Meditating Buddha, Insight Meditation Society
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ~Jalaluddin Rumi
“In the past, you may have been animated by the energies of hatred, violence, and blaming, but through the practice of looking deeply, those energies can be gradually transformed into understanding and compassion. Compassion helps us understand others, even those who have caused our suffering. With compassion and loving kindness in us, we suffer much less.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn
“Once you overcome the hatred within your mind, you will discover that in the world outside, there is no longer any such thing as even a single enemy.” ~Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
I just returned from an eight day metta [loving kindness] retreat with Sharon Salzberg, Oren J. Sofer, and Mark Coleman. The practice of metta, sending loving kindness to ourselves and others, is derived from Brahmanic teachings that pre-date the Buddha. Sharon Salzberg spoke about meaning of the word metta. The use of the words, “loving kindness” is rather unusual and sounds odd in colloquial English usage. The meaning that she finds encompasses the spirit of the word is connection. It is with the intention of connection that we send these wishes for good health, safety, and happiness to ourselves and others. The Buddhist metta practice comes from the metta sutta, the discourse on love, in which the Buddha exhorts his followers to cultivate a boundless, loving heart free from enmity, without excluding anyone. To practice this, we repeat a series of three or four phrases with the intention of alleviating suffering and wishing happiness and joy to ourselves and others.
Some of the traditional phrases are: May I (you) be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I (you) be safe and protected. May I (you) be free of mental suffering or distress. May I (you) be happy. May I (you) be free of physical pain and suffering. May I (you) be healthy and strong. May I (you) live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease. We repeat three or four of these phrases, first for ourselves, then for a benefactor, or someone easy to love, for a neutral person (someone we do not know) and then for a mildly difficult person (classically called the enemy) and ultimately for all beings.
One of the teachings from Sharon Salzberg, that stood out for me, was the idea of metta as a gift. It is an offering, a prayer, or a wish. If our metta has the quality of obligation or is conditional, it is not a gift. If we only send metta to those who meet our ethical standards, are innocent and kind, or if there is a desire for love and force or control in our offering, it is not a gift. It’s like giving someone a sweater, then demanding they wear it every day. The gift becomes constricting and imprisoning, or when we offer metta and there is a grasping—we cling to the idea that this person needs to be healthy, needs to be safe, we feel an urgency and desire to control the situation, then the gift is not freely given, but comes with expectation and demands. I imagined my metta, my wishes for those I know, and do not know, to be well, safe, and happy, like gauzy scarves. I offered, light unburdening gifts.
Sharon Salzberg made the important distinction that when we send sending metta to those we find difficult, those who violate human rights, or are not kind, this is not an endorsement of their actions, or need to be friendly with these people. When we send loving kindness and the wish for happiness to people who are child abusers, rapists, or human traffickers, we are not saying that the actions of these people are acceptable. Their actions are far from ok, but there is an enigmatic aspect to metta. It is the ability to hold all beings—those who perpetrate suffering and those who are victims, both equally in our hearts. Mark Coleman described this paradox as something the heart can hold, but not the mind. We cannot think our way into loving all people; it is beyond rational thought. It is a heart practice, the ability to send our love and wishes for happiness to the predator and to the prey that is consumed.
Metta does not mean that there will be not suffering. Life inevitably takes life. Animals eat other animals to live; there is greed, hatred and delusion that creates violence, separation, and judgement. But metta is an antidote to this. Metta steps beyond the discernment of worthiness into the realm of reverence for all life, just because it is life. It is the relinquishment and freedom from judgement. It can seem irresponsible and wrong to offer metta to those we believe are capable of harm and may even consider evil, but this is a practice of stretching. We start with the place of least resistance then work up as our capacity grows, so please do not begin with the worst person you can think of right away. We extend our realm of kindness little by little, not exceeding our capacity, until we have uncovered the boundless heart that Shakyamuni Buddha described and “cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world: Spreading upwards to the skies, And downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, Freed from hatred and ill-will” (Metta Sutta). Offering and holding this love also means that we offer the same love and consideration towards ourselves. When we practice loving kindness, we cherish ourselves and do not need to fear that we will become a martyr, or emotional doormat, and lose our ability to make difficult decisions. Metta can actually help us see more clearly what is the kindest course of action for ourselves.
This week please enjoy trying out some of your own metta phrases. I like to sit and ask, “what am I longing for?” I listen to what needs healing or care and send that wish to myself for a week, a month, or longer. Find what resonates for you. What are you longing to hear? Is it the wish for safety, for acceptance or love? Maybe you need rest or simple kindness? Some phrases I like and use are: May I (you) be strong and healthy. May I (you) care for myself happily, May I trust my goodness. May I feel safe, or it’s ok to feel safe. May I be happy with what I have. May I be kind. May I respect myself. May I accept myself as I am. May I be here for myself. Try out some phrases on the folks you love and those you find mildly difficult. See what happens when you practice while walking or driving. What does it feel like to offer the gift of “May you be happy,” to a stranger in the supermarket line? In practicing metta, we have the opportunity to send love and well wishes to those who accompany us in this life, if we approve of them or not. Using metta practice we can purify our thoughts and our intentions and connect with those we can easily love and those we find challenging. Metta works on us in both directions, outwards and in, transforming the barriers we have put in the way of giving and receiving love.
May we all trust in our light,