Shepherd Yourself: The Real Grit of Lovingkindness Practice
No one else is gonna do it for you. No one else can.
We can guess, for each other. We can really be there, even, really, right there, when the shit hits the fan. And that empathy is priceless and gorgeous and a veritable Life-raft. We need each other. We need to witness each other. We need to be seen, to be heard, to be allowed, to belong. And we need to belong to ourselves, too. The deep healing and transformation for the practitioner comes when we show up for ourselves. Showing up for ourselves is manifold, and I know for me, it’s a Life-long practice.
Lovingkindness can be translated in many ways. One of the best-known definitions is Friendship, Unconditional Friendship toward ourselves. It also means befriending whatever is present and whatever arises, within ourselves, and outside of ourselves.
So, what is a friend? The one who is there.
We all know what it is like to abandon ourselves. We say Yes when we want to say No. We burn out because we put the needs of others at the expense of taking care of ourselves. We accommodate even while we are unable to be fully there, because we actually do not wholeheartedly want to be there, or we are depleted. We turn away from our wishes, dreams and heart’s callings. We eat and drink things that make us feel sick later, for the short-term pleasure of it. We compromise on sleep, rest, exercise. We accept cheap versions of all kinds of things. We ignore ourselves. We forget our talents. We hide out, give up, check out.
And in the day-to-day, we suppress, ignore, distract from or deny lots of uncomfortable feelings, connected to needs that could potentially involve inter-relational risks if we listen and take care of them. So we stay quiet.
In other words, if we are not there, for ourselves, to what extent can we truly even be helped by anyone else?
Friendship with another is one of the most exquisite experiences of this Life. I would walk around with all of my friends strapped to me if I could, in one on-going giant hug of sweetness, laughter and tears. And in a way, that’s how it is; my pals are with me all the time, in my heart, in my view, in my wisdom. But the glue is that each one of us is taking care of ourselves, of our own hearts, and of our lives.
The action of Lovingkindness is Opening. If you’re shutting down, open to that. If Equanimity is standing steady in the storm, Lovingkindness leans in and even snuggles up. Making friends takes openness, space, interest, curiosity, gentleness. It’s the slow, progressive act of Yes. Of Yes-ness, of putting your arm around another, however things might be flying, and saying Yes, All of This is Welcome, Let’s take care of all of it.
This takes a lot of practice, especially when what we are trying to develop is our ability to be there for ourselves, and befriend whatever we are navigating. When I first started the practice, I was so unused to the idea of being a friend to myself; I had no idea how to do it. So I came up with a trick. I tried to imagine what it would be like if a dear pal showed up at my door, out of the blue, unannounced, with all of his or her problems, needing a friend, needing a minute. I knew I would find a way to make space in my own heart, mind, day, to let them in. So I made the boomerang and started to do it for myself, in my seated meditation practice, welcoming whatever arose, friend to friend.
I showed up for myself in my day, in my fears, in my struggles and confusion. This was radical for me, and very strange, but it felt so good, and I knew I had to learn how to do this. I had to show up, and shepherd myself. It might sound crazy, but I remember even one time, feeling really sad and taking one of my hands into the other, and just holding it. It was odd, but sweet! I had never learned to be there for myself and hold kind, gentle space for whatever I was feeling, non-judgmentally. Another time, prior to a major performance after a week-long artist residency, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and stopped and said No matter what happens tonight, I am going to be there. I’ll be there before, throughout and afterward. We are in this together! Pal-ship achieved!
I developed an ally-ship with myself. I became my own unfailing buddy, my own girlfriend, I took myself on dates, I was there when chips were down, I became my own advocate, spokesperson, investor. This is an on-going, multi-faceted relationship of care.
In formal Lovingkindness practice, we begin with ourselves, then we extend out to others; to those we love, to those we don’t know, to those we don’t like, and then eventually to everyone, without exception. It starts with the aspiration, May I be filled with lovingkindness. With Yes-ness, here-ness, kindness, heart. Accompaniment in lieu of abandonment.
My teacher, Ken McLeod, proposes working with these phrases:
- May I be happy, well, and at peace.
- May I open to things just as they are.
- May I experience the world opening to me, just as I am.
- May I welcome whatever arises.
The verses are to be repeated mentally, in a section of your formal seated practice, both preceded and followed by simple breath-awareness practice. The idea is to just say the verses, and not worry about our internal reaction to them, if any arises. The Four Immeasurables, or the Four Divine Abodes, of which Lovingkindness is one, are as much about cultivating these emotions, and, it would seem, our relationship to emotions in general, as they are about seeing how we block ourselves from these lovely, nourishing states. Ken suggests practicing the immeasurable until it starts to show up naturally in our daily lives.
I worked with these verses and others for many years; it’s a practice I come back to regularly, and I imagine I will continue to do so. Hanging out in these Abodes is good great medicine. Like laying under a canopy of branches of a huge sheltering tree, I look up into that sacred geometry and it makes its imprint on me. I remember, and realign.
For more information on how Ken McLeod presents The Four Immeasurables, please visit: http://www.unfetteredmind.org/four-immeasurables/.