I was once in a band of two. Having no ear for music, I was the frustrated lyricist, dependent on my bandmate’s gift for composition. There was one song we sang together, however, that was wholly mine. It had but four lyrics, repeated: Clemency. Softness. Sweetness. Mercy. I see that now as an inadvertent loving-kindness meditation.
The tradition of loving-kindness meditation is a long one and takes many forms. The one I use, said to be Tibetan, looks like this: “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Susan Kaiser-Greenland, in her good work, uses the term “friendly wishes” and encourages children to invent their own; she writes about that in her book The Mindful Child.
Loving-kindness as a practice involves directing positive intentions first toward ourselves, then toward those we care about, followed by those for whom our feelings are relatively neutral, and finally toward those against whom we harbor ill will.
This can be a slow progression; words like “first,” “then,” and “followed by” misleadingly elide the steps, which are meant not only to be sequential but to represent increasing mastery, gained over time. For myself, I tend to think the practice is lifelong and nonlinear. Love of self isn’t necessarily the easiest step, despite being the first.
In my mindfulness groups at the county jail, I chose not to introduce the whole concept of loving-kindness at the start, wanting to establish purity of focus and prevent bias or resistance. (The notion of wishing that good fortune might befall an enemy is easier to swallow when one’s own life has been sweetened.) As I was explaining the first phase—sitting mostly with addicts, who tend to struggle with self-esteem—a picture flashed into my mind. I described it thus:
Imagine that you’re looking into a well, and the water in this well is pure and sweet, but there’s no bucket or ladder to help you access it. There are stones on the ground, however—smooth, clean stones that you can drop in one by one to raise the level. At last, you can bend, cup your hands, and drink. Loving-kindness is like that. Each intention is a smooth stone that, eventually, can help you quench your thirst. May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy.