I never really understood the practice of Loving Kindness, metta, until recently. Sure, I had read about it, heard about it in my trainings, practiced it, and even taught it, but somehow I didn’t ‘quite get it’. That is until I read Christina Feldman’s book Boundless Heart, The Buddha’s Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity. In her book Feldman presents practicing Metta as a verb: befriending. It is an attitude rather than a practice you turn ‘on and off’. She writes: [metta] “is said to be the necessary foundational attitude underlying all meditative development.”
Loving Kindness is not so much an emotion or state, but a way of approaching all experiences with boundless friendliness. We can learn to befriend all people – including ourselves – and all events and circumstances; the pleasant and the unpleasant, the beautiful and the ugly. This doesn’t mean we have to like everyone or everything, but we can care about it and befriend it.
Insight practice allows us to gain insight into impermanence, ‘unsatisfactoriness’, and the awareness of no-self. As an Insight practice, the cultivation of metta is directed toward uncovering aversion, which is a symptom of unsatisfactoriness. Aversion can show up in many ways: irritation, impatience, jealousy, hatred, belittlement, anger, etc. I don’t have to tell you there is a lot of that in the world.
Aversion leads to depression and anxiety as there is no room in our heart for joy and appreciation. From a Buddhist psychological perspective aversion, or: ill will, is rooted in fear – the fear of loss, the fear of harm. When we are gripped by fear, we create in our mind the sense of ‘other’ that we want to run away from or attack. We don’t want to feel this way so we blame the other, or our circumstances. This blaming can become such a habit that we don’t even notice we are doing it, nor the effects of it. Moreover, we often feel justified in our aversion; we feel we have every right to hate people that are doing wrong in our eyes. Unfortunately, we don’t realize the negative effects of that. As a Tibetan teacher said:
Do not take lightly small misdeeds,
Believing they can do no harm,
Even a tiny spark of fire
Can set alight a mountain.
So, we need to befriend aversion. Aversion is suffering that we can only end through our willingness to be intimate with the landscape of it, in order for it to be understood. Ill will truly holds the power to make us ill, as the body carries the burden of aversive thoughts and emotions. Metta is intended to interrupt these negative thoughts and emotions.
Metta is a quality of mindfulness. It doesn’t ask for an ambitious desire to save the whole world, but simply to rescue the mind and heart from moments of compulsive ill will. When we commit to kindness in each moment, we stop feeding the habit of aversion and bring the tendency of ill will to an end. It is a rotation of consciousness: rather than waiting for aversion to disappear for there to be space for kindness, it is through cultivating our capacity of befriending adversity that affliction will be eased and healed.
The conscious cultivation of metta as a meditation practice uses simple phrases that give words to the intention of metta. The keyword here is: intention. The words are less important, as long as they are meaningful and feel easy. Each phrase is repeated slowly – either out loud or in your mind – allowing space between each phrase to listen to the inward response.
There is no right response, however. We are not looking for a specific feeling or state of mind. All responses are welcome and a reminder that we are practicing befriending. Through sustaining our attention within the felt sense of befriending, we learn to deepen and sustain the capacity of our hearts to abide in kindness. In doing so new neural pathways are being laid in our brain and slowly we can reverse our habitual ways of reacting.
Traditionally, metta practice is offered first toward ourselves, then to a benefactor, a friend, a neural person, and lastly to a difficult person. For example:
May I/you be well in the midst of difficulty.
May I/you be at peace.
May I/you rest with ease and kindness in this moment.
In the western world befriending oneself seems to be the most difficult for most people. Metta practice should never be forced though and should be kept free of striving and expectations. It is always an invitation and a conscious cultivation of intention and inclining our hearts toward kindness.
As a practical application during your day, you could ask yourself these questions:
What does this moment need?
What is needed to free this moment of ill will and fear, and to rest in a boundless heart?
And as you practice loving kindness, remind yourself that you do not have to be ‘God-like’ to fully embody it. It is through practicing that we strengthen our ability to be more kind. And that is worth the effort; the world needs it.