The previous columns in this series focused on establishing the personal values and doing the inner work which help create the capacity for intimacy. This time we’ll shift the emphasis from the internal to the interpersonal, and discuss a quality which is important in making loving connections with others – open-heartedness. Most of us know that people who behave with generous and open hearted affection toward others are appealing, and that an open heart is a valuable quality to have for anyone who wants to “win friends and influence people.” But how many of us know that we can intentionally cultivate this quality?
In Asia and India, many practices have evolved over the centuries for opening the heart. One simple but powerful technique is a Buddhist concentration practice called metta, or lovingkindness meditation. Briefly, here’s how to do it: Sit in a relaxed position, close your eyes, and focus your attention on the place in your heart that loves you and wishes you well. (That place is there, even if it isn’t always easy to find, or you wouldn’t be alive today). From that place, offer yourself lovingkindness. The four phrases traditionally used for this purpose are: May I be safe (from inner and outer harm). May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be well (in mind and body). You can customize the practice by creating phrases with special appeal to you, such as May I love and accept myself exactly as I am right now. If you have difficulty feeling love toward yourself, don’t worry about it. It’s enough just to have the intention to wish yourself well.
After spending a few minutes focused on yourself, stop and notice the soothing effect of the practice on your body and mind. Then, with open-heartedness toward yourself as a foundation, send the same phrases to people whom you love and appreciate. Next, send them to people you’re neutral about, and finally to people with whom you have difficulty. If it proves too difficult to send lovingkindness to someone, don’t judge yourself. Instead, return the focus to yourself, and acknowledge yourself for sending out as much lovingkindness as you’re currently able. Like an exercised muscle, your capacity for metta will strengthen over time. Finally, end the meditation by sending lovingkindness phrases to all beings everywhere, without exception.
One advantage of metta practice is that you can do it throughout your day without anyone else having to know you’re doing it. Here’s a variation to try in public. While walking on a public street, briefly make eye contact with everyone you pass, smile, silently send one of the metta phrases their way, and then look away (prolonged eye contact may be perceived as hostile). Do this for everyone you pass (not just the hot men!).
You can also do it while driving: Next time you’re on the road, make a personal commitment not to “communicate” with your middle digit, and also not to use the horn to “express your feelings,” but only when necessary to avoid collisions. Make your intention not to arrive at your destination in the shortest possible time, but to offer lovingkindness to everyone you pass along the way. Send metta phrases indiscriminately – to the slow drivers, to the guy who cuts you off, to the pedestrian walking against the red light – to everyone. It’s amazing, when we stop thinking of these others as “in my way”, at how stress-free driving becomes.
Another good time to do metta practice is after getting into bed at night. Sending the phrases to yourself and others does much to soothe and relax, and allow you to drift happily into sleep.
Some will dismiss these practices as the latest syrupy, New Age psychobabble, but in fact, these meditations have been practiced in Asia and India for twenty-six centuries, with palpably positive effects on the cultures. Our all-too-common American habits of impatience, irritability and indifference to those around us are just that – habits, and we can change our habits. Regular loving kindness practice, by inclining the mind in a different direction, is amazingly helpful in developing habits of patience, compassion, and kindness. Anyone who wants to learn more about this form of meditation will profit greatly by reading Sharon Salzburg’s classic book on the subject, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
Here’s a short poem, by the Persian poet Hafiz, which beautifully expresses the spirit of metta practice: How would our lives change if we made these words an ideal for our conduct in daily life? “Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love me.’/Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops./Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect./Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?”