Our sangha has been practicing with mettā, or loving-kindness meditation these last few weeks. This is quite an appropriate practice for the holiday season. Mettā is the first of the four brahmavihāras and the foundation for the other “divine states” we will be studying and practicing with throughout the coming weeks. In Pali, the ancient language of the early Buddhist texts, the word mettā means loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity. It comes from a root word that means to tenderly befriend something.
Mettā is where we begin, it provides the ground out of which we grow compassion and appreciative joy. All four of the brahmavihāras have love as their undercurrent: they are about adhesion and connectedness to the other. But it is a special type of love or friendship. It is highly influenced by the last of the brahmavihāras: equanimity. It is a love that is not permeated by craving, grasping and the need for reciprocity. It is a balanced affection for the self and other no matter what….. No easy task.
There are many qualities of mind, some of which you want to cultivate, some not. By developing mettā, loving-kindness toward the self and others, we are cultivating an attitudinal vihara, an attitudinal “home,” that is far more productive than cultivating of a “home” of grasping, anger, or greed. These states stand in opposition to loving attentiveness. We are what we practice, so if we practice mettā we become more likely to have this emotion available, and it’s a useful emotion to have access to in these difficult times. The practice of mettā is really about the discovery of an attitude of kindness inside the self and allowing it to grow so that it expands and permeates our existence without effort.
Mettā practiced toward the self is a useful anecdote to those negative self-statements we are so prone to in the West. How we relate to our internal world determines to a large part how we act toward others. Ever notice how we take out thoughts terribly seriously and equate them with this edifice self we are constantly building and refining? Notice that these default thoughts about ourselves are not always very nice. Mettā practice encourages a softening, an allowing, a broadening, a letting go of the core critic, constantly yammering away about all we do, day in and day out. Mettā practiced in this manner addresses this core so that we can begin to give ourselves less of a hard time. So much better to make our vihara, our dwelling place one of love, tenderness, and kindness than hate, self-criticism, and fear.
Furthermore, without mettā, you cannot stay in relationship with what arises in meditation. Aversion and pain are too prevalent. Self-statements such as, “I am bad. I hate this. What a jerk I am,” too often arise in consciousness. With mettā on board, staying with what comes up allows us to investigate it and know what exactly we are experiencing. When we “incline the mind” toward mettā we can more easily bear that which we are trying to hide from ourselves. This is certainly not an easy or simple process. But it is one well worth the struggle.
Over the next few weeks we will continue our exploration of metta and compassion in practice and everyday life.
May all beings everywhere find happiness, peace, compassion, and joy.
With much mettā,