RICHARD CHAMBERS: Sometimes it can be pretty hard to genuinely like somebody who’s being difficult, like a teenager who’s acting up or a kid that’s been naughty. And sometimes, of course, it can be very hard to genuinely like ourselves when we’ve experienced some kind of setback and we’re lost in self-criticism and judgement. And in these situations, a practise that’s related to mindfulness called lovingkindness can be a very powerful thing to do. So this attitude that we’ve already started to establish of openness and non-judgment and friendliness towards ourselves, this is really the first few steps on the path of lovingkindness. And so we can start to amplify that through different practises.
And in fact, there’s a meditation called lovingkindness meditation that really starts to build this skill. So the basic practise of lovingkindness meditation is to get in touch with a genuine felt sense of goodwill and lovingkindness, or unconditional friendliness. And traditionally it was taught to start with ourselves, because that might be the easiest place to start. But for a lot of us these days, I think that’s probably not the easiest place to start. So we might want to bring to mind somebody that we have a really good relationship with, feel a lot of love for, support from. It might be a parent or a child or a partner or a best friend.
It could be a pet or a spiritual figure– just somebody who it’s very easy to feel that sense of unconditional friendliness towards. And so we bring them to mind. And we can connect with that quality. And we start to feel it, actually, if we start to really tune into it. We can sort of feel it often in the chest, in the heart. And we get in touch with that. And then, as a felt experience, we can kind of direct that towards ourselves or towards other people. And we can use certain wishes to amplify that. We can make kind wishes for ourselves– may I be happy, may I be well, may I be free from suffering, that kind of thing.
Or we can wish it to somebody else– may you be happy, may you be well, may you be successful, or just whatever makes sense to us, whatever wishes we might want to send out to them. In the beginning, it can be good to practise just sending it to a loved one and sending it to ourselves so that we get familiar with that experience. But once we’ve got that basic grounding in place and we start to develop those connections in the brain, we can actually start to send lovingkindness to strangers or even to difficult people. And of course, again, that’s probably going to seem a little bit challenging in the beginning, a bit strange.
Why would I send kindness to somebody else? Again, it helps to remember that people who are difficult tend to be pretty unhappy. And so even though it might be the strangest thing in the world to wish for them to be happy, it actually makes sense, really, because if they were happier, maybe they wouldn’t be quite so difficult to be around. They might just be a little nicer to themselves and to other people.
And of course, if we practise this as well– let’s say, before a meeting with our boss and we’re expecting to get in trouble, what we might want to do, rather than sitting down and thinking up all these defensive reasons why we did what we did or preparing ourselves for war and getting full of adrenaline and cortisol and fight and flight, what we might want to do is take a few moments to let go of all of that and to cultivate a genuine sense of openness and lovingkindness, really wishing that our boss be happy, that we be happy, because then when we go into the office and start the conversation, it’s just going to kick off on a very different footing and probably– hopefully– lead to better outcomes.
And actually, when we do this, rather than activating the fight and flight response in the brain, rather than releasing adrenaline and cortisol, we actually start to activate very different bright areas– the tend-and-befriend circuits. And rather than the adrenaline, we actually start to release oxytocin, which is a hormone associated with bonding and also memory. It’s something that a mother releases when she holds her baby for the first time or when we give someone a long hug or when we fall in love for the first time. That’s that kind of– that gooey rush that we get. That’s oxytocin, amongst other neurotransmitters. And so to be full of that when we walk into our boss’ office can be a very useful thing.
And so, as I said, even if it feels a bit strange or uncomfortable in the beginning, even if it’s just the words and we don’t necessarily feel anything happening in the body, that’s fine, because remember that if we practise it, if we keep going with that, every time we make that wish, every time we have that intention, we just form a few new connections in the brain. And if we keep doing that consciously, over time, what we find is it starts to become much more natural and easier, and we can just spontaneously do it in our moment-to-moment, day-to-day life.