The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Loving-Kindness Isn’t About Morality

It is said that once upon a time, Siddhartha Gautama, before he was the Buddha, was sitting on the ground and was overwhelmed by a great feeling of sweetness towards all that lived, from the bug he saw on the ground, to the grass, and trees, to all the people, and including himself, without any distinction. He remembered that he had felt this way before, as a young child, and he realized in this feeling part of the solution he had sought to the problem of ending suffering.

One of the great problems with the mandate to love that is one of the keys to most, perhaps all, great faiths, is that it is taken as a moral commandment.

Thou must love, or you’re a bad person.

By the time Siddhartha had this insight, in the stories (who knows what happened in reality), he’d been seeking for a long time. He had studied under many masters, was an expert meditator, and so on.

He was seeking an end to suffering, that is all. His goal wasn’t to be a good person.

But here’s the thing, when you truly love, and I’m not talking about the lust that often passes for love, especially in the early throes of infatuation, but that tender warm sweetness, you can’t feel fear.


Likewise, anger, hate, and so on are disabled while you are in this state.

Being loving protects you from a lot of suffering. It doesn’t stop pain, but it reduces the suffering of pain.

If you love, all and everything, and combine this with deep equanimity, you fall deep into parasympathetic mode. You are relaxed, you do not tense against pain and loss, and so the effect of them is reduced.

The effect of love becomes confused when the insights of mystics become the dogmas of religion.

Love is, as best I can tell (and many great mystics disagree with me), not the highest form of consciousness. But it is an easy path towards the highest, as it allows easy concentration and complete relaxation, with all the attendant benefits.

There are other ways to do this, but oddly, if you relax enough, love tends to arise. It is a strange sort of dispassionate love; felt for everyone and often everything, with little compulsion to action.

And it is an unconditional love. When mystics look at what secular people call love, they find it a sickness. We love people because they make us feel good, and when they stop making us feel good we usually stop loving them. This isn’t love, to a mystic, it is a transaction.

The practice of loving kindness is simple enough. Find someone or something you can love unreservedly (the Christian God is usually bad for this, since most people are terrified of him and hate him, though they will not admit it. After all, if you displease him, he will have you tortured for eternity.)

Feel love to that person (a puppy or a young child, or a God who isn’t a torturer are good candidates). Imagining open you arms wide for a big hug (or even starting by actually opening them) can be a good start.

Then once you can feel this love on demand, move it to people you love, but about whom you have mixed feelings, and slowly work your way to loving people you hate or fear or despise.

The trap to be careful of here is not falling into misery. If you spend too much time on how these people are suffering, instead of feeling love, you can wind up sad, and that’s not the point.

Deep lovingness allows the body and mind to rest and relax. It allows muscles held in contraction, often for decades, to let go. It allows concentration, because fear and worry and other compulsive thoughts are reduced.

It is NOT the entire path (though there are many who think it is), because it can get you very very far, to the point where you’re both genuinely a sage and a really wonderful person (and other people can feel it when they’re around someone who has developed like this).

But it feels really great and gets you a long way, and of the techniques with which the Buddha is associated, it ranks next to concentration on the breath as one of the two main spears of practice. (There are other pieces to the practice, like insight meditation; more on that in a later piece.)

And remember, the most important person to love, and often the hardest, is yourself. Don’t start there, as a rule (few people have uncomplicated feelings towards themselves), but somewhere along the path, spend a lot of time loving yourself.

There’s a ton of cultural baggage and conditioning in the West that says one shouldn’t do that–that it’s selfish, that we’re bad people who don’t deserve love, and so on.

Forget it. Even if you’re a terrible person who has done terrible things, to walk this path and reduce suffering, you’ve got to love yourself. It’s not about “deserving”; full loving kindness includes loving terrible people, it’s a technique to accomplish something.

Nor need you fear that you’ll be unable to take care of yourself if you’re loving. You don’t have to become a pushover just because you love people. Kill them with love if necessary. You’ll just be far less likely to hurt others as a default action.

When loving kindness becomes crippling is when it is taken as a moral prescription, rather than as a skillful means. You aren’t loving because others deserve it (they neither do nor don’t), you are loving because it is a far better way to live than being angry, hateful, and scared.

More on anger and hate later.

And, uh, before you love your neighbour as yourself, learn to love yourself. The way some people treat themselves, I’d rather they hated me.

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  1. Adam Eran

    The “great commandments” from Jesus are: 1. Love your neighbor as yourself. 2. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. (He says that summarizes all the law and the prophets, too.)

    Personally, I think of them as the “great observations.” If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love your neighbor. And whatever you love wholeheartedly…that’s your God.

