Buddhism teaches that the first of the Four Noblest Qualities of Mind (also known as the Brahma Viharas)is loving-kindness. It is said that making the commitment to love life unconditionally in all its forms is the way of the Dharma. But cultivating this attitude of loving-kindness isn't so easy.
Our days are full of reasons to not feel loving or to behave kindly. It seems there are obstacles everywhere we look. We feel anger toward the child who just callously knocked our little one over on the playground and contempt for the parents who didn't teach their child better manners. We feel impatience with the elderly driver plodding along ahead of us at a snail's pace. We feel hatred toward the pedophile being led away in hand-cuffs on the evening news.
Feeling loving towards all people sometimes seems all but impossible but we are encouraged, not just by Buddhism but by most faiths and philosophies, to develop this noble quality of mind little by little. We are told to start with prayers or meditations that focus on feelings of loving-kindness and that direct them, at first, towards those we already love - our children, spouses and best friends. Little by little we are encouraged to let those feelings of love flow a little further outward. We might begin to include more distant family members, neighbors, animals and others. Eventually, we need to try to send loving, kind thoughts and prayers towards those people we like the least - the boss who is making our life a living hell, the neighborhood kid who broke into our car looking for cash, the politicians who have forgotten that they work for us, the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Those of us who are so-inclined, struggle through this process. We pray or meditate and try our best to send love out into the world. But there is someone whom we often forget to include on our prayer or meditation list and this person is usually the one who needs love the most and gets the least. Frequently neglected, sometimes downright hated, the person we most need to send love to is
. . .ourselves.
"Oh come on, I love myself and this isn't about me, it's about being kind to others!" Really, do you love yourself? Do you treat yourself kindly? Do you talk to yourself in soothing, comforting tones? Do you offer yourself encouragement when you're feeling down? Really think about it now.
If you answered yes, honestly, to all of those questions than you are ahead of the game and a member of a very fortunate minority. Most of us don't think of ourselves lovingly or kindly. We tend to be our own worst critics. We beat ourselves up for every mistake and credit luck or the efforts of others for our successes. Tune into your own thoughts now and again. You might be surprised to recognize the voice of that mean-spirited bully in your head as your own.
"What did you say that for?" When will you just learn to keep your mouth shut - you always say the wrong thing- you're such an idiot." "Why did you eat that extra slice of pizza?" "It's no wonder you have a gut!" "Why didn't you listen to your Dad, maybe if you had you would have gotten somewhere in life."
Sounds harsh doesn't it? Would you say these things to your mother, your brother, your daughter, your best friend? Probably not, unless you were in the middle of an argument and totally lost control of your anger. What about when your mom, daughter or best friend was feeling really down? Would you say these things to them then, or, would you try to build them up, remind them of their strengths, and offer them some encouragement or a few kind words or a hug?
Until we tune in to our own self-talk we don't usually realize how hard we are on ourselves, and, it's important to remember that until we find a way to treat ourselves with loving-kindness, it's really not possible to treat others that way. Like charity, loving-kindness starts at home. The best way to cultivate an attitude of loving-kindness is to begin with yourself.
So how do we do that?
- Tune In. We all talk to ourselves whether aloud or silently in our heads. Start to become more aware of what your are saying to yourself and how you're saying it.
- Reframe Your Self-Talk. When you catch yourself being mean think about what you might say if your were talking to your child or your best friend instead of to yourself. Imagine it in your head. What would you say to your friend? Now say that to yourself.
- Pray or meditate on the concept of loving-kindness beginning with yourself. Close your eyes and focus on you heart - imagining it a filled with light and love. Now feel that love radiating out from your heart and flowing throughout your entire body, filling and surrounding you with warmth and comfort. Embrace, love and forgive yourself. Talk to yourself kindly, as you would to a friend who needs empathy and encouragement.
- When, and only when, you are able to genuinely feel loving feelings towards yourself, begin to focus on allowing those loving feelings and kindly thoughts to radiate beyond you, flowing outward to the world. As you send loving-kindness out to the world remember that others are doing the same. Open yourself up to receiving the same kind of love and blessings that you are sending out.
Loving-kindness is an attitude, a behavior, a way of being in the world that is well worth cultivating. So what is it that you most need to remember? You need to remember that loving-kindness both begins and ends with you.