Image by Franck Barske
Loving-kindness and compassion are of utmost importance at this time for humanity. Love and compassion for one another, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, need to take precedence over ideology and our superficial differences. We must come together and cooperate with one another in order to survive the global challenges facing us.
The Dalai Lama has often said, “My religion is kindness.” This is not just a simplification for Westerners; in fact, compassion and wisdom form the basis of all Tibetan Buddhism and the essence of all the world’s religions. In my opinion, the Dalai Lama is saying that the most important thing for us to have is the actual felt response of a compassionate heart.
From time immemorial there has been, and continues to be, devastating conflict in our world, like wars fought over ethnic, cultural, and religious differences. Power-hungry leaders all over the world use these differences toward divisive ends to inflame hatred and get people to go to war, causing an unfathomable amount of suffering.
Buddhism teaches that it is necessary for loving-kindness and compassion for all beings to be in our hearts in order for humanity to move forward in a sustainable way that benefits everyone, leaving no group of people out. The principles of love and compassion form the basis of all religions. In his book Essential Spirituality, which describes the seven spiritual practices core to every major religion, Roger Walsh writes, “One emotion has been long praised as supreme by the great religions: love.” He goes on to quote The Encyclopedia of Religions:
The idea of love has left a wider and more indelible imprint upon the development of human culture in all its aspects than any other single notion. Indeed, many notable figures... have argued that love is the single most potent force in the universe, a cosmic impulse that creates, maintains, directs, informs, and brings to its proper end every living thing.
From Loving-Kindness to Compassion
From a Buddhist point of view, loving-kindness is defined as the sincere wish for the happiness and well-being of others. The next step beyond loving-kindness is compassion. Compassion means feeling someone else’s pain or suffering and wishing them to be free of suffering. Of course, this naturally leads to wanting them to be happy. In Mahayana Buddhism, loving-kindness and compassion are emphasized as essential qualities of who we truly are, qualities we can uncover within ourselves.
Buddhism understands that our nature as loving and compassionate people is innate. In a study at the University of British Columbia, researchers found evidence that humans are inherently altruistic. In their study, toddlers under two years of age experienced “greater happiness when giving treats to others rather than receiving treats themselves.”
The Source of Our Suffering Is Ignorance of Our True Nature
Buddha spoke of ignorance as the source of our suffering: ignorance of our true nature as well as ignorance of the true nature of all that is. This ignorance brings about habitual patterns of ignorance and suffering that can obscure our inherent altruism. We split reality into self and other, subject and object.
It’s human nature to seek distinctions. But reality is nondual. There is no separation between various polarities, but rather truth includes and transcends polarities. Our misunderstanding leads us to desire or grasp for those things and people we want and to have an aversion to and push away those things and people we don’t want. This creates habitual patterns: The ego, or our sense of self, devises strategies to try to keep us safe and to get our needs met. But because all phenomena are like a rainbow, what we grasp onto never truly satisfies us.
Meditating to Actualize the Qualities of Love in Ourselves
Therefore, over many centuries, various ways of meditating have been developed to help people uncover and actualize qualities of love in themselves. These meditations spark and develop kindness and compassion in the individual, both for ourselves and for others. This is part of a transformational awakening process for the self — revealing and cultivating the wholesome qualities at the core of who we are.
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Over time, these kinds of meditations establish us firmly in close contact with our innate love and wisdom while we simultaneously contribute to the larger good. This leads to manifesting compassion in our world. Love on Every Breath is one of these meditations. The motivation to meditate is love, which seeks to liberate all beings from suffering, including ourselves. Compassion and love are the intention and aspiration for the meditation practice.
Traditionally, in Tibet, Love on Every Breath involves first developing compassion and love for ourselves before we do so for others. In the West, many people do not experience self-love, but rather self-criticism and self-hatred. We tend to be overly self-centered and often feel that something is wrong with us.
Without love and compassion for ourselves, we cannot sustain love and compassion for others. Love and compassion can arise spontaneously in certain circumstances for all of us, but to fully actualize love and compassion, we need to work through our anger and hurt and have compassion and love for ourselves. Then we can authentically have more compassion for others. Otherwise, it is like living in a home where we behave with harshness and cruelty and then expect to go outside and be open and loving.
If we do not include ourselves in our love, our love is not whole, not complete. This is essential. As Aristotle wrote (in Ethics, book 9), “All friendly feelings for others are an extension of a man’s feelings for himself.” It should be noted that self-love and compassion are not to be confused with self-centeredness or narcissism.
Developing love and compassion helps us to grow spiritually and emotionally by lessening our ego fixation and self-centeredness and helping our relationships with others. When we generate compassion, we do not excuse or condone our own or others’ negative actions. Likewise, awakened love does not enable our own or others’ negativity or destructiveness. Awakened compassion understands that everyone is trying to be happy.
We often try to be happy in all the wrong ways, such as when we think that money, prestige, and power will bring us happiness. Some people think they will be happy by stepping on, cheating, or destroying others, but we can have compassion for them in their ignorance. This does not mean we endorse or in any way condone their behavior. We need to stand up to their destructive agendas. Our compassion means that we wish for them to be authentically happy and free of suffering — in other words, awakened.
Examples of Compassion: Mark and Linda
An example of this happened in the life of one of my students, Mark, who engaged daily with Love on Every Breath for over a year. Mark was a professor whose department chair, Frank, continually made his life difficult by opposing his ideas and limiting funding opportunities. Mark did not care for Frank at all. However, after practicing Tonglen for many months, Mark decided to focus on this colleague in his meditation. Contemplating Frank’s suffering, Mark came to understand and have compassion for Frank’s insecurities and competitiveness.
