What’s called “lovingkindness meditation” is really just “kindness meditation.” It’s where we train, through reflection, to be kinder to ourselves and others.
To be kind is to empathetically recognize that another person desires to be happy and to avoid suffering, and then to act accordingly. When we’re kind we act in ways that support another person’s happiness and well-being, and we take care not to unnecessarily hurt them. That is what metta, or “lovingkindness,” is.
Metta is kindness.
Lovingkindness practice, in the traditional form I was taught, is in five stages.
- Cultivating kindness for oneself.
- Cultivating kindness for a friend.
- Cultivating kindness for a relative stranger.
- Cultivating kindness for someone we’re in conflict with.
- Cultivating an attitude of kindness toward anyone we might encounter.
You’re about to read about the fourth stage of the meditation, in which we cultivate kindness for someone with whom we are in a state of conflict. This person may be someone we love, but tend to get irritated with, or there may be a more deep-rooted conflict.
Being kind toward someone does not mean approving of, allowing, or tolerating what we find morally objectionable in their beliefs, words, and actions. You can be kind toward someone — that is, have their long-term happiness and well-being at heart — and yet vigorously oppose what they believe, say, and do.
Having someone’s long-term happiness and wellbeing at heart does not mean giving them what they want. Someone intent on causing harm harms not just others, but themselves too. We do them (as well as their potential victims) a favor by dissuading or preventing them from harming other people.
So if we’re cultivating kindness toward someone that causes harm, we’re really wishing that they cease causing harm.
This is a particularly interesting part of the practice, because it’s a real test of our ability to overcome resentments and to tune into our inherent capacity for kindness. It’s also interesting in that it can make a huge difference to our lives to let go of anger and ill will, and instead to be kind.
Jump to a section:
- Guided Meditation
- What We Do In This Stage of Lovingkindness Practice
- On Creating Enemies
- Overcoming Ill Will
- Other Approaches In the Fourth Stage
- Who to Choose and Not to Choose
- What to Do When Thinking of an Enemy In Meditation Causes Anger
- Why Develop Kindness for a Bad Person?
- The Fourth Stage as Rehearsal
- The Disadvantages of Anger, Hatred, and Resentment
- Reflections on the Consequences of Anger
- When Meditation Stir Up Ill Will
- A Guided Meditation Recording for Self-Hatred
In this part of the practice we are meeting our ill-will head on. Kindness is the emotional opposite of ill will. With ill will we want to hurt someone. We want to hurt their feelings. We might even have fantasies about bad things happening to them, or even want to harm them ourselves. Kindness on the other hand recognizes empathetically that another person’s feelings are as real to them as ours are to us, and so we want to benefit them rather than harm them.
In this stage of the practice we’re consciously evoking the memory or image of someone we usually respond to with feelings of aversion. We do that so that we can train ourselves to be more empathetic, and train ourselves to overcome our ill will. We don’t have to like this person. To like someone is to approve of them or their actions, and to have pleasurable feelings in response to them. We don’t in fact have to like someone in order to be kind to them. And being kind is our aim here.
By letting go of ill will and resentment we’re being kind to ourselves as well. Since ill will and resentment hurt us, letting go of them is in the interest of our long-term happiness and well-being. Therefore we are being kind to ourselves in letting go of ill will toward another person.
You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the first four stages of the practice by clicking on the player below.
I’m going to give a complete recap of the practice so far. Click here if you’d like to skip ahead to the description of the fourth stage.
Stage Zero: Sitting With Kindness
Stage Zero is the initial stage of meditation, before the stages proper, in which we set up conditions that help the meditation practice to go well. It’s not an optional extra. It’s where we start cultivating kindness by sitting with kindness, and by allowing ourselves to look with love.
In stage zero first settle into your meditation posture. If you’re not sure about meditation posture then check out our posture workshop. Sit in a way that is kind — that supports your long-term happiness and well-being. So, as best you can, let go of any unnecessary tensions in the body. Don’t sit rigidly, but let your muscles relax and soften with the out-breath. But also sit with dignity: upright, and open. This will help you feel confident and remain gently alert.
