You Will See The Difference In Your Life, Which Is Where It Counts

If you wonder about the possible benefits of mindfulness and compassion practices...

You will see the difference in your life, a blog post written by Anne V Muhlethaler

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to sign up for a year-long course to deepen my studies with the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. In case it wasn’t clear before, I’m a meditation nerd.

Though they are based online at Tibet House in the US, the academic board serendipitously (for me) decided to deliver a hybrid program between NYC and Switzerland. There were many reasons that convinced me to sign up for the course, with the cherry on the icing being that veteran teacher Sharon Salzberg would deliver live sessions as guest faculty.

My nerdiness factor is pretty high when it comes to mindfulness. However, as you may already know, I’m even more passionate towards all things Loving Kindness, and Ms Salzberg is well known for her seminal book on the topic. 

Ms Salzberg talks freely about her own experience with meditation and leans on it to support her teaching. I’d heard her interviewed many times before explaining how a course in Asian studies in her first year at college set her on her way to India, where she found her teacher and her calling (and a lot of her future peers). Asynchronous interviews and lectures are great, but not nearly as exciting (to me!) as a live Zoom cohort. Sure, IRL would be even better but I’m a continent and an ocean away. Zoom it is, then. 

Because I love teaching Loving Kindness and because it’s much less known than mindfulness still, my burning questions for her were about the benefits of practice.

What were the benefits she expected from Mettā? What was she surprised to discover? How does she present this to her students?

The teacher, renowned for her accessible language, offered perspectives on both Mettā and Mindfulness, which I’m happy to share here. 

First, something I’d missed in my early days of practice, is that there are commonalities between the two. 

Though they are designed differently, both forms of meditation can bring us a sense of centering and the ability to become more sensitive. 

Both foster a form of resilience training: they help us cultivate an ability to let go and start over. Think about it: our minds do wander every other breath, we catch ourselves in a daydream, and learn to let go of the passing thought, reconnect and begin again.

In many other techniques that could be a sign of failure, like ‘I failed to keep my mind focused on the mantra, or the anchor, oh I’m terrible at this.’ But we learn that it’s the nature of the mind to wander, and we learn to see that as it is (rather than attach judgement to our lapse in concentration). 

It is very much the point of these practices — that learning to let go, drop the story and start over  — and to do so more gracefully than perhaps we do in ordinary life. We joke in teaching mindfulness that scolding ourselves for not ‘doing it right’ is not going to make us better meditators, or people for that matter. 

We also learn to concentrate the mind. Whether the object of our attention is the breath or Loving Kindness phrases, learning to put our energy on a specific focus is training that helps us beyond the meditation cushion. 

So both mindfulness and Loving Kindness are centering, help build resilience and focus and train us in letting go, gracefully. 

For those of you who have been practising for a while, you will know that things may not look that different day after day after day after day, however dedicated you may be in your meditation. 

The main benefit that Ms Salzberg pointed out is that ‘it [the practice] may not be that gratifying, but you will see the difference in your life, which is where it counts.

She went on to share her own story, or let’s say discovery, of the benefits of Loving Kindness.

Here’s her tale:

Her and fellow teachers moved to Barre, Massachusetts, in February 1976 to open the Insight Meditation Society. With no programs on schedule for a month while they were preparing to welcome students, they thought, hey, we have a month, let’s have a retreat among ourselves. And Ms Salzberg decided to concentrate on Loving Kindness for the whole duration of the retreat. 

So she started by offering Loving Kindness to herself, which is how it’s done in the classical order, and then moved through these other layers of beings: someone who has helped, also known as the benefactor, then someone neutral (a person you’re not close to) and on and on, and then ending with all beings everywhere. 

For the first week of that month, she practised solely on Loving Kindness towards herself. And she felt absolutely nothing. She recalled it was dreary. 

But then something happened to a community member in Boston, and several of the teachers had to leave the retreat suddenly. Ms Salzberg remained, and while she was in one of the bathrooms getting ready, she dropped a big jar on the tile floor. Broken glass and stuff spilled everywhere, and she recalls: 

‘The first thought that came up in my mind was: ”You are really a klutz, but I love you”. 

And I thought, look at that, you could have given me anything in the course of the month. And I could not have honestly said something was happening, but something was happening.’ 

Image courtesy of DTS

Later she shared that she has since witnessed this same response thousands of times with her students: 

‘People say, “I was going to stop meditating, I thought nothing was happening. And then my kids came to me and said, please don’t stop. You’re much better now!”’ 

Reflecting on my personal experience and Ms Salzberg’s story, I can’t help but notice that while the practice can feel boring, mechanical or even, in her words, dreary, something good does happen deep down during practice. 

The shift, which I never expected to feel, happens at that level of self-acceptance, or self-love, from none other than our inner roommate. (More on that here.)

So there you have it, the benefits of these practices won’t look like much (if they show up at all) in the beginning. 

[that quote from the other book about looking back]

Here’s an extra fun fact for you: Loving Kindness (as opposed to other forms of meditation) is effective in small doses and has long-term impact.

‘A study by Cohn et al (2011) found that 35% of participants of a Loving-Kindness Meditation intervention continued to meditate and experience enhanced positive emotions 15 months after the intervention. Positive emotions correlated positively with the number of minutes spent meditating daily.’

What this implies is that the benefits I’ve experienced from Loving Kindness do not make me a special snowflake. I was in the 35% of people who likely turned back to meditation and compassion after my first class. I imagine that someone — yourself, even — may be one of those 35%, too. 

I will leave you now with this quote on the power of Mettā, beautifully illustrated by mindfulness teacher Ruth King, the author of “Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out”. She says: 

The Practice of Mettā is like composting. It may not seem like much is occurring, but deep inside the heap of your practice, good things are happening. In time, you will have rich, nourishing soil to feed and seed kindness.

Now imagine how powerful it would be if someone were to do this every day… 

For more on that and my experience with Loving Kindness, check out these posts: