Several years ago Oprah Winfrey interviewed Buddhist Monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn for her show Super Soul Sunday and it was the very first question she asked, and his answer, that had a profound effect on me. She asked, “just being in your presence, I feel less stressed than when the day started. You have such a peaceful aura. Are you always this content?” and Nhat Hahn responded with simple clarity, “This is my training. This is my practice.”
He didn’t say, “well, I was always a happy child,” or, “my life is very good right now,” or, “I am feeling very happy today.” What he said is, essentially, I WORK AT THIS.
What a profound truth. Peace isn’t passive. It isn’t, as we often think in the Western world, absence of conflict or war. It isn’t a feeling. Instead it is a practice. Something you train for. Like a ballerina trains daily to perfect their art, molding their body into a machine well-tuned for their given task, creating a muscle memory that makes the action fluid and, apparently, effortless. But it wasn’t effortless at the beginning. It took action — ongoing, intentional, often daily actions that accumulate into the seeming ease of gliding across the stage enpointe.
A ballerina is not made in a day even with the greatest of natural talent. It takes intention and practice. It is the same with peace and its sisters; joy, compassion, and contentment. They are mental muscles you must stretch and condition to perform the actions you want them to perform. With continued training the actions of peace happen more quickly and with greater ease until they come without thought, until they become your new normal.
This is a truth I’ve experienced myself. One day, several years before I heard Oprah’s interview with Nhat Hahn, I was at work complaining to a coworker about another coworker who had been grouchy and difficult to work with for months. I was railing at how annoying he was and how I wish he’d just stay home instead of making my life so miserable. My co-worker said,“Didn’t youhear? His wife has stage IV breast cancer. She isn’t supposed to make it to summer.”
Woosh…the air left my lungs and I felt suspended in time for a moment as my entire world view took a slight but profoundshift. In my relation to my grouchy coworker for sure but also in a wider sense I understood something new: everyone you meet is being the best person they are capable of being at the moment. The meanest, grouchiest person isn’t that way by chance. There is always areason.
I decided in that moment that I wanted to be a more compassionate person. I wanted to be someone whose first thought when confronted with a nasty person wasn’t about how their nastiness was affecting me but, instead, I wanted my first thought to be, “I wonder what they are going through. I wonder if I can help?”
That was nine years ago and the process is still ongoing but I can’t even de- scribe to you what a wonderful change it was for me. Before, I’d be the person fuming all day because some $@&$! woman cut me off in traffic. Now I think, I wonder why she’s in such a hurry that she nearly killed me? I wonder if she’s on the way to the hospital or if she’s preoccupied with financial worry. The “before” voice in my head would say, “pssh, she’s probably late for a hair appointment” or something else snarky and compassion-killing. With my new mind on compassion I’d argue with my “before” mind that it is irrelevant why the woman actually cut me off. Compassion is about finding a way for me to offer openness to others. In this way, and perhaps oxymoronically, compas- sion isn’t a gift to others, it is a gift to myself.
As the years of practicing compassion have progressed my compassion-mind has become stronger and more nimble at arguing with before-mind. Before-mind, that short-tempered complainer, got weaker, feeble, only rarely surfacing to derail my compassion. Where I used to have to take a deep breath and focus on finding a compassionate angle from which to proceed, these days it comes more and more easily, almost second nature. My practice has created muscle memory in my compassion-mind and now compassionate thought is my first reaction. To others it may look effortless like the ballerina twirling but I know the work that went in to it.
And let me tell you about the amazing benefits I had no idea I would reap! I only wanted to not be a snap-to-judgment person but what I got out of the practice was so much more than just dealing better with people.
As I became more patient with others, I became more patient with myself.
As I better understood the motivations of others, I started to understand my own motivations better.
As I learned to let go of the annoyances that used to irritate me about people, I became less annoyed, less irritated, more happy.
As I learned to love people in spite of their not-always-perfect selves, I learned to love myself despite my often not-perfect self.
In attempting to give peace to others, I found it for myself.
In retrospect I had ups and downs in my quest to be more compassionate and the changes were small at first but there were two techniques I used that became the calisthenics of my compassion-mind workout:
Perspective taking is understanding that other people have different views than us. I found that this is a technique I could practice while watching mov- ies or TV. When characters behave in certain ways I would try to identify their motivation. Maybe it was an emotional motivation — like anger or fear. Or, maybe it was a flawed motivation driven by a misconception, misunderstanding, or trauma.
Perspective taking is NOT “what would I do in their shoes?” That can also be valuable, of course, but it is self-centered. Perspective taking, rather, is other-centered. Not what would I do, but why would they do that? Sometimes you would do something very different. The point is to understand why they might be doing something in a way that you can find empathy with them.
For example, I like to watch The Walking Dead. My husband got me hooked on it because he is a zombie-lover. I’m not so much, but the beauty of this (admittedly gorey) show is that the zombies are just plot devices. The STORY is about people. Like The Governor, chief baddy of season 3 and 4. This character appears beyond evil. His actions are illogical as they often harm him as much as anyone else. In the end he suffered from pure madness but I like to think about how he got there. His daughter, zombified but kept and fed because he hopes to cure her, probably plays a crucial role in his descent into madness. Hope and love motivates him and as the years tick on and hope is lost, his love turns to anger and then hate.
Pixar gave us a great way to do this with kids in the movie Inside Out. This has given my kids and I a great frame of reference for talking about other people’s motivations. Even when watching something else I can ask, “Sounds like Anger’s head is flaming in that character,” and my kids immediately know what I’m referring to. If you haven’t see Inside Out, I recommend it.
