Thought for the Week: Loving kindness

Jenny Tipping reflects on the need for loving kindness

When I became a first time clerk of my Meeting I contemplated not just the meaning of the role of clerk, but also the meaning of Local Meetings generally: What is it that binds us together beyond the practice of gathering in silent worship on a Sunday morning? How should we relate to each other, to those who may join us, and to those who are outside and may never set foot in the Meeting house? What is my role in facilitating this?

The practice described in Sharon Salzberg’s book Loving-Kindness: the revolutionary art of happiness has much to guide us. I first came into contact with the Metta Bhavana – the cultivation of loving-kindness (metta) – at the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, now the Triratna Buddhist Community, when in my early twenties. I was just exploring my own relationship with spirituality. It is a five-stage meditation practice, each stage focussing on developing loving kindness towards those featured in that stage. Stage One directs the attention to the self. The meditator repeats the phrases ‘may I be free from danger, may I have mental happiness, may I have physical happiness, may I have ease in my life’ or simply ‘may I be well, may I be happy’. Stage Two focuses on a friend or a loved one – someone you find it easy to love, and the same phrases are repeated. Stage Three develops metta for a neutral person, an acquaintance. Stage Four moves on to someone you find more difficult to love, someone with whom you may have had a quarrel. In Stage Five your attention spreads out to all those in the room, in the building, in the town, in the country and out to the whole world.

I experience metta as a warmth, an openness, as calm or ease. Sometimes it is easier to love my friend than myself. I once used it very successfully to shift my relationship with a rather troubled cat! If Stages One to Four work well then Stage Five is easy: it is as if floating, as if all the world is love. It strikes me that the same attention can be applied to Meeting. We must first develop loving kindness for ourselves as individuals and as a Meeting before reaching out. If we aim to spread love throughout our community without first attending to the same within our Meeting then we will leave ourselves depleted. If we focus on the seemingly easier early Stages One to Three and do not face up to, and allow loving kindness to be brought to, a situation or person in Stage Four, then we will be limited in how much love we can share within our Meeting or with those we welcome, because we will be hiding something under the surface. Those currently in the outside world in Stage Five may in the future become acquaintances or loved ones if we allow them to be.

By allowing ourselves to develop Stage One, for loving kindness to be the core of our Meeting, for us to remember that it is the core of our Meeting, it becomes a habit to return to. It becomes the default stance in times of strife, the first assumption behind others’ words or actions that on the surface may seem challenging. By acknowledging and cultivating loving kindness within ourselves, which is how I understand ‘that of God’, we may have the courage and freedom to answer that of God in everyone.

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