Dharma Ocean Answers: What is Loving Kindness?

This article is adapted from the Dharma Ocean podcast of a talk given by Dr. Reggie Ray at the Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.

An important theme in Buddhist meditation is Maitri, or “loving-kindness,” and it’s critical now because we live in a culture and a world where we are trained from childhood to hate who and what we are. Self-hatred is learned behavior—it’s unnatural. And it is all-pervasive. Now, in fact, it is not just a Western thing; it’s global. And the problem is that it undermines our ability to live in any kind of constructive or meaningful way, and when it is projected onto others, it creates hatred between people and endless conflict. Self-hatred is possibly the biggest problem that we have in the world. Maitri is the antidote to self-hatred. Maitri, or loving-kindness, is practiced on a relative level, meaning that there are things that we can do to address this problem of self-hatred. And Maitri is also our ultimate state of being—our own basic nature as loving-kindness.  It is natural, inborn, and entirely spontaneous that we should love the being we are and deeply appreciate all the goodness that is in us.

The practice of self-aggression and self-hatred comes down in families, each with its own version. A child is taught by the parents that in order to live, you have to dig a little dark hole in the ground and crawl into it and stay there. Even if somebody calls you to come out of your dark hole, you have to stay. Otherwise, you won’t survive.

And we come to believe that. We may hear a call from up above in the sunlit world, up in the world of blue sky and meadows and spring breezes and sunshine. A place to dance and sing and revel in just being alive. Tragically, many people think there is no such world, no such place, and no such possibility—but some people, especially spiritual practitioners, people who have aspirations to develop spiritually, hear the call and realize there is something up there. Such a person might think, “I don’t think living in this dank little hole of self-hatred is the ultimate truth of human life. I strongly sense that there’s something else.” And so we practice meditation and we study with spiritual teachers and we begin to work on the problem of self-hatred and self-aggression. But it takes work, and we have to be honest that this is what we’re dealing with—how much we loathe, mistrust, and dislike ourselves and so much about us.

According to Buddhism, the nature of the world and reality is actually loving-kindness. When we do Maitri practices, we’re not constructing something artificial—we are aligning with how things truly are with us. We’re simply opening a gate to something that’s already there. Maitri begins with finding out all of these ways in which we are rejecting and abusive towards ourselves. Self-hatred may originate with our parents and culture, but it becomes something that we ourselves maintain. The original causes and conditions may lie elsewhere, but we sustain it and keep it going. To live in a state of self-aggression and self-hatred, you have to create it, moment by moment. And if you think that I’m wrong about that, someday you can be a meditation instructor and someone can come in with a kind of the whole scenario of how much they hate themselves and how bad they are, and you offer them the invitation and the possibility of letting that go, and they might become really angry with you.

They might be very stubborn and say, “I’m not going to let this go.” They want to hang on to it to death because it’s familiar territory.  This is because the only thing worse than that dank little hole of self-aggression is empty space–the empty, open, uncertain, non-judgemental space of true self-acceptance and self-love.

Many of us would rather beat ourselves up than experience that space, thinking, ”I appreciate what you’re telling me, and your words are very kind, but I’m going to keep beating myself up, and let’s not talk about it anymore.” So the challenge to us is to practice loving-kindness for ourselves. And at a certain point, we will have to let go of our ego. Ultimate loving-kindness is letting go of the self-destructive and self-limiting perspective of the ego.  We have to realize that our own ego is the ultimate perpetrator, the ultimate abuser of ourselves, right now. And we have to let it go.

It does take a leap to do it, but there are practices we can do to lead ourselves in that direction. There are several stages in the unfolding of Maitri, or loving-kindness. This practice of loving-kindness is actually the essence of the Dharma. Within Buddhism, there are three levels of loving-kindness called: Hinayana, Mahayana (or the Great Vehicle), and Vajrayana. Loving-kindness is practiced at all three levels.

The first level, the Hinayana, is loving-kindness towards oneself. Having developed that, then we practice loving-kindness towards others. That’s the Mahayana level. And then, having understood that, we practice loving-kindness towards all of reality. And that’s the Vajrayana. Loving-kindness at the Hinayana level is called, simply, Maitri. Loving-kindness at the Mahayana level is called compassion. And loving-kindness at the Vajrayana level is called passion or desire. This doesn’t mean passion or desire in the sexual sense, but a tremendous appetite for whatever is.

When we aspire to develop loving-kindness, we begin with ourselves. The old Buddhist truth is that in yourself, you actually meet the whole world. In your own suffering, you meet the suffering of all beings. If you really explore your own body and mind, you will find the suffering of all beings throughout all time and space. We begin by cultivating loving-kindness to ourselves, but we are meeting all the suffering that exists. It’s not personal. You, your state of mind, and your state of the body is not a personal thing. It’s actually the universe available in its totality. By working on the Hinayana level, we’re actually opening out.

