Loving kindness in life and yoga - a contribution from Amsale Kassahun Temesgen

Amsale Kassahun Temesgen

Metta bhavana (mb) is an important practice that has a lot to teach us in the Western World today. I focus on the Western World because that is where I have been living for the past 16 years and it has formed me in significant ways. However, coming from Ethiopia, I also have the opportunity to see the Western life as an outsider. I see how the (predominantly Western) values of liberalism and individualism are being promoted around the world with no reservation or qualification. These values are closely linked to the Neoclassical Economics ideals of egoism, individual competition, and the commodification of nature and community and are promoted as progress both in the public and private space. The Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef puts it beautifully when we says “‘[w]e are trapped, whether we want to be or not, in the language of economics, which has domesticated the entire world. A language domesticates us when it manages to permeate our everyday life and our everyday forms of expression. The language of economics is used in the kitchen, among friends, in the scientific associations, in the centers of culture, in the club, in the work place and even in the bedroom. Whatever part of the world, we are dominated by the language of economics and it heavily influences our behavior and perceptions’ (Max-Neef 1991, p.108).
The language of economics and the values (of egoism/self-interest and competition) it promotes do not have room for compassion and kindness towards oneself and others. Growing up in a competitive school system, I never learned about being kind to myself. That thought was completely new to me1. Kindness towards others was more common in my Orthodox Christian upbringing but primarily because it has an instrumental value: it was a way to get to heaven. The fact that loving oneself and others brings peace and harmony to oneself, and that it could be the guiding principle of one’s life is something I learned from Buddhism and particularly through the practice of metta bhavana (mb).
This sets the background for writing this essay on loving kindness and its contribution to personal development and promoting a peaceful co-existence with others. I structure this essay as follows. I begin by defining what metta bhavana is and how it is practiced as one form of meditation practice. Then, I will discuss how metta bhavana can bring kindness in our everyday struggles and in our relationships to others by drawing from my own personal experience and the experience of being a (part-time) yoga teacher. Finally, I will discuss how we can integrate mb with our yoga practice.

What is metta bhavana?2

The name metta bhavana comes from the Pali language. Metta means ‘love’ (in a non- romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness: hence ‘loving-kindness’ for short. It is an emotion; something you feel in your heart. Bhavana means development or cultivation. The commonest form of the practice is in five stages.
1. In the first stage, you feel metta for yourself. You start by becoming aware of yourself, and focusing on feelings of peace, calm, and tranquility. Then you let these grow in to feelings of strength and confidence, and then develop into love within your heart. You can use an image, like golden light flooding your body, or a phrase such as ‘may I be well and happy’, which you can repeat to yourself. These are ways of stimulating the feeling of metta for yourself.
2. In the second stage, think of a good friend. Bring them to mind as vividly as you can, and think of their good qualities. Feel your connection with your friend, and your liking for them, and encourage these to grow by repeating ‘may they be well; may they be happy’ quietly to yourself. You can also use an image, such as shining light from your heart into theirs. You can use these techniques — a phrase or an image — in the next two stages as well.
3. Then think of someone you do not particularly like or dislike. Your feelings are ‘neutral’. This may be someone you do not know well but see around. You reflect on their humanity, and include them in your feelings of metta.
4. Then think of someone you actually dislike, someone you are having difficulty with. Trying not to get caught up in any feelings of hatred, think of them positively and send your metta to them as well.
5. In the final stage, first of all you think of all four people together — yourself, the friend, the neutral person, and the enemy. Then extend your feelings further — to everyone around you, to everyone in your neighborhood, in your town, your country, and so on throughout the world. Have a sense of waves of loving-kindness spreading from your heart to everyone, to all beings everywhere. Then gradually relax out of meditation, and bring the practice to an end.

Metta Bhavana to develop kindness towards ourselves

Life can be quite demanding in our modern way of life. We have to do well in school or education; we have to earn a living, achieve a certain level of standard of living, and be great parents with successful children. Feminist literature discusses the added pressure for women (even in modern societies with better gender equality). The children have to eat balanced and healthy meals and the house has to be kept clean and orderly. All these demands will mostly need to be met by the parents/adults in the home. One often has limited access to a social network that can help in one way or another in the routine of daily life. The routines in our lives have a way of being more entrenched the more we practice them. Neurology confirms what Buddhism teaches us; that the brain becomes good at what it practices often3. And Aristotle says, ‘we are what we repeatedly do”. This has the upside that with more practice we excel in things. The downside is that we may become less skillful at other less-practiced skills. One such skill that is not common in our achievement-oriented world today is the skill of being kind to oneself.
Metta bhavana (mb) teaches us to acknowledge and accept our struggles and difficulties. It teaches us to have compassion to ourselves with our shortcomings and to be kind in the process of self-development. This process helps us to ‘develop strength and confidence’ as mentioned in the description of the mediation steps above. I have a personal experience for this particular aspect of mb. For the past 12 years, I have worked in a profession that requires public speaking and I have presented in conferences and seminars often. This comes with a lot of nervousness and stress. Sometimes, my experience goes ok and other times I felt the stress and nervousness got in the way of me making the points I wanted to make. I thought that may be with time and experience it will go away. However, something changed after I engaged in the three-month meditation practice I undertook as part of my YTT with Bodhiyoga. One incident stands out. I was to present a critical review of a colleague’s work and I was nervous about it for days. I wanted to do a good job; be clear, be balanced and make smart comments in a short period of time (I was given 5 minutes). That day I started my day with mb meditation and felt my meditation went ok. When my turn for giving feedback to my colleague came, I started to feel the heightened heartbeat, short breaths and warm cheeks that signal my nervousness.
In that moment, I decided to acknowledge that I was nervous because I wanted to do well and make a good impression. I sent compassion to myself for the struggle I was going through. I also decided to send loving kindness to my colleague and acknowledged that he also wanted to do a good job and ultimately just like me he also wants to be happy. That acknowledgement gave me an immediate relief. My body relaxed and I could think clearly. Instead of focusing on myself, mb helped me shift my attention to giving help to another human being. That brought kindness into how I formulated myself. I was able to complement his work and acknowledge the effort that went into it, and formulate my feedback as input that he could take into consideration should he find it useful. I was surprised to find that my nervousness had vanished. My colleague seemed pleased with my comment and thanked me. This was a wonderful experience and an important real-life lesson for me.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana puts it eloquently when he says ‘we aren’t practicing to save the world or make it perfect. We practice for ourselves, for our own peace and well-being. Any effects beyond that are byproducts. If the focus is outside ourselves, we will never succeed. But fortunately, our own well-being is intimately bound up with the well-being of others; so truly practicing metta (loving-friendliness) for our own benefit does benefit others’. 4


