A couple of people in Wildmind’s online Community (which currently has over 400 members and is a thriving hubbub of conversation about practice, carried out with love and support) have been really struggling with lovingkindness, and especially with cultivating lovingkindness for themselves.
Here’s what I think often happens when cultivating metta goes wrong.
You start by assuming that metta is an emotion. It’s “universal lovingkindness” and so it must be some kind of powerful, warm, joyful glow: something quite extraordinary. And you’re supposed to have this emotion for yourself. So you start the practice and look for some sign of this emotion, and all you can find is — well, maybe you’re feeling a bit neutral, maybe you’re in a grumpy mood, maybe you’re anxious, maybe you’re feeling a bit low. Whatever is there, it’s not pretty. So where’s the lovingkindness? No trace of it! Oh, no. This means you don’t love yourself! You’re lacking in love, broken! There must be something wrong with you! Perhaps you don’t have love for yourself because you’re fundamentally unloveable! You plunge into despair.
I think most of us have gone through this at some time of another when learning lovingkindness practice.
Except … metta isn’t an emotion. It’s more like an attitude, or a perpective.
“Huh?” I hear you say, so let me explain.
Usually my metta practice is actually quite joyful, but the joy is an added bonus. Joy and metta aren’t the same thing, as I know from those times I’m joyfully oblivious to the suffering of people around me — suffering I may be causing.
In fact, I can be mettaful and be feeling crappy. So I may be anxious or despondent, and yet have metta. In these cases the metta is a kindly acceptance of what’s there. There’s an attitude of allowing and of tenderness.
The perspective is that it’s OK not to feel good. The perspective is that happiness doesn’t come from an endless stream of pleasant experiences, but from relating to whatever is present in a kindly way.
The perspective and the attitude are related. If it’s OK not to feel good, and if happiness comes from relating with kindness to whatever is present, even if it’s painful, then kindness naturally arises.
Without this perspective — if for example we have the perspective that it’s not OK to experience something unpleasant — then there will be aversion and consequently there will be no possibility of metta arising. This is the cause of the “cultivating metta gone wrong” scenario above.
Then there’s a more active “well-wishing” toward oneself or others. It’s an active recognition of beings’ potential for happiness, and a desire that beings (myself included) experience that happiness. I find it hard to describe this. But here goes.
The perspective is of recognizing that beings are feeling beings (something that, strangely, I forget) and that their feelings are important to them, and that they prefer happiness. Metta practice, for me, is largely keeping this perspective alive in my mind, and when I do bear this perspective in mind, I naturally wish others well, because I don’t want to get in the way of their finding happiness, and want to help them find it if I can. An attitude of well-wishing arises naturally out of a perspective of recognizing empathetically that others are feeling beings. So for me, the perspective is primary in my experience of metta, and the attitude of well-wishing is secondary, but it’s the two of those together that comprise metta.
The perspective and the attitude of well-wishing that arises from it are basically the same as the “sense of allowing and of tenderness” that I have for myself, even when I’m feeling crappy.
So there’s no need to avoid lovingkindness practice if you find it challenging. What you need to do is let go of the assumption that metta is an emotion, and see it instead as a perspective toward ourselves (“It’s OK not to feel good”) and an attitude (kindness toward what’s present in us), and as a perspective toward others (they are feeling beings that desire happiness) and an attitude of supporting them in that desire.[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
Is it not strange how difficult it is to apply the same loving kindnesses to oneself as we do for others? I never find myself questioning the daily practices of others, yet if I spend a day (even a day in which my works are my practice) missing formal daily practice, I am terribly guilt ridden for “wasting time” in which I could be in formal practice. This spirals into a loop in which I’ve begun to be less joyful about my practice as it feels “obligatory” rather than time to which I used to anticipate as some of the best time of my days. Avoidance is setting in, and while I do get to practice in my shrine room, the most joyful practice is a spontaneous one-right before sleep – which I almost never miss. That unstructured practice is always a time to dedicate merit, sometimes simple meditation and often Sukaviti practice for those transitioning from life. Yet, that practice doesn’t “count” in my self-unloving mind.
I suspect that this happens to many practitioners. I am sad that I have so much trouble forgiving myself; yet it would not occur to me to look at others this way.
Thank you for raising this.
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