Monday, February 7, 2011

Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg is a wonderful introduction to the metta meditation, a thorough exploration not only of the practice of metta in spiritual practice but also in daily life. (Metta is another word for compassion or lovingkindness.  I will be using these terms throughout, as does Salzberg.)  

Drawing on her experience with meditation retreats where she was asked to commit a month to doing only one part of the metta meditation, she applies the Buddhist teachings not only to her own experiences but shares sympathetic ways that the reader can also grow into the experience of living with compassion even if one is unable to be immersed in hours of intensive meditation.

After the first chapter, each ends with a suggested practice but, whereas many books that encourage meditation present a prolonged visualization practice that one can’t possibly read and remember without having a remarkable memory, Salzberg’s suggestions are uncomplicated and easily followed.  The challenge is not in remembering what the meditation practice should be but in continuing the practice for the length of time she suggests.  In an eager to move onto the next quick fix, her suggestion to sit with a single mantra for more than a day or two is going to be more challenging than choosing one.  The exercises build upon one another and reading through the book in haste defeats the purpose of reading.

So why then did I read through it in a few days?  Ahhhhh . . . I wasn’t reading to apply the teachings the first time.  Rather, I wanted to get an overview of Salzberg’s teachings first and I am glad I did.  I probably would have been eager to move on without fully experiencing each stage of the process.  Knowing where Salzberg is leading the reader helps me to appreciate more each stage of the exercises.

This is the book my mother initially chose to be part of our Year of Compassion but then I recommended Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and I think that Armstrong’s more intellectual approach appealed to her more fully.  Or perhaps it was how Armstrong viewed the teachings on compassion from a more thoroughly ecumenical approach.  Salzberg’s teachings are deeply rooted in her Buddhist traditions.  If you prefer a more intellectual approach to metta meditation and compassion, you will probably prefer Armstrong’s book but for a more Buddhist and experiential approach, Salzberg’s book is quite good.

As for me, I’ll be rereading both over the next few months so expect quotes and such in my regular blog, where I promised myself that this year I will be sharing more about my spirituality.  In the meantime, I would absolutely recommend this book and Armstrong’s book for anyone interested in exploring more fully the idea of compassion.

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