Lovingkindness (metta) practice — both in our meditation and in daily life — can play a major part in the development of wisdom, or insight. I’m quite sure that you’ve already learned some useful things about relating to yourself and others while you’ve been learning this beautiful practice.
We can learn, for example, that emotions are something that we can cultivate, and not just things that happen to us. This can be a major insight for many people. We can learn that whether someone is our enemy largely depends on how we relate to them. We can learn that how others relate to us is conditioned by how we relate to them. We can learn that how we relate to others depends on how we relate to ourselves. We can learn that how we relate to people in our thoughts conditions how we relate to them in real life.
Dissolving the boundaries between self and other
The practice of metta can fundamentally alter our attitudes and understandings about our relationship with the world. Here’s an example: have you ever had the experience of having an argument with someone, but entirely in the privacy of your own head? I’m sure you’re familiar with that experience.
But have you ever wondered who it is that you’re arguing with? Most of us never get that far in our analysis of ourselves, but let’s do it now. It’s obviously not the actual other person that you’re arguing with, since they’re probably not present, and even if they are then it’s not the external version of them that you’re having the argument with.
If you think about it, you can only reach the conclusion that it’s yourself that you are arguing with. One part of your mind (which you identify as yourself) and another part of your mind (which manifests as an internal representation of your enemy) are locked in a fight. The “real” enemy isn’t involved at all. (It’s interesting to ask who, if anyone, wins these arguments, but I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourselves).
Noticing our “hallucinations”
But let’s think about this a bit more. There you are, having an argument with yourself, although you think you’re arguing with another person because you’re (in a way) hallucinating. We do, in fact often live in a state of “hallucination”, where we confuse what is going on in our heads with what is going on in the outside world.
Does this kind of internal argument have effects on the outside world and on the enemy? Well, perhaps not directly, but indirectly it certainly does. After one of these arguments we may well be in a bad mood, and take it out on “innocent people,” like our friends and family.
And of course if we meet our enemy then we’ll almost certainly have a worse relationship with him or her because of the ill will we’ve generated. To some extent, the enemy can be another one of those “innocent people.” This person has been away minding his or her own business, and then we inflict the negative mental states – that we have generated in an argument with ourselves – on them.
So what can we learn from this? We could learn just the simple fact of this dynamic, that we cultivate emotions internally and then those have an effect on the outside world. But a somewhat more profound reflection is to begin questioning the very nature of the distinction between our inner and outer worlds. What happens inside us affects our perceptions of the outside world and of the people in it. We might, for example have gotten into a bad mood through our internal argument, and in that bad mood assume that everyone is out to make our lives difficult (it’s childish, I know, but that’s how we act a lot of the time). And as I’ve pointed out, our inner argument directly affects how we perceive our enemy – perhaps it even creates the very perception of having an enemy – and then affects how we relate to them.
The delusion of self and other
At the same time, we tend to see a sharp distinction between “inside” and “outside,” “self” and “other.”
These are distinctions that seem to so natural that we rarely, if ever, question them. And yet we’ve seen that the notion of separate internal and external worlds doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The outside world is really a product of our subjective states meeting the objective pole of our experience.
Sometimes when we’re sitting in meditation (or even walking in meditation) this distinction between inner and outer begins to blur. We begin to have a sense that there is less of a sharp distinction between these two worlds, to see in fact that they are really one world that we unconsciously split in two. Sometimes there is no distinction at all, and our awareness simply constitutes a unitary field of awareness that lacks divisions into inner and outer, self and other.
This can happen in the metta bhavana practice. While cultivating metta we are learning to widen our sense of ourselves. We’re leaving behind a narrow sense of ourselves that assumes the best way to be happy is to look mainly, or even solely, after our own interests. And yet in the metta practice we soon learn that we are at our happiest and most fulfilled when we take other people into account by wishing them well. This change in our perspective is just the beginning of what can be a complete transformation in the way we see ourselves.
Most of us have mixed feeling about the term “selflessness”. We might associate it with an ascetic self-denial, or with self-hatred. But the experience of metta teaches us that there is a loving, joyful, and deeply fulfilling way to experience a dissolving of our narrow sense. Rather than seeing selflessness as a diminution of what we are, we might be more accurately see it as a broadening and expansion of ourselves – an expansion that has, in theory, no limit.
The metta bhavana practice is part of the path to complete liberation from limiting assumptions, views, emotions, and behaviors. In Buddhist terms this practice can culminate in the attainment of spiritual awakening, or Enlightenment. This may not be your own personal goal in life, but in the spirit of metta I wish you well on your journey of self-discovery into the rich inner world, and hope that you find the happiness and fulfillment that is your inherent and natural potential.