Book Club · fitness

FIFI Book Club: Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, week four–Lovingkindness

Hi readers, and welcome to the sixth installment of FIFI book club’s reading of Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Happiness: a 28-Day Program to Realize the Power of Meditation. Each week we’ll offer some reflections as we move through the chapters, and maybe do some of the exercises, too. You are invited to join us, and we’d love to read and respond to any comments you’d like to share.

Last week we blogged here about week three. we blogged here about week two. We blogged here about week one, Concentration. We blogged about Chapter 2: Why Meditate, here. You can read about the intro and chapter 1 here.

This week is week four of meditation practice techniques and exercises, called Lovingkindness: Cultivating Compassion and True Happiness. Here are our reflections.

First up is Mina:

I love the encouragement the lovingkindness meditation gives me to be my best self. And by that I don’t mean some perfectly, implausibly love-everybody, angelic version, but as Sharon Salzberg writes in this Week 4 chapter, “extending friendship to ourselves and others—not in the sense of liking everyone, or dispensing universal approval, but more as an inner knowing that our lives are all inextricably connected.” A couple paragraphs later she writes, “to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism.”

The lovingkindness she describes is gritty and takes a lot of presence. But since, as she points out in her description, the first person to whom we are extending our kindness is ourselves. When I screw up and get my kindness toward someone else wrong, I need to be kind to myself, instead of taking that easy refuge in reflexive self-criticism. Berating myself that I’m not a nice person is a lot less likely to improve my behavior than paying attention to where I went awry and reminding myself of our inextricable connectedness.

In the Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice section, number 9 suggests we refrain from speaking ill of others. So … that is a practice that I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. Unsurprisingly, it’s a work in progress. I’ve gotten better than I used to be, but boy is it hard. All those moments of gossip, righteousness and schadenfreude that slip into conversations. Can you believe she …? I wouldn’t have done … What did she expect … ?

In my efforts, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to bring my attention to the moments I’m about to write, in an email or text, something not-so-nice about someone else. As soon as I notice, I stop. I think about how I’d feel if the person saw what I’d written. I stop writing or delete. I have noticed that some friends are frustrated if I don’t want to participate in these kinds of conversations. But they’re so fun, a friend once said to me. Are they? After paying some attention to how I feel after such exchanges, I’ve noticed that my ego might feel temporarily better (as in—I’m doing better than that person). But I’ve also noticed, when I take the time, that I feel some level of nausea, too. As if the person actually heard what I said and was hurt by it.

Of course, I only notice these responses, if I’m paying attention. Thank you, Sharon Salzberg, for reminding me how to use the lovingkindness meditation for just that!

Next up is Christine:

I enjoyed the process of reading and reflecting on this section.

I am still not doing the practices as often as I had hoped to be but I am being patient with myself as I figure out how to make meditation a regular part of my life. And, by doing that, I guess I have been practicing one part of lovingkindness.

I find lovingkindness meditations a little bit of a struggle. I don’t object to them in a philosophical way, I don’t argue with the ideas involved. I just find it hard to focus because I have trouble letting go of the idea of a list of people to think about. So that makes me aware of the possibility of forgetting someone. And I also have trouble holding the image of someone in my mind. Well, I’m sure you can see the spiral I end up falling into from all of that.

But that being said, I love the idea of changing how we pay attention to the people around us. Lovingkindness is not about learning to let people walk all over you and it’s not about learning to adore them, it’s about learning to see them and yourself differently – with more compassion.

This change in approach doesn’t necessarily affect the other person, you aren’t doing it ´for’ them, per se. It can, however, change how you see and interact with them. That definitely makes your interactions a little smoother and creates some ease for you. (That may or may not create changes in your dynamic but that’s not the point.)

So, as she has mentioned throughout the book, changing the way we pay attention affects our experiences and this one seems to have a more tangible result than some of the other practices. Meanwhile, I love how she keeps emphasizing that it doesn’t make us like difficult people and that we don’t have to try to like them, we just have to learn to understand that they too are struggling and that we can be compassionate about that.

I am very intrigued to continue my practice with meditation for quieting the inner critic. The inner critic of people with ADHD can be particularly chatty and I like to have many tools for managing that chatter. My ADHD meds have already helped a lot with that particular issue and they give me the space to make good use use of tools like the meditation she shares here.

Even though this whole chapter was interesting to me, I found the final section ´Ten Ways To Deepen Your Practice’ especially useful. Even just the first two recommendations ‘Think of kindness as a strength, not as a weakness,’ ‘Look for the good in yourself,’ bring me a kind of restful feeling, and that’s pretty good for a few lines of text.

Side note: The personal timing of this topic is interesting to me considering that I had a revelation this weekend that one of the reasons I feel tired when I open FB is that I feel like I am trying to maintain too many friendships at once – like there are extra things to remember all the time. I wonder how exploring and practicing lovingkindness meditation might help me address that feeling?

Here’s Martha:

So far this has been the hardest week for me. I’m not sure why. I think I have looked upon meditation as a way of emptying my brain or jumping off the hamster wheel. I don’t object to the concept of loving kindness. However, I don’t much enjoy focusing on people in my meditation. Perhaps it is because I already spend some time each week connecting with people purposefully in loving kindness through chats, messages, or online.

