Unconditional Love

Outside Buddha

Meditating Buddha, Insight Meditation Society

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ~Jalaluddin Rumi

“In the past, you may have been animated by the energies of hatred, violence, and blaming, but through the practice of looking deeply, those energies can be gradually transformed into understanding and compassion. Compassion helps us understand others, even those who have caused our suffering. With compassion and loving kindness in us, we suffer much less.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

“Once you overcome the hatred within your mind, you will discover that in the world outside, there is no longer any such thing as even a single enemy.” ~Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Dear Friends,

I just returned from an eight day metta [loving kindness] retreat with Sharon Salzberg, Oren J. Sofer, and Mark Coleman. The practice of metta, sending loving kindness to ourselves and others, is derived from Brahmanic teachings that pre-date the Buddha. Sharon Salzberg spoke about meaning of the word metta. The use of the words, “loving kindness” is rather unusual and sounds odd in colloquial English usage. The meaning that she finds encompasses the spirit of the word is connection. It is with the intention of connection that we send these wishes for good health, safety, and happiness to ourselves and others. The Buddhist metta practice comes from the metta sutta, the discourse on love, in which the Buddha exhorts his followers to cultivate a boundless, loving heart free from enmity, without excluding anyone. To practice this, we repeat a series of three or four phrases with the intention of alleviating suffering and wishing happiness and joy to ourselves and others.

Some of the traditional phrases are: May I (you) be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I (you) be safe and protected. May I (you) be free of mental suffering or distress. May I (you) be happy. May I (you) be free of physical pain and suffering. May I (you) be healthy and strong. May I (you) live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease. We repeat three or four of these phrases, first for ourselves, then for a benefactor, or someone easy to love, for a neutral person (someone we do not know) and then for a mildly difficult person (classically called the enemy) and ultimately for all beings.

One of the teachings from Sharon Salzberg, that stood out for me, was the idea of metta as a gift. It is an offering, a prayer, or a wish. If our metta has the quality of obligation or is conditional, it is not a gift. If we only send metta to those who meet our ethical standards, are innocent and kind, or if there is a desire for love and force or control in our offering, it is not a gift. It’s like giving someone a sweater, then demanding they wear it every day. The gift becomes constricting and imprisoning, or when we offer metta and there is a grasping—we cling to the idea that this person needs to be healthy, needs to be safe, we feel an urgency and desire to control the situation, then the gift is not freely given, but comes with expectation and demands. I imagined my metta, my wishes for those I know, and do not know, to be well, safe, and happy, like gauzy scarves. I offered, light unburdening gifts.

Sharon Salzberg made the important distinction that when we send sending metta to those we find difficult, those who violate human rights, or are not kind, this is not an endorsement of their actions, or need to be friendly with these people. When we send loving kindness and the wish for happiness to people who are child abusers, rapists, or human traffickers, we are not saying that the actions of these people are acceptable. Their actions are far from ok, but there is an enigmatic aspect to metta. It is the ability to hold all beings—those who perpetrate suffering and those who are victims, both equally in our hearts. Mark Coleman described this paradox as something the heart can hold, but not the mind. We cannot think our way into loving all people; it is beyond rational thought. It is a heart practice, the ability to send our love and wishes for happiness to the predator and to the prey that is consumed.

Metta does not mean that there will be not suffering. Life inevitably takes life. Animals eat other animals to live; there is greed, hatred and delusion that creates violence, separation, and judgement. But metta is an antidote to this. Metta steps beyond the discernment of worthiness into the realm of reverence for all life, just because it is life. It is the relinquishment and freedom from judgement. It can seem irresponsible and wrong to offer metta to those we believe are capable of harm and may even consider evil, but this is a practice of stretching. We start with the place of least resistance then work up as our capacity grows, so please do not begin with the worst person you can think of right away. We extend our realm of kindness little by little, not exceeding our capacity, until we have uncovered the boundless heart that Shakyamuni Buddha described and “cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world: Spreading upwards to the skies, And downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, Freed from hatred and ill-will” (Metta Sutta). Offering and holding this love also means that we offer the same love and consideration towards ourselves. When we practice loving kindness, we cherish ourselves and do not need to fear that we will become a martyr, or emotional doormat, and lose our ability to make difficult decisions. Metta can actually help us see more clearly what is the kindest course of action for ourselves.

This week please enjoy trying out some of your own metta phrases. I like to sit and ask, “what am I longing for?” I listen to what needs healing or care and send that wish to myself for a week, a month, or longer. Find what resonates for you. What are you longing to hear? Is it the wish for safety, for acceptance or love? Maybe you need rest or simple kindness? Some phrases I like and use are: May I (you) be strong and healthy. May I (you) care for myself happily, May I trust my goodness. May I feel safe, or it’s ok to feel safe. May I be happy with what I have. May I be kind. May I respect myself. May I accept myself as I am. May I be here for myself.  Try out some phrases on the folks you love and those you find mildly difficult. See what happens when you practice while walking or driving. What does it feel like to offer the gift of “May you be happy,” to a stranger in the supermarket line? In practicing metta, we have the opportunity to send love and well wishes to those who accompany us in this life, if we approve of them or not. Using metta practice we can purify our thoughts and our intentions and connect with those we can easily love and those we find challenging. Metta works on us in both directions, outwards and in, transforming the barriers we have put in the way of giving and receiving love.

