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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community


Thursday, November 12, 2015
CULTIVATING A LOVE FOR LIFE by guest blogger Rick Heller, Author of SECULAR MEDITATION
 

Our guest blogger this week is Rick Heller, author of Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy, and the cofounder of the Humanist Mindfulness Group at the Harvard Humanist Community, where he leads meditation groups.

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A couple years ago, I started noticing flashes of light when I was in a darkened room. My eye doctor said I should visit a specialist right away because it could be a sign of a detached retina, which can lead to blindness. I tried to settle my emotions by being “in the moment.” Nonetheless, I was quite agitated by the time I reached the ophthalmologist’s office.

The medical assistant called me in. She tried to retrieve my record on the computer. It wouldn’t come up. She apologized and said she would have to take notes by hand. She was clearly irritated. I decided to do an abbreviated loving-kindness meditation, offering her my best wishes. Silently I said something like:

I’d like you to be safe
I’d like you to be healthy
I’d like you to be happy
I’d like you to be at ease in the world

I don’t know if it made any difference to her, but it sure made a difference to me. Shifting my attention from my problems to her problems, and feeling kindness toward her, gave me a terrific lift. Later I received good news when the doctor diagnosed my condition as benign.


Loving-kindness meditation is a practice in which you cultivate kindness toward yourself and others. It can be a powerful mood booster. 

Try this:

Find a comfortable place to sit, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath or two, and relax. After that, there’s no need to follow your breath. Now bring to mind someone who has helped you at some point in your life — a friend, relative, or benefactor toward whom you feel real warmth. With this person in mind, say silently:

I’d like you to be safe 
I’d like you to be healthy 
I’d like you to be happy 
I’d like you to be at ease in the world

If you can, imagine what it would look like if that person was safe, healthy, happy, and at ease. Stay with these thoughts for a minute or two.

Now try to cultivate the same sense of kindness toward yourself. Say silently:

I’d like to be safe 
I’d like to be healthy 
I’d like to be happy 
I’d like to be at ease in the world 

Give yourself some time to let those words sink in. Can you see yourself, in your imagination, safe, healthy, happy, and at ease? 

Now think about someone you have no strong opinions about. It could be a checkout clerk at your local supermarket or a medical assistant at your doctor’s office. With this person in mind, repeat these words:

I’d like you to be safe 
I’d like you to be healthy 
I’d like you to be happy 
I’d like you to be at ease in the world 

Try to visualize the person if you can. Take note of how it feels to think kindly of this person. Is it surprisingly easy? 

Loving-kindness meditation is a way to shift the brain into feeling more positively toward people. What likely takes place is that your brain releases hormones associated with positive feelings as you think about your loved ones and yourself. Because these hormones stick around for a few minutes, when you shift your attention to a neutral person — like that checkout clerk — the goodwill you feel spills over toward that person. 

If you do this meditation a few times, you may find that you can “turn on” goodwill toward people without having to go through the steps of thinking about loved ones and yourself. Not only that, you can turn on goodwill toward everything — even inanimate objects.

This generalized feeling of goodwill is an aspect of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is often described as paying attention to the present moment with an attitude that is friendly, accepting, or kind. Loving-kindness meditation focuses on the kindness element. Sometimes you can’t focus on the present moment because, say, you have to plan for tomorrow’s meeting. But even so, you can retain the goodwill aspect of mindfulness by bringing a friendly, accepting attitude to your plans for the future. 

It would be naïve to love absolutely everything. There are harmful people and challenging circumstances in the world. In another version of the loving-kindness meditation, you contemplate difficult or harmful people with the aim of neutralizing your antagonism. That doesn’t mean you have to feel cuddly toward them. By reducing ill will, you can actually think more rationally about a difficult person and make better decisions.

Overall there are a lot of things to like about this world. We often find ourselves caught up in minor irritations. Simply generating some kindness toward the people or circumstances we encounter rebounds to our benefit. If you continue to practice loving-kindness meditation, you may get to the point that much of the day you will feel warmth toward whatever is happening. The more you do it, the more each moment in daily life provides an ounce of joy.

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Rick Heller is the author of Secular Meditation and leads meditations at the Humanist Community at Harvard. 

A freelance journalist, he has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Buddhadharma, Free Inquiry, Tikkun, and Wise Brain Bulletin

He received a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT. 

His website is www.rickheller.com.

Based on the book Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy — A Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard. Copyright © 2015 by Rick Heller.



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