I’ve had a lot of opportunity to teach metta, or “lovingkindness,” over the last two years. One thing I’m doing differently as a result is referring to metta as “kindness,” rather than “lovingkindness. The “loving” part of “lovingkindness” doesn’t, to my mind, add anything, but rather takes what’s a concrete experience and makes it seem rather abstract. It’s easy to picture what it’s like when someone is kind to you, but it’s harder to imagine someone relating to you in a way that demonstrates lovingkindness.
The simple word “kindness” seems to be an ideal term to translate “metta.” Kindness, after all, is simply relating to another being in a way that respects their desire to be happy. When we’re kind we take others’ feelings into account. We recognize that their feelings are not just important to them, but are as important to them as ours are to us. We want to act in ways that put them at ease and bring them happiness, and we don’t want to do anything to cause them pain.
Metta starts with empathy. I’ve realized that it’s common for us to try to cultivate kindness without first establishing a sense of empathy. We sit down, call someone to mind, and then wish them well. Now wishing someone well can lead to empathy arising, but if that doesn’t happen then our well-wishing can be dry and mechanical. In order to prevent that happening, I’ve been making a point of connecting empathetically with myself—and with others—before starting any well-wishing.
How do I do this? I drop in two reflections, and then extend myself an invitation.
The first reflection is this: “I want to be happy.”
I let this thought sink in. I check out whether it’s true for me right now. I think about times I’ve been happy or unhappy in the past. And I realize that I always have a desire for happiness (or perhaps something more like peace or wellbeing).
The second reflection is this: “It’s often not easy to be happy.”
I let that sink in, too. I recognize that happiness can be elusive, and the suffering can be an all-too-common visitor to my life. I realize that being human isn’t easy.
The invitation is this: “Recognizing that I’m doing a difficult thing simply in being human, can I offer myself support, encouragement, and kindness?” I find that there’s always part of me that wants to do this. The way of expressing support is simply to repeat the metta phrases. I’ll often say: “May I be well; may I be happy; may I be at ease. May I be kind to myself and others.” In this way I empathize with myself before beginning to wish myself well.
In the other stages of the practice I introduce the same reflections: My friend (or the neutral person, or the difficult person) just like me, wants to be happy, but finds happiness elusive. We’re both doing this difficult thing of being human. Empathetically knowing this, can I offer this person support and encouragement? Yes! “May you be well…”
There can be a sense of heart-ache when reflecting in this way—acknowledging that life is often difficult. Those feelings may be uncomfortable, but they aren’t bad. In fact they’re part of the empathy that makes metta possible. They should be accepted and received kindly.
The result of doing the practice this way is that my efforts to cultivate kindness feel much more grounded and real than ever before. My meditation is more heart-felt.
Cultivating connection and empathy before cultivating metta can bring our practice to life.
PS. A reader wrote complaining about my use of “kindness” instead of “lovingkindness” to translate “metta.” She said, “If it’s good enough for the Dalai Lama it should be good enough for you.” :)