How is lovingkindness different from love in meditation practice?
In our culture, “love” is a loaded word. We usually think of love as a very positive emotion that should be cultivated, but most of the time it’s very conditional. In other words: I love this about you, but I don’t love that. Or I’ll love you if you promise to be a certain way, or if you promise to love me back. Romantic love is especially conditional in that when it ends, it can turn into something very different that is not love at all.
In the context of meditation practice, when we talk about love, it’s not relational, it’s not transactional. It is something much more genuine and open than that. And that’s why we call it lovingkindness—to distinguish it from our ordinary, somewhat confused notion of love which can be very good, but which also comes with a lot of baggage. Lovingkindness doesn’t bring baggage. It is simply holding the wish that others be happy, without expecting anything in return.
Lovingkindness is born from the warmth that we experience through our mindfulness and awareness practices. By making friends with ourselves, accepting ourselves, and experiencing kindness and warmth toward ourselves, we can then share love and kindness with others.
How do we develop lovingkindness? It might be helpful to think about our relationships with our mothers. When we were babies, we were completely vulnerable and unable to take care of ourselves. Our mothers selflessly took care of us, often at great sacrifice to themselves. In fact, mothers typically do everything they can to make their infants comfortable, happy, and safe—even to the point of neglecting their own happiness. It’s important to understand and be grateful for that.
Some of us have had difficult relationships with our mothers. Maybe they gave us up for adoption, or there always seemed to be some kind of problem or tension between us. Nevertheless, we can be very grateful for the fact that there was someone in our lives who took care of us when we could not take care of ourselves. In fact, a good many people have been kind to us over the years—a teacher, a family member, a total stranger. And sometimes we experience random acts of kindness—situations that happen unexpectedly and touch us very deeply. We can use these situations and memories of kindnesses as a basis for projecting a similar kind of love to others. Our deep wish of wanting others to be happy is lovingkindness, and we can cultivate it through specific meditations such as metta practices.
What then is compassion? We make a clear distinction when we define lovingkindness and compassion. Compassion is even more unconditional—even more selfless—than lovingkindness. Compassion is actually born from wisdom. We say that lovingkindness arises from understanding and compassion arises from wisdom. As our practice deepens, understanding develops into wisdom. Lovingkindness can grow into compassion, but it won’t happen until we’ve established the fundamental ground of lovingkindness: genuinely wanting others to be happy.
Remarkably, the practices of lovingkindness and compassion provide us the happiness we’ve searched for in all the wrong places. Why is this surprising? Because normally we feel like if we could just get what we want, we’d be happy. If we could just have the relationship we need, or if we could just settle this particular problem, we could be happy. But this kind of “happiness” is always self-centered—we’re always thinking about ourselves. We spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to make ourselves happy, trying to create the circumstances we think we want and need. And this actually doesn’t work; instead, it makes us grasp and desire even more. We’re never satisfied.
Lovingkindness and compassion are something else entirely. Through their dedicated practices, we train in becoming selfless. We discover that what really makes us happy is wanting others to be happy and to be free from suffering and pain, and working in that direction. The selfless joy we experience is genuine and enduring. With practice, understanding, and a positive motivation, it becomes unconditional. This is the journey to compassion, and it gives life tremendous meaning.