Strengthen Emotional Warmth

I stumbled into loving-kindness practice eleven years ago while training to run the Columbus Marathon. I was also anticipating my first silent meditation retreat. I was rebooting. After working for a decade as a social worker, I could no longer ignore how little I had to offer the people I’d been hired to help and how little I was getting out of trying.

Professional helpers call this burn out. From my perspective, however, it was the accomplishment of an elusive goal I frequently worked toward with my clients: gaining insight. Call it what you want, but I needed to change the way I was approaching my life.

Loving-kindness turned out to be a significant part of facing my problems at a deeper level, but it has also taught me many invaluable things about myself. I learned a traditional version of loving-kindness practice by listening to an audiobook. The instructions outlined imagining the well-being of yourself and others by according to various categories: favorite people, close friends and family members, acquaintances, and difficult people.

This was supported by repeating variations of a few simple phrases:

  • May I be safe

  • May I be happy

  • May I be healthy

  • May I be comfortable

As my running mileage increased, I used that time to picture the safety, health, happiness, and comfort of a variety of people. It felt pleasant. It made the time pass more comfortably by distracting me from the frequent impulse to stop running.

I quickly noticed that the emotional warmth generated toward likable people created a momentum that made it easier to generate similar feelings as I worked my way along the continuum. I had to get clever about imagining difficult people, even aging them in reverse to much younger versions of themselves. I was surprised by the complexity of my emotional reactions to picturing my enemies as children safe in the the arms of an adoring parent.

The most challenging part for me turned out to be considering my own well-being. I understood the logic of starting with myself, but I simply could not do it. It was beyond challenging. It was impossible. The words felt empty. My typically active visual imagination went blank. I felt nothing. I had to ignore the rule of beginning with myself to explore the technique at all.

It occurred to me that the reason it was so difficult to consider my own well-being was that I was approaching myself as if I were someone I liked. I was unable to devise clever ways to imagine my own happiness until I realized that I could be my own difficult person. This proved to be a significant insight that lead to exploring ways to solve the challenge creatively.

I came up with a strategy that worked for me which also felt grounded in the essence of this exercise. I pictured all the people in my life gathered in a circle around me. I leaped off the script and tried to really imagine how their individual thriving might look and sound and feel. This invigorated me.

Then I imagined them taking turns putting the loving-kindness phrases into their own words, but aimed in my direction. When I let them speak in their own voices, I began to feel something. It was not comfortable. It felt raw, tender, and vulnerable. It felt awkward and embarrassing. It hurt. And yet I began to actually feel that none of the people in my life wanted me to suffer. Not even the strangers or enemies. I probably wasn’t even on their radar at all. This wasn’t based on logic or understanding. I could feel it in my body. Regardless of any current conflicts, the people in my life want me to enjoy my life. There was no actual evidence that they intended for me to live my life alone outside the circle of humanity. I was left wondering if I was the one behind this fear of being ostracized.

Once I had allowed a bit of basic human kindness to flow toward me, I jumped into the circle to offer it to myself. This felt shattering and cathartic. It was only in the flood of emotional warmth that I realized the depth of my self-loathing. Observing it seemed to weaken its grip. It must have been odd to see a runner sobbing on the bike path that day, but it felt as natural as sweating and discovering what my muscles and lungs were capable of doing when given a chance.

Learning the rules of this ancient practice set the stage for this lesson; relaxing the rigidity of its interpretation made it possible to directly experience its power. This wasn’t a rational exercise. My nervous system seemed to know what to do–when given a chance–through the natural processes of my mind and body. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about mindfulness strategies is the way some core internal obstacles can be unraveled without necessarily needing to solve a related narrative puzzle.

The silent meditation retreat turned out to have a lot in common with running a marathon. Experimenting with the loving-kindness strategy helped me navigate the mental, physical, and emotional challenges of prolonged sitting practice. Based on this realization, the retreat leader suggested including it during my daily meditation practice for a couple years to see if I noticed any impact.

I figured this prescription was either completely absurd—especially since I didn’t have a formal daily practice—or the most realistic suggestion I’d heard for giving any skill a fair chance to take root. I took him up on the challenge and I attribute the consistency of my practice since that day to this experiment.

I did notice an impact. Spoiler alert: Instead of noticing something being added to my life, I observed the evidence of an erosion of an invisible wall between me and other people that I didn’t know was there until it began to wear away.

It sounds abstract, but the experience is tangible. I'm not talking about sitting still in quiet rooms. I'm talking about shopping in grocery stores, walking around the neighborhood, holiday family gatherings, parties, navigating meetings at work. It's as if we've gradually enveloped ourselves inside imperceptible cocoons. We avoid vulnerability. It becomes a habit. It spreads and builds without our awareness.

These barriers exist internally, too, separating me from various aspects of myself. I have to consciously decide whether I want to intentionally erode it or unintentionally build it back up. Both processes take time.

My approach to this exercise has evolved over the years. It has been heavily influenced by the work of Shinzen Young. I treat it like physical exercise for the body. I like to call it friendliness resistance training.

In weight resistance training, we increase the challenge to a muscle group in order to strengthen it. We expect it to feel uncomfortable. It’s not unusual to work to the point of fatigue or exhaustion. We accept these challenges as natural based on our current understanding of basic physiology.

The same is true for friendliness resistance. It requires that I nudge myself outside of what feels comfortable in order to grow. The exercise doesn’t mean that I condone the specific behaviors of other people. It just means that I make some effort to remember that beneath what I can observe based on their actions, I share the same underlying human drives.

When I look closely, I notice how effortless it is to consider the well-being of the people I care about. However, if I want to increase my capacity for loving them—and myself— there is nothing better for the heart than noticing this resistance I have to considering the well-being of my enemies.

Can it be a coincidence that the world’s major religious traditions share an appreciation of this paradox?

May we all be safe, happy, and healthy.

May we feel at home in our lives, just as they are right now.

Friendliness Resistance Training Tips

Here are a few tricks I’ve discovered to outsmart my resistance to internal friendliness toward myself and other people.

Start Where You Can

Personalize this practice by starting with any category of people that feels natural to you. This flexible approach applies to any mindfulness or attentional exercise. If you don't practice, you can't experience the results. So do what you need to do to trick yourself into showing up. The benefits will eventually inspire you to continue.

Ignore the Censors

Feel free to tailor the imagined well-being to fit the imperfect people in your life. Let your friends and enemies smoke, read romance novels, and eat French fries in your mind. They will not suffer consequences of any behaviors you imagine for them. I swear. Instead of policing what makes the imaginary versions of other people happy, savor your actual responses in your own body.

Listen to Strangers

It can be easy to imagine the well-being of people you know the least about. We let them laugh. We give them families. We decorate their homes. Consider how effortlessly we fill in such details. We do the same thing when it comes to the people who are very familiar to us, but we have a difficult time distinguishing fiction from fact when our feelings are stronger and their lives overlap more directly with our own.

Know When to Make and Avoid Eye Contact

When considering the well-being of the people who are easy to love, imagine their faces and facial expressions. When you are imagining difficult people, avoid picturing their faces and see how much less challenging the task becomes.

Love Your Enemies

I need lovable people, but they don’t exercise my heart in the way my enemies do. I hate to admit it, but working with the resistance to friendliness toward the challenging people in my life has increased the closeness I feel toward my family and friends. I am thankful to my enemies for this surprising gift. You might even say I love them for it.

See also: Salzberg, S. (2008). Lovingkindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambhala. (author, library)