The Practice of Lovingkindness
Is it possible to live a life of engaged lovingkindness or to really love everyone? David Richo, a teacher and a psychotherapist known for drawing on Buddhism, poetry, and Jungian perspectives in his work, explains how we can. Lovingkindness, Richo explains, is an ever-widening circle of love that begins with ourselves, then includes some others, then embraces all others.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
In Buddhism, enlightenment is our awakening to the here and now with no need to judge, define, or analyze what is happening, with no attachment to a particular outcome, without fear or craving. In other words, with freedom from what William Blake called our “mind-forged manacles.”
This is possible for us because our natural state is enlightened. We all innately possess the four limitless qualities of enlightened living, what we affirm for ourselves and others in the lovingkindness practice: universal unconditional lovingkindness, compassion for those who suffer, joy for those who prosper, and the equanimity to accept reality evenly and serenely so we can maintain the stability to engage in the other three.
Lovingkindness is a frame of mind, or rather a frame of heart. With it, we see people’s pain with compassion. We feel joy at their success. We find ourselves more at peace because we trust that we are learning to accept the events of life with equanimity. We do not carry ill-will or vengeful thoughts about others. Thoughts lead to actions so cultivating loving thoughts is a step toward showing love.
Stress and drama can interfere with our ability to give ourselves unreservedly. As we grow in equanimity within the lovingkindness practice, our stress level is reduced. Thus equanimity can help us love. Since equanimity is a surrender to the way things are, it is a path to contentment; if we accept everything as it is, we need nothing else. Equanimity is the feeling of even-mindedness in the face of both suffering and joy, in all circumstances, and toward both friend and foe. It is the ability to regard all beings with lovingkindness without partiality or bias. This protects the purity of our lovingkindness because our love remains unconditioned by what happens or by what people do. Our equanimity keeps us stable and our love follows suite.
An essential practice for achieving equanimity is letting go of our ego, the part of us that feels entitled to respect and goodwill from everyone. With equanimity, we do not take social disappointments so personally—the main source of our pain when people or events do not line up as we expected. With less ego interference, we are no longer so upset when people fail to acknowledge or please us. Less ego means less reaction to other egos, no matter how abrasive. This is how equanimity helps us extend our love in metta practice to those with whom we have difficulties.
In the practice of lovingkindness, we expand our circle of love to its full circumference. This is how the lovingkindness practice helps us make the journey of a lifetime from common courtesy to unconditional love. As we move from self to others in lovingkindness practice, we expand our own identity as we extend our circle of love. The full human path is from being ego-centric to other-centered to cosmo-centric.
The more we practice lovingkindness, the more we realize that everyone we encounter helps us find love’s path. Indian Buddhist teacher Shantideva says in The Way of the Bodhisattva: “Because of those whose minds are full of anger, I engender patience in myself. They are thus the cause of patience, fit for veneration…Thus, the state of Buddhahood depends on beings and the Buddhas equally…Beings are Buddha’s very self.”
Lovingkindness is not simply done in a time set aside each day to enumerate aspirations. It is an entire lifestyle—yet one that happens in particular moments. A practice moment can happen for us when we make a choice to be kind to our body by choosing healthy food at a restaurant. A practice moment with a partner can be focusing fully on the story of her day and picking up on her feelings and holding her in them.
A practice moment of lovingkindness can happen when you see a crowd of people and wonder: “How would I ever be able to love all these people?” Try answering in this way: “I can't make contact with everyone, but I can always show kindness, courtesy, and respect to everyone I meet. I can, right now, include everyone in my spiritual practice of lovingkindness by wishing everyone happiness and enlightenment. May I and they find ways to love with all our might.” This combines the elements of caring connection with a realistic sense of our mutual human limitations.
Here is a simple set of aspirations you can repeat every day to get started with a lovingkindness practice:
- May I love myself as I am today.
- May I be happy and healthy.
- May I be free of the suffering of imagining I am separate.
- May I be safe and secure at home and work.
- May I harbor no unkind thoughts or engage in aggressive actions.
- May I be even-minded and serene no matter what happens to me today.
- May I keep practicing lovingkindness, compassion, joy at others’ success, and equanimity.
Repeat some or all these aspirations, or similar ones, successively first for yourself, then for those you love, then for those to whom you are indifferent—acquaintances or people you may meet during the day but do not know. Then state the same aspirations for those with whom you have conflicts, and, finally, for all beings everywhere.
This practice shows us the concentric circles that love travels in. We begin with ourselves, then some others, then all others. We are spiritually adult in our love when our loving is not limited, but goes in all directions: We love ourselves without feeling egotistical about that commitment. We show love to our families, in our intimate relationships, in our friendships. We extend the wish for happiness and enlightenment to those we may not like or who may not like us. We love all beings with a caring compassion. These are unusual and radical challenges for most of us, but we dare to embrace them.
The lovingkindness practice shows us how to love unconditionally since we include people with whom we have difficulties and conflicts. This includes people who have hurt us or who have enmity toward us. When we think about how they badly they behaved toward us, we do not hold rancor, but rather feel sad for how they missed out on an opportunity to love.
The practice shows us how to love universally since we extend lovingkindness to people we do not know. The known/unknown distinction no longer holds for us because our goal is the wide reach of love not the near reach based on narrow preferences. Here there are not preferences; all receive the exact same aspirations for well-being. This is how our hearts stretch in practice to the size they are inside us.
Finally, this practice is not accomplished by aspirations only, but also by daily actions that show lovingkindness to others, compassion for the suffering of others, joy at the success of others, and equanimity about what comes to us from others.