Sep 22, 2011
When metta doesn’t mean “love”
I remember feeling very frustrated – and frankly a little baffled – when I was first learning the metta bhavana practice. Especially around the fourth stage, the difficult person. How was I supposed to feel warmth and affection for somebody I admitted not getting along with?
It was a tall order, and the whole idea left me feeling inadequate. I often sat there wondering what the heck metta was supposed to feel like, because I just didn’t get it. I figured there must be something wrong with me. I’m wondering if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar place.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with me or you. One of the problems stems from the typical translation of “metta” as “lovingkindness.” While that’s not incorrect, it’s a little misleading, especially in the case of the difficult person. I think many of us have such strong images of what “love” means that it limits our perspective.
I recently came across a story that beautifully illustrates what metta for a difficult person REALLY is. A Thai monk by the name of Ajaan Fuang tells of his encounter with a snake while on retreat. It had come into his room and taken up residence behind one of the cabinets. So the two of them lived together uneasily for a few days, avoiding each other as best they could. The snake didn’t seem to want to leave, even though Fuang left the front door wide open.
Finally on the third day, Fuang quietly addressed the snake in meditation. He said, “Look, it’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t have any bad feelings for you. But our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are lots of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.”
And as he said those words, the snake quietly slipped out the door and left.
So this is metta for a difficult person. For some people (like that snake), it wouldn’t be appropriate to approach them with love and affection. They don’t want it from us. They don’t trust us, and we don’t really trust them either. We see the world in very different ways. In fact, if we try to hug a snake, it would probably bite us back! Obviously, that would not be wise.
But we can still wholeheartedly wish for their happiness and well-being — on their terms, not ours. Sometimes the best way for two people to be happy is to part ways. So in this case metta is more like respect and goodwill, as opposed to love and affection.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the Buddha was a very pragmatic man, and that his teachings reflect that. If I find myself struggling over my practice, then it probably means I’m barking up the wrong tree. There is no need for struggle.
Sometimes, the best thing I can do is to accept my own limits. I don’t have the heart of a Buddha, and I’m not able to love all beings genuinely. Not yet at least. And that’s OK. I still have my aspirations and intentions. And they will bear fruit in time. But for now, to struggle and beat myself up over my inadequacies does no good whatsoever. Best to let it go and move on.
And that moving on in itself is a practice of metta. Metta for myself, that is. I’m learning how to face everything in life with gentleness and acceptance. Including my own failings and foibles.