Practice: Love

One of the most precious gift we have been given is our ability to love. Our love may encompass the big and small, our love may encompass the beautiful and ugly, our love may encompass ourselves and everything around us. Think about the many layers of your love; the romantic love for someone special, the love for something you like to do, the love for your family, the universal love which drives your desire to help those in need and protect everything in creation from harm.

Love is a central tenant of many world religions. In Christianity both the love of worshippers for God and Jesus as well as the love of God and Jesus for worshippers are often repeated themes. Likewise worshippers are encouraged to love one another and others:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

In Buddhism love or loving-kindness is known as one of the four immeasurable minds. It is in essence the strong wish that all sentient beings be well and happy:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness

While we should practice our ability to feel this kind of love in every action and thought, the following practice may help us to become more mindful of our ability to love and strengthen it:

  1. Take five deep breaths
  2. Think of the love you feel for someone close to you, such as your partner, parents, pets, children or friends.
  3. Think of someone who was wronged you – do you have the capacity to feel love for them?
  4. Think of yourself, with all your faults and shortcomings. Can you find love for yourself?
  5. Think of all of humankind, every single living soul. Can you find love for each and every one?
  6. Think of all sentient beings. Cows grooming their calves; lion brothers fighting for their territory; elephants wondering together. Can you find love for each and every one?
  7. Think of existence as a whole; every particle in the universe, every field and power, seemingly endless time itself. Can you find love for this vessel in which we exist?

Love just like gratitude and forgiveness is a powerful, deep emotion. We have a natural ability to love and using this ability may make us stronger and wiser. Unfortunately in times when we are weak, it is often difficult to find love, and much easier to find hatred and self-pity. If we find ourselves unable to love easily, we may follow some of the other practices to help us be stronger and unlock our ability to love unconditionally again.

Image credit: Dan Sudermann

Practices for Enlightenment

I believe we all have moments in which we become the best versions of ourselves; moments in which we are ever so slightly closer to true and deep enlightenment.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we digress from whatever insights we have gained easily. For instance, we might realise that binge watching television brings little happiness into our lives but comes with significant costs such as less time to spent with family and friends or for our health. We might then decide to spent less time watching television and more time on more meaningful endeavours.

This decision alone, however, is not sufficient for the outcome we decide upon to manifest. Often, we will try for a few days but then the hustle and bustle of life engulfs us and we quickly forget what we have set out to do.

I believe that to attain wisdom and foster goodness in our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important to us. So that, once we have decided to be good and happy, we can stand a chance against the demands of everyday life. One of the ways to do that is by following a set of practices: sequences of steps we do regularly and with a spiritual purpose.

This has motivated me to design the following simple practices, which may help in achieving a more balanced, meaningful and enlightened life:

I believe these practices can enable us to be stronger and wiser. Of course, we need to find a way to embed them into our lives in a regular manner, for instance every morning or every evening; since a practice can only unfold its power when practised repeatedly.

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A Discussion of Forgiveness

I’ve already mentioned that I believe that gratitude and forgiveness are emotions which I believe we should foster within ourselves. Today I want to explore in a little bit further detail what makes up forgiveness and why it is such a powerful force to bring good to ourselves and the world.

What is Forgiveness

Forgiveness cannot exist by itself. It must always be preceded by anger or disappointment. If there was no anger or disappointment, there would be no need for forgiveness. There is, however, plenty of need for forgiveness and that is because most of us are prone to develop feelings of anger or disappointment easily.

Once anger or disappointment have risen within us, be it directed at ourselves, others or the world in general, forgiveness offers a good and wholesome resolution to these emerging emotions. Alternatively, understanding may also serve as a possible resolution; but generally it is not as emotionally powerful as forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a conscious process which consists of three phases. First, we acknowledge that there is something which is lacking; the something which caused our anger and disappointment in the first place. Second, we decide that, although the something is lacking, we accept it as it is. Third, we find within us love for the something.

This brings us to the crucial insight that without love, forgiveness is impossible. Likewise, without forgiveness, love is very difficult since love is tender and especially so if it is strong. Love can easily be bruised by imperfections in its object; forgiveness cures these and keeps love strong and eternal.

The Path to Forgiveness

But how can you love what you hate? How can you love what angers and disappoints you? You can if you find strong and pure love within you. Unfortunately, there is no path to love, if you do not find the ability to love two things: beauty and goodness.

Beauty is a lyrical quality which you can only perceive as the echoes of your own deep feelings. If you see or experience something which is beautiful, you can feel it in your heart, you can feel with your whole body. You cannot decide to find something beautiful or not; the emergence of beauty is automatic and natural.

Goodness is closely related to beauty since we usually find good what we find beautiful and vice averse. Goodness, however, can cast a wider net and help us shift the focus away from the physical aspects of beauty. As with beauty, we can feel if something is good and right or not. We feel if an action we do is good or evil. We are quick to judge if the actions of others are good or evil. We can easily determine if a situation or arrangement in the world fosters good or evil.  

