Learning Lovingkindness: Three Lessons
Monday, August 10, 2020, by Marshall Sashkin
“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.” -Theodore Isaac Rubin, psychiatrist and writer (1923–2019)
Lesson 1: Breathing
Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally-known Zen Buddhist master, observes that the importance of focusing on one’s breathing is not simply to become good at meditating. Rather, it is a first step in developing mindfulness. Coincidentally, the practice of breathing he proposed is quite similar to the activity originally designed by Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician, which Benson called the “relaxation response.” This method was, in part, based on his study of Transcendental Meditation, as described and practiced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his followers. The relaxation response is activated by following a set of simple actions that center on one’s breathing, in the context of certain physical conditions:
• Sit quietly in a comfortable position;
• Close your eyes;
• Relax your muscles, beginning at your feet and continuing up to your face; in particular relax your tongue;
• Breathe in and out through your nose;
• As you breathe out say the word “one” silently; actually, any word or phrase will do, as you repeat this action;
• When distracting thoughts occur ignore them; continue breathing and repeating the word “one”;
• Continue for ten to twenty minutes; relaxation will occur at its own pace;
• When you feel relaxed continue to sit quietly for several minutes.
Many verified scientific research studies have shown that the relaxation response has positive physical benefits. However, for the purpose of developing mindfulness the most important outcome is the elimination of distracting thoughts and the development of the ability to focus one’s mind on what is happening in the moment. These are basic requirements of mindfulness. The aim is, in part, the same as for the relaxation response: the ability to avoid distracting thoughts.
Lesson 2: Mindfulness
The aim of breathing practice is to develop the ability to focus one’s mind and attention completely on what is happening in the present moment. This is the essence of mindfulness. Thus, when asked how to practice mindfulness the monk replies, “When I eat I only eat. When I walk I only walk. When I sleep I only sleep”. Mindfulness means living consciously in the present moment, by focusing awareness on present actions.
Our minds constantly generate thoughts that take us away from a focus on and awareness of the present. This message is central to the book “Be Here Now” by the guru Ram Dass (who was once the Harvard research psychologist Richard Alpert). He refers to the mélange of thought that seems to arise unintentionally in consciousness as the working of one’s “monkey mind”. We are in this way distracted from living in the moment — the only real moment we have — and are tempted to “live” in the past or the future. Thich Nhat Hanh does not advocate forgetting the past or neglecting to plan for the future, but emphasizes how important it is to recognize that only the current moment is real and available for action.
Action is important for dealing with what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “the unavoidable realities of life”. One can do this effectively only if one is able to act without one’s actions being distorted by fear. The late guru of organizational quality, W. Edwards Deming, argued that before it is possible to ensure consistent high quality in workers’ actions one must “drive fear out of the workplace”. This is also required for mindful action. In that case, the aim is to drive fear out of both conscious and unconscious thinking. The issue of fear is the focus of the third lesson on learning lovingkindness.
Lesson 3: Living and Dealing with Fears — the Unavoidable Realities of Life
According to Thich Nhat Hanh there are certain unavoidable realities of life that typically inspire fear. Such fear is often suppressed, forced into the “basement” of one’s mind, where it can supposedly be kept from distressing the individual. Of course, just because these fears are not in one’s awareness does not mean that they have no effect. The more energy one devotes to suppressing fears the less energy one has to take positive action in the present.
There are three central unavoidable realities, each of which inspires fear:
1. No one can avoid growing old. Aging is an unavoidable consequence of living. That we fear aging is evident from the extent to which people strive to look young and from what has been called “the culture of youth.”
2. No one can avoid illness. Some illness is an unavoidable consequence of growing old. Fear of illness is evident from the extent to which denial of illness is common, even when it is obvious that one is not well.
3. No one can avoid death. Everything ends, everyone dies. Death is an unavoidable consequence of living. Perhaps the greatest fear is fear of death, of non-existence, and fear of aging and of illness simply amplify this fear.
Everyone fears some or all of these unavoidable realities, often through some degree of contact with them. As just noted, these fears are typically repressed, forced into our unconscious (“the basement” of the mind). And they often are so strong that they force their way up into the “living room”, that is, one’s consciousness. There they often distort or inhibit action.
A better approach is, instead of trying to force fears back down into the basement, to suppress them, to recognize them and embrace them with lovingkindness. This means allowing one’s self to experience the distress directly and, instead of trying to reject it, speaking kindly to it — as one might when trying to comfort a crying child — and feeling the sorrow it represents. Only then will that particular fear lose some of its strength. As a result, the next time it comes to the surface that fear will be weaker. It then becomes easier to embrace it again, to experience it with lovingkindness each time it reaches awareness. Eventually the fear will lose the strength to cause distress and generate behavior problems. It may not completely disappear, but it will no longer be so strong as to cause mental distress and behavior problems. Doing this is, of course, not at all easy.
By recognizing and embracing one’s fears with lovingkindness and thus minimizing their potency one becomes able to act effectively in the “now”. The present, the now, is the only time that one really has to take actions. Which leads Thich Nhat Hahn to point out the immense importance of one’s actions in the present. He observes that
• the only things one truly owns are one’s actions, what one actually does;
• like the realities of life, the consequences of one’s actions are ultimately unavoidable; it may be appropriate to think of this as “karma”.
By accepting ownership of one’s actions and responsibility for their consequences — as well as the inevitability of aging, illness, and death — one is able to be mindful in the present. This enables one to show lovingkindness — and compassion — toward one’s own self. Self-compassion is necessary in order to be able to treat others with compassionate lovingkindness.
The ancient Greeks used the term “agape” to refer to what is here called lovingkindness. It means the expression of love toward others with no expectations, requirements, or conditions, not even expecting others to reciprocate with lovingkindness. Another term for this is “unconditional love”. The poet Nikki Giovanni expresses well the essence of unconditional love, that is, lovingkindness, toward one’s self and others:
“There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage with those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.”
When mindful actions are based on lovingkindness those actions are more likely to succeed in having positive effects, that is, desirable consequences, for one’s self as well as for others.