That said, I took this book as an opportunity to learn new things about meditation and I have. I’ve enjoyed exploring mindful attention not just in everyday life but as a form of practice. I realized I need to look at meditation practice as a form of kindness to self, and as such it should become one of my big rocks if I want to keep at it. I like lists so “Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice” spoke to me in ways other parts of the chapter did not.

Here’s Tracy:

This week I fell back into doing what I know, using the weekly theme more as a guide than following the chapter in all of its detail. I know and love the loving kindness, or metta, practice. It can have a dramatic effect on my feelings towards myself and others, especially when I imagine extending my metta towards people with whom I experience difficulty.

My favourite guided version of this practice is the Metta Bhavana practice by the Buddhist teacher Bodhipaksa, which I first discovered on a CD of his that I bought about 15 years ago. That was my first encounter with the four stages of lovingkindess, where you direct it first towards yourself, then to someone you feel good about, then to someone you feel neutral about, and then to someone you have difficulty with. When coupled with the mindfulness we have been practicing over the past few weeks, I was able have keen awareness of how resistant I was to extending lovingkindess towards someone I have difficulty with. But I did it anyway. As outlined in Real Happiness, we extend loving kindness in meditation by wishing someone well with a few positive phrases. My phrases, taken from Bodhipaksa, are “May [I/you/we/they] be well; may [I/you/we/they] be happy; may I/you/we/they be free from suffering.” But you can insert “peaceful” or “safe” or “healthy” or “live with ease” or whatever resonates as well-wishing from your heart.

What this practice done consistently does for me is make me more compassionate towards myself and others. I confess that a couple of times this week I focused on myself because, what with getting back to work after a long absence and all, I found myself being hard on myself for having some difficulty staying on top of things. Introducing this loving kindness into my meditation every morning, I was able to accept that there’s nothing wrong with a slow start. Not only that, I was even able to recognize that I am feeling energized and happy to be back at my regular role.

But it also made me more able to extend a quick olive branch after I acted poorly towards a server at a restaurant that I frequent. I was snippy because our reservation for an outdoor table had not been noted, so we had to wait quite awhile. It hadn’t been noted because they hadn’t checked their voicemail. So I said, “does your voicemail say we don’t take reservations by voicemail; you have to speak to a person?” in a not-nice tone of voice. Maybe not the worst thing but the interaction left me feeling like I had been unfair and mean. So I approached her later and apologized, expressed that she didn’t deserve to be spoken to like that, and admitted that my behaviour was uncalled for and that she always does a great job (it is the only restaurant patio I go to on a regular basis since COVID). I don’t know if I can attribute my entire ability to do that to this week’s meditation theme, but part of what motivated me was a quick awareness that she must not have enjoyed that interaction any more than I did.

Next week I will continue with the loving kindness meditation, maybe doing a few more of the suggested practices from the Week Four Chapter. Since we started, I have consistently managed to meditate for at least 20 minutes every day and I feel as if this book club was just the kickstart I needed to get back on track. 

And here’s me (Catherine):

For me, this past week has been more difficult for focusing on daily meditation. My semester is in the middle of its third week, and I’m running on all cylinders all the time. I haven’t been doing meditation first thing in the morning, instead using that time for class prep and assignment grading. This is not good for me. When meditation gets pushed into some other TBA slot, I feel like it diminishes the specialness of the time spent. Meditation isn’t like throwing that last load of laundry in the dryer; I need some dedicated space around sitting for contemplation or just peace.

Enter Sharon Salzerg and lovingkindess meditation. I’ve done this meditation before, and (like Tracy), use different phrasing depending on what I’m focusing on. Like Christine, my inner critic needs a lot of attention, and offering up gentle awareness and open-heartedness toward those feelings and thoughts is always welcome in my mental universe.

One of the Ten Ways to Deepen Your Practice suggestions I really like is “include those who may feel left out”. Salzberg suggests trying this in conversation, asking quieter people what they think. Here’s a story of how suggestion played out in my life this week.

My department puts together a student curriculum committee to work with us to review and offer feedback on new and revised courses, and suggest changes for existing offerings. We were talking about who should be on the committee, and I suggested K (one of my students). In describing K, I said that they were in need of a little polishing in terms of student-faculty interactions. In a talk with K recently, they said that they thought they needed to be aggressive as they wanted “to be a lawyer, and I hear that lawyers are aggressive”. K has acted on this by being a bit annoying, I admit.

After telling my colleagues about this, they said, “well, then, why would we want K to be on this committee?” I said, “because K needs to learn how to act around faculty, and they will definitely learn from us.” My colleagues agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

I talked with K today to encourage them to join this committee. K is pleased, and I think it’s an opportunity for growth for them. It’s not going to be easy, navigating this relationship. But, I know it will give all of us (K, me, the rest of the students and faculty on the committee) a chance to practice forms of lovingkindness toward each other and ourselves. Thank you, Sharon Salzberg for putting this practice front and center at a good time!

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