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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