I remember one time, not long after I’d first learned to meditate, I was being guided through the lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice. And the instructor asked us to turn our attention to our hearts, to find the love there, and then to radiate that love to all beings.
Uh, oh! There was no love to be found in my heart! “Why is there no love in my heart?” I wondered “Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I’m a horrible person. I guess I must be,” I concluded!
Thus began a 20-minute spiral into despair and self-loathing. Probably not what the meditation instructor had in mind.
A few weeks later a friend described exactly the same thing happening to him. I’ve since heard the same story from others.
The central problem here is that we’re looking for the wrong thing, or at least we’re looking for it in the wrong place. We’re looking for some kind of feeling down there, in the body — in the heart, often, where we tend to experience feelings connected with love.
But we should be looking with love, not for love.
Kindness (Love) Is About How We Relate
In lovingkindness practice we’re trying to develop kindness. (You can call it “love” if you want. I’ll sometimes use “love” and sometimes say “kindness.”)
Kindness is an attitude. It’s a way of relating in which we value others’ well-being. You could say it’s a way of regarding or looking — looking with respect, cherishing, and support.
When we relate, regard, or look with kindness, pleasant, warm feelings arise. But those feelings are not themselves kindness. They’re physiological sensations. They’re feelings. They’re nice feelings, but they’re just feelings. They can be important because they help us to value kindness but they’re not kindness.
But they arise because we’re looking or relating with kindness. If we try to look for those feelings without first relating or looking with kindness (again, call it love if you want) we’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s possible we’ll find those pleasant feelings, but only if we’re relating with kindness already. Or if we’re on the verge of doing so.
Kindness or love (in the sense I’m using those words) are not simply feelings. They’re active desires (or volitions): we desire the well-being of another, for example. We want them to feel happy and at ease, which is why we treat them with kindness and respect, and don’t say hurtful things to them.
Recall Looking With Loving Eyes
When we’re cultivating lovingkindness, what’s much more effective is to connect with the experience of looking with love: of having kind eyes. We can do this by remembering what it’s like to look with love or kindness.
It doesn’t matter what the memory is of, as long as it’s a loving memory. It can be a memory of looking at a child, or a pet, or a lover. Take your pick,
When you recall something like that, you’ll notice that your eyes become permeated with the qualities of love: cherishing, valuing, warmth, softness, openness, gentleness, caring, and so on.
Actually it’s not just your eyes that become filled with those qualities, but your mind. And when you turn your mind toward an awareness of your own being, those qualities become directed toward yourself. You find you’re regarding yourself with warmth, care, cherishing, and so on. Turn your mind toward another person, and those qualities (which are permeating your mind) become directed toward that person.
Looking With Love Rather Than For Love
When we’re doing lovingkindness practice in this way we don’t need to look for love “down there” in the heart. We’re already looking with love from “up here.”
And now, if we bring our awareness to the heart, we may well find that there are warm feelings there too. And that’s great.
Skip the whole part about connecting with kindness, and you’re liable to find little or nothing going on, heart-wise.
If you find that the “loving eyes” thing isn’t working for you, it may well be because you’re unconsciously doing something that’s blocking kindness from arising.
Unblocking Our Love
So you can gently inquire: What could I do, right now, to show a little more kindness?
Maybe that means relaxing physically. Maybe it means smiling. Maybe it means relaxing mentally, so that we’re not trying too hard, not judging ourselves for “not being good enough.” Maybe it means allowing ourselves to be at ease and to be playful.
Let go of those barriers to love, and you’ll naturally become kinder.
In lovingkindness practice, it’s often not a very good idea to go looking for feelings of love in the heart. Start by recalling what it feels like in and around the eyes when you look with love. Then when you turn your attention elsewhere, those feelings are likely to follow, because it’s your attention itself that’s permeated with kindness.
If those feelings in and around the eyes don’t arise, or if they do but they vanish when you turn your attention toward yourself, gently ask yourself what you can do, right here, in this moment to be kinder. Let your attitude soften, and you’ll find you’ve become kinder. And that’s what the practice is about.
Love is not what we look for. It’s what we look with.