May we all trust in our light,



Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hahn

Making Room for Joy

Cherry blossoms

Kwanzan Cherry blossoms-a source of joy.     

“We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available.  We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living.  We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on.  But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.  Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.  We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”               ~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step

“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama


Dear Friends,

Recently, a man asked me how to add more joy to life without losing judgement and thinking everything in life is rosy? As we looked into this question, we spoke about the bias in our culture towards cynicism. We associate a negative, doubting outlook with intelligence. Those who see the good in situations and people are labeled as simple, naïve, and unsophisticated. We want to be smart and savvy, not simpletons. In our society, we believe it is safer and wiser to look with skepticism and see the worst in every situation, the rotten core in all apples. Psychologist and mindfulness teacher, Rick Hanson writes, “Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. Therefore, a foundation for happiness is to deliberately weave positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.” This negativity bias is part of our evolutionary strategy. We remember what or who has hurts us with remarkable accuracy and detail, while the positive interactions are far less valued. Dr. Baumeister, a Professor of psychology at Florida State University, studied this tendency to grasp the negative and ignore the positive. His research showed that five positive interactions are necessary to mitigate the negative effects of one unpleasant experience.  He gave a remedy for this phenomenon in a 2002, NY Times interview, “Many good events can overcome the psychological effects of a bad one.”  This is not our natural tendency.

Adding joy and happiness sounds like an uphill battle against this natural negativity protection. It takes sustained effort to increase our happiness. This may sound counter-intuitive. We believe that joy and happiness are spontaneous creations. If the world offered us more joy, we’d be happier—right? If only my house was nicer, my car was better, my kids listened, then I’d be happy. But as we experience life and see others who have professional success, wealth, and all the conditions of happiness. We can see that above a basic life sustaining level, things don’t contribute to happiness. When we rely on  outside conditions to provide our happiness, we will be disappointed. The world is not responsible for our happiness. We are.

If you haven’t seen this wonderful documentary, I am, click on this link to access the film. In 2007, Hollywood director, Tom Shadyac, suffered a head injury that left him with post-concussion syndrome and severe depression. He set out to find out what is the truth about life:

“Shadyac found that more – in his case, a 17,000-square foot art-filled mansion, exotic antiques, and private jets — was definitely less.   “What I discovered, when I began to look deeply, was that the world I was living in was a lie,” he explains.  ‘Much to my surprise, the accumulation of material wealth was a neutral phenomenon, neither good or bad, and certainly did not buy happiness.’  Gradually, with much consideration and contemplation, he changed his lifestyle.  He sold his house, moved to a mobile home community, and started life—a simpler and more responsible life –  anew.”

Tom Shadyac also learned about the human capacity for kindness. Recognizing that all beings carry seeds of compassion, kindness, and love in them as well as hatred, ignorance, and greed, allows us to see that there is a choice where to place our thoughts. We can see only the bad, or only the good. But if we see that both exist together, we can encourage and work to grow the goodness in ourselves and others. Bringing joy to ourselves and others does not preclude the loss of common sense. We can see the balance. That is the middle way, the way of morality, concentration, and wisdom.

A practice that helps being more joy is the ability to relax and feel safe in our bodies. Relaxing and allowing the body to rest are not default modes. Usually during the day, we are doing tasks, trying to get things done, to earn our titles, our positions and income. Our bodies can carry all our busyness and stress. If we do not stop and allow the body to be quiet and safe, we perpetuate tension and agitation. All living beings need rest. To experience deep relaxation, find a comfortable spot to lie down, click on this MP3 of Total Relaxation offered by Sister Dan Nghiem. This is a body scan where we practice softening and sending gratitude to all parts of the body. When we rest, and come back to ourselves, we give our bodies and minds the opportunity for healing. When we feel safe and relaxed we can experience joy. We cannot feel tension, worry, and joy at the same time.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us we need to spend time relaxing every day, so we can be fresh and lovely for ourselves and others. This is not a Pollyanna feel-good practice. This is a source of strength, so we have the capacity to be present for the non-joyful stuff in our lives and the world. We need to cultivate joy to have the resilience to be fully present with the suffering. This is not a recipe to exclude our pain and discomfort—but to include both aspects of existence. Joy and happiness only arise if there is space in our lives and in our bodies. Our emotions are not separate from our physical state. This week I invite you to ask, how can I make room for joy in my life? Enjoy finding your answer.


With three breaths,



“Am I Sure?”