Mark’s feelings toward Frank became more neutral; in his mind, there now was a bigger, fresh space for Frank to show up in. The next time they met, Mark engaged Frank with this new attitude. Mark spoke to him without any negative charge, and Frank responded by showing up differently in the relationship. He became much less tense and stopped exhibiting his usual derogatory behavior.
Over time, as Mark continued with the meditation, their relationship mellowed and became non-problematic. Sometimes, when we let go of our end of the rope, the other person does, too.
Another example was Linda, a client who was dying of ALS disease. Once a week, I drove to Linda’s home, where she was ensconced in a hospital bed in the living room. Linda was concerned about her six-year-old granddaughter, Laura. Linda’s son, Laura’s father, was a drug addict, and Laura’s mother also had issues that prevented her from being a fit mother. Linda wanted to do something before she died to help her granddaughter.
We decided to work with the Love on Every Breath Ton-glen meditation and to focus on an upcoming court hearing that would determine who would take care of Laura. We started the meditation focusing on the child. Over some weeks we expanded our meditation to include the parents, social workers, attorneys, foster parents, and all the other people who were in the child’s life and involved in the court case. As the time got closer to the hearing, we imagined the courtroom with all the participants present. We did the meditation for each person involved, including the judge. In Love on Every Breath, you eventually see everyone as healed, illuminated, and awakened. As we did the practice, we saw this happening for everyone. We prayed for the best possible outcome for the child. It was a really tough situation because Laura had no other grandparents, Linda was dying, and there seemed to be no suitable person who could take care of her.
Eventually, the case went to court, and afterward, Linda told me the story, though at this point she could barely speak. An unexpected outcome had occurred. Out of the blue, one of Laura’s former foster parents, who was eminently suitable, had come forward. Laura had bonded well with her and her family, but at the time, she had not been able to stay longterm with them. This family only fostered children temporarily who were in crisis. After considering all the evidence, including this previous foster mom’s testimony, the judge awarded long-term custody to the previous foster family, who were now able and willing to have Laura. This was indeed a surprising outcome! Linda and I were overjoyed. About ten days later, Linda, now at peace, passed away.
Linda and I had no way of knowing if our meditation helped. But Linda felt really good about what she had been able to do from bed. Who knows what really happened? We were totally okay with not knowing.
Even a Young Child Can Do Love on Every Breath
I have taught an abbreviated version of Love on Every Breath to children. Once I knew a lovely girl named Sarah, then three years old. Sarah was interested in spiritual things and had already learned how to sit quietly for some minutes in meditation.
Sarah’s godmother brought her to me because Sarah had told her how much seeing certain things upset her. She felt sad when she saw other children hurt or in conflict on the playground. Sarah told me all about this. She was a loving child and was being cared for in a loving way. Sarah also recounted how she often saw dead animals on the road while in the car. This also made her sad. She wanted to know how to help them.
I told her that there was a meditation that can help in these situations. Then I showed her a crystal vajra (see image to the left) and told her to imagine a vajra like this, made of light, in her heart. This vajra, I said, was all the Buddha’s love and power in her own heart. Then I told her to breathe the person or animal’s suffering into the vajra in her heart and imagine that instantly the vajra changed the suffering into healing love and white light. Then she should imagine that this white light was the love and healing energy of the buddhas, and she should send it out into the person or animal.
I also taught her that she could do this for herself when she was sad or unhappy. She could breathe her own sadness and unhappiness into the vajra and imagine it instantly changing her feelings into ones of love, peace, and safety.
A few weeks later she came back to see me and happily told me that she really liked doing this practice and it helped her a lot. Sarah, at three years old, was able to do this short meditation practice, giving her something to do in these situations to benefit others and to help herself. This brought her much peace.
The abbreviated form of Love on Every Breath that I taught Sarah is a version of the practice that the Tibetans call the “pith essence,” and it’s the basis for my “On-the-Spot” meditations. These distill the most important elements of the meditation into its concise version, which can be done anytime, anywhere, by anyone, regardless of religion, age, or educational background.
Excerpted from the book: Love on Every Breath
©2019 by Lama Palden Drolma. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
New World Library -- www.newworldlibrary.com
Love on Every Breath: Tonglen Meditation for Transforming Pain into Joy
by Lama Palden Drolma
Today, when our human family is facing so many challenges, it is more important than ever that we find peace and sustenance in our hearts. Love on Every Breath, or Tonglen, is a seven-step meditation for anyone who wants to nourish and open their heart. An ancient and profound meditation that has been practiced in isolated mountain retreats in the Himalayas for centuries, it is now available to us in the modern world. Lama Palden Drolma, a Western teacher trained by Tibetan Buddhist masters and also schooled in contemporary psychotherapy, introduces readers to the meditation in this powerful, user-friendly book. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Lama Palden Drolma is the author of Love on Every Breath. A licensed psychotherapist, spiritual teacher, and coach, she has studied Buddhism in the Himalayas with some of the most preeminent Tibetan masters of the twentieth century. Following a traditional three-year retreat under his guidance, Kalu Rinpoche authorized her to become one of the first Western lamas. She subsequently founded the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a Tibetan Buddhist teaching center in Fairfax, California. Visit her online at http://www.lamapalden.org.