The beginning of Maitrī is an inspiration—this is the person in the dark hole who hears that there is a world out there in the sunshine and light and spring breezes and flowers and meadows, and has enough trust in their inspiration to take a chance and look. Every person that exists has and feels inspiration, but not many act on it. Most people distrust their inspiration. Self-aggression even starts at the level of inspiration—you meet people who have inspired, but their cynicism and despair comes in and crushes their own inspiration, and they settle for finding a good-paying job, maybe getting into a career that they hate, and maybe marrying somebody because they think this person won’t be too difficult. And so it goes on through life. They bring up their children in a way so the children do what they think they should. And their own inspiration has been crushed by cynicism and ambition, and despair. The first stage of Maitrī is to trust your own inspiration.

Anyone that enters into the practice of meditation has entered Maitri because you wouldn’t be there and doing it if you hadn’t taken that initial step. In some sense, that Maitrī is the most important Maitri. Because once you poke your head out of that hole and see for yourself, there is a blue sky, nobody can stop you. You may be put off, but you will never forget.

The second level of Maitrī is a simplification, meaning that you remove extraneous activities from your life so you can see what’s going on. You begin to see reality. And then the great simplification is to just sit and breathe. That’s all we do.

And then the third level is known as “sitting with one’s shit”—we begin to realize how aggressive and crazy we are, and how filled with uncontrollable impulses and emotional upheavals we are. We’re irritated; we hate everybody around us. Then we suddenly love everybody around us. Then somebody does something mean and we are back to the irritation and anger.  It just goes on and on all day long. That’s the third level of Maitri, and the reason this is Maitri is because we’re beginning to get a sense of what is actually going on with us. We’re finding out where we are constantly turning against everything, and, eventually, it bubbles over into neediness, ignorance, or aggression towards others and toward the environment.

This is a huge opening and unleashing of our actual condition. The thing about that craziness is, when it can speak, it isn’t harmful. When it can express itself, it doesn’t become harmful. It’s like somebody who’s very upset, and there’s some problem between you and this person. Maybe it’s at work, and every time you see them, there are paranoid, defensive glances on both sides. Then one day, you think, “Maybe I should actually talk to this person.” And you sit down, and you talk to them, and you hear them out, and they hear you out. And then it’s fine. It’s just that the communication wasn’t there.

In a similar manner, when we actually sit down and all of our confusion and distress can come to the surface, it begins to dissipate and becomes quite open. Even though a lot of times we’re really tied up with it, there are other times when actually space is really there, and there’s a feeling that that’s not the only thing that there is.

The fourth level of Maitrī is a very important one, and that is “don’t judge anything.” This is very subtle teaching. It means to experience oneself without coming to any definite conclusions whatsoever about who or what or why you are, or who they are, what they are, why they are. Simply sit and let it happen. Don’t judge. The first three levels kind of take care of themselves. First, inspiration; you come here.  Second, we simplify; you follow the forms. Third, you sit with your shit because there’s no choice. But the fourth one is actually the tricky one, which is don’t judge.

Don’t judge doesn’t only mean don’t beat yourself up; it means don’t even come to a conclusion about it. This is the ultimate transmission of Buddhism; don’t judge. It doesn’t mean that you don’t discriminate. For example, sticking to the schedule is helpful. Avoiding the schedule is harmful. Eating too much food is harmful, eating the right amount of food is helpful. That’s discrimination—simply seeing how things work. Judging is when you start attaching labels to what is going on and whether it’s good or bad. Most of what comes up we judge as bad, and that’s where the aggression comes in.

It’s like everything that arrives at our doorstep is a newborn baby. Some newborn babies are peaceful; others are not.  But you take an unconditional attitude of love toward that baby.

If you’ve been a parent, you know that the natural thing is even if the baby keeps you up all night or is sick or in distress, you love that baby unconditionally. And that is the radical practice of non-judgment. Every state of mind, emotion, thought, memory or image is a newborn baby, and our practice is to love it without conditions. In Vajrayana or Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, this cherishing is called “sacred outlook.” We have no business judging what arrives. We didn’t produce it. It came from another place, and it’s here for a reason. And we have no business judging it, rejecting it, and trying to push it away.

About Dharma Ocean

Dharma Ocean is a non-profit global educational foundation that focuses on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, by teaching them the importance of embodiment in both meditation and their daily lives as taught in the “practicing lineage” of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The foundation was established in 2005 by scholar, author, and teacher Dr. Reggie Ray, and is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado.

Photo by Third Serving

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