We don’t just cultivate metta, or lovingkindness, on the meditation cushion. It can be cultivated, and eventually experienced, in every aspect of our lives.
We can take lovingkindness practice off the cushion and into our daily lives, and develop it in our interactions with friends, family, and even with strangers. As with anything else, practice helps us to become better at what we do. Of course we’ll make mistakes — we’ll lose our tempers, harbor grudges, have irrational dislikes, fail to be compassionate even when our friends are suffering — but making mistakes is just a part of the process of learning any skill. The important thing is that we try to learn from our experience. But one of the lovely things about developing lovingkindness is that our mess-ups offer us an opportunity to develop greater kindness toward ourselves. We have the opportunity to realize that “to err is human.” We have the opportunity to forgive ourselves.
Really what we’re talking about when we’re discussing taking lovingkindness into daily life is practicing ethics. But this isn’t ethics understood in terms of obeying rules, or in terms of escaping punishments and earning rewards (metta has its rewards, but they are simply the natural consequences of our actions, not something handed out by an external judge). What we’re talking about is in developing a quality of awareness that is kindly and compassionate. And this quality of awareness leads to us acting, more and more, in a naturally kind way. It’s said in fact, that someone who is enlightened no longer has to practice ethics. They’re naturally ethical, because acting with mindfulness and compassion comes naturally when you’re enlightened.
Until we’re enlightened we do have to work at being kinder and more compassionate to ourselves and others, but in time we find that it comes naturally, just as with learning any other skill.
Cultivating metta in meditation has an effect on how we behave in our daily lives. Even if we don’t notice that we’re kinder, other people often do. But how we act in our daily lives also affects how easy it is to cultivate lovingkindness in our meditation practice. If you’ve been finding fault with others all day, or have been involved in arguments, when you sit down to meditate you’re going to find that your mind is turbulent and conflicted. The arguments and fault-finding will continue in your mind, even though you’re the only person there.
On the other hand if, during the day, you let go of critical thoughts whenever you notice them, try to speak kindly, and try to empathize with others even if you disagree with them, then when you sit on the cushion you’re going to find that you feel better about yourself and that it’s easier to connect with a sense of kindness.
So the relationship between meditation and daily life is a two-way street. Each has effects on the other. If we are trying to cultivate metta in meditation but are acting in our daily lives in a way that undermines our metta, then we’re obviously going to get “stuck” in our development.
In fact this might be one of the most common causes of lack of progress in meditation – that we are busy undoing the effects of our meditation while at work or with friends and families. So we need to look at every aspect of our lives and see to what extent it helps or hinders our development of metta.