Maitri and Motivation: Cultivating Loving-Kindness in Our Practice
As practitioners of yoga and meditation - novices and professionals alike- one thing we all struggle with is losing- and then regaining- our motivation to practice. Like never before, modern life in the digital age is chock full of tempting and tantalizing distractions, and more often than not we find ourselves lost in what one of my students refers to as the "Netflix hole" instead of on our mat or cushion. Worse, after the fleeting satisfaction we receive from the chosen distraction wears off, we make things worse by feeling guilty for not practicing and chastising ourselves for our lack of discipline, self-control, and strong will. We promise to ourselves that we will be more steadfast, firmer in our commitment to practice and that the next time distractions come along we will resist them with our iron-clad will. This approach usually works for awhile and we may indeed practice regularly for several days, weeks, even months. Eventually, however, most of us find ourselves slipping again, the distractions start to once again shine with alluring luster, and we find ourselves slowly sinking back into the "Netflix hole"- with the light of our practice receding into the distance.
At times like these, I would suggest a gentler approach to the aforementioned one of self-deprecation, chastisement, and punishment. Instead of getting down on ourselves for not practicing, we could take the opportunity to turn things around on the spot and offer ourselves unconditional self-acceptance and self-love, a practice known in Tibetan Buddhism as "maitri." Maitri, which is often translated as "loving-kindness," is one of the Four-Immeasurables or Buddhist virtues, along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Pema Chodren, a well-known western teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, often talks about maitri as unconditional friendliness, in particular, unconditional friendliness to oneself. Unfortunately, being your own best friend is not something very encouraged in modern, consumerist society which feeds off of our feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Therefore, most of us must put some conscious effort into reprogramming our mind and cultivating this important quality of maitri. The key first step is to catch yourself when you are being unfriendly to yourself by thinking self-deprecating thoughts and/or shaming yourself for what you did or didn't do. It is also helpful to replace habitual negative thinking about self with mind-training slogans or positive affirmations such as "May I be happy, healthy, and at peace." or "I forgive myself for binge-watching 'Game of Thrones' last night instead of going to yoga class. I realize how much better my body feels after class versus after sitting on the couch for four hours. Because I love myself and my body, I will make the commitment to return to class next week." Thus practicing maitri in relation to our yoga and meditation practice is essential in developing a rich, transformative, and long-term practice. Rather than viewing our practice as an obligation, a chore, or a punishment we view it as a choice that we make again and again to take time out to love, attend to, and care for ourselves on all levels. We recognize and remind ourselves how we personally benefit from our practice physically, mentally, and spiritually. Physically, we gain energy, strength, balance, and flexibility. Mentally we cultivate peace, equanimity, clarity, and openness. Spiritually we gain broader insight into our true nature and the nature of reality. Overall, our practice rewards us with a more balanced, healthy mind, body, and spirit and fundamentally this is and should be our true motivation for doing it, in contrast to any yucky feelings of guilt, shame, or self-loathing. Approaching our practice from a place of maitri also helps us to cultivate motivation that transcends our own natural desire to reap its personal benefits. Loving-kindness towards ourselves organically opens the path toward developing more love, kindness, and compassion toward others and ultimately to all living beings. We find that when we stop beating ourselves up and instead regularly offer ourselves forgiveness and acceptance that it becomes much easier to do the same with other people. Also, we begin to notice how the aforementioned benefits we enjoy from our practice in turn have a positive, transformative effect on others and our relationships. Friends, family, and co-workers begin to notice how much more energy and good moods we have, or how much more relaxed we seem, or how less fixed in our opinions and judgements we are. These changes in ourselves in turn create changes in our relationships so that the health and balance we enjoy in our practice spills over into our lives and has a positive effect on the world around us. Thus the further we go on the journey of yoga and meditation, the more we realize that our practice is ultimately not for our own benefit but actually for the benefit of others and for the planet as a whole. It is our small and humble way of contributing to a more balanced, healthy, kind world where all beings are loved and accepted and taken care of on all levels. Cultivating this selfless motivation to practice is ultimately the gift of maitri and one to which, as developing yogis and yoginis, we all can aspire. We can begin today by including others in our affirmations so that not only do we wish health and happiness for ourselves, but we also extend that desire out into the world: "May all beings be happy, healthy, and at peace."
Om Shanti and Namaste