When we meditate on the breath, we come back to it over and over again. Coming back to the breath cuts through habitual patterns and thoughts. Another way to meditate is on a phrase or question. You can take a particular Buddhist concept, like karma or compassion, and meditate on it in order to bring it more fully into your experience off the meditation cushion.
One such concept worth contemplating is the notion that all beings have been your mother. It is said that we have lived so many lifetimes that all beings have been connected with one another at different points. So, even someone who cuts you off during your morning commute or someone who continually puts you down was, in some past lifetime, your mother, who bore you and cared for you. They could have been a mother ant when you were a child ant, but the same principle applies. Even if you have issues with your current mother, you cannot argue that without her you would not have this precious life.
Begin this contemplation by practicing shamatha meditation for at least ten minutes. Once you have grounded yourself in the physical experience of your breathing, you can turn your mind to the formal contemplation.
Start by considering the kindness of your own mother. Sit with her image and see what qualities or memories come up. It may be helpful to sit with the phrase I give thanks for her kindness. You may see some resentment or conflicting feelings arise. That is okay. But see if you can get to the point where you recall very kind things that your mother has done or sacrifices she made to ensure your well-being.
Then bring to mind the name or image of someone you love dearly—a partner, a friend, or a person you admire a great deal. Bring your attention to the phrase This being has been my mother. Feel free to insert the person’s name instead of “this being.” Consider the incredible generosity this person may have offered to you. If it is more helpful, you can instead use the phrase I give thanks for their kindness.
Having started with your own mother and moved on to another individual you love, you can take two minutes and contemplate the same phrases about a friend, someone who is generally supportive of you or is always there for you in a time of need. You know their kindness already, so turn your mind to the idea that they may have shown you even more kindness in a past life.
After two minutes on that individual, bring to mind someone you don’t know as well and neither dislike nor like all that much; they just sort of exist in the background of your life. It could be someone who works down the hall from you, or your regular barista. Even if you don’t know their name, consider that This being has been my mother. I give thanks for their kindness. They have shown you great care and support in the past.
Next bring to mind someone whom you don’t get along with. This is the “enemy” step mentioned before. If you don’t have someone you regularly have a beef with, just think of someone who annoyed you on your commute or who gets on your nerves from time to time. Even if strong emotions rear their head, bring your mind to the phrase This being has been my mother or I give thanks for their kindness. If nothing else, you can feel gratitude that their rudeness gives you something with which to practice compassion; that is a form of kindness in itself.
After spending a few minutes contemplating this difficult person, think of these five individuals together. Holding each of their images in mind, dissolve the boundaries of opinion around them and collectively consider them with the same appreciation you would your mother.
A minute or two later, extend your feeling of gratitude further. Without discrimination, offer your sense of appreciation to people in your home or workplace, then your city, your state, and farther out, recognizing that all of these beings have, at one point, been your mother.
Then rest. Drop the formal contemplation and just be present with whatever emotion has arisen. You might feel like you have just given thanks, or a larger sense of empathy. Whatever feeling has come up, rest with that. Rest your mind in that state.
The more we engage in this type of contemplation, the more we develop a sense of equanimity and the more we are able to relate to all sorts of people with compassion and empathy. If we consider everyone we encounter as someone who has previously shown us kindness, we are less likely to be a jerk and more willing to love unconditionally, in the office and throughout our day.