When another person makes you suffer,
it is because he suffers deeply within himself,
and his suffering is spilling over.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
What an agonizing year it has been here in the United States. No American presidential campaign could ever be characterized as loving, but this year, the depths of hate, the heights of anger, and the breadth of personal attacks seem to grow daily. Everyone is disgusted but no one is willing to reach out in a gesture of love. Except for that amazing gentleman at the end of the second presidential debate. Remember him? He asked both candidates to say something positive about the other. The reaction from the candidates was refreshing. Hillary Clinton responded to the question by complimenting Donald Trump’s children. Trump said he liked that Clinton is a fighter. Then, they shook hands and left the stage. I was stunned at how that simple question completely changed the tone of the debate and how the candidates treated each other.
Has anyone ever hurt your feelings? Of course they have. We all have experienced hurt and pain from someone we have loved or trusted. How do we respond? For most of us, the natural response is either to retaliate or to end the relationship, or perhaps both. These options for response are often called Fight or Flight. According to Wikipedia, the fight-or-flight response, or acute stress response, is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. The theory states that we and all animals react to threats and stress with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the animal for fighting or fleeing. This response is recognized as the first stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.
The fight or flight response is essential and an appropriate choice when we are facing a real threat. But, our bodies don’t know the difference between someone who sends you a nasty email and someone who attacks you on the street – that is, unless you regulate your body’s response. I have made the decision to choose conscious mindfulness over fight or flight in an unpleasant interaction. Mindfulness is not thinking, interpreting, or evaluating; it is an awareness of perception. It is a nonjudgmental quality of the mind which does not anticipate the future or reflect back on the past. It’s difficult for me to be sure, but choosing to be present to any thoughts, feelings, or perceptions, rather than fighting back or escaping, is much more satisfying. During the stressful situation, I will acknowledge to myself whatever is going on in my mind at that moment, such as “I’m feeling angry, or I must be a terrible person.” Mentally articulating my perceptions definitely allows me to be less judgmental of myself and make more mindful choices of behavior.
Loving-kindness is a meditation practice taught by the Buddha to develop the mental habit of selfless or altruistic love. One of my favorite sayings of the Buddha is: “Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness, and dissipates if supplanted with thoughts based on loving-kindness.” (www.buddhanet.net) Lately, I’ve been trying this form of meditation whenever I get angry at one of the current presidential candidates who can definitely provoke my fury!
The practice begins with developing a loving acceptance of yourself. This is difficult in our culture because we tend to be so hard on ourselves. When we feel this way, it means there is work to be done. Loving-kindness practice itself is designed to overcome any feelings of self-doubt or negativity. Then we are ready to systematically develop loving-kindness towards others.
Five Persons to Develop Loving-Kindness Towards:
- a respected, beloved person – such as a mentor or spiritual teacher;
- a dearly beloved – which could be a close family member or friend;
- a neutral person – somebody you know, but have no special feelings towards, e.g.: a person who serves you in a store;
- a hostile person – someone you are currently having difficulty with. (www.buddhanet.net)
Loving-Kindness Practice Instructions
Loving-kindness comes from a selfless place. It does not depend on how the other person feels about us. The process is first one of breaking down the unworthiness that we feel about ourselves, and then the judgments that we feel toward others.
Take a very comfortable posture and begin to breathe in and out from your center. Always start with directing your focus to yourself. Say or think the statements several times. After focusing on yourself, move on to the other four types of persons. Let the phrases spread through your whole body, mind, and heart.
- May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.
- May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
- May I be happy.
- May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
- May I be healthy and strong.
Developing a practice of loving-kindness is a discipline, like other forms of mindfulness. It takes time and patience. But it is a powerful frame for developing compassion toward ourselves and others in our mindful retirement journeys. Below is a poem I love that speaks to this presidential campaign of hate and to our journeys toward self-compassion.
Do not be ashamed by Wendell Berry
You will be walking some night in the comfortable dark of your yard and suddenly a great light will shine round about you, and behind you will be a wall you never saw before.
It will be clear to you suddenly that you were about to escape, and that you are guilty: you misread the complex instructions, you are not a member, you lost your candor never had one.
And you will know that they have been there all along, their eyes on your letters and books, their hands in your pockets, their ears wired to your bed.
Though you have done nothing shameful, they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed, reading the page they hold out to you, then such light as you have made in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them, only an inward clarity, unashamed, that they cannot reach.
When their light has picked you out and their questions are asked, say to them: “I am not ashamed.”
A sure horizon will come around you.
The heron will begin his evening flight from the hilltop.