by the Buddha and is practiced to cultivate altruistic, unconditional love towards yourself and others. I could go on and on about the value of it, but not here. Although I will describe a simple practice later in this article, first I want you to understand there is a stream of lovingkindness that flows constantly and offers itself to you continuously. You can help yourself to it at any time, and it is my wish that you will…because it’s helped me during difficult times.
Here is a story I’ve told in my mindfulness meditation classes that illustrates the basic idea.
I remember the days and weeks following the birth of my first child. It was like the doors of my heart were burst open. I saw people walking on the street or running errands in a whole new way: as someone’s precious, innocent, radiant child. Just like my daughter. My heart was so open and tender, and I realized we all started our lives in the same way: so radiant and pure.
I realized that things happened to these people who looked so hardened and angry. And my daughter would be in this far from perfect world with all these hurting people and would be hurt. She’d suffer. I couldn’t prevent it. As a new mom, I felt connected with all the mothers around the world who wanted to protect their children from suffering.
As my children grew and went through challenging times, and when parenting was really hard, I would feel this same connection with other moms – down the road and around the world – dealing with similar situations and maybe struggling with shame, as I was. And I wished I could ease their pain and loneliness. So I’d imagine sending love to them. And I’d imagine some of these other moms were doing the same and were sending love and compassion to me. And I allowed myself to receive it.
The really beautiful and amazing thing is that all the love I felt for my own children was practice for eventually being able to extend deep lovingkindness to myself. When I’ve felt less-than. When it’s been hard to overcome unhealthy habits and deep conditioning. When I failed again.
Lovingkindness also has been a great resource when I’ve been grieving and missing loved ones and feeling lonely. All of a sudden, we can remember we’re not alone, and so many others on the planet are experiencing the same kind of suffering. And somehow, that helps. It creates a small crack in the suffering that allows greater awareness to come through.
I love teaching about lovingkindness. People who come to my meditation classes tend to have lots of practice caring for others but forget to include themselves in their circle of kindness. The capacity is there. You just have to remember, or give yourself permission, to be an unconditionally loving presence to yourself, as well. To beam the light of your love inward.
Unconditional Love Bank
I invite you to bring to mind someone who has loved you unconditionally. Maybe a grandparent, mentor, or furry friend. Take a moment to feel what it is or was like to be in their kind, loving presence. See the look in their eyes, the way they express(ed) love.
Whether or not this being is still in physical form, they would want you to know that you are loved and worthy of love. If they could, they would wrap their heart around you whenever you are suffering or struggling and let you know you are never alone. They would have your back.
When I took my granddaughter to the Telephone of the Wind and modeled out loud how to stay connected with a loved one whose physical form has dissolved, I wanted her to know that I always always always will be there for her like that. My love for her is an eternal stream she can step into, even when I’m not physically present. And I would want so very very much for her to step into it and receive my love and be resourced by it.
It’s like money deposited into the bank of your heart that is there for you to draw on.
I remember after my dad died, when I went to the actual bank and opened my parents’ safe-deposit box in a private room and saw the contents of it for the first time. I felt like Harry Potter stepping into his vault at Gringotts Bank for the first time and seeing what his parents left for him. Sometimes I’d go to the bank and take the safe box into a private room just to feel that feeling of being so cared for.
It’s like that. There is a love bank in which everyone who has loved you has made a deposit. You can tap into it at any time. It is there for you. And when you do that, the love generates interest. It never runs out.
This is what they (would) want for you:
And this, too:
It’s how you can allow their loving for you to continue on. How you can be and grow their legacy of love.
The Stream of Lovingkindness
So there’s the bank of unconditional love where our loved ones have deposited love for us to access at any time. And there’s also a stream of lovingkindness being generated in this very moment – every moment – by thousands upon thousands of people around the world who are practicing lovingkindness meditation right now, sending heartfelt caring and compassion to anyone who needs it. Even though most of them are complete strangers to you, they nonetheless want you – yes, you – to receive their caring. They wish for your suffering to be eased.
You are loved. Someone is radiating caring to you. You are not alone.
Perhaps some of them are suffering in the same way you are, and are intentionally sending lovingkindness to all who share this particular kind of suffering. It might be the suffering that comes from having a parent or child with severe mental illness, being in an abusive relationship, going through divorce, feeling fearful about finances, seeing a loved one suffer in some way, receiving an unwelcome diagnosis, or grieving the death or suicide of a loved one.
Early in the Covid shutdown last year when people were being admitted to the hospital alone, without anyone being able to visit, I thought of and participated in this stream of lovingkindness a lot. I wished those who were suffering in isolation could know of this stream of love and caring and draw strength from it. And the exhausted frontline, essential workers, as well.
No matter what you are experiencing, there are others at this very moment suffering in the same way. In your next breath, you can send caring wishes (to them, yourself, or others) and receive caring wishes generated by those who are practicing lovingkindness meditation at this moment.
As grim as things may seem in the world, on the news and social media, in your community, or in your home, there is so much love in this world. So very many caring hearts. The stream of lovingkindness never stops flowing, even when we’re not aware of it. It’s just like the ocean waves keep flowing to the shore even when we’re not at the beach to see it or to feel it on our toes.
At the end of many of my guided meditation sessions, we practice compassionate breathing, which is receiving and sending lovingkindness on the inhale and exhale. It’s inspired by teachers such as Pema Chodron and Kristin Neff.
What is it you are most in need of at this moment? What would be most nourishing, nurturing, or resourcing for you? Breathe in that. Imagine or sense this energy entering with your next inhalation and circulating through your body, filling you. You might even direct it to a certain area – for example, your heart – or visualize it as white or golden light or sense it as warmth. Take a number of breaths like this, breathing in what you most need. Practice receiving it, allowing it to fill you. Exhale what doesn’t serve.
After a few cycles of this kind of breathing, bring to mind someone you wish to send lovingkindness to. Someone who is struggling or suffering in some way, or whomever your lovingkindness wants to flow to. It might be a certain person, a group of people, or even the whole planet.
Generate a caring wish for them. Here are some ideas:
- May you be well.
- May you be safe and protected.
- May you be free from suffering.
- May you live with ease.
- May you be balanced and peaceful.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
- May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering that lead you to generate suffering for others.
Whatever feels right to you: Go with that.
Then release this caring wish into the world on your next exhalation. Imagine the person/group/planet being filled with and surrounded by this caring wish you have for them. Again, if it’s helpful, it might be represented visually as light. You could visualize them being filled with and surrounded by white or golden light that embodies this caring.
So the practice is breathing in caring for yourself and breathing out a caring wish for others. Your very breath becomes the vehicle for receiving and generating lovingkindness.
Perhaps end the practice with:
[Breathing in] May we all have love and caring.
[Breathing out] May we all be free from suffering.
Sharing and Connecting
There have been so many times when I’ve been floating on the river in my kayak feeling incredibly peaceful and wishing I could bottle the feeling so everyone could experience this great peace. This is another opportunity for practice.
In any moment, if you see or experience something beautiful, are filled with a deep sense of peace, etc., you can share it with all beings by exhaling: May all beings experience this [deep peace].
Similarly, when you feel weighed down by the suffering of the world – perhaps the deep division we continue to experience – you can send a caring wish to all:
May this suffering serve awakening
– or –
May we be free from this suffering.
This may help us to feel less alone and overwhelmed and generate a sense of common humanity and compassion. It can be done on the meditation cushion or in the midst of daily life, as we breathe.
Please help yourself to this beautiful energy of love that is always flowing to you. This beautiful energy that is who we are at the core of our being.
© 2021 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.