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  • Paula Cristina Azevedo, PhD

How Practicing Loving-Kindness with Students Deepened my Compassion

how practicing loving-kindness with students deepened my compassion

I had the joy and privilege of developing and implementing a mindfulness program with kindergarteners through high school seniors during the summer. I worked with each age group separately twice a week for 30 minutes with the elementary students and about an hour with the middle and high school students. During the 7 week summer program I introduced several mindfulness practices, such as body scan, breathing techniques, yoga, noticing thoughts, eating mindfully, and so much more. One of the practices I included was cultivating kindness. With the lower elementary grades we discussed what it meant to be kind, shared examples, and kind acts they’ve done and kinds acts others have done for them. With the upper elementary, middle and high school students I incorporated a deeper practice called metta (Pali word) or loving-kindness, which is a term used to describe universal love. What an amazing experience to be a part of. Incorporating this practice was not only uplifting for students, but has really deepened my own meditation practice and compassion.

What is loving-kindness practice?

The Buddha taught metta as the antidote to fear. Loving-kindness is when we accept others unconditionally or accept others without judgement. It is not restricted to only family and friends, but extends to all beings (including our four-legged friends and plant life). As Sharon Salzberg (1995) wrote, “Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world.”

Loving-kindness starts with loving ourselves. We cannot extend loving-kindness to others unless we know what it is like to be truly loved and accepted. Then we expand loving-kindness to others through our formal meditation practice, listening to others mindfully, using kind words and actions. It sounds so simple, but we all know that sometimes we limit our own capacity to love unconditionally. Pema Chodron explained, “The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes. ”

Example of loving-kindness (share link to loving practice recording)

A beautiful way to bring more loving-kindness into your life is by incorporating metta or loving-kindness meditation into your practice. This meditation brings expansion, tenderness, and warmth to the heart and enhances the sensation of being connected to others and nature. You can easily incorporate this practice by using the following script that I use in my own formal meditation practice:

May I be filled with love.

May I be safe from harm.

May I be free from fear.

May I be well in body, mind, and heart.

May I be joyful.

May I be peace.

You can easily create your own metta meditation. I also have a recorded guided loving-kindness meditation that you can listen to here.

How I incorporated loving-kindness practice with students

The practice of loving-kindness was introduced about mid-way through the mindfulness program. By this point we had defined mindfulness, worked on breathing exercises, discussed how the brain works, how we can notice our thoughts through mindfulness, how emotions feel in our bodies and discussed the importance of being kind to others and ourselves.

I explained to students that loving-kindness is about thinking kind thoughts about yourself, people you love, people you kind of know, people you dislike and even to people and animals around the world that you don’t know. One day we focused on sending loving-kindness to themselves. I then provided students with examples of phrases or words they can use to give themselves loving-kindness. I also explained that loving-kindness isn’t about wishing something like to become a millionaire, or to lose weight, or to be popular. These types of wishes are like asking a genie to grant wishes. I clarified that loving-kindness wishes can be about something difficult they are dealing with, such as difficult emotions, a challenging situation with friends or a family member. The kind wishes can be something as simple as: “May I be happy today.” “May I be brave.” “May I be kinder to myself.”

Once I explained what loving-kindness was I guided them to tap into their heart for a moment. I invited each of them to place a hand on their heart and close their eyes (only if they’re comfortable with that), take a couple of deep breaths, and relax into their seat. I asked them to think of something that they are finding challenging right now in their lives that they need to have more kindness towards themselves for. I continued with the meditation.

Maybe you’re having sad thoughts, maybe you’re not comfortable in your body, maybe you didn’t do as well as you expected in school, maybe you said something negative to someone that you want to take back. Whatever it is hold on to that and think of a kind wish you want to send to yourself that can help you through this challenge or difficult situation. If you closed your eyes you may flutter them open and write down the kind words that came to you in this short meditation. What kind wishes do you want to give to yourself? If you need some help there are examples on the board.

