I’m a little hesitant to say this as a Yoga Journal editor, but here goes: I do not have a strong meditation practice.
I always like to imagine myself sitting angelically on a meditation cushion, softly smiling as deep peace comes rushing to me. But in reality, my monkey mind and strong urge to “do it right” have kept me from a consistent, long-term practice.
So, when the Yoga Journal staff agreed to take on the 31-Day Meditation challenge to keep ourselves accountable throughout the month, I was game—if a little hesitant. There was a part of me that feared the unknown of meditation, and wondered what darkness within myself would potentially bubble up to the surface, which is why I chose to try loving-kindness meditation—a style of meditating that promised to help me intentionally work with negative emotions.
What is Loving-Kindness?
I was instantly attracted to loving-kindness because I sometimes struggle with feelings of resentment, anger, jealousy, and comparison. While these feelings are normal and valid, I hoped this type of meditation would help me relay these feelings in a kinder, more loving way. I also wanted to hold more compassion and acceptance toward my co-workers, family, friends, and partner.
I honestly didn’t know much about the practice before beginning this challenge, so I reached out to loving-kindness expert and New York Times Bestselling author, Sharon Salzberg, to offer guidance throughout my meditation journey.
Loving-Kindness meditation uses a sequence of mantras to offer well-wishes to different people in your life. “Instead of using the breath as the central object, we use the silent repetition of certain phrases,” says Salzberg. “And the phrases are an offering to someone—a gift-giving.”
The Loving-Kindness Mantra
Salzberg recommended I stick with the most common mantra during my meditation challenge:
May I be safe
May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I live with ease
All I had to do was repeat these phrases over and over again. When the time comes to focus on people beside yourself, just change the language from May I to May you.
“Your mind is going to wander,” Salzberg told me. “It’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just how we’ve been conditioned. The really critical moment in concentration is actually after we’ve realized we’ve been gone. Because that’s the moment we have a chance to learn how to let go more gently. We can return back to our object with more kindness to ourselves.”
Salzberg’s wisdom gave me a newfound hope about starting a sitting meditation practice. I had been putting so much pressure on myself to “do it right” that I was forgetting to give myself the space to explore something new as a beginner, which ultimately seemed like a great way to learn how to love myself in a gentler, kinder way. So, I embarked on this meditation challenge with a different mindset than ever before: I probably won’t be doing it perfectly for a while, and that is perfectly OK.
The Loving-Kindness Sequence
The loving-kindness meditation sequence focuses on yourself first, and then you move down the list to different people within a category. You do not have to complete the sequence during every meditation session; sometimes you can sit with the feeling of one person throughout your entire practice or, as Salzberg recommended for me, break the sequence into four weeks to allow the love and compassion of the practice to slowly take hold.
The sequence begins with offering the phrases to yourself. Salzberg explains that it is often easiest to offer love to yourself first before you can offer love to others. She says that if this is difficult because of harmful self-talk, you can skip this portion until you feel ready. Personally, I found this section to be my favorite because it felt where I most needed the work. Sometimes I would only get through this section of the meditation before my session was up.
- The Benefactor
The second portion of the sequence goes to a benefactor. Salzberg asked me to think of someone or something that I identified as the definition of love. This doesn’t have to be a human or anyone in particular. She mentioned I could even think about my dog. I thought of my mom during this section, because I find her love to be unconditional and unwavering.
- A Friend
The third person is a friend, or someone you are fond of. Honestly, I skipped over this section in the sequence. As the weeks went on, I was eager to focus my attention on other types of people that I was having difficulty with.
- A Neutral Person
The fourth person is a neutral person, such as a grocery store clerk you see often. She instructed me to think of someone who I hold no strong feeling about, neither positive or negative. I thought of my mailman—and now smile every time I see him dropping off the mail at my house.
- A Difficult Person
The fifth person is someone you find difficult. Salzberg advised that I shouldn’t think of my mortal enemy during this phase, but rather someone who I might have a minor disagreement with or get a little irritated by when we hang out. I initially thought it would be difficult for me to find a person for this section. But when the time came, I found it easy based on the stress I was experiencing at work.
- All Beings
The final portion of the loving-kindness sequence focuses on offering love and well-wishes to everyone. This could mean people all over the world or people you have not yet met.
My Experience With Loving-Kindness Meditation
I decided to start off small and only practice 15-minutes of meditation every night. Although Salzberg alluded that a morning meditation has more benefits, she also said, “the best time is when you’ll actually get it done.” I took that advice to heart and decided my morning routine was less organized than the one I do before bed, which would result in me making more excuses not to meditate.
My first week of meditation felt great: I focused on offering the mantra to myself and to my benefactor. Salzberg told me that the proof of success in this practice is when it shows through in real life. Within that first week, I noticed I began speaking to myself in a kinder way, eating healthier, feeling less reactive to work emails, and managing my stress with calmer tactics.
Sometimes random memories or repressed, shameful moments from my past would surface during my practice. Memories of my anxious pre-teen days surfaced, or how I might not have been as loving as I would have liked in interactions with family and friends. I tried to focus on the offering of love, to forgive myself, and to let go of the memory as a reminder that it no longer served me in the present moment.
When I offered the mantra to my mother, I noticed more feelings of sleepiness. That didn’t surprise me, because her voice used to soothe me to sleep. I didn’t always repeat the mantra throughout the full 15 minutes. Sometimes I just sat in these cozy, sleepy, safe feelings.
The second week of my meditation is when Yoga Journal’s January issue hit newsstands, and my practice took a new form. My digital job became even more stressful than usual as I fielded many negative social media posts about our decision to split the cover between Jessamyn Stanley and Maty Ezraty. I felt hurt as I read countless negative comments, and found myself filled with shame that we had failed our readers.
Then, I took those emotions and applied them to my loving-kindness practice.
I offered the mantra first to myself, then to those we hurt, then to the people spewing hatred toward us on social media, and finally to all Yoga Journal readers. Sometimes it was hard to get through the whole meditation because of sadness or anger. However, this meditation helped me feel compassion toward the people I felt were picking fights just for the sake of fighting. I realized that we’re all working through pain, and realized that ultimately, the naysayers just want to be loved and accepted—just like I do, too.
As the weeks went on, it was as if I was marinating in loving-kindness meditation. I found myself saying the mantra during times of high stress at work or in my personal life. I even recited the mantra to myself when I was traveling and my airplane landing felt a little too bumpy for my own comfort.
The loving-kindness meditation was a way for me to slow down and understand my feelings before I reacted. Instead of yelling and acting out in anger at my neighbor’s loud party, I did the meditation and found myself letting go of the feeling of control, accepting the situation, and understanding that they weren’t being loud as a malicious act toward me.
On the last day of my 31-day meditation challenge, I realized I may never get to the point where meditation is an easy thing for me, and that my longing for deep, lasting peace will be a life-long journey. I told myself that it was OK to be right where I’m at today, and learned that the practice is really all about finding a way to love myself anyway.