  2. Speaking of Jesus, and love, Rev. Dan Smith wrote a sermon about this poem by James Tate:

    Goodtime Jesus

    Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream-
    ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it?
    A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled
    back, skin falling off. But he wasn’t afraid of that. It was a beau-
    tiful day. How ’bout some coffee? Don’t mind if I do. Take a little
    ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.

  3. tsisageya

    Adam, the first paragraph is fine. The next is unnessessary and almost incorrect. Buddha did not die for my sins. Jesus did.

  4. Herman

    I don’t think the Christian God is that fearsome. One of the defining features of the Christian God is His forgiveness that is more powerful than any sin. But the kicker is that people must repent, much like the thief on the cross who Christ promised Paradise to. Despite a life of crime he was promised Paradise by Christ because he repented his sins. A person who leads an evil life and never repents is another story and you could argue that they deserve Hell because their refusal to repent puts them there. It is a rejection of God’s love and mercy.

    But I definitely agree with you when you point out that for most people in secular societies (and this includes the United States, which is really more secular than people realize despite being technically more religious than most advanced countries) love is entirely transactional. Most Americans only “love” people as long as they make them feel good. When the warm fuzzies cease and you see that your friend/spouse/partner/family member is imperfect then the first impulse is to dump that person and try to find a new person who will make you feel good.

    G.K. Chesterton has my favorite quote about the nature of love.

    “Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.”

  5. jeremy

    I honestly believe that he had consumed (intentionally or not) some form of MDMA or equivalent love-inducing psychotropic. It is known that many moulds can contain mind altering chemicals.

    So, Gautama was probably sitting under a tree eating some stale flat bread when – WHAM!
    His whole world was rocked!

  6. speaking of jesus dying for my sins –

    i have often enjoyed giblets’ review of “the passion of the christ” at fafblog! – so much so that i didn’t want to see the film, and still haven’t

    in giblets’ review: ”Then there was Mary Magdalene, who was hot, but didn’t get nearly as much screen time. Put the hot chick up front, Gibson!”

    a book providing a corrective on this is jean-yves leloup’s translation of the gnostic gospel of mary magdalene, which reveals “unique teachings that emphasize the eminence of the divine feminine and an abiding love of nature over the dualistic and ascetic interpretations of Christianity presented elsewhere. What emerges from this important source text and commentary is a renewal of the sacred feminine in the Western spiritual tradition and a new vision for Christian thought and faith throughout the world.”

    about the theology of vicarious redemption – in huston smith’s “beyond the post-modern mind” (there’s a catchy book title) he offers the contrasting perspective of a zen saying – “no one else can go to the bathroom for you”

  7. Krystyn

    The mythology surrounding Siddhartha hides the truth of a troubled person and a troubling religion. Siddhartha was a wealthy, handsome prince who left his wife and child because he was having an extisential crisis. He hung out with some hippies and he had the dominating feel good philosophy and he became the earliest version of instagram famous. He says he found that if you sit still you can release certain neurotransmitters that change how you perceive the world.

    But what he did was find a way to violently subjugate a natural product of our own self awareness; suffering. Yes violently. Meditation is self inflicted violence and subjugation of our natural self. Siddhartha did not love himself, he hated being human, he wasted to escape his humanity. Buddhism is an escape, a more gentle opioid but an opioid none the less. It is hedonistic at its core. It claims that it’s end goal will lead to 24/7 bliss! No one could survive that!

    Buddhism is also a farmers religion. It can only exist with a surplus of food so that a few people can spend hours a day sitting and staring at walls. Don’t you think governments use it to pacify it’s people? Do you think it was a coincidence that Siddhartha was a prince? Do you think it is a coincidence that corporations are so quick to incorporate it into the workplace?

    Nature does not distinguish between pain and suffering, only lawyers and humans do. And nature does not care about love, it cares about survival and reproducing. You said loving is far better than being angry. Is it better or does it FEEL better?

    Buddhism has left the Far East in a mess, just as all the gurus before and after Siddhartha have.

    And please do not assume anything about my background and experience regarding Buddhism.

  8. Willy

    If one reads the Bible objectively, the Christian god can be a cold, heartless and confused sort of omnipotent being who doesn’t always show up. I’ve heard too many humanistic atheists say they wouldn’t worship such a god even if one was proven to exist. Bad mistake. A ruthless and vindictive omnipotent would make your eternal life hell, and no amount of moral martyrdom could defeat that.

    OTOH, if one takes the Bible loosely, to read it with crossed eyes after having smoked a fair amount of weed, one might imagine God to be an artist. Having been bored with perfect universes, he may have created this universe to allow choice and will and cause and effect to operate within a maintained set of rules, so he could just sit back and watch the show.

