“Love they neighbor as thyself” is one of the finer sentiments contained in the Bible. But it’s not commonly practiced. One reason may be that the Bible doesn’t provide any good tips on how to actually love someone you don’t really like.
The Buddhist practice of loving-kindness or metta meditation provides a mean to do exactly that. Although some religious Buddhists may believe that loving-kindness practice works through metaphysical means, there is good reason to believe that it has a natural basis that exploits a quirk of the brain.
In loving-kindness practice, one first brings to mind people one does love—friends, family, and benefactors, and yourself. One rouses oneself to a state of positive emotion. So far, this is not much different from a gratitude practice. The trick, then, is that you redirect your positive feelings toward people you do not love—first, people whom you neither love nor hate, and then eventually toward people you actually dislike.
The reason this works—although it can take several meditations for it to work with people you really don’t care for –is that emotional arousal is non-specific and doesn’t have a quick on/off switch. Just as anger can bleed over toward others who did not arouse a person’s rage, so can affection.
We have been practicing metta meditation for some time at the Harvard Humanist Community. We’ve now created a Web site called Seeing the Roses with instructional videos that show how to do loving-kindness and mindfulness meditations. If you dig into the site, you can also find some more details on the neuroscience that explains how it works.
The cultivation of love is something that could be called a spiritual practice. As secularists, though, we locate this not in the ethereal world but in the natural world and in the human body, and to be a little bit picky, not so much in the heart as in the brain.
If you live in or are visiting the Boston area, I invite you to join us in a meditation. We are open to everyone. Times of meetings are listed on the calendar on the web site of the the Harvard Humanist Community, or you can contact me directly at seeingtheroses at gmail.
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Rick Heller facilitates the Humanist Mindfulness Group, which is sponsored by the Humanist Community at Harvard University. His writing has appeared in Buddhadharma, Free Inquiry, UUWorld, Tikkun, the Boston Globe, and Lowell Sun. He is the creator of Seeing the Roses, which presents videos showing how mindfulness can help us deal with behaviors that drive climate change.