How do you cultivate loving kindness?
What an excellent question! Merely wishing a few kind things for others won't do that much. It's much more effective to do real meditations on loving-kindness and to actually perform kind actions, such as giving money, food, or clothing to homeless people, etc.
Although we each have different present capacities for loving-kindness due to past karmas, we can each improve our capacity for loving-kindness through specific meditations that do this. And deep love is part of the true nature of our mind's which we are working to experience.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is the practice of lojong which contains many different types of meditations to develop love and compassion. Some people mistakenly believe that lojong is a "low" practice or merely a preliminary, but there also exist more advanced and profound lojong meditations, and according to my lama, it can serve as an entire path to enlightenment by itself.
I will share with you the two basic lojong meditations which I practice, since it's nothing super-secret and no empowerments are required to practice them:
Lojong meditation 1: Awakening an inner stream of love
To start, just get into your meditation posture, relax, and breathe naturally for a bit. Then think of something which makes you feel a great deal of love. It could be a special memory, something you read, a religious symbol, a movie, etc. Spend a while focusing on this feeling of love and trying to increase it. It might take a while to discover what the best thing for you to trigger this feeling is. I often prefer to think about cute animals as my starting point because I distrust most people. If you're thinking about a special memory, you want to feel that you're actually reliving it.
Anyway, once you've got this inner feeling of love, think of someone you are very close to and then try feel this same intense feeling of love for them. Think of many people in this category and do the same thing. Then think about people who you're friendly with, but not quite as close to and do the same thing. Then think about strangers, people whom you've never met, and do the same thing. After you've practiced this for a while, then you can also try this with people who you consider enemies or who you have difficulty with.
Lojong meditation 2: Atmospheric Tonglen
Breathe naturally and observe your thoughts and feelings the same way that you would sense the atmosphere of a room. If you notice a negative thought or feeling (it could be a specific angry thought or it could be something more mild such feeling a bit of pain in your legs or feeling sleepy or having a headache), imagine that you breathe it in when you inhale. Imagine that this negative thought enters your body from all sides (if you want, you can visualize it as dirty, black smoke), and once it's in your body, it dissolves, is purified, and disappears (the true nature of our minds is strong enough to purify any amount of negativity).
When you breathe out, imagine that you breathing out bright, clean, positive energy which comes out of your body from all sides and benefits all beings (including yourself) and makes them happy.
If you are truly feeling so positive for a while that you observe no negative thoughts during some inhalations, then don't do anything but continue to observe your thoughts, and on the exhalations, breathe out postive energy as I described before--don't try and force yourself to have a negative thought artificially.
The important thing is to simply observe your thoughts without judging them. Don't think, "Oh I have such mean thoughts. I'm a bad person," or "I have no bad thoughts right now, so I'm a great person." The thoughts that you encounter don't matter. All that matters is continuing the method of the meditation.
Of course, there are also many other variations of tonglen and many other types of lojong meditations.
I've always seen the recitation of various phrases on loving kindness to be somewhat artificial, although a good practice nonetheless.
Yes, I used to feel the same way because I first became interested in Buddhism by reading Zen books in which the emphasis was always on "Wisdom! Wisdom! Wisdom!" and "Emptiness! Emptiness! Emptiness!" When I first encountered lojong meditations, my first reaction was, "Eh, are these even 'real' meditations?" But later I began to see the value of them as gradually became a kinder person (although I still have a long way to go) and I also noticed that the lojong practices also enhanced my shinay (shamatha) and vice-versa: wisdom and compassion are complementary.
So, the deeper one's understanding of Prajna, the more genuine loving kindness, which means it becomes our natural disposition as it is based on profound insight rather than a practice technique.
Okay, true. This is the Zen approach and there's nothing wrong with it. If someone has the ability to generate a substantial amount of loving-kindness through wisdom practices alone, then that's great.
However, the problem is when people get stuck in the mindset of "Oh, I only want the essence. All this compassion and merit stuff is just lowly and inferior nonsense" and they end up developing neither wisdom nor compassion, even though they could really benefit by doing compassion meditations which would bring them closer to succeeding at the wisdom meditations they are interested in.