Within our series #heartwise, we are exploring foundations of (Buddhist) meditation. One aspect of Buddhist practice, which also appeals to many non-Buddhists, is the emphasis on cultivating the quality of an open heart. Two of the main meditations or practices used for this are “Love” (or “Loving Kindness”) – the wish for happiness and well-being for ourselves and others – and “Compassion” which focuses on the wish for ourselves and others to be free from suffering. While this can sound a bit lovey-dovey for some, in this context ‘love’ has a broader meaning than it might have in our everyday understanding. These meditations can be a resource for connecting with others and with a deeper level of meaning and purpose in our lives.
We could explore this topic with two wonderful people who gained quite some expertise in teaching on compassion over the last few decades: Christine Warmuth and Andrew Warr. Through their teaching experience, they gained a good insight into common understandings and misunderstandings of compassion. Have a read of our conversation below for some provoking and even exciting ideas.
The interview was led by Lara Löhr.
Wisdom for Society: Within Buddhist jargon one talks about ‘the practice of compassion’. What are we actually referring to when we say ‘practicing’?
Andrew: Basically, compassion is a response to suffering. When we know someone who is going through a hard time, or maybe we see something on television or read about somebody having difficulties, then compassion is a response we might have where we care about it. We don’t want the person to suffer, we want to help. That is a compassionate response.
Now talking about ‘practice.’ Practice is a way of consciously cultivating compassion, in a structured way. We set aside time for it, we sit quietly, we reflect on people, maybe we bring to mind how they have some difficulties. Then, we are consciously wishing them to be free of that.
Often, we start with one person and that person is ourselves. We might come to an increasing recognition that we need to be compassionate with ourselves. It’s so easy to be critical of ourselves, to think of our faults all the time. It’s difficult to be happy when we do that. So, there is a lot of virtue in extending love or good-heartedness to ourselves. It’s developing more healthy ways to be with ourselves, to be our own good friend. So that makes it a practice. We are cultivating good hearted wishes for happiness, wellbeing, freedom from suffering for everyone.
Christine: In Buddhism, we say that “the mind is the universal ordering principle”. So, in Buddhism we learn how the mind functions, how we can use it and how it is a powerful source. So, we can use this mind – when we understand it – to train our capacity of love and our understanding of loving kindness. I find that very inspiring because you can be in charge of how you feel and how you act. It gives you responsibility, but it also gives you some power as well in a positive way. There are different ways to meditate. Some are sitting still; some are watching your breath. And in loving kindness we use our mind actively to expand our heart and our understanding. I sometimes find that very challenging, because sometimes we might come across aspects of ourselves which are not easy to embrace, but at the same time it’s a very joyful journey.
WfS: We might associate love mostly with the context of romantic love or the love between parents and children, and maybe in friendships we experience love. Is that what we are referring to in the ‘exercise’ of compassion practice?
Christine: The other day I read a quote that I found very inspiring. It said “If people can be taught to hate they can also be taught to love.” It’s from Nelson Mandela. And I thought “wow”. This really takes it away from this love that spontaneously arises because you are ‘in love’ with someone or love you have for someone because they are part of your family. It takes it really out of this very personal context, and it brings it to something we can learn. Imagine you would go to school and there would be a subject: learning to love.
Andrew: When we look at practices of compassion we normally think of love or loving kindness as the foundation of compassion. So even before we start focusing on the suffering of others, it’s basically just connecting with a basic friendliness toward ourselves and others. When we talk about love in romantic relationships there is love too, and that love might be fantastic, I don’t want to put it down. But often the love in romantic relationships is quite conditional, we love the other person while they still love us. What happens to the other person when they decide they love somebody else? Our love can easily turn to resentment or even hatred. So, what we are cultivating with loving kindness meditation is something where we are actually becoming more and more concerned about the other person’s wellbeing, not so much about what we get from them. So, in romantic love there often is also this love, the care for the other person, tenderness, good will. There can also be a very genuine friendship at the heart of the romantic relationship, but we also have to watch out for those other elements that can come in, which may be quite different from love.
You also gave the example of the love between parents and child and that is interesting. Certainly, in the East, in the different traditions there, the mother is often spoken of as the perfection of love. This might not have been our experience in our own life, but the mother is given as that example. A mother would often make great sacrifices for her child. So, it is quite a potent example for the depth of love that we are moving towards – not that we have to start sacrificing ourselves in any ways – just the depth of love, unconditional love. That can sometimes be seen as a model, or maybe somebody else in our life that has been especially kind to us.
So often there is genuine love between friends. Our friends, we might really like them but sometimes there can be tension, particularly if we are comparing ourselves to them. What’s it like if our friend gets the job that we wanted, the partner we wanted, or the house we wanted? There can be jealousy and envy. It can also spoil our feelings with that friend. So again, with the loving kindness meditation it’s a conscious wishing well for that person we are thinking of. And as we begin to wish them well more and more it’s like their happiness brings us happiness. It’s a win-win, the more we extend wishes for others the more we can enjoy our life, enjoy others’ wellbeing. That’s a bit about love.
WfS: The world around us seems to get more competitive, we are facing huge social issues, climate change, and a pandemic. How does it help if I, as an individual, learn to love myself or cultivate a loving attitude towards others?
Christine: When there is love there is a kind of silence and peace in us, and because of that we are not in conflict with ourselves and others. That in itself, one could say, is already a big contribution: to not be in conflict with oneself and others.
