The Urban Retreat, Day 2: Authentic lovingkindness


Blazing Like the Sun, an urban retreat with Bodhipaksa

In yesterday’s post I talked about the fact that many people have misconceptions about what metta (lovingkindness) is, and how those misconceptions can lead to disappointment, despair, and to giving up on the practice. The main misconception I addressed is that lovingkindness is an emotion. Actually, lovingkindness is a volition. It’s classically defined as the intention that beings be happy. So it’s something we want, not something we feel. Although the volition may lead to certain feelings, like warmth, an open heart, a sense of cherishing, joy, etc., the feelings are secondary.

Another thing that often happens is that we try too hard to make something happen. This may have happened to you if you’ve been under the impression that metta is an emotion. You think you’re “meant” to feel an emotion, and so you try really, really hard to make something happen. Perhaps you even succeed at times.

The Urban Retreat series:

And sometimes people think that metta in daily life involves “being nice” in a false way. But that’s not the case.

Actually, genuine lovingkindness involves, well, genuineness. It involves being honest about what we feel. It involves being authentic.

So the way I teach the practice, I stress the importance of accepting where you’re starting from. At the start of your practice, as you check in with yourself in order to ground the mind in the body, and to see what you’re working with, whatever you happen to find — that’s fine. If you’re feeling happy and loving and expansive, then of course that’s fine. If you’re feeling down, that’s fine. If you don’t know how you’re feeling — that is you’re feeling neutral — then that’s fine. Every feeling is fine. As I like to say, the only place you can start is the place you are, which makes where you are the perfect starting place.

So this is the start of authentic lovingkindness. We accept whatever we find at the beginning of the practice.

Then as we work on cultivating metta, we do this in an authentic way as well. We don’t try to make anything happen. If you use the approach that I suggested yesterday, which involves connecting with the fact that you want to be happy, and that happiness is elusive, then this is authentic as well. We just drop those thoughts into the mind, and see what happens.

Often what happens is that our defenses dissolve away. We forget we want to be happy, even though he yearning is there all the time. It’s a kind of defense mechanism; happiness is elusive, so just ignore it. Or we tell ourselves that we are actually happy (even when we’re not) because it feels like not being happy is a sort of failure. So that’s another defense mechanism. So all we do is we drop these thoughts in — “I want to be happy; happiness is hard to find” and let their truth become evident. We don’t try to convince ourselves of these truths — we already know them. What we need to do is to reconnect with them.

And as we reconnect with these truths, there may be, as I mentioned yesterday, a sense of tenderness and heartache. And in the spirit of authenticity we accept that as well. It’s OK to feel discomfort. It’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong, or that we’ve failed.

And then as we’re cultivating lovingkindness for others, we similarly don’t try to make anything happen. We just drop in the thoughts, “May you be well; may you be happy; may you find peace” and see what happens. Maybe we’ll feel something that we call “love” — but maybe not. It really doesn’t matter. It’s the intention — the wanting others to be happy — that’s the main thing. And even if that intention doesn’t seem to be strong, it’s actually the cultivating of the intention that’s the main thing. As long as you keep doing the practice, things will shift.

As we cultivate the intention of lovingkindness in this way we may find that there are various feelings that arise. We may find ourselves bored. That’s OK. Just accept it. Allow the boredom to be there, but don’t let it determine how you act; continue to cultivate lovingkindness for the other person. This particularly applies to the neutral person, although it can happen in any stage of the practice.

You may feel hurt or unsettled as you call to mind the difficult person. That’s fine. Just be with the discomfort, mindfully and with self-compassion, and keep wishing the other person well. You don’t have to like someone to wish them well.

So all through the practice there’s this attitude of authenticity. We can’t control how we feel, so we don’t try. But we can control (to an extent) what we do, and what we do is to cultivate this attitude of wishing beings (ourselves included) well. The more honestly and authentically we can do this, the more effective the practice will be.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Bodhipaksa

    I find the practice of metta really difficult. My brain is overactive most of the time and I find that metta can be a “head-y” practice – using thoughts and so on. So I get distracted and end up stuck in my head with a million and one thoughts flying around, feeling more and more frustrated that I can’t connect to the practice. I also have really low self-esteem, which makes things difficult. Also, when I use the phrases “may I be happy, may I be well” etc, it usually ends up feeling like I’m wishing to be different from how I am, which is often unhappy and unwell (psychologically-speaking).

    When I try to give myself time to settle into my body at the start of the practice I end up feeling stressed because I’m thinking “hurry up, get into your body so you can do the practice properly”, which obviously is not helpful.

    I’ve managed to do the full metta practice (with the different people in different stages etc) about three times since I started meditating (about 4 years ago). I also get disheartened by other people at the Buddhist centre who seem all happy and smily after the metta practice and say how much they enjoy metta meditation. It just makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me for not being able to do it, and also like a bad person for feeling annoyed that other people can do it.

    Please advise if you can!



    • Hi, Katy.

      The first thing I would ask is whether you’ve followed any of the guided meditations that I did as part of the Urban Retreat. You’ll find them here:

      Everything you describe is a normal experience. The practice does use thoughts, but the aim is to let those thoughts connect with our intention — the simple desire that beings be happy and not suffer. Perhaps you could imagine a friend looking sad, and then looking happy. Which do you prefer? The desire that someone be happy rather than unhappy is metta. So you already have metta.

      If you have the kinds of thoughts you describe — “hurry up, get into your body so you can do the practice properly” — then just keep letting go of the thoughts and come back to the practice.

      Breathe. Relax. Accept, as best you can, that this all takes time.

      But here’s a big thing — if you’ve only done the practice three times in four years, why should you expect to make any progress? If you’d only cooked three times in your life would you expect to be a good cook? If you’d only been on a bicycle three times in your entire life — and those three attempts were over a four year period — would you really expect to be able to ride a bike? You need to do the practice and to experience the difficulties of learning it in order to become more comfortable with it and to start to get a feel for what you’re doing.

      Lastly, would you be happier if all the people around you at the Buddhist center looked miserable? I’d imagine not :) So you have metta for them, even if it’s mixed in with a bunch of other responses. When you notice that you’re feeling down because you’re comparing yourself with others, then try saying to yourself, “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering.” In time it’ll work.

      With metta,


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