Loving-kindness practice is a tradition in Theravada Buddhism. It is often thought of as a complement to mindfulness. But it could also be thought of as a form of mindfulness. Here’s what I mean.
I like to define mindfulness very broadly. It’s any process that involves developing and applying three core skills—concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity. I believe this broad perspective will facilitate mindfulness becoming part of mainstream culture everywhere in the world. (You can find my rationale for that here.)
In any event, by that definition, loving-kindness is a form of mindfulness because:
- It develops concentration power. You selectively focus on specific sensory content (one or a combination of positive mental image, positive mental talk, and pleasant body emotion).
- It develops sensory clarity. You become intimate with those internal sensory elements by intentionally activating them (as opposed to passively observing them).
- It develops equanimity. If non-positive content arises, you let it do so in the background without latching on or pushing down, i.e., you bring “background equanimity” to it. This allows you to effectively process any negative reactions that might come up as you attempt to be positive.
Perhaps due to my love of math and science, I tend to generalize principles and practices I encounter. In colloquial parlance, the word generalize may imply vagueness or imprecision. But in math and science, the ability to generalize is the ability to notice when a specific principle or procedure represents something more universal.
I’ve generalized loving-kindness into something I call Nurture Positivity. One theme in Nurture Positive involves focusing on positive emotions; traditional loving-kindness would be a proper subset of that. Another theme is to cultivate adaptive thoughts—thoughts that are grounded in logic and evidence. Sometimes adaptive thoughts take the form of antidotes to irrational and disempowering thoughts, i.e., you can focus on the thought “flying is safe” to weaken an irrational fear of flying. Strengthening positive behaviors or weakening negative ones is yet another theme in nurturing positivity. Finally, working with archetypal material (as in Vajrayana “deity yoga” or the Christian stations of the cross) could also be looked upon as a form of nurturing positivity. Loving-kindness, cognitive re-framing, behavioral intervention, and working with archetypes—these may seem to be quite unrelated. Is there some general principle shared by all these procedures? Yes. They can all be implemented through intentionally creating specific mental images, mental talk, and body emotion.
My current core Nurture Positive techniques are:
- See Good, i.e., See Good Action – You visualize taking on a positive action or abstaining from a negative one.
- Hear Good, i.e., Hear Good Thought – You repeat a positive mindful mantra in mental talk space.
- Feel Good, i.e., Feel Good Emotion – You generate positive emotion in your body.
- Be Good, i.e., Be Good Everywhere – All three internal elements are involved: You replace your self image with that of an ideal, archetype, avatar, or significant symbol; you replace your usual mental talk with words or sounds associated with that ideal, archetype, avatar, or significant symbol; and you create the positive body emotions that are associated with it as well.
Let’s talk a little more about the Feel Good practice. This can be done alone in stillness, but it’s also a great practice to do as a background technique during daily life, especially in social circumstances where you’re around people you enjoy being with. Their company can act as a seed that triggers a samadhi of love in your body – maintaining you in a meditative state while spreading unconditional positive regard to the world around you. This is the very embodiment of the Japanese idiom jibun ni ii, hito ni ii – “good for you and good for others.”
Here are six practical ways to activate pleasant body emotion.
- Find it, i.e. notice if pleasant “Feel In” is already present in your body.
- Evoke it (indirectly) by briefly thinking a positive thought.
- Evoke it (directly) by turning on the “pleasant Feel In” switch.
- Trigger it (through external sight, sound or touch).
- Support it by letting restful states or flow states induce positive emotional sensations in your body.
- Show it, i.e., physically Smile.
(#6 is always available; #1 – #5 are sometimes available.)
As I mentioned, Feel Good is a great background practice in social circumstances where you’re around people you enjoy being with. It’s something you might wish to explore during the upcoming holiday season. Apropos of “triggering” pleasant Feel In, perhaps this will help: