What’s Lovingkindness got to do with it?

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method that rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Society is full of violence and hatred, which accumulates in the collective consciousness. If in our daily lives we do not know now to abstain from damaging materials and attitudes, the seeds of violence, hatred and suffering in us will continue to be watered.” Thich Nhat Hanh

As I write, a meeting of many of the world’s leaders of industrialized countries (the G-20) has wound down in my hometown of Toronto, Canada.  It was not without its challenges.  As a security measure, wire fencing surrounded the core of the downtown area where the leaders were to meet and movement in the downtown area was severely restricted.  Police were given special powers to search and detain citizens.  The cost of security alone for the event was around a billion dollars.  Given the history of past events, it was known that a hard-core element of the protest movement was dedicated to violent confrontation. The stage was set; conflict was inevitable.  Sadly, the scenario played out exactly as imagined:  Black-clad riot police clashed with protestors.  Black-clad protestors threw bricks through shop windows and torched police cars.  Hundreds were arrested.  Lost in the aftermath of accusations, recriminations and justifications are the reasons behind the meetings, the legitimate protests, and a sense that the city itself had been violated.  Clouds of distrust, anger and enmity blanketed all.

Is it possible to imagine an alternative world where this kind of conflict is seen as a needless, unnecessary and avoidable consequence of dysfunctional thinking?   If so, where do we plant the seeds for this quiet revolution? 

The Buddha condemned not only the physical manifestation of violence, but, in particular, he asked us to be mindful of the thoughts that give rise to violence:  anger, hatred, greed and envy. “What we think, we become”, he said.   In the Dhammapada, the Buddha said:  “Hatred cannot coexist with lovingkindness, and dissipates if supplanted with thoughts based on lovingkindness.”

Herein lies the secret to how we can begin to plant the seeds of compassion, joy and equanimity in ourselves and cultivate the garden of non-violence.

One of the best ways to cultivate this positive mindscape is through the practice of lovingkindness meditation. Lovingkindness meditation helps us to deal with anger, hostility and ill will directed at ourselves and at others.  It helps us to develop a mind/heart frame that is compassionate, joyful and balanced.  Love is the gateway to forgiveness, an antidote to hatred and the root of non-violence.  Positive thoughts give way to positive actions.

 Here is a link to the practice of Metta Bhavana, the Cultivation of Lovingkindness.  http://www.buddhanet.net/metta_b.htm. In brief:

One may practice lovingkindness meditation in any position: sitting, standing, walking or lying.  Find a quiet place, a comfortable position and dedicate ten to twenty minutes to your practice. 

After choosing the object of the meditation (you, friend, enemy, etc.) you can recite the following, concentrating on an image of the person:

May he/she be free from hatred
May he/she be free from suffering
May he/she be happy
May he/she be at peace

There are a number of distinct classes of people to whom we can direct our lovingkindness (metta).  We develop metta progressively at all levels of concentration and direct it to people in the following order:

1. Ourselves
2. Friend or loved one
3. Neutral person
4. Enemy
5. All sentient beings

It is probably easiest to begin with the neutral person – someone who elicits no particularly intimate or loving feelings, a work colleague perhaps or a neighbour or acquaintance.  Although a loving person easily engenders lovingkindness, our thoughts may be complex and lead us to discursive thinking and intense feeling that will detract from our meditation.  It is easier to begin with a neutral person, a friend, someone we admire and who probably possesses the characteristics of love and relatedness we associate with lovingkindness.

People we dislike or whom we consider to be our enemies are very difficult objects of our love and affection.  But we are not, in any case, condoning objectionable behaviour.  We are only focusing our wishes for that person to be free from suffering, free from hatred, to be happy and at peace.

We should not forget ourselves in this practice.  We need to make peace with ourselves, first and foremost; to let go of any anger, hurt or self-hatred we may harbour.  We need to regard ourselves as equally worthy of forgiveness, attention and love. Finally, we extend our meditation to all sentient beings, understanding that all beings are deserving of freedom from suffering, true happiness, peace and abiding love.

The key to the practice of lovingkindness meditation is the extension of our blessing from those who are easy for us to love, to those whom we find most difficult.  The Buddha believed we could practice lovingkindness in the most difficult of conditions:  “Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.”   Where better to begin our transformation of the world then, than with our thoughts our feelings, our attitudes and beliefs toward those whom we dislike or once considered to be our enemies.

Sharon Salzberg has written a lovely little book called “Lovingkindness – The Revolutionary Heart of Happiness“.  She writes:  “A mind filled with love can be likened to the sky with a variety of clouds moving through it – some light and fluffy, others ominous and threatening.  No matter what the situation, the sky is not affected by the clouds.  It is free.”

If the question is, how can we prevent the kind of stereotypical violence that erupted in my city this past weekend, I can’t help but believe that the cultivation of lovingkindness is part of the answer.  If, behind the barricades and underneath the body armour lives the heart/mind of lovingkindness, then hatred and violence cannot co-exist with compassion and love.