Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

Dent Gitchel
Originally posted 01 Apr 2014

Lovingkindness: TheRevolutionary Art of Happiness is a must-read for those interested in well being and fulfillment. Author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg explains important Buddhist concepts like compassion (karuna) and lovingkindness (metta). As the body of scientific research on happiness and meditation grows, there is rising interest in contemplative approaches to happiness and self-development. Contemplative practices may seem difficult, but Salzberg helps to make them accessible. Ultimately, lovingkindness is presented not as a concept, but as a precious human experience that we all have and that can be cultivated further. In Salzberg’s own words, lovingkindness is “the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.” Salzberg gives readers a roadmap to begin a journey into widening the heart.

It may be surprising that when doing lovingkindness meditation, Salzberg recommends that we start with sending good wishes to ourselves. According to Salzberg, “when we do metta practice, we begin by directing metta toward ourselves. This is the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others.” Making ourselves the object of our own love and compassion may seem odd to those raised in modern Western culture. The approach presented in Lovingkindness is that love is in our true nature, but that it cannot be truly directed toward others until it is directed toward ourselves. Salzberg highlights self-kindness as a fundamental step in the development of lovingkindness. 

 A second intriguing aspect of meditation as it is presented in the book is its use of reflection, phraseology, and imagination. One might assume that meditation is a mindless or trance-like state. In Salzberg’s approach, however, reflection is an essential component of meditation. She believes that a key step in developing self-lovingkindness is to reflect on happiness and friendship: what happiness and friendship truly are and how to go about achieving them. Salzberg encourages us to think about the similarity between ourselves and others in respect to these basic human values.

 Though there is currently widespread interest in Buddhism, many of its goals and concepts may be hard to understand. Ideas such as having love or compassion for everyone can be daunting. The roadmap Salzberg presents in this text helps to make such abstract ideas easier to grasp. To enhance the power of reflection, Salzberg emphasizes the use of phrases and imagination. When reflecting on our own goodness and aspiration for happiness, we may offer ourselves phrases such as, “may I be happy” or “may I dwell in peace.” When breaking down barriers between self and others, she recommends phrases such as, “just as I want to be happy, so you want to be happy.” This use of reflection, phraseology, and imagination may help make meditation accessible for beginners. The exercises progress in a systematic manner. Self-lovingkindness is the first step. Gradually, lovingkindness is extended to those near and dear, and then to others who are more difficult. Salzberg then guides us in further widening the circle of compassion to all beings. 

 Many human beings are starved for this type of love. Smothered by the expectations of others and critical minds, experiences of love may be tinged with expectations and attachment. Lovingkindness, on the other hand, is unconditional, without expectations, and free of attachment. To love oneself or another unconditionally is to want and wish the best with no strings attached.

Self-help books and workshops are available to us in dizzying numbers, making it difficult to choose whose advice to follow. If the goal is to be truly humane and to develop our innate capacities for genuine, meaningful lives and communities, this book is an invaluable resource. It offers traditional Buddhist concepts in a manner that is accessible to modern readers and non-Buddhists, and it helps to normalize the process of meditation. What is presented in this book is nothing less than a roadmap to love and compassion, which, to Salzberg, are among the birthrights of being human.


About the Author

Dr. Dent Gitchel completed Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training in 2012-2013. He teaches Compassion Cultivation Training in Little Rock, Arkansas. He received a PhD in Rehabilitation Education and Research at the University of Arkansas and was a Walton Distinguished Doctoral Fellow. He also worked in the Department of Educational Statistics and Research methods and received Post-Masters certificates in both Education Statistics Research and Educational measurement

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