Whenever I hear that someone has acquired too many guns and murdered dozens of people as a result, my heart breaks. My heart also breaks for those affected by the increasing number of natural disasters, such as the recent string of hurricanes, as well as those persecuted for their sexual orientation or skin color, and everyone else who we see in the news impacted by tragedies every. Single. Day.

This is a time of great suffering, and no matter which issue weighs on you the most, you can practice opening your heart in the midst of it in the hopes of realizing that this heart is vast and can accommodate anything.

There is an ancient practice in the Buddhist tradition known as loving-kindness. It stems from the Sanskrit word maitri, which can also be translated as “friendliness” or “friendship.” It is a way of befriending all of who we are, those we feel an affinity for, people we don’t know very well, and even folks we find to be incredibly difficult. Ultimately, we extend this sense of love and kindness to all beings.

Yet, when we are struck by a tragedy, like the senseless shooting in Las Vegas this week, we have to acknowledge where meditation is and is not helpful. All too often, in the wake of a tragedy like this, people send their “thoughts and prayers.” The practice of loving-kindness is aspirational in that we are wishing well for other beings. But it is, essentially, the training ground for action.


Related: How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying


Think of this practice not as the solution to the world’s suffering, but as the long training sequence in a Rocky movie, where we do the work that will enable us to, eventually, get into the ring and be most effective. We train in loving-kindness so that our hearts are strong enough to lean into and directly address the suffering around us that we see in ourselves, our loved ones, the difficult people in our lives and the vast number of people we do not necessarily know. We train in loving-kindness so that we don’t shut anyone out of our hearts. Rising from the meditation seat, we take action in ways we find personally meaningful.

Here, I am applying the traditional steps of loving-kindness to the Las Vegas shooting. I truly believe these steps can be adapted for any tragedy our country suffers in the months and years to come.

1. Take a Seat

First, take a relaxed, but uplifted posture. Tune into the natural cycle of your breath. Allow your attention to simply rest with however you are breathing right now. When the mind wanders, bring it back to the in-breath or out-breath that exists. Practice this for three to five minutes to ground you in your body and the present moment.

2. Offer Loving-Kindness to Yourself

Bring to mind an image of yourself. It can be you as you saw yourself in the mirror this morning, you in your favorite outfit, or even you as you appeared when you were a young child. Hold this image in your mind and see if you can soften your heart for a moment. Then, either in your own head or softly out loud make these aspirational phrases:

May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I feel safe
May I feel peaceful

As Buddhism spread from one country to another, these phrases have shifted over time. In my tradition, for example, we might even use the phrase “May you enjoy happiness and be free from suffering.” The intent is similar, but the verbiage is very different. If you do not connect with either of these two options, I recommend working with the four phrases above and substituting one or two for others, such as “May I feel loved” or “May I feel calm.” It’s best not to stray too far from these phrases. We’re not trying to aspire to “May I get a new car.” Each phrase is about qualities we already have within us.

Recite these phrases for three minutes or longer. As you do it, you may notice a mixed bag of emotions arising. You may feel powerless in the face of great suffering. Or you may want to cry because the news cycle has broken your heart. That is fine. The only thing you should avoid is judging yourself. Feel how you feel, but don’t beat yourself up over it. After these few minutes, dissolve the visualization of your own image.

3. Offer Loving-Kindness to a Loved One

In some traditions, the next step is to imagine someone who has been very kind to you, shown you great love, or has served as a benefactor in some way. With regards to current events, take a moment to bring to mind someone who you feel an affinity for, who has been affected by this tragedy. Maybe you know this person or maybe you have only seen them on TV.

