Our speech is one of the most important ways we can take into the world the lovingkindness, or metta, that we develop in meditation .
I’ve said already that mindful speech should not only be honest, but should be meant kindly. One of the most effective means of being kind in our speech and of helping others is to express appreciation of them. This is an excellent practice.
We all tend to delete certain perceptions from our consciousness. When we have an enemy, then we’ll tend not to notice anything positive about that person; we just concentrate on what we don’t like.
When I was on the four-month retreat on which I was ordained, we had a month-long process of ordinations. One person would be ordained each night, and before the ordination, Suvajra, the retreat leader, would do what we call “rejoicing in merits,” or punya-anumodana.
This is a traditional Buddhist practice of celebrating someone’s good qualities. So every night Suvajra had the task of finding positive things to say about the man who was about to have his ordination ceremony.
There were one or two people on that retreat that I found it hard to like. In fact, to be quite honest, there were things about them that I really disliked. And in those cases I found myself wondering what on earth Suvajra would find to say about those people. He never had the slightest difficulty. Every night, without fail, he would spend up to half an hour celebrating the good qualities of the person to be ordained, even those people in whom I hadn’t noticed such qualities.
And the funny thing was that when he rejoiced in the merits of the one or two people I didn’t get on with and in whom I hadn’t found anything to rejoice in, I recognized that what he was saying was true.
Suvajra would say something complimentary about them and I’d think, yes, that’s true, I had kind of noticed that in an almost subliminal way. Right, he is playful. That’s true, he is always first in the meditation room. Although I hadn’t been prepared to consciously notice that person’s good qualities, I had still perceived those qualities on a dim, not-quite-conscious way.
Suvajra’s rejoicing in merits allowed me to bring those qualities into a more conscious part of my mind so that I could really see that person without the distorting filters and deletions that had kept them in my mind as a shadow of themselves.
So one of the benefits of expressing appreciation is that it allows us to see others more fully. When we are prepared to really be mindful of another person, without self-blinding judgment, then we start to notice things about them that we were previously only dimly aware of.
And I know from my own experience that sometimes I underrate myself as well. Sometimes I delete an awareness of my own positive qualities, and when someone rejoices in my merits, then I am forced to see myself in a more positive light. Then I can begin to value those positive qualities in myself and begin to nurture them. If I find appreciation so useful, then why should I deny it to others?
Having your own positive qualities reflected back at you can, paradoxically, be very painful. Sometimes we find it hard to accept that we are not worthless. It can be hard to be made aware of qualities that we then have to live up to. So notice times when you are resistant to the positive perceptions of others. Beware of false modesty and of shrugging off the compliments that others give us.
Without appreciation, our positive qualities must struggle to grow, and even to survive. And the same is true for others. The more appreciation we express, the more likely it is that we will create a climate of appreciation in which we will ourselves flourish. But giving appreciation so that we will get some back is not the point. If we’re acting from metta we shouldn’t be so concerned about what we get back. In the same spirit of metta, though, we should not be afraid to ask for appreciation when we feel we need it. We are all worthy of appreciation.