Meet Bad Habits with Loving-Kindness

Sylvia Boorstein unpacks the foundational Buddhist teaching “Recognize unwholesome states in the mind and replace them with wholesome states.”

Sylvia Boorstein22 July 2021
Photo by Luca Upper.

Here’s my spiritual practice these days: moment-to-moment I try to be mindful of the arising of ill will in my mind and try to meet it with clear, compassionate response. This reflects the Buddha’s basic instruction on how to work with our negative patterns: “Recognizing unwholesome states in the mind and replacing them with wholesome states.”

Wholesome states, such as generosity, gratitude, and patience, are soothing and gladdening to the mind. They support clear understanding and wise choices. Unwholesome states, such as lust, anger, and revenge, are doubly painful: they are painful feelings in themselves and they confuse the mind so we choose maladaptive responses to situations that only make things worse. That’s why they are called “hindrances” in classical Buddhism. They hinder clear thinking.

Entirely avoiding afflictive states (another term for hindrances) isn’t possible. Annoying things happen. The mind starts “growling” in response. Disappointment happens. The mind loses its buoyancy as hope disappears from it.

Frightening things happen to us. A nervous system built for survival leaps into action to counteract the danger. Calm goodwill may not help us in situations of actual danger, but it does help us move gracefully through the less dire tribulations of the mind—the Wows! and Phooeys! of daily life. Goodwill provides the ballast that supports clear understanding, moment-by-moment, of what is happening to us and what the most skillful response to it is.

“May all beings be peaceful and happy and come to the end of suffering” was the phrase I heard Maha Ghosananda, the senior Buddhist prelate of Cambodia, repeating to himself under his breath, all the while participating in a forum we both were part of.

Meditation: A Song of Metta

In my version of the metta (loving-kindness) prayer, I silently sing a song to myself, to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” when an affliction begins to arise. You too can sing it and give yourself the loving-kindness you need.

May I feel protected and safe
May I feel contented and pleased
May my body be strong
And may I live with ease

I’ve recently added two new verses that I find are necessary when an afflictive emotion has arisen strongly enough to be spawning an out-of-control mind-storm of confusion and ill will:

I am polluting my mind
It is turning into shit
I am mortgaging my happiness
So I am vowing to quit

I am concentrating on what is good
I am mindful of who is kind
I am amplifying my blessing
So I am purifying my mind

May I feel protected and safe
May I feel contented and pleased
May my body be strong
And may I live with ease

The tune is apt! Every mind-moment that arises free of afflictive emotions is a felicitous rebirth. Happy birthday to you!

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.