With kind eyes, meet everything that arises with kindness and tenderness, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Stage 1: Developing Kindness for Ourselves
Next become aware of your heart. Notice whatever feelings happen to be present. Whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, or whether you don’t know what you’re feeling, meet everything with kind eyes.
Remind yourself that you are a feeling being; your feelings are important to you. Remember that your deepest desire is to escape or avoid suffering, and to find peace and joy. Remember also that you are doing a difficult thing in being human. It’s not easy to go through life, encountering less happiness and more suffering than we’d ideally want.
And because you are doing a difficult thing in being human, you need support. So offer support to yourself, by saying, over and over again, words such as these:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
Continue to drop those words into the heart for a few minutes, doing so gently, giving yourself time between the phrases to absorb any effects.
Stage 2: Strengthening Our Kindness for a Friend
In the second stage of the practice, think of a good friend, and wish them well. Decide in advance who you’re going to pick, otherwise you might waste time in indecision during the practice.
Remind yourself that they too are a feeling being, that they too desire happiness and freedom from suffering, and that they too need support. And so, offer them support in the same way as you did for yourself, by saying:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
Now you’re ready to move on to the third stage.
Stage 3: Training Ourselves to be Kinder to Strangers
Next, call to mind someone you have little or no emotional connection with. Perhaps this is someone you see working in a store, or that you pass on the street.
It doesn’t matter if there is some feeling — the main thing is that you neither really like nor really dislike this person.
Once you’ve called this person to mind, remind yourself that they are just like you, and just like your friend.
They are a feeling being. Their feelings are as real to them as yours are to you. Their pain is just as vivid and just as painful. Their joys are just as enjoyable.
And just as for you, life for them is challenging. They want to be happy, but happiness is often elusive. They don’t want to suffer, and yet suffering often comes to them. So as they, just like you, are doing this difficult thing of being human, you can wish them well, just as you did for yourself and your friend, by saying:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
Stage 4: Training Ourselves to be Kinder in Conflicts
Now we cultivate Metta for someone we don’t get on with. It may be someone that we have long-standing difficulties with, or it may be someone that is normally a friend, but we have difficulties with them just now.
Call the difficult person to mind, and be honest about what you feel. There may well be feelings of discomfort that manifest as sensations in the body — perhaps around the heart, or around the diaphragm or in the gut. Allow those feelings to be there. There’s nothing wrong with them. This is just your body alerting you to a potential threat. As best you can, receive these uncomfortable feelings with kindness.
If any reactive, blaming, angry, or resentful thoughts arise, let go of them, again as best you can, and simply be with your sensory experience of the body and its sensations and feelings.
Recollect that this person you’re having conflict with is, just like you, just like anyone, a feeling being. Their pain and joy are as real to them as yours are to you. They want to be happy, but happiness is elusive. They don’t want to suffer, but they often do. They, just like you, just like anyone, are doing a difficult thing in being human. Just as you find them difficult, so do they find you difficult. They, just like you, would like to be free from conflict.
So in solidarity with this struggling being, wish them well by saying:
- May you be well.
- May you be at ease.
- May you be kind to yourself and others.
Continue to do this for a few minutes.
This stage of the meditation is traditionally referred to as the stage where we cultivate lovingkindness for an “enemy.” Many of us feel uncomfortable using that language, because it tends to create a polarization in the mind, leading to us associating this person will all the baggage that the word “enemy” tends to carry.
The way the human mind works is very interesting. For example, psychological research suggests that people choose a political party early in life, often on the basis of one major policy that they happen to agree with and that is important to them. There may at this point be many things in their chosen party’s platform that they disagree with, and many aspects of rival parties’ policies that they feel in harmony with.
