Writings

Metta

This essay appeared in Catalyst Magazine in 2002

Cultivating Kindness

“If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere else insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who among us is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Eight years ago I walked away from a difficult relationship that had nearly destroyed me. In the ensuing months I lived in a world of extreme anger and resentment at the astonishing disregard I felt my former lover had shown me. Daydream hours were spent reliving all the injuries I had suffered. I invested a great deal of creative energy into thinking of subtle ways I might “get even,” or at least make him realize what a jerk he had been. While I had no intention of acting on my plans, I convinced myself that I had earned the right to indulge in these unseemly fantasies. In my thoughts, this person was unabashedly evil. I had a right to be angry, I told myself.

By the time I arrived at the Last Resort a year later to attend a 30-day vipassana meditation retreat, much of the heat of anger had cooled. Even so, one day early in the retreat I found myself again indulging in familiar negative thought loops and feeling their attendant resentment. As I felt my heart hardening, my stomach twisting, a silent voice—I believe it was my own—said, “Wait a minute. Who’s suffering here?”

I’m not sure who said it first—I heard it from singer/songwriter Chuck Pyle—but one of my favorite quotes is, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” As I understood the pain I’d been inflicting on myself while indulging in my righteous anger the desire to engage in it lifted completely. Great relief and extraordinary peace took its place.

While I cannot condone my former lover’s behavior and would no longer choose to place myself in harm’s way for the sake of being in a relationship, I feel no ill will toward the person who harmed me. After spending a year poisoning myself with angry and resentful thoughts, I know that’s not where I want to live.

Since the tragic attack of September 11, righteous anger has been not only an acceptable public reaction, but a collectively preferred one. Those who have suggested exploring more peaceful options, like Representative Barbara Lee, have been threatened with their lives and labeled as traitors.

The Salt Lake Tribune published an editorial by Utah Representative Jim Hansen on the Sunday after the tragedy in which he threatened Afghanistan with our “righteous wrath.” In his lauded recent speeches, George W. Bush has promised to “eradicate evil” and has named this war “our calling.” This is a battle between good and evil, he says. The language of current American rhetoric sounds eerily like that of the voices halfway around the world calling for jihad.

When a national tragedy of the magnitude of September 11 occurs, it tears at our roots and exposes what is at our core, those qualities that we have nurtured and those we have buried. Feeling anger, fear, grief, and a whole host of difficult emotion in response to such a shocking event is natural and expected. There’s no internal reaction that is unacceptable, and no one has been left out of this experience.

The Dalai Lama’s physician, Tenzin Choedrak, spent nearly 22 years incarcerated by the occupying Chinese in Tibet. While in prison he was regularly subjected to torture and lived with the understanding that at any time he could be killed for no reason. Still, despite the unimaginable difficulty of his life, he was able to triumph—not over his captors, but within himself.

Instead of poisoning himself with negative thought he guided himself with four points of understanding: 1. our enemy teaches us patience; 2. we are all connected, and our enemy carries the seeds of Buddhahood; 3. hatred never ceases by hatred; and 4. the wisdom of letting go of pride and self-righteousness.

There is a difference between accepting that anger is present and allowing it to run its natural course, and asserting our right to hold on to it. Self-righteousness, such as that which breeds the hawkish language of our leaders and that which has served to justify my own self-torture, feeds anger. It solidifies our feelings of ill will. Sure, we have a right to indulge in anger. We also have a right to hold onto a red-hot coal, but at what point do we admit we are being burned?

When you want to develop a skill, you practice. This principle applies not only to worldly endeavors, but to qualities of the heart. If we practice anger, we become angry. If we practice good will, we become loving.

The texts of Buddhist psychology recognize four brahma viharas, or divine abodes. The brahma viharas are considered to be god-like states within us that we can develop through specific practices. The first of these states is metta, which translates as lovingkindness or friendliness. Practicing the quality of metta deconditions the contractive states of anger, resentment and ill will, allowing us to meet all beings and experience from a foundation of love and acceptance.

What distinguishes metta from other forms of love is that it is not dependent on outer conditions; it comes from within ourselves. Therefore, how we feel about someone does not depend on him or her. It depends only on ourselves and whatever perspective we have chosen. When we believe that how we feel depends on others, we are giving away a great freedom, the freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to experience our world.

Lovingkindness is not something we must obtain from others. Rather, we generate it from within ourselves, and its supply is not limited. The more love we offer to others, the more we have to give.