From a Buddhist point of view, we sometimes do not see the world as it is. We perceive ourselves as very separate from others. We might be very preoccupied with our state of mind and our feelings and what is of concern to us. When we train in loving kindness one of the aspects is to really acknowledge that there is an interdependence. If we can learn one thing from this pandemic it is that we are interdependent. I do hope that this is one of the lessons we can take from this, to appreciate how interdependent we are. It is very important to not only look for our own wellness and really to respect this interdependence. Maybe respect is a good word.
Andrew: I’d also say whether we like it or not, we are affecting each other all the time. Even if we distance ourselves from others, it has an effect. How we interact with each other makes such a difference. You never know what difference it makes to just be a little bit more friendly to someone. Something might be no-big-deal for us but could have a big impact for someone else. You might know from experience that when we do something unkind it affects us, and we have a lot of regret about it. So, through the practice of loving kindness and compassion we are actually enabling and empowering ourselves. We all have our moods and we all have days when we need to be kind with ourselves in that and not condemn ourselves. There is an enormous potential in all of us to have a positive effect on the world, and you never know where the ripple effect of that will lead.
What came up in my mind when you asked the question is: sometimes we have the feeling that we don’t have a lot of choice. That the world is the way it is and it’s pushing us in a particular direction: what work to do or what resources to use. And of course there is something in that, because society puts pressures on us in a particular way. But I find it really helpful sometimes to stand back a little bit and really ask ourselves what is important to us: “What is really important to me in my life? What can I do with my life? What feels true to my deepest aspirations?” And if we can tune into that often it’s something quite healthy.
WfS: In your personal experience – knowing that things are mostly not black and white – was loving kindness a practice that was immediately or easily accessible for you?
Andrew: Actually, it was pretty much a hundred percent negative in my case. I first got taught meditation on loving kindness about forty years ago. I had already been practicing sitting meditation for about ten years. I was attending a Buddhist centre which alternated between meditation with a focus on one’s breath one week and the other week they practiced loving kindness meditation. I was quite into breathing meditation.
I used to hate the week with loving kindness. I really didn’t like it, it was frustrating. I’d be sitting there wishing well for myself, for my loved ones, friends, everybody, but I never really felt anything. And I didn’t feel more peaceful. I was just repeating words. It’s an irony in a way that not feeling something can actually generate so much negative feeling: not liking it, not wanting to be there, “I don’t want to do this meditation anymore.”
Sometimes just the idea of loving ourselves, we have a very strong reaction against that. And at least I feel qualified to teach about it because I had similar reactions myself. One of the things I learned is that there is not one way to practice it, not to be rigid about it. If this practice is explored in an open-minded manner, there is always a way of finding a relationship with it. That doesn’t mean that it is always easy or uplifting. We will encounter feelings that aren’t love and kindness. But whatever we experience it is always a good question to ask “how can I be compassionate to myself with this? What does it mean to bring love to myself when I am feeling this way?” There is always a way of exploring a practice so that it can become meaningful. And it’s not there all the time. Sometimes in the beginning it’s just not there at all. So, I am glad that I did not give up.
Christine: I can relate to that completely. When I got to know loving kindness practice, it was too nice for me, too soft, the tone was too lovey-dovey, and I thought “nooo, I don’t like that”. It made me angry. It took me some time to realize that actually I had some sadness in me. I was longing for this [love], but I couldn’t access it very easily, and this brought up all these other emotions.
The longer I practice loving kindness, the more I think it really takes bravery. One needs to be really brave. Because when one sits on the cushion, sometimes a positive emotion comes along, and you feel love for the whole world, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s the contrary to what we might imagine. And it needs respect to face what there is. So we come in touch with what we may have feared in terms of our bodies, like pain, or fears of what our heart needs, or what is in our minds. It needs some kind of bravery to be a witness to all of that. And the more we cherish and accept in ourselves whatever there is, the more we can cherish others.
There is a quote from Buddha which says “you can search the whole world and you will find no one that is more worthy of love than yourself”. It’s not easy to witness whatever there is within you. But I learned how freeing and how healing it can be to just be a witness and to treat anything that comes up with love, respect, and kindness – whatever you discover within yourself.
And we can be really creative with this, looking at what opens our heart, what can be used to get in touch with the love that is originally in us.
What does this practice bring to your life? Why are you still doing it?
Andrew: If I have a bad day or a difficult experience, I learnt what it means to bring loving kindness to myself in this state. It might not be the worst suffering in the world at all, but it is still suffering, some emotional unhappiness. So I’d explore: “What does it mean to bring loving kindness to it? What are the words I can say to myself? If I was with a good friend who was in that state, what would I want for them? Can I be as kind to myself?” Then it becomes a way of being with myself so I don’t get lost in all the thoughts, stories about another person, about myself, so I can become more accepting of myself, more gentle, so I can keep my heart open a little bit, slowly, slowly.
My main experience is not that loving kindness is always a magical cure, but it helps me to move through things more easily, more quickly. There is less stickiness. This happens through an expanded kindness to myself but also thinking of others.
Some years back, I wrote a short document to give out at the end of loving kindness retreats and the last thing I wrote on the list is: “Never give up on yourself and your capacity to love.” Some people get into loving kindness very easily, it becomes their favourite practice, they relate to it very easily and in an enduring way. But it is not always like that, especially when times are difficult. If we could just have the courage to keep going, even in difficult times, to honour the fact that we all have that capacity to love within us, the capacity to find the wellbeing that that brings. We might be able to experience that even stuckness is impermanent, it doesn’t last, it is still just a state of mind which will change.