Meditation changes our relationship to pain
What is loving-kindness meditation? While there are many different types of meditation, there are specific practices that we call loving-kindness where we actually train our hearts and minds to wish for well-being for others — “may all beings be at ease”. This is a universal, healthy desire that we make for others that leads to creating a neuropathway of kind thoughts. We develop kindness through training the mind because we understand that the mind left to its own tendencies can be unkind and critical at times. We recognize the natural, instinctual drives of the mind such as judging, comparing and jealousy are not kind to ourselves or others. They’re the opposite of generous and loving and arise because we don’t see beyond the surface manifestations of things and we get stuck in a reactive mode. Loving-kindness meditation benefits us by giving us a sense of space and perspective in our minds. Kindness is definitely something that we can develop through intentional love and kindness meditations.
Loving-kindness is a natural product of present-time awareness
Kindness is also developed as a natural result of simple mindfulness practice. We can define the core meditation practice of mindfulness as present-time, non-judgmental, kind awareness towards what’s happening here and now. If we look at the four levels of mindfulness, the first is mindfulness of the body, the breath and physical sensations. At the second foundation of feelings, we look at how we perceive what is happening here and now in the body. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Are we enjoying it, is it uncomfortable, or does it not have a charge of pain or pleasure to it at all? The sensation by itself is actually neutral—it’s just the energy of perceiving something in the body and mind. I believe that learning to sit with this moment is really where fundamental kindness is developed.
The more we practice sitting meditation, at some point we notice there are uncomfortable sensations in our body. With our mindfulness we think, “okay, it’s like this—there’s an unpleasant sensation in my knee or back”. There’s physical discomfort and rather than ignore it or try to avoid the feeling, we investigate without judging it. We can practice the same way with our mental state and feelings. We just notice these moments rather than thinking they’re something negative—just simple investigation. It’s an unpleasant sensation. The more we do that the more we wake up to see our impersonal and natural survival instinct, of wanting to get rid of it, avoid, suppress or ignore it. Aversion to unpleasant feelings is the norm. Meditation teaches us to tolerate all feelings that arise in our minds and bodies with patience. We say to ourselves, “okay, I’m going to sit with this feeling, whatever it is and just let it be that way.” We learn to change our relationship to it. This is where, I think, kindness really comes naturally from mindfulness. The more that we are with our minds, bodies and feelings on the spot, regardless of labels of pleasant and unpleasant, without running from them—even turning towards them with curiosity—then some kind of heart quality gets uncovered. There’s a natural kindness.
The solution to pain is to be kind towards it.
Maybe it’s even as simple as trial and error. When I was frustrated with my irritation, that only made it worse. I tried avoiding what I felt, but that was impossible. I came to meditation, I tried sitting with some of the discomfort—emotionally, physically, mentally and I saw that the only practical, the only wise, the only really deeply intuitive solution to discomfort or pain was to learn to be kind towards it, to learn to care about it.
Of course, we understand that we don’t meditate to become simply masochistic and be uncomfortable. There’s a lot of avoidable discomfort in our lives and the world and absolutely we do what we can to work with it properly and minimize it. But in meditation practice there’s a foundational acceptance that it’s impossible to avoid everything that we perceive is negative or undesirable. So, meditation is preparation to develop a kind relationship to all those difficulties that are unavoidable—sickness, aging, loss, grief, and death—all those painful experiences. Since we have bodies and nervous systems things are going to hurt at times. You’re going to stub your toe, get sick and have aches and pains. You’ll get stuck in traffic and be uncomfortable in the car and there are going to be all kinds of emotionally unpleasant sensations in your life. It simply doesn’t work to avoid them, so why not tune into reality as it is and learn from it?
Kindness can come from both a volitional and intentional development of mind habits of kindness and also directly from mindfulness itself. By turning towards and looking at what it is that disturbs us, this will reveal to us and bring us the insight that kindness is the only practical, the only rational way to deal with our discomforts. Part of that kindness is compassion, part of that kindness is forgiveness. This is how to practice loving-kindness meditation. Kindness is a skill we develop through mindfulness. We start by being kind to ourselves, accepting our own feelings exactly how they are. In the most fundamental sense, through meditation we uncover or reveal our natural kindness. From kindness to ourselves, we can naturally and gradually radiate that kindness to others. This is really the language of heart—heart has a natural kind response that we access through meditation.