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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.

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About Sunada Takagi

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Sunada Takagi is on a mission to help people open their hearts and minds through mindfulness. Her work includes leading classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Boston area, and coaching individual clients through life transitions -- from anywhere in the world via phone and Skype. Read more at her site, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

Sunada also teaches and leads retreats at Boston Triratna Buddhist Community and Aryaloka Buddhist Center. Sunada was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. This is where she received her name, which means "beautiful, excellent sound."

You can follow her at her Mindful Living Blog as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from Viv Manning
Time: September 22, 2011, 2:23 pm

Thank you for this post – I found it very helpful.

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Comment from Deb
Time: September 22, 2011, 5:44 pm

Thank you once again, Sunada, for your post. My metta bhavana practice has really had me stymied recently.

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Comment from Rozelle
Time: September 22, 2011, 6:21 pm

Wonderful! I just tend to try to blast folks with love when I find them “difficult.” Great article…thanks.

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Comment from Rebecca
Time: September 22, 2011, 7:29 pm

Thanks! That’s a really helpful way of explaining it. I really like the snake story too. :)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 22, 2011, 8:38 pm

Great article, thanks.

I usually present metta as being an attitude, rather than an emotion. You can act mettafully toward someone else even if you’re feeling flat or even down. Sometimes there’s an overt emotion of love present, but more often it’s an attitude of respecting the wellbeing of oneself and others.

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Comment from Jagdish
Time: September 23, 2011, 12:06 am

That’s a really good explanation. Thanks.

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Comment from Bahiya
Time: September 23, 2011, 6:32 am

Thank you – an interesting post that will be useful when teaching Metta Bhavana meditation to newcomers.

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Comment from Gayle Joyce
Time: September 23, 2011, 7:50 am

Thank you, very helpful story!

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Comment from Janet Pal
Time: September 23, 2011, 8:16 am

Thanks SO much for this, Sunada! I struggle with A sense of ‘not getting it right” – in a lot of things, not just my meditation practice – and this is really helpful. I like Bodhipaksa’s idea of an attitide rather than an emotion too. Thank you both!

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Comment from Mandy
Time: September 23, 2011, 8:46 am

Very helpful, Sunada. I love the snake story. I’m just back from a retreat where we were encouraged to think of metta as an awareness of others, and respect for them, much as Bodhipaksa suggests, rather than any particular kind of feeling. Practising metta like that took the strain out of things and seemed to allow a gentle, kindly curiosity into the equation.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: September 23, 2011, 11:12 am

Thank you all for your kind comments.

Bodhipaksa and Mandy, I agree with you. I approach my metta practice that way too. To me, the mindfulness and metta practices are not a whole lot different from each other in essence. In mindfulness, I practice kind awareness, with emphasis on the awareness. In metta, I practice kind awareness, with emphasis on the kindness. It’s just a slight shift of emphasis, but they’re both just about being aware, curious and accepting of what is.

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Comment from Mandy
Time: September 23, 2011, 11:42 am

That is brilliantly put, Sunada! I have also felt the two practices getting closer and closer together and was wondering if that was ‘ok’ (to echo Janet’s concern, above about ‘not getting it right’.) So I feel reassured by what you say here.

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Comment from Glenn
Time: September 29, 2011, 2:19 pm

A colleague and I who both worked on ICU cases together did something like this once. We acknowledged there was a strong discomfort between us. I acknowledged that I didn’t know where it came from and asked if she was interested in exploring it. She declined, suggesting we could choose to work around it, treating each other with professional respect and clear task-centered communication. I agreed; we tried it; it worked over the years we continued working there together. We never came to like each other, but we stopped disliking working together. That served our patients, families and co-workers well.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: September 29, 2011, 2:51 pm

That’s a great story Glenn! Thank you for sharing. If only all of our work relationships could be so clear and pragmatic, things would be so much better for everybody involved.

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Comment from Chris
Time: September 29, 2011, 9:12 pm

Great article. I love the snake story too. And I like Rozelle’s comment above about trying to “blast people” with love. I have probably done that in the past but this article will change my perspective and practice. Thanks!

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Comment from Shala
Time: October 3, 2011, 9:59 am

Thank you so much for this explanation of how to “do” metta toward the difficult relationship. Put in this way – respect & goodwill instead of love & affection – it seems so much more possible. Thanks to you…….

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 3, 2011, 10:57 am

Metta (lovingkindness) is traditionally described as having a “far enemy” (ill will) and a near enemy (denoted by the word pema). Pema is usually translated as “affection” but it occurs to me that “liking” is perhaps a better translation. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with liking people, but the trap is that you confuse liking with lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is about the other person, and your wish for their happiness, whereas liking is about you — how other people make you feel.

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Comment from vaishali
Time: July 30, 2012, 1:40 am

hello,
i read the artical ‘when metta dosent mean love’.
my question about the snake story – ‘if you dont have bad feeling and you like the snake, but snake always ready to dit you hert you, than what should do to be happy.

waiting for response

thanks

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Comment from Sunada
Time: July 31, 2012, 2:23 pm

Vaishali, It’s very difficult to respond to your question without knowing any details about it. But one thing that comes to mind is that nobody can hurt you without your permission. When someone treats you badly, you have the choice to not engage with them. On the other hand, maybe this person is your husband or a family member, and you can’t just leave him. But you still have the power to speak up for yourself when you are being treated badly. Metta doesn’t mean being passive and allowing others to take advantage of you! Please stand up for yourself!

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Comment from vaishali
Time: August 3, 2012, 1:09 am

thanks for understanding ,but to stand up for self why so difficult sometimes.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 3, 2012, 9:35 am

Vaishali,
The question I’ll ask back to you is, how much do you love and care about yourself? If you have lived for a long time without caring for yourself, it’s only natural that it will feel difficult to do so. But you are capable of changing. Everything and everyone can change. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. How about taking one small step today in a different, more self-caring direction that you might have in the past? It’s only through taking many small steps that we begin making big changes.

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Comment from Andrea
Time: November 28, 2012, 10:11 am

Thank you for this article. Especially this part: “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.”

I have a close family member who has chronic depression, and can ve very abusive emotionally. I can’t walk away from her for several reasons, but it’s so draining to be with her. Most of the time I feel like I’m walking on tip toes trying not to say anything that will make her feel bad (which is almost impossible sometimes), and it’s hurtful and frustrating to see her rejecting my attempts at helping her. Anyway, I’ll remember your article and think on it some more.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: November 28, 2012, 5:14 pm

Hi Andrea,
Yes, touchy family relationships are particularly difficult, aren’t they. It’s a fine line to walk between trying to be helpful vs. letting her do her own thing. Maybe the thing to consider is how to take care of yourself better, in light of the fact that you have her close by in your life. There’s nothing selfish in that. When your personal well is full, it might even help you to be more steady and patient when things get challenging with her.

I wish you all the best as you work these through!

with metta,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from Andrea
Time: December 2, 2012, 9:01 pm

Thank you for the kind words, Sunada. It has been quite a learning process to take care of myself, especially when some people do see it as selfish.

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