The path of love begins with bringing our intention to awaken into relationship with what is showing up right now in our meditation. In order to do so, we must be willing to meet everything that shows up, welcome or not, with unconditional love. This may sound lofty, but it is much more practical than you might imagine. This is a love born of a deep longing to move beyond our superficial coping mechanisms, habits, patterns, and views that have kept us locked in cycles of suffering we have grown weary of. We sense the illusion of separateness and the suffering bound up in that delusion, and long to wake up into the truth of interconnectedness.
You gotta have faith
The Buddha taught that in dependence upon suffering arises faith. Faith in the dharma begins with a faith based on our own personal intuition. We sense that there is a different way to relate to ourselves and the world. This is the call of the dharma, which is a manifestation of our innate wakefulness. At first it may feel a distant whisper, a flash of light on some far off horizon, or the stuff of dreams we only half remember in the dim light of morning. But if we pay attention to this longing for freedom, get curious about it, learn to bring our awareness to it, we may find that the key to liberation lies inherent there.
Meeting all of ourselves with love
Paying attention to our own deep desire to awaken is an act of love. This unconditional love is one weaved together with curiosity, courage, acceptance, and tenderness. We are beginning to relate to ourselves as beings on a journey. Yet this journey is unlike any we are familiar with. This is a journey we don’t have control over and can’t be planned. We don’t know what will happen or how it will change us. But we know there is freedom there and so we begin.
We begin by asking ourselves, what is actually going on? If our suffering is born of delusion, then how do we break the spell of that delusion? We begin by turning towards that which we may have previously ignored in our experience. Yet, simply turning towards our direct experience isn’t enough. We must be able to do so with the right attitude, the appropriate amount of positivity. Otherwise we risk a cold sort of awareness, one that might easily slip into nihilism or self-doubt. This is why it’s critical that we cultivate positive emotion in our meditaton.
Cultivating positive emotion doesn’t mean that we’ll always feel loving. In fact, when we start to work in this way we might find that our emotional world is far from positive and doesn’t always feel good. Perhaps we uncover a deep resentment or anger, jealousy or confusion. Or maybe we feel that we aren’t good enough, will never get it right, or don’t deserve to be here. We may uncover sadness, fear, or loneliness, which we initially experience as painful. The key here is first to simply notice that this is what’s happening. This is the crude material of our lives that we have to learn to work creatively with.
Meditation isn’t about getting rid of deluded or painful mental states. It’s about trusting that if we bring love and attention to these states, with a non-judgemental and curious attitude, we can begin to see into their true nature, and ultimately our true nature. That they are not fixed, they are not ultimately who we are, they do not define us. And emotions like sadness and fear can actually be very helpful. They remind us of our deep sensitivity, our humanity. We may even find that by getting out of our own way and simply letting ourselves feel them, they can become aids on our journey. Aids that can unlock a great, deep wisdom available to us right here, right now.
When working with mental states like anger, jealousy, confusion, or pride we may come up against feelings of guilt or shame. We think to ourselves, this is not who I want to be. We may feel that these emotions are not aligned with our values. But simply clarifying our values and setting our intention is not enough. We must be willing to meet these energies in ourselves, and once again, welcome them with love. This doesn’t mean that we blindly accept them or act from them. It simply means that we see them for exactly what they are.
Every moment of awareness is a moment of possibilities
It’s very important that we understand the nature of this kind of acceptance. We are not accepting the mental state in and of itself, but instead the conditions that have given rise to it, which we cannot change. Those are the conditions coming to fruition in this moment and manifesting as a deluded mental state. If we understand the law of karma, we understand that, although we can’t change these conditions, we can create new conditions from this point forward. We do this by breaking the habitual cycle, the ways we are used to dealing with these kinds of emotions, which often are to either suppress or indulge them. When we are able to be with them directly and unhook from the storyline they simply become energy and loose their power over us. They are no longer distractions, but instead become incredibly interesting. What can we learn by letting ourselves fully feel them?
Many of our strongest emotions are intimately tied up in our relationships with ourselves and others. The mettabhavana and other bhramaviharas provide a wonderful container to experiment with what comes up when we bring ourselves and others to mind. We are inviting our habitual patterns of relating to ourselves and others to surface so we may see them clearly. This clear seeing gives us choice. We can choose new ways of relating imbued with love, compassion, joy and equanimity.
The power of imagination
Our imagination becomes a critical ally in this work. In the same way that we imagine ourselves held by earth and sky when establishing our meditation posture, we can use the imagination here to begin to touch into the truth of interconnectedness. When we bring ourselves and others to mind we might use the traditional phrases – may I/you/them be well, happy, free from suffer and may I/you/them realise my/your/their true nature. As we say them, we can feel into what resonates and where we feel unaligned with the intention of those phrases. Or we might imagine golden light in our hearts or in the hearts of others. Sometimes it can help to imagine being in the physical presence of others, or even holding their hands or hugging them. The way we use our imagination is deeply personal and it’s up to each of us to find ways that work for us. However we do so, the practice is to get curious about the effect those thoughts or images have on us. How can they help us to see more clearly our habits and what else is possible?
It’s also important that we notice ways we may be unnecessarily unkind to ourselves in our meditation. For example, when striving towards a particular outcome while ignoring what else might be calling for our attention. This kind of striving can lead to feelings of disappointment or failure when we don’t achieve what we’d hoped for. So it is also critical that we are kind to ourselves. We must treat ourselves like we would a small child or animal that is suffering. Qualities like softness, tenderness, and ease can be great aids in our meditation practice. Any time we sense a hardening, tightening, tension, or drivenness is an opportunity to soften. We might even stop meditating and simply lie down for a while. Again, it’s important that we experiment with what works for us in finding creative ways to relate to ourselves differently.
Let in the joy
The happiness of a deeply concentrated mind is also helpful in establishing, getting used to, and maintaining positive mental states, both in and out of meditation. I have found it personally useful to train my mind to recognise and dwell in deeper and deeper levels of absorption. This may be easier for some of us than others, but my experience teaching has shown me that most of us have the capacity to develop a concentrated mind, even if only for a short period of time. Learning to dwell in the sensations of the breath and the body, open to pleasant experience, allow ourselves to enjoy any freeing up of energy in the body, and fully feeling the joy, one-pointedness and equanimity that follows is essential on the path of love.