Most New Year’s resolutions are predicated on not being happy enough, or not having what we want, or needing to be prettier, or thinner, or more organized. But what if we began with accepting ourselves with maitri, or loving-kindness, and extended that genuine happiness outward?
The Buddha offered four limitless qualities worth cultivating. The first contemplation:
May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness
Recite these to yourself, each for a few minutes. Then discuss with a friend or friends or colleagues, if you’ve done this contemplation in a group setting.
First, recite “May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness…”
Then, recite “May my loved one [name, could be your mom or dad] enjoy happiness and the root of happiness…”
Then, recite ” May my best friends [can be many names] enjoy happiness and the root of happiness…”
Then, recite “May [those you feel indifferent toward] enjoy happiness and the root of happiness…”
Then, recite “May [my ‘enemy’, name] enjoy happiness and the root of happiness”
Then, recite “May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.”
That all sounds nice, right? But just you wait: this is hard stuff. Reciting these four contemplations is like exercising a new muscle, usually—wishing ourselves happiness? Some of us have a hard time with that. We don’t deserve it, we aren’t worthy, we shouldn’t go first, we should hide our light under a bushel. That one’s easy for me: it helps me refine and define what I mean by happiness and the root of happiness.
buddha wisdom stupaFor happiness is something, in the West at least, that’s sold to us, pushed on us, hyped at us…and it rarely results in happiness. We can’t make ourselves happy via external products, weight loss, love. Happiness is more fundamental that that. Chogyam Trungpa, the Buddhist meditation master, urged us not to wish one another Happy Birthday, but rather Cheerful Birthday—for happiness is a conditional state of mind, as opposed to the fundamental state of being that contentment or cheerfulness or being at ease implies. And conditional states of mind—happy, sad, good, bad, in love, broken-hearted—are suffering, the cyclical state of pushing away and clinging to that is called “samsara.”
So, we don’t wish conditional happiness on ourselves or others. We wish fundamental happiness, the roots of happiness.
And we wish it not only to ourselves, our loved ones, our best friends…but to those we take for granted, or feel indifferent or neutral toward. The baristas or waiters or mailwomen or those who we don’t know well, or feel strongly about.
And we wish it to our “enemies”—to those who challenge us, who upset us, who mistreat us. We wish them fundamental happiness, and as the saying goes, only love can make our enemies into friends. And even if that’s not our goal—some challenging people don’t belong in our lives—we can change our own attitude from confusion to kindness.
And we wish it, finally, to all sentient beings—tigers, blades of grass, mice, dogs, cats, birds, all humans everywhere—those who make those products that capitalism is hyping at us…everyone.
And in so doing, this prayer doesn’t change anything—except ourselves. And in changing ourselves, en masse, we change our society, and world.
And now, for the words of wisdom of Pema Chodron, on all four limitless qualities, from her The Places That Scare You: www.shambhala.com Source.
It’s up to us.
We can spend our lives cultivating our resentments and cravings, or we can explore the path of the warrior — nurturing open-mindedness and courage. Most of us keep strengthening our negative habits and therefore sow the seeds of our own suffering. The bodhichitta practices, however, are ways for us to sow the seeds of well being. Particularly powerful are the aspiration practices of the four limitless qualities — loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
In these practices we start close to home: we express the wish that we and our loved ones enjoy happiness and be free of suffering. Then we gradually extend that aspiration to a widening circle of relationships. We start just where we are, where the aspirations feel genuine. We begin by acknowledging where we already feel love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. We locate our current experience of these four boundless qualities, however limited they may be: in our love of music, in our empathy with children, in the joy we feel on hearing good news, or in the equanimity we experience when we are with good friends. Even though we may think that what we already experience is too meager, nevertheless we start with that and nurture it. It doesn’t have to be grand.
Cultivating these four qualities gives us insight into our current experience. It gives us understanding of the state of our mind and heart right now. We get to know the experience of love and compassion, of joy and equanimity, and also of their opposites. We learn how it feels when one of the four qualities is stuck and how it feels when it is flowing freely. We never pretend that we feel anything we don’t. The practice depends on embracing our whole experience. By becoming intimate with how we close down and how we open up, we awaken our unlimited potential.
Even though we start this practice with the aspiration for ourselves or our loved ones to be free of suffering, it may feel as if we’re just mouthing words. Even this compassionate wish for those nearest to us may feel phony. But as long as we’re not deceiving ourselves, this pretending has the power to uncover bodhichitta. Even though we know exactly what we feel, we make the aspirations in order to move beyond what now seems possible. After we practice for ourselves and those near us, we stretch even further: we send goodwill toward the neutral people in our lives and also to the people we don’t like.
It might feel like stretching into make-believe to say, “May this person who is driving me crazy enjoy happiness and be free of suffering.” Probably what we genuinely feel is anger. This practice is like a workout that stretches the heart beyond its current capabilities. We can expect to encounter resistance. We discover that we have our limits: we can stay open to some people, but we remain closed to others. We see both our clarity and our confusion. We are learning firsthand what everyone who has ever set out on this path has learned: we are all a paradoxical bundle of rich potential that consists of both neurosis and wisdom.
Aspiration practice is different from making affirmations. Affirmations are like telling yourself that you are compassionate and brave in order to hide the fact that secretly you feel like a loser. In practicing the four limitless qualities, we aren’t trying to convince ourselves of anything, nor are we trying to hide our true feelings. We are expressing our willingness to open our hearts and move closer to our fears. Aspiration practice helps us to do this in increasingly difficult relationships.
If we acknowledge the love, compassion, joy, and equanimity that we feel now and nurture it through these practices, the expansion of those qualities will happen by itself. Awakening the four qualities provides the necessary warmth for an unlimited strength to emerge. They have the power to loosen up useless habits and to melt the ice-hardness of our fixations and defenses. We are not forcing ourselves to be good.
When we see how cold or aggressive we can be, we aren’t asking ourselves to repent. Rather, these aspiration practices develop our ability to remain steadfast with our experience, whatever it may be. In this way we come to know the difference between a closed and an open mind, gradually developing the self-awareness and kindness we need to benefit others. These practices unblock our love and compassion, joy and equanimity, tapping into their boundless potential to expand…