When I left LA at the beginning of the summer, I felt like I was becoming a better version of myself, in the obvious ways (diet, exercise, healthy work habits, etc) and in the more important, but less obvious ways (how I treated myself and the people around me). My life was lining up with my values.
A summer of hard and fast transitions threw me for a loop. Externally, I had a great experience traveling, did and saw lots of cool stuff, met incredible people, and all that. But internally, I felt conflicted. Without Jay to mellow me out, I went full steam ahead into everything all the time. I didn’t make time for the self-care practices I developed while at home. I tried to be everything I wanted to be, all at once, all the time, immediately.
Since I’ve been back, particularly since we moved in to our new apartment, I’ve been trying (and largely failing) to get back to myself, maybe the version of myself I left behind in LA, someone who isn’t constantly uncomfortable in her own skin. I told myself to run, go to yoga, meditate daily, wake up at sunrise and get to work early, blah blah blah.
Day after day, I dragged myself through a short meditation as a means to an end: I will do this. It will make me better. I will do this over and over until it works because I know this is the right thing. Same thing with the workouts and work-related projects – all willpower, no gentleness.
Needless to say, unless you are a very specific type of person, this is not a great approach to personal development. I managed to make myself tired and cranky without really feeling better or “improving.”
So this past weekend, I let myself off the hook. I didn’t have any plans. I didn’t try to check out the new art festival downtown. I didn’t get up at dawn to photograph sunrise on the lake. I didn’t create an elaborate workout to fit into my suddenly very serious half marathon training program. I didn’t write up a long to-do list of domestic tasks to fix up my new place.
I did sit on the kitchen floor (we still didn’t have furniture) on Friday night and watched the entire first season of “You’re the Worst.” (An anti-romantic comedy set in LA, available on Hulu. I’d recommend it if you’re bored.) I did sleep in on Saturday, go out for lunch (Firehouse Grill – good for hearty fare, but nothing to write home about) and pie and coffee (Hoosier Mama’s small apple pie, slightly warmed, with a tall glass of cold brew – get in ma belly), and hang out, watch TV and cuddle until the movers arrived with our stuff.
Sunday was busier but also unstructured. We went to Ikea. We built some shelves. (A lot of shelves. All of the shelves.) We unpacked, then unpacked some more. Jay took over the living room: TV, video games, his work station. I tried to transform our tiny kitchenette/dining room into a photograph from the Ikea catalog. As I unpacked our appliances and dishes, our picture frames and fridge magnets, I felt myself settling in. Settling down.
For the first time in weeks, maybe months, I truly wanted to meditate. Not because it was part of my master plan to be a better person. Not because I needed to gain something from the practice of meditation. I just wanted some quiet time to be me, to sit with my gratitude for all the stuff going on in my life right now.
So I turned to my favorite form of meditation: loving-kindness. Loving-kindness fosters feelings of compassion and caring for ourselves and others. There’s a bunch of research – this study is the most often cited so I’m going to cite it again – suggesting that loving-kindness meditation provides immediate benefits (increased perception of positive experiences in daily life) and improves our sense of well-being over time.
Loving-kindness meditation is built around these simple expressions:
May I/we/you be safe.
May I/we/you be happy.
May I/we/you be healthy.
May I/we/you live with ease.
Or you can choose your own wishes according to your values. For example, “May I/we/you be loved and love freely in return.” It just needs to be something you believe is part of a good life, something you want for yourself and others.
The meditation is broken into several parts.
First, focus on yourself. May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.
Next, choose someone you love and send your wishes to them. Today, I thought of my best friend from home. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.
Third, think of a neutral person: a cashier you’ve seen a few times, the UPS guy, maybe someone who works in your building. I chose the administrator who handles reimbursement forms in my department. Direct your good wishes to them. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. A variation I like here, for a neutral person and relative stranger is, “I recognize that you are a whole person deserving of my respect and kindness.”
Next, pick someone with whom you have a difficult time, whether it is a temporary dispute or general feeling. Try to send your good wishes to them. I chose a friend who is quickly becoming a person-I-used-to-talk-to sometimes. May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. If it helps, you could throw in an extra “I forgive you” here and there.
Lastly, think of a community to which you belong. It can be as local as your office or as broad as the whole world – just go with how open your heart feels. I chose everyone. May we be safe. May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we live with ease.
That’s it! Super easy, as long or short as you want, and it always leaves me feeling better than when I started. Unlike mindfulness or insight meditation (focusing on your breath, clearing your mind, fidgeting uncomfortably while everyone else seems totally composed…), loving-kindness gives you a very specific object to focus on. I never get frustrated or feel like I’m doing it wrong.
In case you want to try it, here are a few variations I enjoy:
Loving Kindness A – Written
If you loathe the idea of sitting on a pillow with your eyes closed, simply do the exercise in writing. Write a kind statement for yourself. Then for a loved one. And so on. You don’t need to look like you’re meditating.
Loving Kindness B – Intervals
If you are like me, you crave structure. Use a meditation timer or app (or even a workout timer) to set intervals. This website works well. When you hear the chime, switch to the next object of your meditation: yourself, your friend, your neutral acquaintance, your frenemy… Today I did 6 rounds of 5 minutes, starting with 5 minutes to settle my breath and clear my head, then the 5 rounds of loving-kindness practice.
Loving Kindness C – Free Form
Set one long timer. (Loving-kindness meditation always goes by really quickly, so I would set at least 15 minutes, even if you’ve never meditated before.) Spend as much or as little time as you need in a specific part of the meditation. If you have extra time, focus on your breathing. If you run out of time, keep going, or save your kind thoughts for the world for later.
I hope you have a chance to try loving-kindness meditation if you haven’t already, and I hope it brings you as much happiness as it does for me. -xoxo, A