The Buddhist word metta, often translated as “loving kindness,” refers to the benevolent openness that is sometimes naturally present in our hearts and minds. Formal metta meditation practice is designed to train the mind to recognize and to value this attitude, and to stabilize the familiar feelings so that unconditional friendliness and open-heartedness can become a strong habit of the mind and heart. Metta is considered to be the basic energy underlying the other three liberating qualities of heart: compassion, shared joy, and equanimity. These states are collectively called the Four Brahma Viharas. Brahma here means “best” or “highest”; and vihara means “abode” or “resting place.” Practicing with these states allows us to know and to rest in a quiet, spacious, noncontentious, nonagitated heart. This kind of formal meditation training allows friendliness to flow naturally into our daily lives and our relationships. Kindness gradually becomes a strong habit. It becomes our first response to whomever and whatever appears.
Most of us have learned how to practice strengthening metta from a commentarial context. The commentaries, which are a large body of collected writings begun soon after the death of the Buddha, expand on his teachings with the intention of clarifying them. In these metta trainings, we are instructed to use certain phrases, images, or both together to gradually and progressively work with directing good feelings to ourselves; a benefactor (one who wholeheartedly and consistently shows love and care for us); a dear friend; an acquaintance; and a difficult person, and only then to generalize and direct our well-wishes towards different categories of people and animals in a progression that moves our open-heartedness towards all beings. The practice uses memory, imagination, and reflection.
In addition, some of us have been using another type of metta practice. The Buddha’s teachings as found in the suttas and related material do not use the phrases or the graduated categories. Instead, these teachings encourage us to connect with, strengthen, and increasingly trust our inherent ability to experience kindness and to know the related feelings of care and benevolence towards everyone. Where the commentarial tradition builds on our natural preferences for some over others to liberate us from those very preferences, the earlier traditions don’t cultivate the preferences at all. They start off simply by setting the intention and evoking the feelings, then using a meditative or reflective technique to “become kind,” and then to extend an open-hearted attitude outwards into the boundless space all around us––the shared space in which we are collectively creating society and culture––touching everyone and everything equally.
One of these practices is not better than the other. Whatever method works for you––and this may vary from time to time––becomes the appropriate skillful means. Over time, through repeated practice, metta becomes a habit. We know its presence, and we can become aware when it is absent. Importantly, the simple noticing of its absence can help refresh its presence.
In later Buddhism, it is sometimes said that the Buddha flies through the world on two wings: wisdom and compassion––mindfulness and metta. But just as we cannot really separate the flight of a bird into two wings, we cannot truly separate mindfulness and metta, with its companions of compassion, joy, and equanimity. These wings move together. They balance and enhance one another on the path. It can be helpful at times, though, to emphasize metta, this heart aspect of the dharma, and to understand its role in supporting our path to freedom.
We see this balance of mindfulness and metta at work in Subha Srinivasan’s beautiful essay in October’s “Voices from the Sangha.” In it, she shares her experience with metta practice. We learn how the formal meditation practice transforms her personally. We also see how metta has the power to liberate mindfulness from the confusion of striving. Metta is an ethical practice; it frees the mind from hostility and ill-will in all their various manifestations. In Subha’s story, there is a full, profound, circling wholeness as, at the end, she offers us the experience of “presence” and “wakefulness.” As in the Buddha’s own awakening story, Subha’s transformation is nurtured by the remembered, deeply pleasant feelings of certain childhood experiences. Metta provides a softening, a relaxed opening through which mindfulness is refreshed by a growing gladness and held in a spacious tranquility of heart. A living, breathing, dependable brahma vihara emerges. Refuge is glimpsed and in that way is known––by Subha and by the world around her.
I will abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a heart imbued with metta, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.
–– Subha-Sutta, MN 99