But what then happens is that the potential voter strives to maintain cognitive consistency. Although they may have started by agreeing only with one policy that they happened to feel strongly about (say, education policy) they start to take on board many, if not all, the other policies that their chosen party puts forward.
Conversely, they start to automatically and systematically disagree with the policies of opposing parties, even if they started by agreeing with those policies. The opposition has become the enemy, and while the chose party can often do no wrong, the “enemy” can do nothing right.
Experiments in the US showed voters with Democratic or Republican affiliations footage of the two main presidential candidates contradicting themselves. Democrats judged the Republican candidate harshly for his inconsistency while finding reasons to absolve their own man from blame. Republicans did exactly the same thing for their candidate.
What I’m getting at is that once we’ve decided that someone is the enemy, we’ll go to extraordinary lengths to maintain cognitive consistency. We’ll ignore the “enemy’s” good qualities, exaggerate his or her faults, and we’ll interpret his or her actions in ways that confirm to us that he or she is worthy of being disliked.
Back to meditation, that’s why I don’t like using the traditional term, “enemy”.
I’ve tended to use the term “difficult person” instead, and you’ll find that term liberally sprinkled around this site. But more recently I’ve realized that using the term “difficult person” suggests that the difficulty lies within that person, which of course is rarely absolutely true. Usually the difficulties that occur in a relationship are the result of factors within both parties, and often when we have difficulty with another person the cause is almost entirely our own actions towards them, including the very tendency to judge an “enemy” unfairly.
These days I tend to talk about “the person you have difficulty with.” It’s a bit more clumsy than “difficult person” and less snappy than “enemy” (which is a great sound-bite word) but I think it’s more accurate and helpful. I know some teachers go a step further and think that calling someone a “difficult person” is unkind because it suggest that the person is inherently difficult rather than allowing for the possibility that the problem lies with our responses to them, and because it’s a form of labeling. And I think that’s true. However referring over and over to “the person with whom you have difficulties” can be rather wearing!
But coming back even more to the meditation practice, one of the things that’s happening when we’re cultivating lovingkindness towards our enemy — sorry I mean “the person we’re having difficulty with” — is that we’re overcoming that very tendency to demonize opponents.
I’m sure the research into the psychology of meditators with regard to political affiliation would be most interesting.
Lovingkindness practice helps us to overcome ill-will, anger and resentment. People that we habitually have those feelings for are traditionally known as an “enemy.”
The most basic way to cultivate kindness toward an “enemy” in the lovingkindness meditation practice is simply to call the difficult person to mind, and to repeat something along the lines of, “May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be kind to yourself and others.” It helps if you also imagine the difficult person actually being well, and at peace, and showing kindness. This can help to build up more positive associations with that person, and can help you let go of anger and resentment toward them.
But I’ve found reflecting in the following way to be particularly helpful:
- Remind yourself that the person you’re in conflict with is just the same as you. They, just like you, are a feeling being.They too feel joy and pain.
- Their joys and pains are as real and vivid to them as yours are to you.
- They, just like you, prefer happiness to suffering.
- And they too, just like you, are doing a difficult thing in being human.
Take a minute or two and try doing this, feeling the thoughts in your heart as well as thinking them in your head.
This is an exercise in empathy, and it very naturally leads to a sense of wanting to support the other person. Or at least it does with me.
You might find that you get stuck, not wanting the person you’re in conflict with to be happy. You might even think they deserve punishment, and so you think they should suffer. I’d suggest that when this happens, you have pain arising that you’re not taking care of. Anger usually results from pain such as hurt or fear. So when you find you’re stuck in anger and resentment, try being aware of the physical sensations that are arising in the body, especially around the heart, the diaphragm, and the gut. Notice if there’s any pain, tension, or other unpleasant sensation there.
