Broken relationships are a fact of life. We've all experienced them at one time or another.
Mending those relationships (or at least letting go of the negative feelings associated with them) is not as common—because it's not easy to do. One reason it's so hard is because we do not have cultural practices laid out for us to help us do this work.
There is a Buddhist practice known as metta meditation, which is often translated as loving-kindness meditation, that is a pathway for this kind of mending and healing that few in the West are familiar with or make use of. It's designed to evoke a sense of loving-kindness for all people in our lives by nurturing these feelings for those dearest to us and gradually moving outward to those we count as enemies.
The practice involves repeating the following wishes beginning first with ourselves then others, working our way from those we have loving feelings toward, to those for whom our feelings may be neutral (acquaintances and strangers), to those whom we view as our enemies.
In each case, we hold the person clearly in our mind's eye and repeat the following (or a variation of these—I've seen many options):
May I/you/they/we all be well or healthy;May I/you/they/we all be happy;May I/you/they/we all be free from suffering;May I/you they/we all be free from danger;May I/you/they/we all live with ease.
While I don't use this practice as often as I'd like to, I have found it to be a very powerful and helpful one. But I've noticed two unusual things about it over the time I have used it.
First, I don't always find that starting with myself is the easiest way to begin. It seems like wishing myself well in these ways would be starting with the person for whom these wishes would come most naturally (hence the practice of starting with oneself), but it doesn't always work that way for me.
When I am experiencing a lot of self-blame or self-criticism for some reason, I find that starting with trying to wish such good things for myself is incredibly triggering because I don't believe that I deserve it. In those times, starting with people for whom I have strong positive feelings in the moment is a better starting point. Making those wishes for myself often comes closer in ease to wishing them for my enemies!.
The other unusual thing I've noticed is that the effect that this has on me varies greatly depending on who I am focused on. When I'm focusing on my enemies (or even just people who I have some difficulty getting along with), this can help soften my anger and resentment, eventually making it easier to let go of hard feelings.
This is what I would expect from such an exercise—and one of the great benefits of engaging in it. (Although I would still note that forgiving someone does not necessarily mean choosing to reconcile. I can let go of my hard feelings while still recognizing that it would not be healthy for me to be in relationship with that person for whatever reason.)
When it comes to those that I'm feeling closest to, however, it actually allows me to hold the other person with slightly more detachment. On the surface, this sounds counter-intuitive because it seems like a bad thing. But given my co-dependent tendencies, being able to detach enough to see my loved ones as whole and complete in and of themselves (and therefore not my responsibility to manage) is a very positive step.
It is a helpful reminder to me that love does not equal control and that caring for someone does not make them my responsibility. Loving someone actually means supporting them in their freedom to be themselves.
Metta meditation is a simple, but powerful, practice that has the potential to be life-changing. I would benefit from taking the time to engage in this more often, but it too often feels easier to skip the discomfort involved with shifting my feelings toward others.
If I want to be the change I wish to see in the world, however—and I do!—then taking the time and effort to move toward greater loving-kindness and greater peace in my relationships needs to be a priority.
Have you ever tried this practice? If so, what is your experience with it?
(For anyone who is interested in learning more about this practice, Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness is a great resource.)
During this season when so many worldwide are feeling the anxiety, stress, and difficulties of dealing with the immense impact that this pandemic is creating, it's an especially good time to use this practice of loving-kindness for ourselves and others to create positive change in our own areas of influence.
I plan to dedicate a little time each day for the foreseeable future to spend time with this metta meditation. Will you try it with me?
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