A note of caution: perspective taking is not meant to be a tool you use on people. Saying, “Oh you’re acting that way because you…” is gaslighting and rude. Perspective taking often asks you to make assumptions and generaliza- tions and can be completely wrong if the goal is to “know” what’s “wrong” with someone else. Instead keep in mind that perspective taking is a tool to help YOU find an alternative train of thought to “this person is annoying me” and replace it with “but they may have a heavy burden.” It helps you open your heart to compassion, it isn’t meant to help you psychoanalyze people, which you’ll quickly find if you make the mistake of trying it, people don’t enjoy.
Metta Bhavana is a Buddhist meditation practice of cultivating loving-kindness, defined as an unconditional love for self that expands outward to encompass all living things. It consists of specific practices that help arouse feelings of love inside of you, and the more you practice, the more easily these feelings arise and the longer they linger. When you cultivate these feelings it becomes easier to expand your circle of compassion beyond yourself.
The practices are visualization, reflection, and mantras and I’ll give you an example of each. And don’t worry, you don’t have to know how to meditate to do this. Mantras are meditation focused but visualization and reflection can be done while you do dishes, commute to work, or workout on the treadmill. You don’t have to use the archaic language of Buddhism if it doesn’t speak to you. Use what works for you to feel loving-kindness.
Visualization – this is my favorite method for practicing loving-kindness because I’m a very visual person. For visualization I focus my mind on picturing a person I love. I especially like to do this with my kids. I’ll pull a picture of my son into my mind’s eye. I focus on detail to make the image “real” — I get the color of his eyes right, the way his hair falls over his forehead, his cute little smile. I can already feel the love! Once I have that visualization I imagine pouring my love into the person. Sometimes I imagine doing this with my hands — I visualize my hands on his head seeping love from my hands into him. Sometimes I picture light flowing from me into him. By now I’m smiling. It feels good to focus on loving someone so intensely.
The next time he’s having a meltdown and I’m just holding him through it I imagine love passing from my skin into his. I know he calms down better when I do this than when my mind isn’t with him while he’s upset (or if I’m thinking of myself instead of him).
Too abstract for you? Maybe you area more intellectual thinker and this next technique will work better for you.
Reflection – where visualization asks you to kind of shut off your “thinking” brain for a moment and engage your emotions visually, reflection turns the thinking brain on and uses it to focus on benevolent feelings toward the person. You can write down your reflections in a journal if it helps.
If I imagine my son again (a certain amount of visualization is very helpful — hold the image of the person in your mind as this keeps your intention focused) and I think about the things I love about him. He’s funny. Kind. Sen- sitive. I think of something specific like when he takes such good care of our cat and I let the emotion it triggers in me grow. I think aloud in my mind, “What a beautiful soul he is.”
Mantras – the last method works for everyone because it uses repetition of a phrase to train the brain. You can find many YouTube videos of guided meditations (search for “metta meditation”) that use this method. This method consists of repeating verses to each person you bring to mind. They can be said aloud or in your mind. Concentrate on meaning the words with your whole being. The traditional mantras are:
Aham avero homi – May I be free from enmity and danger
abyapajjho homi – May I be free from mental suffering
anigha homi – May I be free from physical suffering
sukhi – attanam pariharami – May I take care of myself happily
Knowing the methods of loving-kindness cultivation is only half of the task. The other is to expand the circle of compassion from inside yourself and outward. In metta meditations you are usually guided through four or five lev- els of compassion: self, a loved one, a respected one, a stranger (like a store clerk), and an enemy or someone you are in conflict with. In other meditations the circle gets expanded to the world with repeated mantras for all people. This is easy with a loved family member. What about a stranger? What about someone you are in conflict with? What about someone you feel hate towards?This is more difficult and takes practice.
I had been doing metta meditation for several years before I tackled my feelings for a person that I felt hate for. It was a former boss who I had a pending case against for sex discrimination. This person was awful to me and I suffered from hating him very much. I even had nightmares about this person. Finding a way to wish him benevolence was very hard. I tried many times and at best felt empty. I was never able to feel lovefor this person even if I could repeat the mantras about him. I told myself I felt compassion for anyone who was so mean and alienating. But this wasn’t true compassion because I felt no love for him. This was pity.
Then one day I did a guided metta meditation with my sister and I was explaining to her how to love someone you hate. I told her you had to find the humanity in the person and use that to feel love. Then we fell silent to listen to the meditation. When we got to “someone you are in conflict with or have negative feelings for” I tried to think of a moment of humanity in him. I remembered him once showing me pictures of his daughters. I remember the look on his face — pride, love. This man loved his kids. I love my kids. It was like a flood gate opened in me and I felt overwhelming love for this person who loved his children. I finally saw him as a flawed but beautiful human, worthy of the things in the mantra. I might have secretly not wanted happiness for the boss that wronged me, but I could wish joy and freedom from suffering to the father who loved his kids.
It was beyond transformational. I stopped having nightmares about him (they had persisted despite being several years since I’d even seen him). I stopped hating him. I stopped hating anyone. In that moment it was like all the hate I’d ever known was burned up like a match. All that was left was love for everyone. I get angry from time to time, of course, and I get frustrated enough to need time away from some people but I’ve never felt the emotion called “hate” since that day.
And that’s when I felt peace. With the last visages of hate gone from my mind I felt peace. Once I found the humanity and compassion for someone I truly disliked it was like the first time a ballerina successfully lands a grand jeté. Oh, that’s what that feels like. I can repeat that! It is the realization that your work has paid off and now you know that you can do anything.
It’s been nine years since I firstdecided to be a more compassionate person. Thich Nhat Hahn started at 16 and he’s 89 now. I don’t know that I’ll ever be the paragon of peace that he is, but I do know that practice makes perfect. So, I’m going to keep training.