Breath meditation and loving kindness practice are usually taught separately, however it can be greatly healing to combine these two practices…
In the Buddha’s teachings, when we practice breath meditation, after finding the in and out breath, the next step is to become aware of our whole body, while breathing in and out, and to calm this body of ours. Often in commentaries this is gone through briefly, on the way to other meditations.
When Metta or loving kindness practice is taught by itself, we can get a good sense of what pure kindness feels like. There is an acceptance, gentleness and encouragement that we can know from the inside. To begin with, we’re told to bring to mind whoever is easiest to generate feelings of warmth and love for. When we think of children, for example, the feeling is uncomplicated and unconditional love, clear and bright. We would do anything for them, naturally. We wish them every conceivable happiness. We then take this same feeling and do our best to direct it towards other people, including ourselves.
In his book The Path of Emancipation, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how we can join breath meditation with an awareness of the body with having love and compassion for ourselves, and why this is necessary. Here are a few notes. He says that,
Sometimes we believe our body is a stranger to us, we are alienated from our own body, and that is why we have to go home to our body and reconcile ourselves with it.
For many reasons, it can be painful to inhabit the body. The physical carries the memory of the wounds we have suffered, as well as those of our ancestors. Often we have judged ourselves and found ourselves wanting.
Thay says that when we practice breathing in and out with an awareness of our body
We go home to our body and embrace it. We reconcile ourselves with our body. It is very important to go back to our body and show our concern, attention, and love. Our body might be suffering. It might have been abandoned for a long time. That is why we generate the energy of mindfulness and go back to embrace our body. This is the beginning of the practice of love.
In the past, we’ve may have taken to food, drugs, sex, and endless distractions to avoid feeling. Even meditation can be an escape into some ideal of what it means to be ‘a meditator’. We were divided. Now we can try something different. We can begin to awaken more kindness and compassion for ourselves. He continues:
We embrace our body tenderly during our in-breath and out-breath, with the intention to reconcile ourselves with it, to take care of it, and to show our concern and loving kindness.You may want to modify the language a little, but the content of the practice is the same: “Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my body.” This is a smile of awareness, a smile that shows your concern and loving kindness.
Smiling, directing the sunlight of warmth, acceptance and care to the our body is healing, and unifying. It can slowly reestablish our connection with our physical self. An inner smile communicates love. With it, we uphold what is good in us. It is also a way to be with what is difficult, without turning away. Just as a mother would embrace her child, we can tenderly hold whatever we feel is broken, or flawed, or is in any way lacking in ourselves. We can gently embrace ourselves, breath by breath, and step by step. Thay continues
When you go back to your body, first you may want to embrace your body as a whole, in its entirety. Afterwards, you can pay attention to the different parts of your body. Each part should be embraced by our mindfulness, and we should smile to it. This is the practice of compassion, of love, directed to your body.
We can practice like this, with or without the words:
Breathing in, I am aware of my right shoulder, breathing out, I smile to my right shoulder; Breathing in, I am aware of my left shoulder, breathing out, I smile to my shoulder…
We go through our whole body this way, from top to bottom, front and back, right and left, our face, throat, chest, arms, abdomen, groin, legs…
Where there is some discomfort or tension, we can stay in that place longer, breathing in and out, and directing our attention and care to that part of ourselves. When we practice in this way, some parts of ourselves, such as our heart, may respond immediately, with a feeling of great relief and gratitude. It’s been waiting such a long time to be comforted!
Clearly, the experience of this body of ours contains our feelings and our mind. They ‘inter-are’.
Where there is suffering, either in ourselves or in our world, it is because there has been a lack of attention, love, and understanding. Now, each breath, each look, each thought we direct towards ourselves can be brimming with love, Each step, and every attentive moment can be like a gentle caress. It can be like nectar, true medicine, and a firm embrace. After a time, having loving kindness towards ourselves allows us to settle peacefully, with a calm and clear mind that is then a basis for further insight.
Compared to simple awareness of the breath and movement, this is bringing more of our beautiful inner qualities to bear on our practice. We can use all of our inner resources. When we learn to be with that is difficult, with an open heart, gradually it can help to awaken our humanity. We can learn to calm our discomfort, our fears, and insecurities, and see deeply into them. As people who practice meditation for any length of time can tell you, this can have far reaching effects.
No matter what our temperament, I think that each one of us needs to have kindness for ourselves. We need patience, gentleness, and warmth to heal, to become whole, and to travel a path of greater self understanding and inner freedom. This is so important for all of our sake, so experiment and see what methods work best for you.
If you like, you can try practicing metta and breath meditation separately, and then combining them and see what effect it has. We are all called to a great work. However we approach it, understanding ourselves and others and this world, and having something to offer starts here, with taking care of ourselves well. It begins with us.