I gave students a couple of minutes to write their kind wishes on a small piece of paper I provided to them (and for English learners who weren’t proficient in writing in English I invited them to write it in their native language). Once all students completed their kind wishes. I invited them to take the small piece of paper and place it over their hearts. I ended the practice with the following: “Take a deep breath in. Connect with your heart and send that kind wish you wrote to yourself. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free from fear. May you be safe. May you be peace. Thank your own good heart for sending these kind wishes.”

how practicing loving-kindness with students deepened my compassion

I then asked students to fold the small paper they wrote their kind wishes and place it in a small jar that was dedicated for loving-kindness. As students placed their paper in the jar I explained to them that at the end of the summer I would be incorporating their kind wishes into my own meditation practice.

We practiced loving-kindness two more times. The following time we met up for our mindfulness hour we revisited loving-kindness, but that day we focused sending kind wishes to someone they care for, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, neighbors, teachers. They wrote their kind wishes to these people and again we went through the short meditation practice of sending these kind wishes to this person or people. The final loving-kindness practice was to send our kind wishes and thoughts to the world. We were in the middle of discussing climate change and the impact humans are having on the planet and all living beings on the planet. Students then wrote their kind wishes, such as “May there be peace.” “May all animals be safe.” “May the earth heal.”

Incorporating students’ loving-kindness practice into my own practice

After the summer program I started to incorporate the students’ loving-kindness wishes and thoughts into my daily meditation practice. Before I explain how I did that I’d like to briefly explain what my daily practice looks like these days.

I start with a short loving-kindness practice. Giving loving-kindness to myself, to someone or a group of people that I know intimately and care about deeply. Recently, I’ve intentionally included in my loving-kindness practice national and international politicians and leaders that I do not agree with but may need kind wishes sent to them as they make decisions. Finally, I send kind wishes to all beings (including plants, trees, and animals) in the world, especially those that are living in constant fear of persecution, hunger, and/or are unhappy and lonely. As I practice loving-kindness I sense my heart opening up and sense my body relax. I focus on the breath as I tap into my heart center and simply be present in the heart for the duration of my mediation. Of course, the mind will wander by planning, telling an old story, but when I notice the mind has taken over the meditation I return to the breath and heart-center continuing to sense what the heart feels.

So, how do I incorporate students’ loving-kindness wishes and thoughts? After I do my traditional loving-kindness practice I open a handful of students’ loving-kindness wishes and read each one and place the student’s kind wish in a singing bowl. I read the loving-kindness wish and sit with it, sensing the kindness from the student. Then I move on to the next one. Read it, sit with it for a moment, and sense the kind thought from this student. I continue for several minutes doing this.

The impact students’ loving-kindness is having on me

Students wrote powerful kind thoughts and wishes to themselves, others, and the world. For instance, one student wrote "May I be loveing [sic] to my emotions." Another student wrote, "May my mom be peaceful." Finally, one student's kind wish made me pause for a while, "May the shouters learn to listen." Each kind wish has such power. I am so moved by how loving young people are and the concern they show towards others and the world.

students kind wishes to people the love
Students' kind wishes to themselves

students' kind wishes to the world

I can only read a handful of them each day I practice because the beauty and tenderness of each loving-kindness message is so powerful and emotional. The thoughtfulness and seriousness of each kind wish is so moving. When I developed this exercise for students I simply thought it would be a neat way to include the students’ in my meditation practice, but it has changed me in ways I didn’t imagine.

As I read each kind thought my heart softens a little more, and I am connected with that student (by the way, I asked students to not write their names on the piece of paper) and all the students at a cellular level. After reading a handful I can see and feel that their struggles, insecurities, worries, hopes, and dreams are the same as mine. No matter how challenging a student may be, no matter what their grades are, no matter the students’ English proficiency these are children and teenagers who have their everyday small struggles to deep traumas I will never fully understand, and as one of their instructors I am now connected with this child forever.

I am also changed by the trust my students had in me. They trusted me with these soul-filled kind wishes. They trusted me with such intimate glimpses into their lives. They trusted me with their hearts. I will forever be honored by this and deeply changed by this experience. I thought I was teaching them about love, compassion, and kindness, but they were the ones to teach me this and their loving-kindness has deepened my practice and my life in powerful ways. I can now see my connection with them, with my current students, with other teachers, and people that pass my path on the street. I am deeply grateful for my students’ capacity to embrace and share this universal love.



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