By Jessica Graham
I’ve recently become of big fan of lovingkindness meditation, or as Shinzen Young calls it, “Focus on Positive.” From the beginning of my practice I have been pretty hard-core about going in to the most challenging material and deconstructing it using mindfulness. This technique has served me well; I have been able to quickly break through old patterns and find freedom from deeply ingrained belief systems. However, while the ability to work with the darkest and most wounded parts of myself has been a gift, at times it has left me without any resources. As Pema Chödrön says, “Staying with pain without lovingkindness is just warfare,” and—after a particularly difficult period in my life—this has begun to ring true for me. Lately, in addition to mindfulness, I’ve incorporated a lot of lovingkindness into my practice and I’m finding that it is a great companion to the deconstruction process.
Here’s what happened. Not too long ago I was feeling overwhelmed by waves of negative emotion. It felt like there was cement in my veins and a heavy chain mail hood over my head. This feeling seemed to come out of nowhere and was shocking in it’s intensity. I kept telling my (very patient) boyfriend that it was like having a sudden bout of the worst PMS of my life. It also felt similar to what I would have labeled “depression” in my teens and early twenties. At first it took a minute to detach from the experience of negative emotion enough to observe it mindfully, but as it continued I got better at noticing it as it arose. I deconstructed it in the way I am trained to do. Break down the sensations and allow them. Separate the thoughts from the emotions and stop taking them personally. I also addressed this with writing, inquiry and the support of friends. Even so, I continued to have these very intense mood swings that seemed to knock the air out of me. I have learned that discomfort is often a sign that I’m growing in some way, so I buckled in for the ride, continuing to deconstruct the experience using mindfulness.
Then one day I found myself crying over my vacuum cleaner that wasn’t working properly. Before long I was taking it apart, without a clue of how to fix it (the patient boyfriend ended up fixing it). I was suffering, and while I could break down and allow the experience, I felt overwhelmed by it. I climbed into bed, tried to relax, and focusd on the parts of my body that felt good. Even in this state of overwhelm, there was a sense of observing and a lot of space around the experience, thanks to the years I have spent practicing mindfulness. If you break down challenging emotions and thoughts with meditation patiently enough, with equanimity, for long enough, they cease to wreck you. But even with the ability to observe mindfully I was really in a lot of pain. Deconstruction was not enough.
So even with a serious meditation practice and lots of support I was having a tough time. What this was all about? I have found that one of the effects of a meditation practice is that your stuff, your psychological material, comes up. You can no longer push it down and ignore it. Sometimes the content is obvious, past trauma that has a clear and linear path to what is arising today. Other times not. During the vacuum cleaner event, I was aware of some of the underlying issues, but some of it was just raw, primal emotion. Getting into meditation can be like opening Pandora’s Box or taking the Red Pill. We don’t really know what’s in there, swimming in our subconscious. I don’t say this to frighten anyone, just to explain that there isn’t always an easy answer for why you are feeling what you are feeling.
The day of the vacuum cleaner debacle I called Michael Taft and told him about the overwhelming negative emotions I was feeling. His suggestion was that I work with Focus on Positive. This would create a safe container, a resource, which would give me the resilience to then address the intense experiences. The funny thing was I had been giving that same suggestion to several of my students for the past few months! This is a good example of how important it is to have friends, teachers, and community. You can’t always see clearly when it comes to your own process and a trusted outside eye can be a real lifesaver.
What I came to realize is that directly facing the most challenging stuff is the story of my life. It’s what is most familiar and where I feel the most comfortable. To be in an almost constant state of intense emotional and physical upheaval and survive, I had to be hard-core. Being soft, gentle, and loving can get you killed or at the least emotionally destroyed. I brought this mentality into my meditation practice and in some ways that is why I grew so fast. My power-through-it, take no prisoners approach helped me to peel away huge layers of trauma and gain deep insights into the nature of the Self. But where I am now, I realized that a softer approach was necessary in order for me to continue growing without burning out. It was time to stop trying so hard and instead to try to offer myself some comfort and the resource of lovingkindness.
Soon after I put an emphasis on positive feelings, the overwhelming negative emotions began to subside. I didn’t ignore or bypass the pain, instead I treated those hurt parts of myself with the same kindness I would offer a child who was suffering. By using a gentle touch I was able to let go of resistance, and allow the experience to flow through. Of course, I didn’t just do lovingkindness. I also continued to use my mindfulness practice to untangle the emotions, gain insight into what they were springing from, and find equanimity with the raw primal material as well.
I’ve since made Focus on Positive a large part of my practice. I’ve been listening to of Sharon Salzberg, using affirmations, and relaxing my body any time I feel tension arise. In my formal practice I often create a big container of lovingkindness before going into the more challenging material. It’s amazing how much of an impact it has made on my life. The gentleness and kindness I am showing to myself also extends out to others around me. I have found that I am more patient, understanding, and quicker to respond to conflict with compassion and love.
In addition to my own success with the Focus on Positive practice, I have come across many studies that demonstrate its possible benefits. Lovingkindness has been shown to increase social connectedness and your ability to see things from another’s perspective. In other words it can make you more compassionate. It has also been shown to lower the reaction to inflammation and distress, both of which are associated with depression, heart disease, and diabetes. If you have lower back pain you’ll be happy to hear that has also been shown to reduce pain and anger in people with chronic lower back pain. Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, found that lovingkindness meditation can help boost positive emotions and wellbeing in life, fostering the personal resources that come from experiencing positive emotion.
Some people find beginning a Focus on Positive practice to be very challenging. Often times people can’t think of anything positive or get bombarded with negative thoughts and emotions. This can be overwhelming, heartbreaking, and even scary. If this is your experience, know that it is quite common and there is nothing wrong with you. Start simple. Find a part of the body that feels good (or even just OK or not bad) and focus on it. You can encourage positive sensations in the body by intentionally relaxing or smiling. When you get pulled to something negative, bring your attention back to the pleasant or neutral sensation in your body.
Then try adding in some positive words. I really like “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease,” but it can be anything. The lyrics to an uplifting song that you like, a prayer, an affirmation, even just a sound. For some people it’s powerful to say the words you would like to hear from a parent, lover, or friend. My favorite is “I love and accept you unconditionally.” When you find the words that feel right for you, repeat them in your mind. Notice if the body responds in a positive way, and if so, enjoy and encourage that. You may also wish to add some positive images. Anything from nature and animals to images of yourself happy and healthy. Eventually you may wish to send this lovingkindness out to family, friends, strangers, and even enemies.
Focus on Positive can be a very creative process. It’s all about finding what feels good for you. One of my go-to positive images is kittens! When I bring up an image of a bunch of cute little kittens in my mind I get ridiculously happy and it has worked for years. Experiment. Use music, guided meditations and nature. Don’t judge the process. You might be surprised by what gets your lovingkindness juices flowing. It may feel silly or embarrassing at first, but give it a try anyway. Add it in to your practice for a month and I’m pretty confident that you will see a difference in your life. It’s a great tool to add to your practice, especially if you are going though a tough time. For me it has been a lifesaver.
photo by Moyan_Brenn