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)

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My Meditation Journey

Alternative title: An honest, in-depth review of the Waking Up App 

Growing up, I watched my mom’s interest in Buddhism develop from that of a casual student to a serious practitioner. From the time I was in middle school, books by the Dalai Lama, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and other Buddhist authors began lining our family’s bookshelves. When I went on long-winded rants as a young teenager, she would always tell me that I thought too much and explained the Buddhist principles she was learning at the time — the ego was an illusion, suffering was a part of life primarily generated by the ego, karma was like a bank account that you could accumulate over lifetimes. Over the years, her metaphors became more and more sophisticated, my favorite being this one: Consciousness is similar to a deep lake, and if there are ripples or disturbances on the surface of the lake, the bottom remains peaceful.

My well-meaning mother would always advise me to meditate, but as a distracted and angsty teenager with a laptop, sitting cross-legged and staring at a wall for even five minutes sounded like a hellish idea, and the benefits were never really clear to me. Wouldn’t I feel just as rejuvenated by taking a nap? All of her advice made sense in a hazy way, but I never took them seriously enough to put into practice until recently.

After maturing a bit more on my own, I’m starting to think that previously non-religious adults generally don’t become interested in religion or spirituality until their mental health hits the fan. If everything’s going great in your life and you’re a naturally positive person, there’s little reason to examine the voice in your head and begin distancing yourself from it. However, if you’re so stressed that your mind reacts to minor, everyday problems as if they are major emergencies, you may become desperate to find anything that soothes your neuroticism, even for a little bit. I’m not saying that every person who experiences mental illness becomes religious or spiritual, but for some of those who decide to make a change in that direction, suffering seems to play a significant role.

In my case, the stresses of college and work brought me to meditation. As I mentioned in a previous post, reading Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier was the first time the thought “Hey, I should really start meditating” went through my mind. My mother told me about monks going on years-long meditation retreats and how some of them achieved “enlightenment,” but I always figured that happened to special Buddhists who could devote their entire lives to a monastery. Learning that a “flow state” (where one can clearly see the nature of the mind and transcend it) could be accessed by anyone who put a week or two into an intensive meditation retreat changed my entire perspective on meditation. Even if I couldn’t dive in to the deep end of a 10-day retreat like Dan, he took the time to describe the immediate benefits of meditating a few minutes each day. He wrote that he was still distracted by thoughts most of the time, but meditation gave him the ability and space to observe his thoughts, rather than being completely identified with them.

This was all incredibly appealing. Still, just reading the book was not enough for me to start practicing. If I had known that Dan had a meditation app (also titled 10% Happier), maybe I would have tried it out and started meditating earlier.

Continue reading “My Meditation Journey”