There is the liberation of the heart by loving-kindness; frequently giving wise attention to it — this is the denourishing of the arising of ill-will that has not yet arisen, and the decrease and weakening of ill-will that has already arisen.— SN 46:51
There is much fear in the world now. Most of us fear sickness; but today that fear can be compounded by worries of how the coronavirus pandemic will affect our families, our livelihood, and even our social stability. In this kind of environment, fear is a natural response.
Fear, like all aversive emotions, is typically something we’d like to escape. And we see many strategies on offer to confront fear now, most of them recommendations to take our minds off our worries by taking a walk, keeping in touch with friends, even suggestions to binge-watch TV or immerse ourselves in video games. There’s nothing wrong with these activities; when we are feeling overwhelmed, sometimes soothing ourselves in these ways is just what we need.
The thing with distraction — or numbing, or other forms of escape from fear — is that it never quite puts our fears at bay. They are always in the background, waiting to rush back into our awareness. That can also lead us to become fearful of being afraid, lending a desperate edge to our escape strategies and causing soothing behaviors to become addictions.
What to do? Gotama, quoted above from the Samyutta Nikaya, provided antidotes for each of the Five Hindrances, those pesky mind states that prevent us from being mindfully aware. One of the hindrances is byapada, which is often translated as “ill will,” but can refer to any strong aversive emotion that seems to grab our minds with an iron grip. The antidote for byapada, as Gotama tells us, is metta, the cultivation of loving kindness. By contemplating wishes for the good of ourselves and others, we can experience our connection with all beings, who suffer as we do and wish to be happy. That feeling of connection helps us feel less isolated, vulnerable, and fearful.
It is often said that one cannot feel love and fear at the same time, and there is some neuroscience to support this notion. Fear and love are regulated in the amygdala, a portion of the brain that evolved in primates to support emotional regulation, cooperation and memory. There, fear and love are influenced by two neurochemicals: oxcytocin, which is associated with love and connection, and vasopressin, which is associated with fear. A variety of experiences can promote the production of oxcytocin, most of them associated with caring interactions with others, such as lovers or our children. There is research to suggest that meditation, too, can be associated with the production of oxcytocin, this molecule that helps restore equilibrium to a fear-wracked brain.
So when we practice holding caring thoughts for ourselves and others, we can take control over our fearful reactions and fill our minds with the biochemistry of love. Just as Gotama said, love is the antidote to fear.
When we are fearful, the idea of opening our hearts to suffering can seem off-putting, even dangerous. But only by feeling what we’re feeling, as much as is possible and feels safe for us, can we see past the illusion of our separation and experience, inside, our loving connection to all people everywhere.
So when Practice meets this Sunday, April 26, at 8 pm Central, we’ll share loving kindness practice. Practice Circle is the SBA’s online meditation and discussion community. We meet via video conference on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Practice Circle is free to attend, and everyone is welcome. Just click this link on Sunday evening to attend.