February 14, 2012

Three Qualities (and 11 Benefits) of Unconditional Love.

To love unconditionally, cultivate presence, patience and lovingkindness.

God, it’s a mad world out there. I just started a unit on social justice with my eighth graders. We’re studying things like human trafficking, the cycle of poverty, gang culture, political corruption and environmental destruction. This, after having read the graphic novel Maus and studying the Holocaust last fall. Clearly, we are in deep shit. There’s a lot of negativity in the world. Hatred. Theft. War. Injustice. Locura. Madness.

At the same time, life is full of paradoxes. Along with the ugliness of modern society, there’s beauty, wonder, grace and gratitude—and overwhelm—at nature, at relationship, at the marvels of the universe and at being able to access all the great spiritual teachings of pretty much all cultures and lineages.

I do not claim to be an expert on love by any means, but I will share some tidbits I have learned about it so far. By love, I mean the underlying heartbeat of life, our amazing ability to feel and to express devotion to one another, to ourselves and to life itself.

Unconditional love doesn’t mean romance or lust or any kind of specific attraction. They can be easily confused in the heat of passion.

Be here now.

I’ve been blessed to study the teachings of the Buddha and practice his prescribed meditation methods, for the past eight years, in addition to my nearly twenty year love affair with yoga. I really do think it all boils down to being here now, which means letting go (of the past regrets, wounds, fractures and releasing the need to know or control the future by clinging to expectations, assumptions and concepts) in order to totally embody the present. Obviously, the past got us here and is important. The future is the reason why we’re planting seeds of goodness today. Yet, power is in el momento presente. To be present is to let go of everything that is not present.

Step One: Breathe in. You are present. Welcome to your life.

Presence means paying attention, experiencing your life as it happens, interacting with the holy unfolding moment. To be fully present is to be enlightened. To be aware of your breathing is to be present. Simple as that.

Enlightenment is ordinary. We constantly forget to remember that.

Hence, the next ingredient, Step Two: practice patience.

If this was so easy, we wouldn’t have to practice.
And, by the way, what are we practicing for? Many virtues, surely. The best of intentions. We practice for patience. And it takes a lot of patience to sit still and look at one’s mind. It also takes a lot of patience to attempt to facilitate learning for middle school students, so full of crushes and mood swings—blooming as they are.

Whatever your livelihood, it inevitably requires and benefits from patience.

To pay attention to one’s body and breath and mind and habit-patterns and cravings and aversions is not at all easy. Meditation can be relaxing, and it does relieve stress, but it can also make us feel incredibly squirmy and uncomfortable.
Patience helps. Patience soothes. Patience is essential to consistent practice. Along with patience, we practice for equanimity: some semblance of balance. Remember that there is no such thing as perfect balance, however. Equanimity means treading the middle path with both awareness and wisdom. Equanimity is the ability to remain still and silent. And out of this still, silent, patient equanimity comes great compassion, joy, creativity, and love. Hence, last but not least, we spread metta like creamy organic peanut butta.


Step Three: Give metta.

Metta is lovingkindness. First, we must learn to be present and patient. Then we can turn our focus to specific techniques: forgiveness practice, mindfulness practice, metta practice.

Metta relies on the fact that all beings want to be happy. The simplest metta practice begins with sending good energy to loved ones. Wishing them safety, health, happiness and freedom. Giving metta to yourself is also a powerful and important practice.
May I be safe, healthy, happy and free from suffering. May I live with ease.
After some time, you can even offer metta to acquaintances, strangers, and ultimately even your “enemies.” But only do that when it feels genuine. You can’t send fake metta.

Buddhist teacher and author Sharon Salzberg writes:

Metta means equality, oneness, wholeness. To truly walk the Middle Way of the Buddha, to avoid the extremes of addiction and self-hatred, we must walk in friendship with ourselves as well as with all beings.

When we have insight into our inner world and what brings us happiness, then wordlessly, intuitively, we understand others. As though there were no longer a barrier defining the boundaries of our caring, we can feel close to others’ experience of life. We see that when we are angry, there is an element of pain in the anger that is not different from the pain that others feel when they are angry. When we feel love there is a distinct and special joy in that feeling. We come to know that this is the nature of love itself, and that other beings filled with love experience of this same joy.

The Buddha promised eleven particular benefits that come from the caring cultivation of metta:

  1. You will sleep easily
  2. You will wake easily
  3. You will have pleasant dreams
  4. People will love you
  5. Devas [celestial beings] and animals will love you
  6. Devas will protect you
  7. External dangers [poisons, weapons, and fire] will not harm you
  8. Your face will be radiant
  9. Your mind will be serene
  10. You will die unconfused
  11. You will be reborn in happy realms

May you be happy, and know that you are loved!

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