Metta Bhavana to connect with others

The Dalai Lama often says ‘everyone wishes to be happy and avoid suffering’. That is what the 2nd-5th stages of mb meditation teaches us. Acknowledging this fact is helpful in our day-to-day interactions with others. When we are in a difficult situation, we tend to close-in around ourselves. Our world shrinks. In our MBSR course in Solterreno, we learned that when we experience bad things/stressful situations, we can enter a vicious cycle of self-criticism, self- isolation and self-absorption. We suffer so much that we focus on ourselves a lot of the time. The first stage helps us to bring in some space and kindness around this destructive cycle. Even in difficult situations, we can use mindfulness and compassion to break out of this cycle, appreciate our human condition, and use our experience to help us connect with other people.
The teacher, Vajratara, teaches that ultimately the goal of Buddhist practice is to go beyond the distinction between self and other. However, we have to first start by acknowledging the role we play in other peoples’ lives and the role they play in ours. She quotes Sangharakshita as follows ‘you start off with a common sense approach based on the perception of yourself and others as distinct and palpable egos’ and continues ‘we are aware that other human beings exist, independent of our own likes and dislikes. There is actually a person there. Most of the time, we are so caught up with ourselves and our likes and dislikes and other things bubbling away in our consciousness, that we forget that there are other people. We think we are the only people in the world. We see people in terms of our responses to them (what is their effect on me), and we think about our own responses to them. But we don’t consider that may be they’re having their own responses to us. This has something with the wrong view that actions don’t have consequences, and that we don’t have an effect on other people’. MB teaches us that ‘we do have an effect on other people just as much other people have an effect on us.’ MB helps us move away from the mental orientation in which we see others as objects of our subjectivity, as means to achieve our goals. In MB we see that we are also objects of others’ subjectivity5. This realization has a humbling effect. We realize the impact we have on other people and that may motivate us to be a force for good.
In mb, we start by having compassion towards ourselves and gradually radiate our compassion to all human beings and all sentient beings. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana says ‘when you practice metta, your breathing becomes calm and you feel so much love and compassion that your mind naturally wishes all beings to live in peace and harmony’.

Integrating loving-kindness with yoga

Yoga can either be practiced with compassion and patience or it can be practiced in a physically and mentally demanding way. If we practice yoga to fulfil some internal or external expectation of perfection, it can reinforce the tendency to be hard on ourselves, to compare ourselves with others and raise our expectations for what we can and should do on the mat. Instead of getting a break from the demands of everyday life through our yoga practice and connect with ourselves, we carry on the habit of chasing an ideal that is not kind to ourselves.
As a yoga teacher, I bring the message of mb in my yoga classes by telling my students to accept their physical and mental limitations. To feel compassion to their mental and physical states. I stress that yoga is a personal journey. Each person in the class has a unique body and a unique history. So each body responds to the asanas in its own unique way. This means that one should not look at the person next to them and attempt to do exactly what they are doing. One should also consider my instruction as a guide and not as a command. If an asana does not feel right in their body, they can either follow an easier adjustment to fit their body or to drop doing it entirely. The ultimate message is that they are the ones that know their own boundaries and those boundaries are to be respected.
I also introduce breaks to connect with the body and be mindful of how we are doing particularly after a strenuous series of asanas (such as sun salutations). In Savasana, I always remind my students to send a feeling of gratitude and love to their bodies. I do this at the end of a body scan where we identify points of tension in the body and relax areas that may be tense. Students have given me feedback that savasana and particularly sending gratitude and love to their bodies is one of their favorite parts of our yoga practice.
I believe that practicing loving kindness towards ourselves on the yoga mat will eventually spread to the rest of our lives. We will be more apt to check in with ourselves more often. To check how we are doing and in times of stress to practice compassion for our struggles. This will give us the space to choose what we want to do instead of operating on an autopilot. This contributes to improving our own lives and our relationships with others. 
1 Being kind to others is something that children in kindergarten and in pre-school learn here in Norway but eventually it starts to disappear from the education system in later stages. Many studies report that teenagers today report higher expectations of performance/achievement from themselves and therefore, experience higher levels of stress than in the past.