Learning to love ourselves and others when our expectations aren’t being met is hard, but with practice we can open our hearts and learn to love what’s challenging.
When I was asked what kind of mindfulness practice I’d like to offer to young people, the very first thing that came up for me was the practice of loving-kindness. Other ways of putting it is the practice of unconditional friendliness or the practice of being kind to oneself and all other beings. Through my own experience working with thousands of young people, my sense of the cultural Western conditioning is to be really hard on ourselves. We often try to achieve perfection which gives us really high expectations. Then, when we fall below these expectations, there’s a habit of self-criticism. I think it’s such good medicine and so important that I learned to be kind to myself, the same way that I would be kind and compassionate and friendly toward my best friend if they made a mistake or were struggling in some way. I think that’s when we need love and kindness the most. It’s easy to offer love to myself and other people when I’m doing a good job, but I think what makes us good at love is when we’re able to love what’s difficult, what’s challenging.
I think what makes us good at love is when we’re able to love what’s difficult, what’s challenging.
Loving-kindness meditation may be new to you and when I first started this practice, some of the language felt strange to me. Even the idea of being kind to myself felt foreign. I started saying loving-kindness phrases to myself—which I’ll be offering to you, too—like “May I be happy,” and what came up for me was, You don’t deserve to be happy. That’s totally normal. The invitation given to me was to see if I could actually meet the voice in my mind that said, You don’t deserve this, with a little bit of kindness.
Through the work that I’ve done, I’ve come to understand that the little voice is just confused and doing its best to protect me from being vulnerable in a very intense world. Like some of you, I’ve had experiences where I’ve opened my heart and it’s been hurt so a natural part of me wants to protect my heart. But through lots of practice, I realized that my heart is actually my gift to the world and not something that I need to protect it from.
With that, let’s start the practice.
A Beginner-Friendly Loving-Kindness Meditation
12 Minute Meditation: A Loving-Kindness Practice to Anchor In Compassion with Enrique Collazo
- Find a way to position your body that feels good to you. Lying down, sitting in a chair, standing, or whatever feels good. The invitation is to find the most cozy, relaxed posture so that you can continue to focus on the words that we’ll be using. If a part of the body starts to ache or get uncomfortable, it’s no big deal. Just adjust so that you find some comfort and then redirect your attention back to what’s being offered.
- Take a couple deep breaths if that feels good to you. Letting go of the future. Letting go of the past. Letting go of any expectations. And seeing if we can trade that all in for a direct experience of right here, right now. You can check in with yourself about whether it feels good to do this practice with your eyes closed and if it does, feel free to gently close your eyes. If it doesn’t, I invite you to cast your eyes downward, looking at a spot in front of you with a soft gaze. When I say that I mean maybe your eyelids are heavy but not fully closed.
- See if you can begin by welcoming whatever is present for you. Whatever sounds, sensations, emotions that might be here. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. Notice what it feels like to even consider practicing being kind to yourself. See if you can relax in the places holding tension, like the belly, the eyebrows, the little muscles around the jaw, the tongue. Allowing gravity to do its job pulling the shoulders down. Softening the belly, relaxing the legs all the way down to your toes.
- Then choose a home base for your attention. It’s the place where we’re going to try and post up for a bit. Some people use the sense of their breath, the sensation of the air coming in and out of the body at the nostrils. Some people use sensations in the body that are either pleasant or neutral, like the bottoms of their feet on the floor or the palms of their hands on their lap. Some people use sound. Choose something in your experience to rest your attention on. And if the attention jumps around, just notice where it goes and with kindness and patience and commitment, bring the attention back. Just do that over and over. Each time we bring the attention back to this anchor we strengthen this capacity to stay a little bit more each time.
- We’ll begin our loving-kindness practice by reflecting on our deepest desire for happiness and freedom from struggling—the sense that we all want to be happy, that we’re all philosophers of happiness, and all the moves that we make are moves toward a sense of ease, even if you’re confused about what happiness ultimately means. Reflecting on how challenging it is to be human sometimes and how it’s often intense and that’s just the way it is. There’s nothing wrong with you. For me, when I reflect on this deep desire to be happy, this deep understanding and acknowledgment of how intense and challenging being human can be, sometimes what comes up for me is a sense of kindness, compassion, friendliness.
