BV-Kindness in Compassion Week

Welcome to Insight Meditation Houston, a partner in the network of Compassionate Houston. Compassion Week for 2022 began yesterday on World Kindness Day. Tonight, we will focus on this year’s theme of the power of kindness.

In intensive meditation, the Buddha discovered how to witness with loving awareness the changing river of sensations, perceptions, feeling tones, thoughts, and moments of consciousness that we call the self. Because he understood intimately how humans suffer from clinging to what is impermanent, the Buddha treated everyone he met with kindness and compassion. He taught that all sentient beings are interconnected. Beyond the principle of non-harming, his teachings included heart-opening practices called the Brahma Viharas or Divine Abodes. In a little while, we will participate in a guided meditation to cultivate one of those Divine Abodes, Metta or Lovingkindness.

We tend to associate kindness with concrete unselfish or generous acts. A few weeks ago, a dear friend responded immediately to the news that I had tested positive for covid with an offer to bring chicken soup to my doorstep. Family and friends phoned or sent e-mails and text messages to cheer me up while I quarantined. My spiritual task was to receive these thoughtful gestures with grace and gratitude. By being receptive, I gave loved ones opportunities to experience the joy of giving generously.

Many of us find it easier to give to others than to receive kindness. And sometimes we resist being kind to ourselves. The Buddha taught, “The greatest protection in all the world is loving kindness” …. “Like a caring mother holding and guarding the life of her only child, so with a boundless heart of lovingkindness, hold yourself and all beings as your beloved children” …. “You can search the whole universe and not find a single being more worthy of love than yourself.”

My meditation teacher Jack Kornfield cautions, “One of the greatest blocks to lovingkindness is our own sense of unworthiness. If we leave ourselves out of the circle of love and compassion, we have misunderstood.” 

Throughout many years of meditation practice, I realize that retreats in Noble Silence are the kindest gift I can give myself. As I slow down and my nervous system becomes calm, I observe what dharma teacher Lila Wheeler calls “the perfect imperfection” of our human incarnation. I learn to be friendly to myself, simply being with my experiences without adding reactivity and judgment.

When my attention wanders, instead of berating myself for being unmindful, I can invite it gently back to the anchor of the breath. I appreciate how Lila reframes the impediment of a restless mind: “It’s being lost that allows us to return and permits wisdom to arise.

Some of our meditative sessions entail a review of past actions, both skillful and unskillful.  Besides recalling moments of kindness and benevolence, we sit with memories of when we’ve acted out of fear, aversion, greed, or delusion. We learn to forgive ourselves over and over for times when we’ve harmed ourselves and others by speaking or acting unskillfully. With a compassionate attitude towards our foibles and mistakes, we can remember that in every instance we acted in the best way possible, according to the level of consciousness that we had in that moment.

Sometimes we squirm, recalling incidents that have been associated with guilt or shame. Treating these emotions kindly, we can recall our good intentions to learn from past mistakes and to become more aware of the consequences of our words and actions.  

Nobody else can do our inner work for us, and it takes bravery to study the inner dynamics of suffering and freedom. Part of our practice is to recognize consciously when we’re being courageous. As Lila says, “Instead of being self-critical, have loving dialogues with yourself, trusting that basic goodness is underlying impermanent moments of suffering, and is waiting to be discovered.”

By practicing kindness to myself, I feel more kind towards those who have harmed me intentionally or unintentionally. I see that they too acted out of fear, suffering or ignorance—mental states that merit gentle compassion instead of harsh judgment. The better I know the workings of my own mind, the more I can understand the complexities of others’ minds. Whatever loving attention I offer to myself is of benefit to whomever I encounter on my path.

Tonight, I will guide you with my adapted version of Howie Cohn’s Metta or Lovingkindness meditation phrases, which soothed me during a retreat at the Margaret Austin Center in the Texas Hill Country. Howie refers to Metta as “kindfulness”—a mixture of mindfulness and kindness:

Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.

Be aware of any sensations around your heart, accepting them just as they are right now. Direct your heart’s energy to the top of your head and scalp. 

Imagine heartfelt, kindly attention flowing down and caressing your head and face, tenderly touching skin, sinews, muscles, and bones in that area of your body. Receive those caresses graciously. 

Imagine kind attention caressing your neck and shoulders, gently touching skin, sinews, muscles, and bones in that part of the body. Absorb each caress gratefully.

As the kind attention moves down your arms, wrists, hands, and fingers, sense a tender touch on the skin, sinews, muscles, and bones of those body parts. Receive that caring fully. 

Sense the kindly attention caressing the back and front of your torso, tenderly brushing along skin, sinews, muscles, and bones in that section of the body. Absorb that kindness.  

And now imagine the kind attention wafting around your pelvis and hips, treating skin, sinews, muscles, and bones in that area gently. Be receptive to the gentleness.

Sense the kindly attention pouring down your legs, knees, ankles, feet and toes, bathing in tenderness the skin, sinews, muscles, and bones in the lower part of the body. Open to that “kindfulness.”

Scanning the whole body from head to toe, wish yourself inner and outer wellbeing and strength, while accepting the limits of the body just as it is. Acknowledge with tender attention the sensitivity of the heart, solar plexus, and abdomen, and silently repeat the following phrases:

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may I be safe.

From all suffering, may I be free. 

Just as we wish ourselves peace, happiness, good health, and safety, we wish the same for all those in this sangha or community of meditators. Let us hold in our hearts especially those who have serious health concerns.

May everyone in this sangha be peaceful and happy.

May we be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may we be safe.

From all suffering, may we be free.

Sensing our hearts opening and expanding in “kindfulness,” let us extend our prayers to loved ones outside the sangha. You may wish to visualize or sense the presence of a particular beloved individual:

May our loved ones be peaceful and happy.

May our loved ones be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may our loved ones be safe.

From all suffering, may our loved ones be free.

Now expanding beyond friends and family to include a neutral person, whom you do not know well, let us extend loving kindness, recalling that all beings seek love. Perhaps you can visualize a passerby on the street or someone you saw in a store.

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may you be safe.

From all suffering, may you be free.

Further opening our hearts, let us send kindfulness to a person whose unskillful behavior has harmed themselves or others. Include someone whom you have cut out of your heart. Remember that all beings wish to be met with love and kindness. Even those who are annoying, unskillful, violent, confused, and mean wish to be happy. With the intention to free yourself from hatred, fear and ill will, direct Metta phrases towards a person who is a source of difficulty in your mind or heart.  

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may you be safe.

From all suffering, may you be free.

And finally expanding our hearts to encompass all beings everywhere, let our prayers suffuse the entire world with kindfulness, including animals, plants, and all forms of life on Mother Earth, and in the water and air:

May all beings be peaceful and happy.

May all beings be healthy.

From inner and outer harm, may all beings be safe.

From all suffering, may all beings be free.

From this moment forward, may our thoughts, words and deeds be imbued with loving kindness towards ourselves and others. Place a hand on your heart, sensing ease and release as it opens lovingly. Gently open your eyes and be aware of the presence of our sangha, this community of kindred spirits who support your practice.