Loving-kindness meditation is deceptively simple: you focus on a person in your life and wish them well. But it can actually be a complicated meditation to integrate into your life. Not only do the details vary from teacher to teacher, which is confusing enough, but eventually you also have to make it your own.
For example, on an upcoming episode of Twenty Percent Happier, I talk with my friend Lesley, a middle-school teacher who had found more time to meditate during the pandemic, but who had become confused by the different approaches to loving-kindness in different meditative traditions.
Moreover, Lesley told me, “It gets a little complicated in terms of keeping it authentic, as opposed to it becoming an intellectual exercise. I can also get caught up in choosing who to bring to mind… I think about the love I have for my partner, or my son, or my mother, or my sister, or my really good friend I just saw yesterday.”
So, let’s take a deeper dive.
1. Don’t Think About It
Loving-kindness practice is so nuanced and rich because we're social beings, and this is a practice that brings that richness and nuance into our meditative life. It can be easy to lose the thread of the simpler instructions and intentions of the meditation, and instead get caught up in a reflection on these relationships. That can feel really rich, but I think the heart-space that’s developed in meditation is more powerful -- but also delicate. It's like we're trying to build a little fire, and it gets drafty, so we take care of it so that the heat can build and grow.
So, the meditative attitude is not to dismiss the reflection, but to choose not to indulge in it right now. Simply bring a person to mind, following the various categories (someone ‘easy’ to feel loving-kindness toward, someone neutral, and someone difficult), and turn to cultivating loving-kindness. Otherwise, we might develop a pattern where the mind is going into these more intellectual, ruminative, narrative thought trains, as opposed to sticking with the simplicity of the practice.
2. Focus Simply
Where do you focus your attention in loving-kindness meditation? On Twenty Percent Happier, one person told me that she finds herself working with the breath, trying to remember the categories of people, and visualizing a ball of light at the heart center. I also noticed that her brow was furrowed when she told me all this. In other words, she’s confused.
Now, the truth is, there are different answers to this question. In some traditions, such as Tibetan Buddhism, loving-kindness and compassion meditation might rest on the breath. In others, it might involve a visualization or a phrase. So this is confusing!
One method you can follow is to bring your attention to the image that you’ve brought to mind. That will be where the attention rests, and where you return when you get distracted.
Now, it's important to keep the image and phrases relatively simple, since the mind can wander in a visual way as well as in a verbal way. For that reason, many teachers I know will use a photograph of the person they are bringing to mind. It helps the mind to just know that, okay, here's the image. Otherwise there's a paradox of choice, and you could be choosing images that cause your mind to wander.
3. Make the Phrases Real
A third way to strengthen your loving-kindness practice is to actually say the traditional phrases – May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be free from suffering. – out loud, quietly to yourself. This helps ground the meditation in the body, because you can feel the vibration.
We also want to keep it authentic. We want to focus on the meaning of the words, not just the act of saying them. And we want to avoid using any words that don’t feel like a real expression from us. I often suggest calling to mind your best friend, and translate these phrases into the language that you would use with them. If there's a word or phrase or something that just does not connect, just drop it, leave it at the door, and use whatever expressions are really authentic. It's not about the syntax; it’s about the intention.
4. Imperfect is Fine
Eventually, the images and the phrases may recede. When we feel a real sense of strong wishing-well for this being, then we can let the phrases that we're repeating be kind of in the background of our attention. Let the image of this being kind of fade to the background too. And bring to the foreground this felt sense of, ah, here's this attitude that I'm cultivating. That’s great!
At the same time, try not to go down a rabbit hole of getting it perfect. Nothing's perfect. Some moments, some days, some weeks I'll feel a little less connected, others a little more connected. This can’t be overstated, so many meditators and practitioners can get into idealizing where meditation should take us and how we should approach it. And then it becomes disconnected from our real intimate sense of life and who we are and how we experience the world.
It’s often said that meditation is simple, but not easy. And that is true. But it is easier when it’s simpler.
Matthew Hepburn is a straightshooting, clear thinking, and dedicated meditation teacher. His personal practice caught fire over the course of several extended meditation retreats and volunteering to teach Buddhist meditation in prisons in his early twenties. Now he shares his love of contemplative practice with people on intensive silent retreats, through dedicated daily life practice as a core teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, and as the Senior Content Strategist for Ten Percent Happier.