    Of course being spiritual he’d be everywhere all the time and would already know every possible outcome regardless of what monkey wrench he threw into the system. And where’s the fun in that?

    Maybe it’d just be easier to understand Siddhartha Gautama’s observations about human emotions?

  9. alyosha

    The practice of loving kindness is simple enough. Find someone or something you can love unreservedly (the Christian God is usually bad for this, since most people are terrified of him and hate him, though they will not admit it. After all, if you displease him, he will have you tortured for eternity.)

    The easiest, most direct path to God (or Enlightenment, Reality, Truth – whatever you want to call it) is to love the guru. “God” is usually too abstract for most – or too terrifying – but God as Human – Jesus for example, is not. This is why God incarnates in humans, as God-ordained gurus (versus the frauds + charlatans), to appear in a form that humans can relate to.

    There are two paths to God – bhakti (love) or gnana (knowledge). Gnana eventually leads to bhakti.

    BTW, saw a great movie about Pope Francis, by Wim Wenders. He is clearly someone who is on the bhakti path.

  10. Olivier

    For the kind of love you are talking about here compassion might be a better word.

  11. BlizzardOfOzzz

    Herman –

    “Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.”

    Chesterton is a goldmine of insight. On loving your neighbor:

    We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there– a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

    From the same essay, on the family:

    Now, exactly as this principle applies to the empire, to the nation within the empire, to the city within the nation, to the street within the city, so it applies to the home within the street. The institution of the family is to be commended for precisely the same reasons that the institution of the nation, or the institution of the city, are in this matter to be commended. It is a good thing for a man to live in a family for the same reason that it is a good thing for a man to be besieged in a city. It is a good thing for a man to live in a family in the same sense that it is a beautiful and delightful thing for a man to be snowed up in a street. They all force him to realize that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside. Above all, they all insist upon the fact that life, if it be a truly stimulating and fascinating life, is a thing which, of its nature, exists in spite of ourselves. The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy. It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

    What we’re seeing in our time (and what was already well advanced in Chesterton’s day) is people running from Christianity — but they can never succeed, because it casts a 2,000 year shadow. It’s in our blood. We could destroy our civilization trying, and it would come out unscathed.

    It’s easy to “love humanity” because you get to choose which parts to love; it’s harder to love your neighbor or your brother. I went to a Baptist church recently and they they had a visiting pastor, who gave a Powerpoint presentation on expanding the church. Dickens had these people’s number with Mrs Jellyby: they’re all about traveling to Africa and rubbing elbows with political bigwigs, while family of their own congregation are suffering unheeded and unministered to.

  12. Synoia

    The God of the OT and God of the NT are hardly similar. The OT God appears authoritarian, demanding and Angry. The God of the NT Giving, Forgiving, and Loving.

    I know little of Buddhism, but it does not appear to be a warlike religion, unlike the various Christian cults and Muslim faith.

    It is a sad reflection on the Monotheistic Religions, and their members, all of whom agree there is but one God, and then wage war over the differences in their organization and method of worship.


    I believe it’s unlucky to be superstitious.

  13. Ian:

    Isn’t the description you have of loving-kindness a transactional one? “it feels really great and gets you a long way”, “you are loving because it is a far better way to live than being angry, hateful and scared”?


    Buddhism tends to adapt to the needs of the society it exists in, like all religions. See e.g.

  14. atcooper

    There’s ‘stir the oatmeal’ love and romantic love. The first is caretaking and not always exciting or glamorous. The second is dangerous and short lived and possessive.

  15. Jane Stewart

    Would an individual enslaved by the unjust empire prefer you loved them and your neighbors, including those at the top responsible for their needless suffering or do you think they might be perfectly fine with you using pure hatred to remove the immediate problem?

    At best this love is powerful nonsense is only useful when what is required to solve our problems is simple tinkering and tweaking. When you need a revolution hate is a foolish emotion to avoid. It is of course understandable given what a powerful tool hate can be and what a dangerous weapon when used wrongly. But our foes possess greater power, greater resources, greater numbers (even if many of those numbers are simply passively going along with the status quo).

    What is morally justifiable by a powerless minority is not the same as what is morally justifiable by the state or any other powerful organizing principle. Again, dangerous sentiment used wrongly, but foolish to discard, voluntarily forcing yet more weakness upon yourself.

    But remember, morally justifiable is not synonymous with good. It is regrettable that we have reached such a point. We must recognize that no matter what we do, we are responsible for unacceptable levels of violence and suffering. The question is will we do what is easiest, what feels good, maybe what allows us to sleep comfortably in the ignorant abstractions or will we be willing to sacrifice potentially everything we are to stop the machine?

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