I am reading Sharon Salzberg’s new book Real Love. I resonated with one of her stories and I thought I’d share it here. She writes that in 1976, shortly after co-founding the Insight Meditation Society, she decided to do a monthlong, self-guided retreat focused on lovingkindness meditation (LKM). LKM involves extending good will to the self and others using phrases such as “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” The phrases are directed toward the self, toward others who open our hearts naturally, toward neutral others, and toward others with whom we struggle.
Here’s what happened during Salzberg’s monthlong retreat…(drumroll)…nothing. She writes, “I spent the whole first week offering lovingkindness to myself, and I just felt nothing. No bolts of lightning, no great breakthrough moment—it felt pretty dreary.” This was definitely my early experience with LKM. I would go to a daylong retreat, workshop, or dharma talk and the teacher would invite us to practice LKM. I would try it, nothing would happen, and, unlike Salzberg, I would stop. I had thoughts like “that part doesn’t do much for me…feels kinda hokey…feels like I’m trying to make something happen and that feels antithetical to the rest of my practice” and I would return to my own personal cocktail of concentration practice and choiceless awareness practice. In those days, just sitting in my own skin for 30 minutes felt like an incredible challenge. If I was going to meditate, I didn’t want to “waste my time” with practices that felt empty and which, truth be told, I just didn’t get.
In those days, just sitting in my own skin for 30 minutes felt like an incredible challenge. If I was going to meditate, I didn’t want to “waste my time” with practices that felt empty and which, truth be told, I just didn’t get.
Salzberg’s story didn’t stop with the dreariness. She goes on to share that at the end of the first week, she unexpectedly found herself needing to leave the retreat center and while she was preparing to leave, she accidentally knocked over a large glass jar, which shattered against the tile floor. Here’s what she writes happened next, “To my amazement, I noticed the first thought that came to me was ‘You are really a klutz, but I love you.’ Look at that! I thought. You could have given me anything in the course of that week to persuade me something was happening, and I would have said no. Yet all along, something deep and profound was shifting.” This second part of Salzberg’s experience resonates too.
In a moment of desperation, almost a decade after beginning to meditate, I made the decision to try placing LKM at the center of my daily practice. It was a kind of psychological hail mary pass. We had recently greeted our second daughter into the world and I was feeling completely overwhelmed. Right around the time our second daughter was born, our once easy-to-soothe first daughter had gone and turned into a two-year-old with a mind of her own and big ol’ emotions that were outpacing the regulatory efforts of her newly developing frontal lobe. None of us were sleeping. Life was swiftly beginning to feel like a challenge that I wasn’t sure I was cut out for.
Enter loving-kindness practice. As I sat there day after day wishing myself and others well, some things began to change. Like Salzberg, the most potent experiences I had with LKM happened off the cushion. I remember going for runs around the park near our house or shopping at Costco with my daughters and noticing that people were smiling at me or at each other in ways that that made me want to smile. It’s possible that through some grand coincidence, I began practicing LKM at the same moment that there was a global spike in smiling rates amongst parkgoers and bulk discount shoppers. It seems more likely, though, that as I began to relate to myself with love, I began to notice more of the love, affection, joy, and good will that were there in my world all along. I remember the moment when I had the sudden insight that every moment is an occasion for love. I realized that I could shift my habitual way of relating such that I was looking at my experience and the experience of others through loving eyes. This was a game changer for me. There is no getting around how much a tsunami-level, late night, two-year-old tantrum sucks, but it is significantly better when we are bathed in love and compassion. I would wager that pretty much everything is. The ability to offer myself and others something helpful in the “suck” of those moments significantly reduced my sense of overwhelm.
There is no getting around how much a tsunami-level, late night, two-year-old tantrum sucks, but it is significantly better when we are bathed in love and compassion. I would wager that pretty much everything is.
I think we expect love to be big, juicy, and powerful–like a kiss in the rain at the end of a Hollywood movie. So many of us walk around feeling like somewhere along the way we lost that loving feeling, or never quite had it in the first place. As a teenager, I remember watching Top Gun, and loving that Righteous Brothers tune “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (remember Mav and Goose serenading Kelly McGillis in that bar?). It was a fun song to sing in the shower, and it also resonated with an emptiness I felt inside but didn’t know how to fill. In a culture that saturates us with images of big juicy love, it’s easy to feel bereft.
In a culture that saturates us with images of big juicy love, it’s easy to feel bereft
What I felt as I practiced repeating the lovingkindness phrases to myself was subtle not juicy, and it didn’t so much fill me up as widen my perspective and slowly tenderize my heart. As I practiced offering good will each day to myself and others, the line between myself and others became less distinct. I found myself not just noticing the smile of a stranger, but becoming truly aware that he, like me, had led a whole human life, full of pain and joy, and that he, like me, wanted to be happy. There is a natural curiosity and care that follows this awareness. Who were all these people in the cars around me on the freeway? Not just as a philosophical question, but really who is that woman with the frizzy hair and worried expression in the grey honda? The more that we open to our interconnectedness, interdependence, and shared desire to be happy, healthy, safe, free, loved, and peaceful, the more we sense our natural capacity to offer care, comfort, interest, and support. And what is that natural capacity? That capacity is love.
So, Maverick, Goose, pull up a bar stool, I need to talk to you. Love has been here all along, undiminished and unblemished by loss, rejection, and pain. So long as we live, we can no more lose love than lose the breath.
So long as we live, we can no more lose love than lose the breath.
Love is a capacity. It is a choice. It is a practice. And this practice is our birthright, whether or not Kelly McGillis agrees to join us for a breathless motorcycle ride across the tarmac.