“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment…
“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
and then [it] goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.” — Naomi Shihab Nye
On a cold November Saturday in late fall, eight of us from the Valley Insight sangha drove to Brattleboro to join over 200 others in an old white Congregational Church for a half-day meditation experience with Sharon Salzberg. Sharon is undoubtedly the person most responsible for bringing Metta meditation and compassion practice to the attention of western lay Buddhist practitioners. They are both important components of a wise and mature meditation practice.
Everyone in the town of Brattleboro seemed to be flowing into that church, and we were all eventually satisfied, having become full with friendliness. Sharon embodies a deep, calm, mature presence; her heart speaks from a clear, rich connection with suffering and with a longing to be free. She knows happiness and her voice speaks with a steady equanimity. She encircled us, held us, and enriched our lives.
Metta is described as both an intention and a mental state, one which we all have experienced: it is the felt-sense and the intention of good will towards ourselves and others. Our innate access to it is connected to our human capacity for empathy. The Pali word for meditation is Bhavana, which is an agricultural term referring to cultivation. Metta meditation is the cultivation of the habit of kindness. Although the word Metta was originally translated into English as “loving kindness,” it is perhaps more fully understood and experienced as “friendliness,” “kindness,” “goodwill,” or “benevolence.” Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein speaks of it as “my natural benevolence.” Consider how you might describe this basic feeling of connection. Maybe you can investigate it when it arises naturally in your life in this darkening season––looking for it both in yourself and in the others in your world. What does it feel like to be experiencing friendliness coming towards you? Flowing from you?
In the Suttas, the Buddha often narrowed in on the explanation of a mental phenomenon by considering what it is not. Metta is not prayer in that it is not a supplication; it is more the cultivation of an intention of goodwill, which will manifest as kindness. It is not love in the romantic, filial, or even “agape” sense; rather it is a deep, full, friendly acceptance. “We can’t always love someone, but we can always be kind,” says Sylvia Boorstein. The most obvious things that Metta is not are anger and ill will; these states are considered the “far enemies” of Metta. Interestingly, unfriendly mind states may sometimes arise as we practice Metta. We can think of them as part of the softening and cleansing of the heart and meet them with friendliness and self-compassion.
Classically, the “near enemies” of a benevolent heart, i.e., those things that mask as Metta, are considered to be more dangerous than its more apparent challenges because they are harder to see. These are sentimentality, attachment, control, and what might be called “pre-mature” Metta, the tendency to gloss over emotions or insights in order to bypass the experience of suffering and too quickly become the kind person. The practice helps us to find our balance in the middle path of not repressing or indulging thoughts. Sharon Salzberg pointed out that balance is an important component of Metta. Can you begin to feel this balance as you practice kindness? Maybe investigating the times you are off balance will be interesting. Experiment with meeting your own fears and resentments with benevolence even as you extend it to the situation, or person, who has given rise to the emotion. Sylvia Boorstein’s in-the-world Metta mantra, “May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend,” can be used to open compassionately to our own painful mind states as well as to those events that have given rise to our suffering.
Metta is the first of what are called the four Brahma Viharas, which are considered skillful states to cultivate and safe ones in which to rest our minds. These four are kindness and goodwill (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Appreciative Joy (Mudita), and Equanimity (Upekkha). It is said that as we cultivate the soil of Metta in our hearts, the other states naturally arise. Compassion and Appreciative Joy are “Metta in action”; and Equanimity, with its direct wisdom and calm, steady presence, provides the balance that the others need to mature as clear intentions and softening emotions in our hearts.
“Out of the soil of Metta
Flows the beautiful bloom of compassion,
Watered by the tears of joy,
Under the cool shade of the tree of equanimity.”
– from the later Buddhist Commentaries