Acorn in hand

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. …live in the question.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
~ Gilda Radner

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
~ Max Ehrmann, Desiderata: A Poem for a Way of Life

“Understanding means throwing away your knowledge.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh quotes from Being Peace

“Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

Sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. The plans we make and all our efforts fall short. We see this repeating in the political arena, in our relationships, and at work. The world doesn’t behave the way we want. Of course, we know as grownups, that this is life. Not getting our way is an aspect of dukkha, the suffering of not getting what we want, or getting what we don’t want. It’s understandable and easy to fall into dejection, to give up in defeat, to remove ourselves when we find the situation we find frustrating and uncomfortable. The untrained mind can react with rage, or create despair, or anxiety. As mindfulness practitioners we are supposed to know better. So, what can we do? How do we practice when we get shut down? A gift from Thich Nhat Hanh is the question, Am I sure?  If we answer yes, we ask again. The purpose of asking “am I sure” is to free the mind from the stories we make about the future. This is called papanca, or mental proliferation that originates from the notion of a self-construct.


When we ask, “am I sure,” we pause and look deeply into our situation. We can observe the arising causes and conditions that have created what we see as a problem. We can also examine what we believe the future will be. Almost always, the future we create in our minds is not the future that actually happens. How many times have we prepared for a conversation or an interaction that unfolded in a totally different direction than we planned? Our minds want to know the future to keep us safe and protect us from all dangers, but the truth is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. As sensitive and vulnerable organisms, we want to be certain we will be safe. We want to arm ourselves with just what we need. We are all boy scouts at heart determined to “Be Prepared.” But we don’t know. That is the frightening and wonderful truth. This realization opens us up to the Buddhist idea of Don’t know mind. In this space, there is possibility, because of impermanence.

You may know this teaching from the Chinese proverb of Sāi Wēng:

Sāi Wēng lived on the border and he raised horses for a living. One day, he lost one   of  his prized horses. After hearing of the misfortune, his neighbor felt sorry for him and came to comfort him. But Sāi Wēng simply asked, “How could we know it is not a good thing for me?”

After a while, the lost horse returned and with another beautiful horse. The neighbor came over again and congratulated  Sāi Wēng on his good fortune. But Sāi Wēng simply asked, “How could we know it is not a bad thing for me?”

One day, his son went out for a ride with the new horse. He was violently thrown from the horse and broke his leg. The neighbors once again expressed their condolences to Sāi Wēng, but Sāi Wēng simply said, “How could we know it is not a good thing for me?” One year later, the Emperor’s army arrived at the village to recruit all able-bodied men to fight in the war. Because of his injury, Sāi Wēng’s son could not go off to war, and was spared from certain death.

We see in this story what looks like loss can be gain. If we can tolerate abiding in Don’t know mind, like Sāi Wēng, we can learn to relax into uncertainty. This is not what our innate neurobiology tells us and the initial encounters with uncertainty are unpleasant, but with practice we can relax this grip of needing to have it our way.

Just as we cannot see the energy building beneath the ocean until it manifests as a wave and we do not see the enormous oak quietly waiting in the acorn, we cannot know all the innumerable conditions that affect outcomes. It is beyond our comprehension. As mindful practitioners, our highest priority is to maintain the purity of our consciousness. In mindfulness, we can come home to ourselves and recognize our feelings of disappointment, our sadness or dejection, without repressing them. With gentle mindful attention, we stay with what is arising with compassionate presence. Tending to our wellbeing in the moment, we come back to what we need now. Creating stability in this moment gives us solidity to meet whatever will arise in the future. As Thay says, “The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.” This is the truth that the quality of consciousness in this moment determines my next moment. This week please join me in inclusiveness, the practice of bringing friendliness to all of our emotions and thoughts and coming back home to the present moment. The amount of happiness, stability, and trust I possess right now contributes to my next moment. Am I sure? Yes!

May we all have the courage to abide calmly with uncertainty,




We do not fear that,
what we usually think of as death,
but the uncertainty, that may accompany it.
It’s the not-knowing that scares us,
because our whole, past life was built upon knowing
– to be safe from the sudden loss of our self,
even if this loss is only seemingly,
because it is not possible to lose that, what we truly are.
Every effort, as well that, what we may regard as very noble,
is ultimately an attempt to escape this uncertainty.
It is the look into this abyss, which bottom we don’t recognize,
we are afraid of,
because this look brings us in contact with that feeling,
that feels like a fall from those heaven of being borne.
All our fears always go back to this primal fear.
However, we will always fall again
– if we search for those heavens, which are coming and going.
And yet, those who think they die, maybe they are closer to the truth,
than those, who never consider themselves to be fallen from that heaven,
because their illusion is exactly proportional to the realization.
Then a miracle may happen,
as it might only happens once every 1000 Eons,
and a great sinner becomes a great saint,
and in the midst of death blossoms life,
and the world and God are no longer different from each other.

© Barbara-Paraprem, 2014