In the last few decades, a number of Buddhist practices have gone mainstream in Western society. Mindfulness is the best-known, with an entire industry of apps and courses and more devoted to sharing this wonderful practice.
Another practice is loving-kindness. This is my long-time favorite. In Buddhism, loving-kindness is one of four “divine abodes.” The other three are compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In order, loving-kindness is the first.
Each one is the cultivation of a positive emotion. In some of the Buddha’s teachings, he suggested that a complete practice of these could lead to a state similar to awakening. Even if we don’t gain awakening with them, we can try them out and see what good comes from our efforts.
Like raising children
One way that these practices are described is like raising children. At first, when they are young, our heart naturally expands to encompass them. This is loving-kindness. No matter where they are or what we are doing we wish them well. This feeling reinforces the truth that we are deeply interconnected beings.
Around the time when I got married, I took a job in Hong Kong while my wife stayed behind at her job in Seattle. During this time, I could almost physically feel my heart stretching out across the ocean. It felt like a real part of me was far, far away. This made each reunion with my wife during that time such a special event. With us together I felt like my heart was returned to oneness.
Now that I have a toddler, I feel this same splitting or widening of my heart. Now a little piece of me is missing each time I am apart from my kiddo. Don’t get me wrong, other parts of me are often very happy to be catching up on work or much-needed sleep. But when I listen to my heart at those times, I know part of it is away from me.
It’s this connection that explains why her pains are felt as if they are my own. When I hear her crying in another room, even if I know an adult is with her, I often have to come and investigate. I have to see what I can do to make things better. And when she laughs and squeals with joy, my heart is full.
As our children grow older, we relate to them more as separate beings. They develop their own personalities and characters. The initial heart-bond never disappears. But a new connection develops as they venture further into the world. Indeed, as they develop, they will actively separate themselves from their parents. Some rebel. Some act out. It is natural as they find their own identity.
As they grow, they’re bound to suffer set-backs. This is a natural part of growing. When they do, we begin to develop more of what the tradition calls a compassionate relationship. Even when they are pushing us away, ignoring our best advice (I might have done this to my parents too, come to think of it), we offer our compassion.
Reveling in their successes
Once they are a bit older, and are becoming young adults, they are going to have successes of their own. With these successes and growth, they become more and more their own person. This can be difficult for a parent. We feel them slipping away. And yet, the most appropriate response we can have is to have joy in their success.
We realize that their success is not ours, but we are nonetheless happy. This can take some extra practice for parents. Too often we think we need to control our kids. Or we use them to prop up our own ego. We must have a doctor or lawyer. They must get all As and go to a great college. Holding to these fixed ideas will cause misery for both parent and child.
The final practice is the development of equanimity. This is perhaps the hardest for a parent, as we know we will always be connected to our kids and we’ll feel what they’re feeling. But it also requires thought about being self-sufficient and not demanding of our kids.
As they venture out as an adult, they will have successes and failures. Some will be small. Some will be large. Responding with equanimity ensures that your child can rely on you in good times and bad. So many parents develop an unhealthy codependence with their kids. They can become angry or controlling if their adult children take paths of their own.
True equanimity comes when we know we have done our best and are ready to accept whatever results come. Parents and others who do this take on an air of serenity that others can often see. This is the stereotypical, but perhaps all too rare, wise old person.
Putting it into practice
I’m still at the toddler stage of things, so I can’t say much about the later developments. But I know each one presents its own difficulties.
More importantly for most Buddhists and for non-Buddhists alike is the fact that these practices can be extended to everyone around us. The loving-kindness practice has been described in a previous post. It is a life-long practice of extending out automatic, non-judgmental love and care for all beings. We can also do this with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.
And just as the loving-kindness practice begins with ourselves, each of these practices should begin right here. May I have compassion for myself when I make mistakes. May I take joy in my success and accomplishments. May I accept the ups and downs of my own life and moods with the wisdom of a sage.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.