A student asks: In my metta bhavana practice, I can’t seem to feel anything toward the neutral and difficult person. Any advice?
Sunada replies: Oh yes, I’m familiar this problem because I struggled with it myself for quite a long time. How are we supposed to feel love for someone we don’t know, or harder still – someone we may not even like? I think the trap that many of us fall into is thinking that metta has to be a great uplifting feeling of love and affection. (In other words, if our meditation were a scene in a movie, we’d be expecting to hear romantic violins in the soundtrack! HA!) And when we don’t feel it in such a grand way, we assume that there is no metta present.
But I am 100% confident that you have plenty of metta in you. Everybody does. So let’s figure out how we can recognize its presence.
Let me start by reframing what metta is. It’s not only an emotion of love, but also more broadly an outlook, attitude, or intention of respect and kindness. It can be quite subtle — something that doesn’t feel much like an “emotion” at all.
So let’s try this experiment. Think of any recent or ongoing human tragedy that involved people you don’t know personally. Darfur. Hurricane Katrina. The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Sept 11 in New York. Thousands of people that you don’t know died or faced unspeakable hardship. Doesn’t it bring at least a little bit of a stab in your heart when you think about all the pain and suffering they went through and likely are still going through? Isn’t there a place in your heart that feels with conviction that all people have the right to safety and the chance to live with dignity and peace? Well, there you are. This is metta for a neutral person.
Or let’s take some more mundane situations. Do you hold doors open for strangers? Do you help people who are lost and stop you on the street to ask for directions? This is more evidence of metta for people you don’t know.
Now let’s think of your difficult person. Imagine for a moment that you are walking down the street one day and witness your difficult person getting into an accident and being badly injured. Would you have the heart to just walk away? Or would you rush in to help in any way you can, even if it’s just to call for emergency help? Well there you are again. This is metta for a difficult person.
You see, metta in its larger sense has little to do with knowing or even liking someone. To me, it’s about recognizing my very strong conviction about human rights that everybody has a right to live in safety, to have basic needs provided for, to live happily, free from physical or emotional pain, and to be held in esteem by friends, family, and community. And our task, as members of this human race, is to work toward providing these needs for each other, as best we can, in an unpredictable and changing world. We don’t do this just for those we know and love. We work to contribute to the good of all, because we recognize that we are an interdependent web of humanity.
So when we practice metta toward our neutral and difficult person, keep these sorts of thoughts in mind. Remember that we DO care about them and want them to be happy and free from suffering. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t feel love and affection for them, since that’s not really the point here. It’s about recognizing our shared humanity. And even if we can’t sustain our feelings of conviction for an entire sit, just setting an intention of well-wishing is enough. Just that simple act alone is sufficient to begin cultivating the rich soil of metta in our hearts.
Sunada has been teaching online meditation courses with Wildmind since January 2006, and has impressed students with her practical and friendly approach to teaching meditation. She also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.
Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.