Discerning Thoughts Of Love: Takeaways From A Loving-kindness Retreat At Home

Written by Maisie Loh
5 mins read
Published on Mar 26, 2021

TLDR: What is conditioned and unconditioned love? Unconditioned love is not a commodity we exchange in the market like conditioned love. We explore the consequences of unconditioned love in our mind and heart in discerning the thought of love.

This is a reflection piece as contemplated by the author based on the Buddha’s teachings. As such, it may not contain the truths as taught by the Buddha. The author hopes the reader takes away useful bits that may resonate and discard whatever parts that make no sense without any aversion. The author also encourages anyone interested in TWIM to find out more as what is shared in this article may not reflect the correct method.

Prior to this year’s Chinese New Year, I embarked on a loving-kindness meditation retreat at home. I have never been very successful with loving-kindness as a daily meditation object in the past. I usually use breath or body sensations as they are easier to detect. Loving-kindness is the first of the Four Sublime States and it grows into compassion, joy and equanimity. Loving-kindness has also been called unconditional love or metta in Pali, an ancient Magadha language used in the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) of Theravada Buddhism. This post is about discerning the thoughts of love using metta meditation, one of the meditation objects taught by the Buddha. It is particularly useful for those with a lot of ill will (ranging from impatience, fear, restlessness, boredom to pride).

Method Used for Loving-Kindness Meditation

For the home retreat I joined Dhamma Sukha Center’s online meditation retreat.  The abbot of the center, Bhante Vimalaramsi teaches metta meditation, which he terms Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation (TWIM). The method entails wishing oneself well and bringing up the qualities of a living spiritual friend in one’s mind to raise the feelings of love within when the feeling fades.

Needless to say, we mostly experience dull neutral feelings ranging from boredom, fatigue, to annoyance and restlessness in a day. No one actually makes an effort to replace these feelings with the feeling of love in oneself unless of course, one is interested in meditation and contemplation.

The TWIM method entails letting every thought go by releasing tension in the head. It reminds me of Soto Zen meditation where thoughts are being let go of every moment. Bhante Vimalaramsi suggests that whenever a thought arises, there is a subtle tightening in the head area. Let go of the tension, bring up a smile to help lighten the heart. As a beginner at this, I felt a bit confused at the start of the home retreat. However, I soon found out that it is easier to let go of every thought, and then bring up the feeling of love in the heart. Thoughts are like endless arrows shooting at the mind. The mind curiously enjoys being shot at by thoughts, even if they are nonsensical. When it is not possible to let go of the thought, it may be better to replace them with the feeling of love by directing one’s attention to thoughts of wishing one well or thinking of the qualities of a spiritual friend one admires. As Ayya Khema puts it, the more you think about something, the feeling grows.

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Contemplating Unconditional Love

Unconditional love is a big word and is indeed hard to understand. It is even harder to know. Conditioned love as taught in Buddhism depends on the six sense bases to arise. Meaning, it is dependent on contact with others, therefore it is impermanent. It is impermanent because it is dependent on another person who gives us love not to change his/her mind to love us. 

Unconditional love, on the other hand, exists within oneself. It does not require another person to light up love in our hearts. When we light it up ourselves, we are the fuel of love in our hearts without needing another.

Most of us think that it is impossible. But unconditional love could actually be a natural quality of our being, hidden and covered up by our dual thoughts of likes and dislikes. During my short retreat, I saw how my consciousness differentiated between two people who could and could not bring up metta in my heart. The cause of suffering is consciousness itself dividing perceptions into likes and dislikes. Therefore the cause of non-suffering is consciousness itself released from likes and dislikes.

Although unconditional love could be an innate quality we have not looked into, our habitual dwelling in dull feelings tending towards wanting or not wanting to be someone or somewhere else covers up this love already within us. Through meditation and contemplation on metta itself, we uncover our true nature.

Separating Unconditional Love from Conditioned Love

When we love someone, we treat it as love being directed to someone. In this way, love seems to become a commodity. We live in a commercial world and our minds function like a marketplace of give and take. Our idea of love has also been continually conditioned by movies that talk about love as finding someone who loves us, otherwise, we do not have it. This is conditioned love. Conditioned love requires an ‘I’, a possessor who owns the commodity of metta to exchange it in the marketplace. When someone returns it with a similar or better quality of love, the possessor then measures it periodically. If the love given by another does not weigh the same as what one has given, one then slowly withdraws it from the other. 

Unconditioned love, however, does not have a possessor or an ‘I’, because it does not require outer conditions for arising. Only an ‘I’ need someone to give ‘me’ love. Therefore, unconditioned love cannot be exchanged as a commodity. In this way, metta can grow in one’s consciousness without needing anyone or anything to ignite it. We can be the condition for love to arise in our own hearts by consciously replacing all kinds of thoughts with metta. Consciousness is changeable from dullness, boredom, restlessness to worry in a day based on outer conditions. If effort and mindfulness is used to replace all feelings consciously with metta, then consciousness itself is metta. And consciousness is itself the sole condition for metta. 

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The Consequence of Discerning Love

Does this mean that someone who is able to bring up love in his/her heart unconditionally is someone who cannot love others? On the contrary, no. One who practices replacing all thoughts and feelings with metta becomes love itself, like a flame on a candle radiating light throughout a dark room. 

Love truly begins within oneself. If there is no love within oneself, one can be easily hurt by others. One will expect and weigh the amount of love from another. The consequence could be discontentment, jealousy and possessiveness.

When one is sufficiently apt at bringing up metta in one’s heart unconditionally, s/he will cease to judge others, because protecting the love within becomes so important. One may find that going back to this inner unconditioned love within is the refuge one needs, compared to being dependent on another’s love and bringing stress to a relationship.

A person can get tired of thinking of a beloved person for a sustained period of time, but never tire of being absorbed in the metta one has generated within oneself.

Wise Steps:

  • Whenever there is time in between tasks, look within to find if there is a feeling of hurt or regret. 
  • If hurt or regret exists in your heart, quickly remedy it with anyone who may be involved for the feelings to arise.
  • Replace the feeling of hurt or regret and forgive oneself, if the matter cannot be resolved. Be kind to yourself.
  • After you find you have forgiven yourself for anything that might have brought hurtfulness and regret, replace any existing feeling with metta by wishing yourself well. We cannot spread metta to others if none exists within our hearts.

Author: Maisie Loh

Maisie enjoys the practice of mindfulness amidst distractions and sharing it through writing, and teaching as a mindfulness coach at Mindful Breath

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