If you’re human, there’s no doubt that you’ve experienced feelings of suffering at least once (and probably many, many times) in your life. Personally, I have a tendency to become so self-involved that I will literally catastrophize everything, and in turn, my capacity to feel compassion for others is significantly decreased.
Recently, I’ve been having an especially difficult time with this compassion principle. I’ve been bemoaning my luck, diminutive salary, and persistent feelings of upset for the better part of the year, and I’m the first to admit that this method of coping is both ineffective and draining. To combat this, many people find it helpful to start a gratitude practice in order to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. I’m not one of those people. While it’s always good to have perspective in life, I don’t feel comfortable reflecting on how one’s life is more privileged than another’s, in order to say that there’s no reason to suffer. But suffering is not mutually exclusive: we can suffer while still understanding that others experience suffering, too.
One way to help alleviate the burden of your own pain and suffering is to practice a loving-kindness meditation. This is a basic Buddhist practice which serves to cultivate feelings of selflessness and altruistic love. Loving-kindness is the first in a series of meditations that produce four qualities of love, including Friendliness (metta), Compassion (karuna), Appreciative Joy (mudita), and Equanimity (upekkha). Here’s how to practice a loving-kindness meditation.
The first step (and for some, the most difficult) in the loving-kindness meditation is to cultivate feelings of loving-kindness within yourself. Without a sense of compassion for your own person, the meditation will not work for the world around you. You can try this in three ways:
Visualization: See yourself seated in front of you and smiling. Really connect with the image you see: Does she look happy? Sad? Defeated? Extend kindness to her in a way that feels most genuine to you.
Reflection: Think about your positive qualities. How do they make you feel? If it is difficult to think positively about yourself in this regard, continue with the meditation directed at yourself before moving onto others.
Auditory: Repeat an internalized mantra, focusing on loving-kindness. Some mantras to try are “I am good,” “May I be happy and peaceful,” or “May I be free of suffering and its causes.”
Once you feel ready, you may open this meditation up to others in the following order:
-A respected, beloved person, such as a spiritual teacher or mentor.
-A dearly beloved, such as family member, romantic partner, or close friend.
-A neutral person, such as an acquaintance or person on the street.
-A hostile person, such as someone you experience difficulty with or strongly dislike.
As you consider each person, either use the visualization, reflection, or auditory techniques. Feel a loving-kindness towards these persons, but also acknowledge where and when you feel stuck and have a difficult time with your feelings (obviously, the hostile person will be the most challenging for a majority of people). As you breathe in, think about how each of these people have experienced and suffered in the same ways that you have. As you breathe out, extend feelings of compassion and loving-kindness to that person.
With enough practice, you will inevitably make space–not only for your own suffering, but for that of others as well. It’s important to note that your suffering may not have decreased at all; rather, in the process of providing loving kindness to others, you’ve made more space for your suffering to exist and to feel less constraining. Good luck!
More meditation tips: Peaceful Dumpling Challenge – 28 Days of Meditation
Also by Molly: Why It’s Important to Honor Your Inner Child
Photo: Βethan via Flickr