Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

I picked up this book because I saw metta (or lovingkindness) meditation as a growth area of mine. I had been working on mindfulness meditation, which involves observing everything that arises (thoughts, moods, sounds, sensations in the body, anything that arises in consciousness). Although I’d done a bit of metta meditation and experienced the pleasant “expansive mind” that tends to happen after sending well-wishes to people, essentially praying for their good health and happiness, I wanted to learn the practice of metta in more detail. This book is the classic on metta meditation for English readers, and it’s easy to see why. Salzberg refers to Buddhists texts when outlining the benefits of metta, uses relevant anecdotes from her decades of meditation experience, and provides plenty of great meditation exercises for the reader to integrate into their practice. She also does an amazing job at tackling the different negative thinking patterns that can hinder people from developing true lovingkindness.

If you are interested in Buddhism or meditation, I could not recommend this book enough. I think this passage really captures the care of Salzberg’s writing. Here, she explains why it is beneficial to cultivate “skillful” states of mind:

“The integrity we develop along a spiritual path comes from being able to distinguish for ourselves the habits and influences in the mind which are skillful and lead to love and awareness, from those which are unskillful and reinforce our false sense of separation . . . Abandoning unskillful states that cause suffering is not something we do out of fear or of contempt from those states, or out of contempt for ourselves for having those states arise in the mind. Abandoning the unskillful states isn’t accomplished by angrily shoving or pushing away our habits of separation. Rather it comes as we learn to truly love ourselves and all beings, so that love provides the light by which we bear witness to those burdens, watching them simply fall away.”

The book outlines four Buddhist virtues, brahma-viharas (heavenly home in Pali):

  • Metta (lovingkindness)
  • Karuna (compassion)
  • Mudita (sympathetic joy)
  • Upekkha (equanimity)

Metta (love)

Salzberg writes, “Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world. Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves. We can open to everything with the healing force of love. When we feel love, our mind is expansive and open enough to include the entirety of life in full awareness, both its pleasures and its pains. We feel neither betrayed by pain nor overcome by it, and thus we can contact that which is undamaged within us regardless of the situation . . . We do not need to fear anything. We are whole: our deepest happiness is intrinsic to the nature of our minds, and it is not damaged through uncertainty and change” (28). She elaborates on the nature of our truest possible happiness on a previous page, which “is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary, and knowing ourselves to be always at home” (9).

One of the main barriers to realizing the truth of metta is our fundamental fear of pain. Much of our lives is spent seeking pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs. As a result of this avoidance, “our vision becomes very narrow when we need things to be a certain way and cannot accept things the way they actually are. Denial functions almost as a kind of narcotic, so that vital parts of our lives end up missing. It is fear of pain that provokes and sustains this splitting off of parts of ourselves. To avoid feeling pain, we shut out crucial portions of awareness, even though this closing off, this internal separation, is deadening.” There is this sense that pain is an indicator of something gone wrong, which is not necessarily the case. The author writes of the physical pains she encountered while meditating for long periods: “Every time [pain arose], I would blame myself for the change: “What did I do wrong to make my nice feelings go away?” But they did not go away because I had done anything wrong; they went away simply because everything changes. There is no way we can stop this flow of change and successfully cling to pleasant experience” (67). In the end, these experiences of pain are temporary, just like everything else.

Fear of social exclusion is a unique type of pain that can cause us to sacrifice parts of ourselves in particular ways. “Sometimes as as members of a group, we may sacrifice the truth in order to secure our identity, or preserve a sense of belonging. Anything that threatens this gives rise to fear and anxiety, so we deny, we cut off our feelings. The end result of this pattern is dehumanization. We become split from our own lives and feel great distance from other living beings as well. As we lose touch with our inner life, we become dependent on the shifting winds of external change for a sense of who we are, what we care about, and what we value. The fear of pain that we tried to escape becomes, in fact, our constant companion.” In the end, the only way to be truly liberated from this cycle of avoidance and increased suffering is to embrace metta (and equanimity, covered further down the line), which allows us to accept things as they already are.


Karuna (compassion)

“Can you imagine a mind state in which there is no bitter, condemning judgment of oneself or of others? When we see only suffering and the end of suffering, then we feel compassion.” I love how distilled this definition of compassion is; people can tend to confuse it for empathy, but the Buddhist conception of it is really much more simple than feeling bad whenever others feel bad. Noticing suffering is ultimately what motivates us to respond to pain, while wisdom guides the skillfulness of the response, telling us when and how to respond.


Mudita (sympathetic joy)

“As mudita grows, we see that the happiness of others is our happiness . . . The happiness of another, even an “enemy’s” happiness, is not going to take from us in any way. In truth, our happiness and that of others are inseparable.” (169)


 Upekkha (equanimity)

Equanimity is “a spacious stillness of the mind, a radiant calm that allows us to be present fully with all the different changing experiences that constitute our world and our lives.” (177) It is needed to balance out the other three brahma viharas because it has “all of the warmth and love of the previous three states, but it also has balance, wisdom, and the understanding that things are as they are, and that we cannot ultimately control someone else’s happiness and unhappiness . . . We choose to open our hearts and to offer as much love, compassion, and rejoicing as we possibly can, and we also let go of results.”

We can never control how others perceive our actions, and the sense that we somehow can is an illusion. “That is just how it is: we act, hopefully out of the best intentions we can find within us, and at times we receive praise, and at times we receive blame . . . Rather than trying to control what can never be controlled, we can find a sense of security in being able to meet what is actually happening.”


Foundation for the brahma-viharas: Generosity and Morality

The benefits of generosity are as follows: “In that one instant of giving we also abandon the three kilesas, the root tormentors of our hearts. We let go of desire, grasping. We abandon ill will or aversion, a state that creates separateness, distance, withdrawal, a sense of not being at one with another. And we abandon delusion, because when we perform a wholesome or skillful action like giving, we understand that what we do in our lives, the choices we make, the values we hold, all of these things count for something.”

Generosity ultimately provides a balance between over-attachment to the material world, and nihilism, or the sense that nothing we do really matters. For this reason, it is “primary among the values of the Middle Way. If we rest in the Middle Way, then our actions will reflect an understanding of both the consequential nature of our behavior and the dream-like nature of our lives.”

After reading this book, I felt much like I had attended an intensive therapy session. By bringing up all of the possible barriers to lovingkindness, Salzberg led me to diagnose all of the different ways that my mindset (especially my fear of pain) was holding me back and ultimately increasing the amount of suffering I experienced day-to-day. I now find it easier to forgive myself and others, and definitely want to continue cultivating generosity. I’m committed to letting go of “unskillful” patterns of thinking and look forward to continuing to try the meditations in the book.



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