Often, when I read an article about these tragedies, my heart opens when I learn about personal experiences. In the recent Las Vegas shooting, I read about a young woman who was attending the music festival with her mother. In the hopes of protecting her daughter, her mother threw her on the ground and covered her body with her own. Then, realizing that they might get trampled, she lifted her up and ran with her so they could escape. I do not know these people, but I understand and connect with that impulse to protect a loved one. For me, I attempt to bring the image of that woman to mind. For you, it might be someone else you feel a connection with. While holding their image in your mind, silently or softly say the following aspirational phrases:

May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe
May you feel peaceful

Similar to before, see if you can remain open-hearted in wishing this person well. We may not know them to the extent that we perfectly visualize them and we may not know what would make them happy, but we can imagine that they have the basic desires we would, such as to feel calm and supported in the aftermath of such a tragedy. After a few minutes of recitation, dissolve the visualization of this person.

4. Offer Loving-Kindness to a Stranger

The next step in traditional loving-kindness practice is to offer these heartfelt aspirations to someone we don’t know very well. When doing this practice after a national tragedy, I often think of those people we don’t read about or see on the news. For example, we might read about a school teacher who was killed in Las Vegas. Instead of practicing for this person (even though I don’t know her), for this stage I think about her family, her best friend or a romantic partner who might be suffering a fair amount right now. These are people whom we may never know, but, if even for a moment, we can consider and open our heart to. Bringing this being to your mind, you can repeat the same aspirational phrases or use the ones that feel most genuine to you.

May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe
May you feel peaceful

See if you can hold this person in your heart for a minute or two, reciting these phrases. Then we let go of your understanding of this person and move on to…

5. Offer Loving-Kindness to a Difficult Person

This is where I’m going to get controversial. It is easy to dehumanize the perpetrators of great suffering. When there is a foreign terrorist attack or a U.S. citizen killing others, we likely want to close our hearts to them. Yet, in loving-kindness practice, we consider the difficult people in our lives, too.

When it comes to the Las Vegas attack, this man, who killed more than 50 people, was suffering. He must have been suffering so greatly to think that killing others was a good idea. I do not know him and Buddha knows I do not have love in my heart for him at this time. But I can make the aspiration that wherever he is, he not suffer as much as he had been before. Bringing this person to mind, or another difficult person related to this tragedy, see if you can soften your heart even for a second and make the aspiration:

May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you feel safe
May you feel peaceful

At the very least, take a moment to recognize that this person was deeply confused and wish them peace. We could even say, “May you no longer feel confusion,” for example. This is hard for me, and I imagine it will be hard for you, so offering even a sense of loving-kindness in a way that feels meaningful to you is more important than using all the “right” words here. After a minute or two, let that person’s image dissolve.

6. Offer Loving-Kindness for All Beings

The next step is where our heart really gets a work out. We can begin by bringing to mind everyone we have contemplated thus far: ourselves, someone we feel an affinity for, someone we don’t know at all, and even this very difficult person, and make the aspiration:

May we be happy
May we be healthy
May we feel safe
May we feel peaceful

Then, we get bigger with our aspiration. We can contemplate everyone who lives in our town or city, everyone who lives in our state, in our country, and, ultimately, all beings around the world, continuing to recite these aspirational phrases as our vision expands.

After a few minutes, let the phrases fall away and see how you feel: Any openness, tenderness, or love that may exist, just let it exist. Radiate it out to all beings. This is more offering a feeling of love than any words or phrases. Let your love manifest. Then rest your mind once more on the breath, letting it ground you back in your body and in the present moment.

 

The more we train in this practice, the more we grow our capacity for love and kindness. We realize we don’t have to segment our lives so much into “I like you,” “I definitely don’t like you” and “I don’t care about you because I don’t know you.” After doing this practice consistently for some time, we might notice that we are connecting more with all types of people in our sphere, giving them a break and trying to be compassionate and helpful to them.

Even doing this practice once may inspire you to take skillful action and support efforts so that this suffering does not occur in the same way again. In this case, that might mean talking to your neighbors more about gun control, voting for candidates who support your values, or protesting in ways that you feel are beneficial. At some point, your aspirational practices can and will give way to actions that are based in your deep well of love and kindness that you have developed.

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