The power of love is universally recognized and has been used in ancient healing traditions in cultures throughout the world. Today, Western physicians acknowledge its benefits to the immune system, while psychologists agree that it does wonders for mental health. Both the yoga and Buddhist teachings provide us with meditations designed to free ourselves of negative emotions that interfere with our ability to love.
This battle of the heart is dramatically represented in the Bhagavad Gita, a classic Indian story about the conflict between two families. Although that conflict appears to be a conflict against external enemies, it is really the internal battle we wage within our own hearts.
Patanjali’s thirty-third sutra describes a four-part process of clearing the heart of impure thoughts as a way to quiet the mind. He advises cultivating maitri (friendliness) toward pleasure and friends; karma (compassion) for those who are in pain or suffering, yourself included; mudita (rejoicing) or joyful acknowledgement of the noble or holy ones (including those who have helped you, those you admire, and your family); and upeksanam (indifference) to unholiness—in other words, equanimity toward those who have harmed you. As you can see, collectively these four stages sound remarkably like the “Love thy neighbor as thyself” sentiment we’re all familiar with.
The following instructions guide you through a full meditation that includes the fourfold stages or attitudes Patanjali taught in his Yoga Sutra. It is both practical and profound. With regular practice, this meditation will guide you toward a better relationship with yourself, those you are close to, and the world around you.
Loving Your Enemies Meditation
This meditation will take anywhere from five to 20 minutes, or even longer if you wish. The important thing is to be comfortable with it. You don’t really need to time yourself. However, we recommend staying in Stages 1 and 2 for one to two minutes each; in Stage 3 for three to five minutes; and in Stage 4 for five to 15 minutes.
1. Get into a comfortable, seated position, either in a chair with your legs uncrossed, or on the floor. Adjust your posture so that your spine is upright, yet your body feels relaxed. Rest your hands in your lap or on your thighs, with the palms facing up or down.
2. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Take a few conscious and deep abdominal breaths. Let your exhalations carry out any tension or anxiety you’re feeling now, and use them throughout your meditation to expel any tension or anxiety that comes up.
If it is helpful, you may use the previously recommended affirmations—”I am” on the in-breath and “calm and relaxed” on the out-breath—to center yourself during this practice.
3. Bring your awareness to your heart. Allow your breaths to massage this area. Notice any specific feelings or thoughts you may have about yourself, people you know, or any particular event. Cultivate a detached and nonjudgmental attitude to anything that comes up for you.
4. Continue to focus on the heart area while doing the following:
- Cultivate a friendly and accepting attitude toward yourself and your friends.
- Develop feelings of compassion and understanding for all those who suffer.
- Be joyful in your thoughts about a particular person who’s important to you or a saint or guru you hold in high esteem.
- Maintain feelings of indifference and equanimity to anyone who has harmed you or anyone else. Don’t get sucked into their mean-spiritedness or harmful deeds.
5. To complete your meditation, take three to five deep abdominal breaths. Open your eyes and slowly get up.
Allow the focus of this meditation to be the fourfold stages of opening your heart in order to clear your mind. Realize, however, that it also incorporates other elements common to all forms of meditation: choosing a stable and comfortable position, awareness of breath, use of affirmation, and imagery. It’s all right if only one of the stages dominates the meditation. For example, you may be drawn to the concern for a friend who is in pain, or you may want to focus on the life’s work of someone who inspires you. No better advice can be given here than to—literally—listen to your heart!