Why do we have this stage?
We might have lots of friends. We might have a few people we don’t get on with. But most of the people in the world are “neutral” people — that is we don’t have any strongly positive or negative emotions towards them.
Sometimes that neutrality is simply because we don’t yet know someone. At other times (especially in the West) it’s more of a cultural habit. We simply have a habit of not engaging emotionally with people unless we need to. This stage of the meditation practice helps to fix that.
Most of us in the West live in large towns or cities. In the days when most of us lived in villages, we’d know almost everyone we ever met. We’d probably have liked some of them and disliked others. If we saw someone we didn’t know we might either be very interested in them and pleased to see them, or maybe a bit suspicious — depending on the time and circumstances.
Nowadays though, we see hundreds or perhaps thousands of people in the streets, in cars, in restaurants, and buses and in stores. We can’t say “hi” to every one of them. So we switch our emotions into neutral as a kind of defense mechanism.
That’s probably a healthy response to an extreme situation, but have you noticed how we get stuck in neutral?
What happens when we’re in an elevator or sitting next to someone on a plane? Many times we try to pretend they don’t exist. Even when someone is serving us in a store (actually helping us!) we can behave towards them as if they were a sort of human vending machine.
What’s happened is that we’ve become stuck in a neutral state. We can become trapped inside ourselves, and sometimes even afraid to be human. And that neutrality can easily turn into negativity. We can get frustrated and angry when a line in a store seems to be moving too slowly. We can end up being rude to the shop-assistant even although they’re already hassled.
That’s unpleasant for both of us.
In the third stage of the Metta Bhavana, we’re learning to break out of neutral. We’re reclaiming our full humanity by acknowledging the full humanity of others.
Through the practice of this meditation we’re daring to feel. We’re reconnecting with another being as a feeling being. We’re being respectful.
We’re showing solidarity with other suffering beings.