Loving-kindness as a Spiritual Practice
Every spiritual path begins with a purification stage. In the mystic way of Christianity, we have the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. In Buddhism, we have the three trainings of virtue, concentration, and wisdom. Purification is the foundation for any genuine spiritual path.
But what is morality or ethics all about? Depending on your tradition, it is said to be love, kindness, or loving-kindness towards all others. But love is a heavily misused word. If we define love as a mix of intimacy, affection, and commitment, it becomes clear that we can’t love everyone. For there is no way to be intimate with everyone, or to feel affection for everyone.
But we can have a commitment to everyone’s highest well-being. In the Bible this is called agape, in Buddhism it is metta. In both cases, it is a choice to put the interests of others on an equal footing with our own. Jesus expressed this as loving your neighbor as yourself. Many other spiritual sages, before and after Jesus, have agreed.
But Jesus said we should love our enemies as well. Clearly we are not going to be intimate with, or have affection for, our enemies. But we can be committed to their highest well-being, equally with our own.
Now because loving-kindness is a choice and not an emotion, it can be a spiritual discipline that we can cultivate. But in order to properly cultivate loving-kindness for all beings, we need to come at it from the proper perspective. We have to come to really truly accept the fact that all humans are equally valuable. For spiritual naturalists, the world is sacred. That means that each and every single person is sacred.
The reason we need to look at loving-kindness as a spiritual discipline is because we don’t normally care about everyone. Rather, we limit our loving concern to friends and family. Some limit it to their race, while others limit their concern to their own country or nation. Anytime we limit our love, we limit our spiritual growth.
So how do we practice love as a spiritual discipline? The first thing is to become aware of our artificial boundaries between us and them. These boundaries can be the line between acquaintance and stranger, or between friend and acquaintance. Now notice how you treat each person in these different categories. Notice too, the level of care or concern you have for them. If all people are sacred, why do we choose to put some people’s interests above others?
Once we see that all the world is sacred, we have the proper perspective to cultivate the practice of loving-kindness. So where do we begin? We can begin with the goal of being committed to the greatest good of everyone we come in contact with, holding that all people are sacred and worthy of loving concern and care.
Another angle to approach this is to see that the whole world is interconnected and interdependent, that the harm of one is the harm of all. We are all in this together, we sink or fall together as a species. It also means that we need to honor and respect the environment and do as little harm as possible.
So the actual practice of cultivating loving-kindness is to begin with one person. Choose one person that you are not attracted to and who you have no feelings for. Pick someone you don’t know. First discover their name. Then, every time you see them, greet them using their name. “Hi Bob, how are you?” Do this for a week or two, and then pick another person you don’t know.
Once you begin to see other people as more than just a face, you will begin to realize that each person has a name, a history of joys and struggles, and a mind seeking love and happiness. From this, we begin to see that our little self is not the center of the universe, but one of many hearts seeking a meaningful life.
Loving-kindness is a committed to the highest good of all beings. As a commitment, we need to translate that into solid actions. We can begin with the words we speak. Are you really looking out for your spouse’s highest interests when you snap at him or her? Being mindful of the words we speak will quickly help us realize how little concern we have for other’s feelings.
Another way to practice loving-kindness is to practice random acts of kindness. For this, you just pick a random person and do something kind for them. The randomness helps us overcome the preferential treatment we give to those who do something for us. here you are going a good deed with no expectation of reward.
One last way to set up loving-kindness as a spiritual practice is to practice loving-kindness meditation. In this practice, you begin with verbally or mentally wishing someone close to you to be safe, healthy, happy, and content. You then do the same for someone who barely know. Then you make this wish for a stranger. And finally you wish your enemies safety, health, happiness, and contentment.
Loving-kindness is not going to accidentally happen to us. It is a commitment we make, a practice we cultivate, and a lifestyle that we live. We practice loving-kindness so that we will live a life of loving-kindness. We live a life of loving-kindness so that all beings may be happy. For we find happiness by giving it away.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.