If we can learn to love the abstract concepts of beauty and goodness, we can proceed to direct this love to three particular things which will aid us in fostering goodness.

First, you need to find love for yourself. Maybe you think that you are a horrible person and not worthy of anybodies love. Maybe you have had mean thoughts or have done evil things. But no matter what you have become or what you have done, you have a pure and wholesome core. There is beauty and goodness within you – that is how you were born -, and when it is currently not expressed, you have the potential for beauty and goodness and are deserving to be loved by yourself and other. As for your shortcomings, that is what forgiveness is for.

The second thing you need to find love for is other sentient beings. If you look at another human being or an animal, you can see within them the same basic emotions and desires you have within you. Just like you, they carry the potential for beauty and goodness and are worthy of your love.

The last thing you need to find love for is the world: creation as a whole, the wheels of fate which shape your life. Looking at the world how it is with open eyes shows it to be cruel and pointless. Why is there so much suffering? Why is our life so short and impermanent – with no indication there will be anything left of us but dust once our heart stops beating? However, the world has created you, and you carry beauty and goodness. The world has created other sentient beings, and they carry beauty and goodness. And the world itself is beautiful if you open your senses.

Forgiveness and love are like two sides of an arch. They each enable each other, since without forgiveness it is so difficult to love, and without love, it is impossible to forgive. Embrace love and embrace forgiveness. There is nothing to lose and your life can only be all the richer for it.

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The Four Immeasurable Minds

I have long had an interest to learn more about Buddhism. Actually I bought myself a book on Buddhism many years ago while I was visiting Thailand. This book did not really grasp my attention and I always wanted to explore this topic further.

So I recently obtained a collection of books on Buddhism. Unfortunately many of the books were a bit strange and difficult to follow. For instance, I read part of the book The Life of Shabkar and it struck me as a bit of an odd tale. I appreciated its authenticity and that the translation tried to capture the language used in the original text; but I just found it too difficult to follow; with too little true philosophical or spiritual discussions and too much self praise.

The book I found the most useful out of my initial collection turned out to be The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh. The first thing I learned from this book is that Buddhists seem to have been early adopters of listicles. There is, of course, the noble eight-fold path but there are plenty of the ten of this, the four of that, or even the 65 of something else.

One of these collections particularly resonated with me: what is called by Thich Nhat Hanh (other authors use different names of this) the Four Immeasurable Minds (see Brahmavihara). The basic idea is that if we nourish these minds within us, we grow better and more wise. In the words used in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, if you practice the Four Immeasurable Minds “they will grow in you every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier, and everyone around you will become happier, also.”.

The four minds are the following.

Joy

Joy is the simple feeling of pleasure we may derive from many sources. Buddhists though do not approve of any form of joy. The joy should be wholesome and sustainable. For instance, it cannot be denied that those who drink plenty of alcohol in company usually are in for a good time; however, this feeling of joy is marked as being hollow since it is not in alignment with deeper values. Notwithstanding these limitations, there are plenty of other things one may derive joy from. May it be the beauty of nature or simply the company of others.

Compassion

We have a great natural capacity for compassion. Generally if we see others in pain or discomfort, their pain is mirrored within ourselves as an unpleasant feeling, which fuels our desire to help those in need. While researching about the Four Immeasurable minds, I read somewhere that some Buddhist practitioners are encouraged to imagine a woman without arms who cannot save a drowning infant as a way to connect with their capacity to feel compassion. To me, this does not seem particularly helpful. I think it is better to try to connect with our ability to feel compassion in every day life. People do not need to be in urgent need to be worthy to be the object of our compassion. Everyone deserves it, since no one can escape hardship and suffering entirely in their lives.

Love

Love is an easy word to say and and easy concept to understand; it is however, in my view, a word which is difficult to describe. Without defining exactly what we mean by love, it is easy for us to appreciate that love is a strong force which can guide us through our struggles of acting for the benefit of others and ourselves. Some Western Buddhists like to avoid the term love and opt for ‘loving-kindness’ instead. That is to emphasise that this love does not solely mean the kind of romantic love that usually comes to our mind when we hear the word love and start thinking of Valentine’s day. But I think, especially in a religious/philosophical context, we can easily grasp that love is a wider concept here; which may include the love for God, the love for the world, love for ourselves and love for all of those around us.

Equanimity

Buddhism is very concerned with relieving us of our suffering. A lot of our suffering is self inflicted by the constant turmoil of our emotions. Thus it makes sense to aim for a calm and collected mind. If we achieve equanimity within ourselves, we become stronger and more receptive of the good and wholesome emotions which live within us.

As I’ve said above, the idea behind the Four Immeasurable Minds is that we should embrace these minds and strengthen them. As mentioned above, when devising particular exercises for this, especially if they involve drowning infants, might not be the best course of action. I think it is best to try to weave these minds into our everyday actions and thinking; that is where their potential can truly be unleashed.

Ending with another quote from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

[A] group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

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