- Now I invite you with each breath to acknowledge your wish to be free from harm, your wish to be safe and protected, to experience love and kindness. The invitation is to offer yourself kind and friendly words—phrases with the intention of uncovering the heart. I’ll offer some of my own personal words that I use in my practice. But the invitation is to find your own words that mean something to you, that are the words you need to hear:
May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be free from struggle. May I allow myself to be happy. May I be at ease, even when things aren’t so easy. May I be free from any ways that I suffer.
- As you sit in this practice, repeating these phrases in your mind, your attention might be drawn into thinking other things like resisting or judging. Judging the practice or your capacity to love or be kind. This does take a gentle, persistent effort to continue returning, offering yourself these phrases even when the mind wanders. May I be happy. See if you can feel the breath and the body’s response to each phrase. May I be free from struggle. Allowing the mind and body to relax into each phrase. You just repeat them over and over again. I love you. I will take care of you. I will provide you with what you need. Keep going.
- Then bring your attention back to the body. Again relaxing into your posture. Noticing what’s there to be felt after offering yourself these kind and loving words. Remember there’s no right or wrong way to feel. See if you can allow whatever is arising to exist. If it’s difficult, see if you can continue to bring kindness to that. That’s not where we turn our back. That’s what’s needing our love and attention the most.
- Then bring your attention to someone that’s been beneficial to you. Maybe a benefactor, someone that has inspired you, that has shown you great kindness, seen you for who you are, offered you some of that unconditional love. Recognizing as this being comes to mind, or maybe a lot of people, that just as you wish to be happy and to be at ease, peaceful, to struggle less, that this person also shares this universal desire for well-being. So begin offering them some kind words.
Just as I wish to be happy, peaceful, and free, may you be happy, peaceful, and free. Continue offering the words that you think they would benefit from hearing. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be free. Or maybe it sounds like, Thank you. Thank you for seeing me and loving me. Thank you for being there for me. I don’t take it for granted.
- Let those words and the image of that person go and bring the attention back to the body, back to the breath. Notice what’s there to be felt. Remember there’s no right or wrong way to feel so you can allow what’s there to exist. See if you can expand just a little bit to a neutral person in your life. Maybe a neighbor that you see, but don’t know very well or someone that you come across at the local grocery. Bring that being to your mind and your heart. Just as I wish for myself to be happy, to feel ease, to be free, may you be happy, feel ease, and be free. Or it might sound like, I see you. You are a whole human being deserving of kindness and happiness just like me. Just like me, you want to be happy. Just like me, you struggle and get scared. May we be happy. May we feel at ease. May we be free, my friend. Letting that go, bring the attention back to your body. Noticing what’s present for you and allowing it to exist.
- There are two more categories to cover as we continue to expand our hearts. This next one is optional. We consider offering the same kind of loving-kindness to someone that’s been difficult. If your mind is anything like my mind, as soon as I think of a person, your mind may have gone to the most difficult person in your life. And I encourage you to not go there. If you feel like you have the capacity to work with this, start with someone who is easy to work with, someone that maybe just hurt your feelings or annoyed you in some way. Starting easy so we can build strength and confidence and a capacity to open our hearts to difficult people. All beings wish to be met with love and kindness. All beings, even the annoying and the unskillful, the confused and the unkind, wish to be happy. Even their harm is coming from a place of confusion of fear. That’s not an excuse, just the truth. We all need to take responsibility for our actions.
- With as much heart as you can in this moment, see if you can offer this slightly difficult person in your life some kindness. May you be happy. May you be free. For the sake of our own personal freedom from hatred or fear, with as much heart as you can in this moment, allow someone who may have been a source of difficulty to be the object of your well wishes. May we be happy. May we be free. And letting that go. Notice what that was like by sensing into your body. And last but definitely not least, see and experience this heart, full of capacity to offer love and kindness to all beings.
- We can start with beings in our immediate vicinity, sending some love, some kindness to the people in our space right now. May we all be happy, at ease, and free. Expand to those in your town or city. I like to imagine it like my heart is radiating out, and allowing those waves of kindness to expand to the city, then expanding to the country. Allow a positive intention for meeting everyone with love and kindness to spread out in all directions, radiating kindness with this open heart and fearless mind. May all beings, including myself, be happy. May all beings, including myself, be at ease. May all beings, including myself, be free from unnecessary struggle.
- Then coming back to the body, to your heart. Noticing what’s there to be felt, noticing if anything’s changed, if anything’s stayed the same. Welcoming it all with big, spacious, patient, kind awareness. Feeling your breath, the ground beneath you. And when you’re ready, on your own time and your own way, coming out of the practice. That might be by opening your eyes, or maybe a hand on the heart is what’s being called for in this moment.