A simple, time-tested technique to summon feelings of love and gratitude for yourself and for everyone you encounter
Loving yourself, although praised by psychologists and Buddhists alike, is something many people struggle with; if it weren’t, I don’t think there would be so many books and articles about self-esteem.
Lack of self-love is unfortunate, because loving yourself is cost-free, zero calories. It feels good and is good for you. Many of us bristle slightly at the idea, as if it were somehow self-indulgent. We imagine a slippery slope into self-absorption or unattractive narcissism. What most people find undesirable is actually self-cherishing (i.e. selfishness). This is very different from loving yourself in the Buddhist sense. The kind of self-love described by Buddhists doesn’t really have a direct analogue in western religion or philosophy, and as such, it can feel very strange at first. It is a love that exists despite shortcomings or misfortune. It is the foundation from which your love for others comes.
Fortunately, there is a simple practice that will help you come to grips with what it means to love yourself: Metta Meditation.
Metta meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, is a simple, time-tested technique to intentionally summon feelings of love not only for yourself, but also for everyone you know, and ultimately all sentient beings. Ideally, Metta is something you make time for, something you retreat to your meditation pillow to practice. Although this is the method I recommend until the practice becomes ingrained, Metta can be practiced while driving, or while doing tasks like cleaning or exercising. It’s a wonderful mental hygiene practice that should be at least as important as brushing your teeth.
Metta is a beautiful practice that can be embraced by every person who professes to be a person of faith. Jesus commanded his followers to love one another, but have you ever marveled at the difficulty of this injunction? As a young Christian, I bemoaned the fact that he gave no instructions on how to carry out that task. Jews are commanded to be the answer to other’s prayers for help, and in Surah 5:13 of the Koran, we learn that Allah loves those who are kind. Secular humanists who embrace the belief that the wellbeing of humans, animals, and nature are critically important social ideals can also find this practice a bedrock of inspiration for contributing positively to the world around them.
According to Theravada Buddhists, Metta Meditation starts by focusing on ourselves and generating that soft, warm feeling of love — a task, I confess, I still initially find impossible. That’s why I devised my own hack for this: I think about my cat.
I have the purest, cleanest, most maternal feelings for my cat. Who or what do you feel the happiest, most uncomplicated love for? I advise that you focus on that person (living or dead) or animal first. Once you’ve found your focus of love, you wish the object of your affection happiness, wellness, and prosperity. Meditators should feel free to tweak this to suit their own wishes, but the mantra I use is:
May (object of loving-kindness) be well
May ______ be happy
May ______ be filled with joy and peace
May ______ enjoy success and avoid setback
May ______ be spared from suffering and harm
I generally start with my cat, move on to my mother and father, and then by that point, I’ve usually generated enough psychic love juice and beneficence to focus on myself.
It surprised me when I first tried this and couldn’t love myself; it felt like a striking diagnostic in my life. I have a feeling that I am not alone in this. So many of us tend to focus on our own faults and shortcomings and end up not feeling worthy of love. But why not love yourself anyway, flaws and all, just as you love those other people, flaws and all? Are you any less worthy?
Loving yourself is the not the same as thinking you are perfect or above reproach.
You are allowed to love yourself despite your perceived or real personal flaws. So go ahead and do it just because you can. It’s a free and easy way to put more joy in your life. No one can stop you from loving yourself and there is no good reason to let yourself be the barrier.
Back on your pillow, the meditation doesn’t end with you just loving yourself and your innermost circle. As you meditate, you widen the circle. In the Buddhist tradition, after blessing yourself and your dearest loved ones, you extend first to your teachers. This is a strikingly Asian value, but as a former teacher, I love this. Don’t necessarily limit yourself to formal educational settings; think about everyone from whom you’ve learned.
I think about all the teachers I had who took an interest in my well being, such as Mrs. Surovek, the toughest English teacher I had in high school, and how she forced me to write correctly and clearly. I think about my friend Steve, whose social sophistication taught me how handle social situations with skill and panache. Think about your mentors, bless them, and wish them well. Another good side effect of focusing on your teachers and mentors is that it also gets the meditator’s gratitude flowing as well, and love and gratitude are two of the most powerful ingredients of happiness.
After teachers, bless neutral people in your life, and then move on to strangers. I sometimes practice this on the move, blessing other drivers, people I pass at the grocery store, and other random people I encounter. It’s kind of striking to behold an average looking person, pushing a cart full of food you wouldn’t necessarily eat, and think of them as a whole human with hopes and dreams, flaws and virtues, fears and humor. When you think of strangers this way, the world becomes a little less scary and a little more interesting.
The most challenging part of the practice is extending blessings of loving-kindness to people who’ve wronged us, the people we dislike or even hate.
In the Buddhist tradition, the rationale behind this practice is that if your enemies were filled with joy and peace, they would not behave as they did (or still do). For me, the best way to get a handle on this is to think about the insecurities, self-hatred, or ignorance that drove your antagonists to misbehave. When you think about another person’s misdeeds as manifestations of their own self-dislike, it’s easier to generate loving-kindness their way.
After blessing your enemies, you move on to animals and all sentient beings. I like to extend it to ecosystems and the environment in general. This practice helps us be mindful of how our behavior impacts the environment. This wraps up the practice.
Afterwards, you hopefully feel a calm glow. The glow is the reward and the incentive to do this everyday. Try it for one week for twenty minutes or longer. If you are turned off by sitting in a half-lotus posture because it’s uncomfortable, push your pillow against a piece of upholstered furniture and lean back a little to support your back. The point of the posture is to keep you from going to sleep. Honestly, sitting or reclining in any way that enables you to simultaneously concentrate and stay awake is fine.
It’s intriguing to think about a world filled with people whose default is to love themselves and others. I’m not so naive as to think that if everyone practiced this, we’d live in a perfect utopia — but I am wise enough to know how the practice shapes your regard for yourself and other humans. But I must stress that like anything, you have to practice this consistently for it to permeate your brain and worldview.
The only sacrifice Metta meditators make is a little bit of time and the effort of concentration. But the rewards of this practice are real, in both how you feel and how you act. Love on…
You may also enjoy reading The Magic of Self Love and Positive Energetic Vibration, by Karamjeet Kaur