A Bird Cannot Fly With One Wing


For a life well lived, we need both wings.

This week I decided to dig a little into what is often referred to as the two wings of mindfulness, which are wisdom (or insights) and compassion practices. 

After starting to study to gain a certification and teach mindfulness, these were one of the first things that our teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach taught us. I mean it was perhaps in the first hour, or the first day of class, and I remember it well because while attending the lecture I enjoyed drawing some wings (it was me playing with my iPad, and I find doodling helps open up my deep listening skills). 

The doodles from day one of my course (MMTCP)

The thinking is clear: 

The first wing, wisdom, is cultivated by practicing mindfulness (of body, feeling, mind, contents of the mind). From wisdom, come insights. We get intimate with ourselves. We get to know our experience, inside and out. 

But we can all understand that a bird cannot fly with one wing. Similarly, wisdom doesn’t serve us if we don’t know how to live. 

Therefore the second wing, the compassion practices, teach us how to be with ourselves and how to be with others. It teaches us to look inwards and outwards, and plant seeds that are fertilised by the soil that is a wise mind. 

But as time went on and I started to teach, outreaching to offer corporate workshops and online offerings to individuals, I leaned more heavily into mindfulness on its own. It felt … easier?

Forgetting compassion practices, I thought to myself: ‘How do I market these teachings to anyone?’ 

It was lightly hypocritical in more ways than one, though I didn’t mean it to be, and it took me some time to see that I was promoting mindfulness over the ‘two wings’. By discarding the importance of compassion practices, effectively I was giving in to what one of my teacher’s recently referred to as ‘McMindfulness.’ 

With mindfulness being more widely known, it’s easier to ‘catch’ people’s interest, to get them to start on its path. Google it and you’ll feel reassured; you’ll not be wasting your time if you give it a try, right? 

Even if most of us can’t quite define mindfulness, it sounds like something beneficial – it has a decent reputation, backed up with a lot of scientific studies, and is widely offered as a treatment in clinical settings (via MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) to support people with chronic pain. 

Also, it helps that the word itself doesn’t sound too woo-woo. 

The other reason why focusing on mindfulness was silly (for me) is because the meditation practice that ‘unlocked me,’ so to speak – that turned me from a non-meditator to a daily meditator – is Mettā

Translated from Pali, the classical and liturgical language of the Theravāda Buddhist canon, it’s understood to mean benevolence, or friendliness, or (non-romantic) love, but is generally known under the moniker ‘Loving Kindness’ in English or ‘l’amour bienveillant’ in French. 

Let’s be honest, both are weird-sounding terms! 

As it happens, I had a couple of Italian natives join virtually during a recent Sunday practice I hosted on Zoom. 

Their presence reminded me that one of the ways that I find that Mettā best translated is the Italian expression ‘volere bene.’ In essence it means wanting someone well, as saying ‘ti voglio bene’ is a form of ‘I love you’ that doesn’t exist in the English language. 

The phrase doesn’t have a comparable translation in French, either. (Google says ‘je t’aime bien,’ but it doesn’t feel quite right. Feel free to get in touch and debate me on this). 

I later discovered that Italians translate Mettā as ‘amorevolezza’ (‘love-wanting’) which sounds like a better fit to me, but still awkward.   

The limitations of its translation aside, this intention of wanting someone well, in the classical Mettā order, starts with ourselves. 

But instead of staying fixed on ourselves, which most meditations have us do, with Mettā we also work with others. Directing the same phrases containing intentions of ‘wanting well’ we move from I to You, we move towards others: loved ones, difficult people, neutral people, and groups, etc. 

May you be well, may you be happy, may you feel peaceful, may you feel loved and connected.’

So we go inwards, and we go outward.I liken each phrase to planting a seed: every time we practice Mettā and put our mindful attention on ourselves and others, we are nurturing and watering the seeds. 

And I’m sure you’ve heard before that where attention goes, energy flows.

Over time, the power, the energy created by our attention and the intention contained in the phrases take root. 

We start looking at ourselves and at the world differently, we begin our journey of connection, we ‘want well’ for ourselves and for others. 

Recently I heard a couple of well-known teachers refer to it as ‘connection practice’, which may be far from the original Pali word, however the term actually reflects the true benefit of Mettā meditation. That feeling of connection brought up by Loving Kindness is said to be the starting point to reach the other three of what the Buddhists call the Four Heavenly Abodes, opening the door to compassion, joy and equanimity. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist master and activist, didn’t shy away and referred to Mettā as Love meditation. In his book, ‘Teachings on Love,’ he firmly affirms: 

‘Love meditation is not wishful thinking. It is an authentic practice. Looking deeply, you radiate the energy of mindfulness onto the object of your meditation and illuminate it. True seeing always gives rise to true love.’ 

So we need to cultivate both mindfulness and Mettā, wisdom and compassion. For a life well lived, we need both wings. 

If you’d like to join me to practice either or both, or ask me questions and/or play with language and help me find a better word for these translations, here is my updated schedule. 

Sunday online practice is now at 6pm CET. Feel free to register for it in advance via Calendly, or join the Mindfulness Meditation MeetUp Group (and MeetUp will email you about all new classes and workshops). 

A bird in cloudy sky Mural of two bodies embracing - looking French! A pink paper heart Flower opening to the sun A blue arrow sign - signalling where to direct attention