I believe that we are all aware of only a tiny part of ourselves. The conscious part of ourselves is just the tip of the iceberg, and the bulk of ourselves is beneath the waves. Part of that unconscious is childish and even pretty nasty at times.
But the deepest parts have a wisdom that often we can only guess at. Our conscious minds rarely pick up on that wisdom, although sometimes we can in dreams or when we’re particularly intuitive, i.e. when the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious are particularly permeable.
There are times when we experience our wiser deep subconscious, but because we don’t experience it as “us”, we experience it as “other.” So we may feel a kind, loving, wise presence, or even have a vision or hear a guiding voice. I think of such experiences as being experiences of “the divine”.
One of my students described such an experience when she said:
“When I was describing the experience I had about a week ago where I felt a strong benevolent presence, you mentioned that the feeling of metta can be external or internal. That really struck me, because at the time I didn’t really express how external the feeling was. It really felt as if there was a very strong presence in front of me generating a deep sense of compassion, comfort and love.
“To be honest, I thought to myself that I was in the presence of God. I thought that there wouldn’t be much place for this sort of experience in Buddhist thought, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it, although I certainly didn’t want to dismiss it.”
This kind of experience is not uncommon in meditation. In fact it forms the basis of some kinds of meditation practice. Buddhist visualization practices are an attempt to integrate qualities of wisdom, compassion, and unobstructed energy through contemplation of symbolic forms that in some way correspond to those qualities (which are already present in us, but are as yet unrealized).
So in visualizing the compassionate form of a Buddha image we’re really calling to mind our own potential compassion and thereby creating a channel from the unconscious to the conscious. Eventually a sort of integration can take place, so that the meditator and the visualized figure merge. So in this kind of practice it’s very common indeed to feel a sense of metta or other blessings flowing from “outside” oneself.
The myth of “inside” and “outside”
In Buddhism, the distinctions that we make between inner and outer have no real validity. That distinction is just a convenient fiction that allows us to make some kind of sense of our lives (although it’s not always a very accurate sense). We can see this if we reflect on the common experience of falling in and out love. When you fall in love with someone, you think they’re wonderful. Sometimes it all works out, but other times we discover they weren’t the person we thought they were, and then we fall – or even plummet – out of love with them. They no longer seem to have all those wonderful qualities that we imagined they had.
So where were those qualities all along? What were we attracted to? Obviously, in such cases, our attraction wasn’t entirely for the other person but for some unconscious part of ourselves that we imagined was in them. We’d confused something that was inside ourselves with something that was outside ourselves.
Our inner and outer worlds actually exist in interdependence, not as separate realities. Change one, and you change the other. So the experience of metta may be neither internal nor external, nor both, nor is it something other than internal or external. It’s really utterly indefinable. The important thing is that it works. When I think in terms of “the divine”, I don’t assume that such experiences of an external source of metta are emanating from a deity. I use this term to suggest a sense of mystery – a sense of the way in which we can experience ourselves as “other”, and the way in which we can connect with those hidden forces that inhabit our depths.
If this kind of experience happens to you, you will probably categorize it in terms of your existing belief system. Some people, experiencing an external sense of metta, will assume that this is an experience of God, and such descriptions can certainly bring a deeper sense of significance and meaning to your meditation practice. On the other hand, you may wish just to accept these blessings and to reflect on the fact that we really know next to nothing about ourselves and about the universe that we live in.
You may wish to just experience and accept the mysterious and ineffable nature of these experiences, and to recognize that you are coming to a fuller appreciation of the nature of Reality.