This post is part of our Urban Retreat, running from Nov 9 to 16, 2013. To subscribe to our Urban Retreat posts, which will be delivered to your inbox each day of the retreat, go here.
The Urban Retreat is set up to help you bring more depth of practice into your life. In particular we’re focusing for the week on lovingkindness (metta) practice, so that we can move towards having a heart that “blazes like the sun.”
I was surprised recently on a retreat, when I asked how many people practiced lovingkindness meditation regularly, to find that fewer than half the participants did. I’d expected almost every hand to go up, since in the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, lovingkindness meditation (metta bhavana) is regarded as a key foundational practice, along with mindfulness of breathing; alternating the two practices is the standard recommendation.
It turned out that a lot of people had difficulty with the metta bhavana practice. They felt a sense of failure and despondency around it, and so they tended to avoid it. And as I talked to those people it turned out that this sense of failure came out of a misunderstanding of what metta was. They believed metta to be an emotion. They believed it to be an emotion they hadn’t yet experienced; it was something grand and awe-inspiring and deeply moving; it was something powerful and even over-powering. And because they’d sat there, trying to make this grand emotion happen, and seeing “nothing” happen (actually we never have “nothing” happen, but let’s set that to one side for now) week after week, month after month, year after year, they came to think that experiencing metta was something they just weren’t capable of.
But metta isn’t an emotion. It’s a volition.
OK, so what’s a volition? A volition is a wish or desire (it’s from a Latin verb volere, which means “to want”). Specifically, it’s the wish that beings be well, happy, and at peace. Now that wish may be accompanied by certain feelings, like a warmth in the heart, or it may not. Whenever you act in a way that values someone’s well-being and happiness, you’re acting out of metta. So to take a very ordinary example, you’ll hold open the door for the person behind you. You wouldn’t want to let the door slam on them because that would kind of suck for them. And most of the time you don’t want to cause them to suffer. But there’s not usually any great upwelling of emotion when you hold open a door for someone. Maybe you get a little glow of happiness, but maybe not.
And this is all very ordinary. This quality of wishing that beings be well, happy, and at peace is woven into the fabric of our lives. Metta is not some strange new thing that you’ve never experienced. Of course, if you discount all the metta that’s woven into your life, then you’ll think it’s something otherworldly. That’s unhelpful, because cultivating metta is not about creating something from scratch. It’s about growing and developing something that’s already there.
“Cultivating” is an agricultural metaphor. When you cultivate plants you don’t start with nothing. You start with seeds. And the seeds of metta already exist within us, in the form of the ordinary kindness we experience from day to day.
Our task, in cultivating metta, is to connect, or perhaps reconnect, with our ordinary kindness, and to encourage it to grow.
Here’s how I do that, and how I encourage other people to do it. I start with two reflections:
- I want to be happy.
- Happiness is hard to attain.
I take these one at a time, and drop them into the mind. I allow them to resonate, and I feel their truth. I recognize that each of these statements is true for me. I connect with the yearning I have to be happy, to be at peace. I notice that this yearning is often frustrated in small ways — that happiness is elusive.
And this can cause a slight heart-ache, but that’s OK. That sense of vulnerability is us connecting with the fragility and difficulty of human life; it’s not easy to do this thing we call being human.
So having dropped these thoughts into the mind, and felt the truth of them, the part of me that wants me to be well, happy, and at peace starts to wish me well. And so I then start to drop metta phrases into the mind — phrases that help the seeds of metta to grow.
These days the three phrases I most often use are:
- May I be well.
- May I be happy.
- May I find peace.
The exact words don’t matter, though, and you can choose whatever works for you.
After I’ve wished myself well, I move onto a friend, and I consider that my friend too wants to be happy; that my friend too finds happiness elusive.
And then I do the same with a person who I don’t have any strong feelings for, then someone I have difficulty with.
Then I have a sense that whoever I was to meet, either in the external world or in my thoughts, I’d meet them with kindness, and there’s sense of taking my awareness out into the world.
And then finally I bring my metta into the world, as I get up and return to my normal activities, allowing the practice to inform my thoughts, words, and actions.
And I may find that feelings arise (and often they do) but they’re a bonus.
So that’s how I do the practice, with a recognition that metta is something inherent to us; something that we all experience.
Below you’ll find a video of guided lovingkindness meditation that I led a few months ago:
If for some reason this doesn’t show up, you can go straight to Youtube.