The Buddha’s instructions on lovingkindness — at least those that have been passed on to us — don’t include the five stages of cultivating lovingkindness for oneself, the friend, the “neutral person,” the person we have difficulty with, and then all beings. There are some scattered instructions about cultivating lovingkindness toward people we harbor anger toward, but the bulk of the instructions concern what is, for us, the final stage of the practice: cultivating lovingkindness to all beings.
This doesn’t invalidate what we do. The five (sometimes six) stage model has a long pedigree going back at least 2,000 years, and it may be that it goes back to the Buddha himself. We just don’t know. But it’s interesting to look back and see that there is, apparently, an early strand of teaching that’s quite different from what we do.
So here’s a typical direction for lovingkindness practice:
That disciple of the noble ones — thus devoid of covetousness, devoid of ill will, unbewildered, alert, mindful — keeps pervading the first direction [i.e. the East] with an awareness imbued with good will, likewise the second [South], likewise the third [West], likewise the fourth [North]. Thus above, below, and all around, everywhere, in its entirety, he keeps pervading the all-encompassing cosmos with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will.
So there’s a lot of emphasis on directionality. Let’s call this the “compass approach” to lovingkindness. This is quite different from how I was taught the practice, which was to cultivate loving-kindness for those nearby, and then to work outward: neighborhood, town, region, country, neighboring countries, etc., until the whole world is embraced in a mind of lovingkindness. What I was taught is more of an “atlas approach.”
What may be the earliest meditation manual we have, the Vimuttimagga (path of freedom), which dates to just a few hundred years after the Buddha, includes this atlas-style approach to lovingkindness:
…he should gradually arouse the thought of loving-kindness and develop it for various bhikkhus [monks] in (his) dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for the Community of Bhikkhus in (his) dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for the deities in his dwelling-place. After that he should develop loving-kindness for beings in the village outside his dwelling-place. Thus (he develops loving-kindness for beings) from village to village, from country to country.
The Vimuttimagga then goes on to take the compass approach. And I think switching from the atlas to the compass approach is a good idea, because I’ve always felt the atlas metod to be rather clunky. How do you conceive of having lovingkindness for all beings in, say, Europe or Africa, especially for someone who doesn’t live there? Do you picture a map? That’s rather detached from the reality of the beings that live in those places. Do you pick random scenes and wish the people you see well? That’s what I tend to do, but in a way you’re departing from the atlas approach, since you can’t exactly do this for every nation, going “country to country.” It is, of course, possible to over-think this!
But it occurred to me that at the time of the Buddha, knowledge of geography was rather basic. There would have been maps, even just mental maps, extending a few hundred miles in every direction from where one resided, but beyond that would have been rather mysterious, even mythic (“Here be nāgas”). So when the Buddha suggested to cultivate lovingkindness to all the beings in one particular direction, he wouldn’t (couldn’t!) have had a picture of the places he was contemplating. (There were mythic geographies around at that time, but they would have been very vague.) He didn’t have images from TV shows and movies and magazines to draw upon.
So perhaps the notion of just considering a direction is a good one! It frees us up from having to picture the world. We can let go to some extent of our visual sense, and have more of a spatial sense of the world around us. We can just be aware of each direction in turn, and have a sense that we’re wishing any beings in that direction well. We don’t have to see the directions. We can feel them. They’re inside our awareness already.
A sense of the space around us is one of our senses, although one people don’t talk about very much. But if you close your eyes right now, you still have a pretty good idea of where you are in relation to things around you. You know roughly how far it is to the wall in front of you, to the right, left, and behind you. You have a sense of the dimensions and orientation of the whole building around you, and of that building’s relation to the space around it, and to other buildings. You can even have a sense of the whole space above you — all the way up the sky.
So in a sense all of that space is “in” your awareness. And if your awareness is imbued with a sense of kindness, then (in a sense) the space around you is imbued with kindness as well.
So I tend, in my own practice of the fifth stage of the metta bhavana, to simply experience the space around me in all directions, and to regard those directions kindly. And whatever beings there may be in that space, human or animal, I wish them well. My mind becomes a field of lovingkindness, extending outside of my body, into the world.
It’s hard to say how far out from my body I sense this field of lovingkindness extending. You don’t literally have to have a sense of the whole world as part of the practice of “cultivating universal loving-kindness.” Your mind is your world, and all you have to do is maintain a loving awareness of that world, and of any beings that enter your senses, including the sense of the mind.
So for me the emphasis in the practice isn’t trying to connect with different geographic areas (which gets rather abstract), or with in some way trying to imagine the whole world (again abstract) or all the beings on it (which is impossible), but having a sense that my mind is this field of lovingkindness; and whoever was to enter my awareness, whether by physically entering the range of my senses, or by appearing in my mind’s eye, would be received kindly, with a recognition that this is a being that wants to be happy and finds happiness elusive, and with a sense that I am prepared to support that being, not obstructing their happiness, and supporting it if I can.