- Karl Thunemann
An Inauspicious Beginning
I can’t recall exactly how I came to start meditating on loving-kindness. I can’t even recall when I first heard of it. But I am certain I was not impressed. The thought of pursuing such a meditation—the spectacle of it—filled me with disdain. Too shallow, I thought—nothing but meditation lite.
Really, I’m not kidding. I saw no real structure in this meditation, none of the discipline and hard work demanded by more challenging practices. Here’s what it asks you to do: List a few qualities you wish you could attract to yourself. (May I be loved … may I be happy … etc.) Start by wishing them for yourself. Then you gradually widen the circle—first to people you care about, and eventually to people you don’t even like.
I’m beginning to recall that my ideas about loving-kindness really stem from Sharon Salzberg, who just might be the godmother of loving-kindness in America.
How did this ridiculous idea come to capture my attention? I think—although I’m not exactly certain—that I was reading Start Where You Are, by Pema Chödrön. I was at a spiritual low point, grappling with physical and emotional problems that rested on my brow without evident solutions. Start where I am? The idea struck a chord with me. I was in one of those periods where I didn’t really have a spiritual practice. I would meditate intermittently on the challenges Pema throws out in this book, marveling at them but not really coming to grips. Chödrön is one of those Western teachers of Tibetan Buddhism who infuse dense religious ideas with fiery wit. She both entertains and engages.
Chödrön has published a book on the topic: The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness. But I hadn’t read it: In fact, I got around to ordering it the day before I took up this essay. I’ve started reading it, but so far, I don’t recognize the Loving-kindness connection. When I get deeper into this memoir, maybe I will have to start over—from wherever I may be then.
Right now, though, I’m beginning to recall that my ideas about loving-kindness really stem from Sharon Salzberg, who just might be the godmother of loving-kindness in America. She’s a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. Below is a link to her introductory essay on loving-kindness, taken from her book. (*) She’s one of a group of Americans who went to India to study with Tibetan monks and mystics. While I say that most of my ideas seem to derive from her influence, I make no claim to her approval. My thinking is idiosyncratic, evolving from my largely untutored exploration of meditation. So if something I say strikes you as odd, blame me, not someone I’m citing!
And let it be said—I’ve overcome my ambivalence about Loving-kindness meditation. It’s messy and complicated. Loving-kindness changes every day and demands—yes, I kid you not—it demands that you look at life with fresh eyes.