Metta is the simple wish for ourselves and others to be happy. It has the unique benefit of softening and expanding the heart. When we practice lovingkindness, we create the space to respond to life’s vicissitudes with clarity, which helps us to choose wisely. When we choose wisely, our lives are more harmonious. The quality of metta encourages us to meet all experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, with benevolent acceptance.

The Buddha said the proximate cause for unconditional love is the recognition of the good qualities in ourselves and others. Every human being is a constellation of qualities—pleasant and unpleasant, skillful and unskillful. While it is healthy to open our hearts to all we see and feel, we can choose where we place our intention. When we focus on what we don’t like about ourselves and others, we feed ill will. How do we feel then, when we choose to focus on the good in ourselves and others? How do those around us respond?

So, the cultivation of metta begins with the intention to focus on the good in all beings. Another way to help develop the quality of lovingkindness is to take the time to see and understand the perspectives of others. We all experience our common reality from a variety of different angles. The willingness to explore perspectives outside our own can help us to understand the motivations of those whose behavior confuses or threatens us.

The third way of cultivating metta is to practice it as a meditation. In the practice, there are four traditional phrases that help develop the quality of lovingkindness. These phrases are repeated silently to onesself with the intention of reflecting on their meaning and their relationship to the being to whom they are directed. The phrases I’ve suggested below are the wordings that I have chosen to fit my own understanding. Feel free to come up with your own ways of expressing their meanings.

It is helpful to remember that the phrases are not orders or affirmations. They simply extend a wish. We can not make other people change just because we wish it to be so.

Begin by sitting comfortably. Kindness is central to metta practice, so it is important to be kind to yourself, and to choose a position that you can hold comfortably for a period of time. Traditional meditation postures work well, but feel free to use a chair.

Because it is impossible to love others unconditionally before we are able to love ourselves, the first beneficiary of our good will is ourselves. Begin by letting your awareness settle in the area of your heart. It may be helpful to reflect for a moment on your own good qualities.

The first phrase is, “May I be safe from inner and outer harm.” Imagine yourself as being protected from outer dangers as well as the suffering that you might inflict on yourself. Reflect on the meaning of safety, the feeling of unconditional security. There is no prescribed amount of time for which you must focus on each phrase. Simply move to the next one when it feels appropriate.

The second phrase is, “May I be happy and peaceful of mind.” Again, imagine yourself happy and peaceful. What is the quality of unconditional happiness? Imagine your own joyous heart being at peace with whatever is happening.

Next, say to yourself, “May I be healthy and vital.” Picture yourself living in a strong and energetic body. If chronic health issues make this concept difficult, imagine yourself being at peace with conditions as they are.

The final phrase is, “May I live with ease.” This is the simple wish that your life supports you, with good friends, supportive family and a livelihood that you enjoy.

You can cycle through these phrases, directing them at yourself several times and as you feel ready you can switch your focus to a benefactor. Your benefactor is a person who has supported or inspired you in your life. You may in fact be able to identify several benefactors. I’ve found it helpful to spend several months with one benefactor and then begin to include others at times when it feels right. Extend the metta wishes to your benefactor for as long as you like.

The next group of metta recipients is friends and family members. The metta wishes and the processes of understanding and applying them are the same for all recipients, so continue working with the phrases. Stay with friends and family members until you are ready to move to the next group.

The next two categories of beings can be more challenging. The first is a neutral person. This might be someone you see in your neighborhood market or someone at work that you don’t really know. The final category is the difficult person. It is natural for friends and family members to enter this category at times. You are encouraged to approach this group of beings with the intention of being easy on yourself. It’s not necessary to start with the most difficult person in your life. Some days it may feel appropriate to skip the difficult person entirely and focus on those for whom feelings of goodwill come more easily. Again, metta is about cultivating kindness, and it is a process that unfolds over time. Be kind to yourself.

Sometimes saying the phrases can seem dry or mechanical. This happens to everyone and it is okay. It is helpful to remember that the simple intention to cultivate lovingkindness is very powerful. Making the gesture is important.

The Buddha called metta “the limitless state.” There is nothing that is outside its boundaries. With time and intention, the quality of metta begins to shift from the realm of effortful practice to a way of being. Lovingkindness becomes our foundation. It becomes the gentle cradle within which we hold all beings and all experiences no matter how pleasant or painful. It becomes our own divine abode.

Recommended reading: Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.

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