Expressing Lovingkindness to Oneself
by Larry Thomas
(This is the second in a series of blog posts on lovingkindness meditation. Check out Larry’s first post here.)
Expressing Lovingkindness to Oneself
We begin metta meditation by offering a lovingkindness blessing to ourselves. Self-love has been part of the Buddhist tradition from its beginning. In the Christian tradition, it turns out that there is a wide range of opinions among theologians as to whether it is appropriate to offer agape-love to oneself.
The Buddhist tradition.
Metta is offered to everyone, without any condition of any kind. It does not depend on the other person being lovable or even likable.
In the Buddhist tradition, various positive traits are said to have “far enemies” and “near enemies.” The far enemy of a trait is its obvious opposite, and the near enemy of a trait is something that is easily mistaken for that trait. The far enemy of metta is hate or ill will. The near enemy is attachment or self-serving attraction. It is easy for people to delude themselves thinking that they are showing metta for someone, when in fact they are being kind to someone in hopes of gaining something from the person or the relationship.
From the earliest metta tradition, one begins by offering metta to oneself. The purpose of starting this way is to develop the natural facility for metta that exists in everyone. It helps us realize that we do not have to be dependent on the good will and lovingness of others. The idea is that the more we have this loving feeling for ourselves of contentment and satisfaction about all our endeavors in our own heart, the easier it is to love others.
In doing a metta meditation, we offer metta to ourselves equally and on the same basis that we offer it to others. We do not hold ourselves to be better or more deserving of metta than others, but also we do not hold others to be better or more deserving of metta than we are. Metta does not mean that we denigrate ourselves in any situation in order to uphold other people’s happiness.
The Christian tradition
Agape love in the Christian tradition is also offered to everyone, without any condition of any kind. It does not depend on the other person being lovable or even likable.
However, offering love to oneself has been viewed with suspicion by some Christians. The suspicion is expressed in questions such as these:
Should I consider the interests of others, and not simply my own?
Should I consider the interests of others equally with my own?
Should I consider the interests of others in preference to my own?
Should I consider the interests of others rather than my own?
Are there any limits on my consideration of the interests of others? Should I consider another’s needs to the point of being exploited by the other? In an extreme case, should I be willing to give up my commitments, my integrity, or my life for the interests of another?
Christian philosophers and theologians have struggled with these questions for centuries. In his book Agape: An Ethical Analysis, Gene Outka summarizes various positions that they have come up with:
- Self-love as wholly nefarious In this view self-love and agape for others are polar opposites; they cannot both happen at the same time. Those who hold this view seem to contend that humans always express the near enemy of agape, that genuine unattached self-love is impossible for humans, and so any kind of self-love people express is incompatible with agape.
- Self-love as normal, reasonable, prudent: Self-love is natural to the human condition and is reasonable and beneficial as long as it does not pass over into acquisitiveness, narrow-mindedness and selfishness.
- Self-love as justified derivatively from regard for others: In order to love others most effectively, we must develop and use all of our natural abilities. It is because we want to love others that we must first love ourselves.
- Self-love as a definite obligation: The Second Commandment presupposes that we love ourselves. There are qualities, like self-regard, courage, and holding ethical positions that we should foster in ourselves independently of our regard for others. Love of self and love of neighbor must exists simultaneously. Love for others without the foundation of love for ourselves becomes a loss of boundaries, codependency, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy. (This last sentence from Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.)
The varying positions of the philosophers may arise because they do not all mean the same thing by “self-love.” Also the philosophers differ in how they interpret certain scripture passages. Here are some of those passages:
- No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. —1 Corinthians 10:24
- Agape isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage — 1 Corinthians 13:5
- Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19:18
- For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
- You shall share in the agape of the Lord your God wholeheartedly, and soulfully, and mindfully.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it. ‘You shall share God’s agape with your neighbor as you yourself [share in it].’ On these two commandments hang all the sacred way. —Matt 22:37-40
- Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. — John 15:13
- Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s agape has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. — Romans 5: 5
Things to Think About
1. In the Buddhist tradition, students are asked to consider this question:
You are traveling in a strange country. Your traveling companions include an elderly man who is very sick and near death, a convicted murderer, an eight year old girl, a monk, and a medical doctor. In the course of your travels you and your companions are captured by a band of bandits. They tell you that you must select one member of your group to be killed, and that if you don’t select one the entire group will be killed. The decision is yours alone. What do you decide?
2. Think about the quote from Sharon Salzburg that was mentioned before: Love for others without the foundation of love for ourselves becomes a loss of boundaries, codependency, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy.
3. Do you think that these quotations from Scripture place any limits on love for oneself?
1 Corinthians 10:24
No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
1 Corinthians 13:5
Agape isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage,
4. Do these words from Cassia Berman resonate with you?
The Mother of the Universe refuses to let me worship her outside myself anymore. She has withdrawn inside me and tells me if I want to know her I have to come inside, too, which is the last place I want to be. Although she’s been telling me for years, she’s never gone to this extreme before – of actually hiding inside me. If I want to love her, I can only do it by loving myself now.
5. How does the phrase “reteaching loveliness” apply to the practice of metta meditation:
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower, and retell it in words and in touch,
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing
Join us for discussion and practice of agape and metta (lovingkindness) meditation each Sunday through December 20, 9:30am-10:15am. All are welcome.
The meditation group will continue to meet each Sunday morning from 9:45 to 10:15 beginning December 27 to provide a time for guided meditation before the Sunday service. You are welcome to join the group any Sunday as you are able.