Now, recognize that this is a part of you that is asking for support and protection. Your anger is trying to protect your pain, but it doesn’t do so effectively. What works much better is compassion. So regard your pain as a small, ancient, animal-like part of you that needs your care and support. Talk to it as you would a beloved child or a frightened animal: “It’s OK. I’m here for you. I care about you and I want you to be happy. I’m here to protect you.” In this way you’re offering the suffering part of you your love and compassion. Once you’ve done that, and the painful feeling has started to subside, you can then turn back toward the person you’re in conflict with.
Sometimes you’ll find you can offer yourself compassion, and in just a few breaths you’ll feel better and be able to return to the person you have difficulties with. Sometimes the hurt or fear goes deep, and you’ll spend all of your time soothing yourself and not get around to wishing the other person well. That’s OK. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to work on healing that relationship.
There are many other approaches I’ve taken over the years:
- You can imagine that it’s years from now, and that the two of you have resolved your difficulties and have now become good friends (it doesn’t just happen in romantic novels). In doing this you can “trick” yourself into feeling a sense of friendship for that person. It’s surprising sometimes how easily the mind can be tricked into suspending the judgments about others that we habitually make.
- You can reflect on any good qualities the difficult person might have. Often we selectively “filter out” any good qualities from our perceptions, a bit like the kind of journalist who doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Dwell on the positive qualities of the difficult person. Remember that other people no doubt see admirable qualities in this person — qualities, perhaps, that you do not allow yourself to register.
- You can remind yourself that you both have a limited amount of time on this earth. One day you’re going to die. One day they’re going to die. Recognizing this, isn’t it a waste of our precious time to hold onto hate? Do you want to be on your death-bed still harboring resentments?
- Similar to the previous approach, imagine the person you have a conflict with. Now imagine that to the left of them is them as a baby, and to the right of them is them as an extremely old person, with not much time left on this earth. Now, calling to mind the thing they do or have done that upsets you, how do you feel? Most people either feel sad or compassionate. Either response is fine. If you experience sadness, just allow yourself to sit with that experience, which is a perfectly healthy feeling to have.
- Another approach is to consider that if you had the history of the person you dislike, if your experiences were their experiences, if your conditioning was the same as theirs, then your actions would be the same as theirs. Or as the French saying goes, “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” or “To know all is to forgive all.”
- You can be grateful for this conflict. Shantideva, the 7th century Buddhist teacher, reminds us that without enemies we have fewer opportunities to practice patience. And since patience is a virtue we should therefore be grateful to our enemies for giving us this precious opportunity: “Since my adversary assists me in my Bodhisattva way of life, I should long for him like a treasure,” he wrote.
Often we experience resistance to cultivating lovingkindness for a person we have difficulty with. We think that that person being happy would be a kind of “reward” that we’d be giving them.
But you can consider that actually we’re doing this for ourselves, too. Anger and ill will are painful states, and if we can let go of them by wishing another person well then we become happier. As a famous Buddhist teaching reminds us, it is anger and hatred that is our real enemy, not the person we’re angry with or have hatred for.
They say you should choose your enemies carefully, and that’s true in the fourth stage of the lovingkindness meditation.
Ultimately, we want to develop an attitude of kindness toward anyone we meet or who comes to mind. But there are a few categories of people you should avoid putting in the fourth stage altogether, and some that you should probably avoid putting in this stage when you’re first learning the meditation practice.
Don’t use people you don’t know personally. It can be tempting to use “bogeymen” (or “bogeywomen,” I suppose) like Hitler, or Osama Bin Laden, or some political figure we dislike (depending on our personal inclinations). It’s much more useful to stick to people that you actually have contact with.
You can put “bogeymen” in the last stage of the practice when we wish all sentient beings well.
Leave until later
If there is someone who you can’t bring to mind without getting very upset (sad, or angry), perhaps because they’ve done us a great deal of harm, then it’s probably a good idea to put them to one side for a while.
Doing the Metta Bhavana practice will help you to develop the confidence to deal with your responses to this person eventually. Let’s keep the meditation practice relatively straightforward for now, though, and come back to this person later.
A surprisingly good choice
Who are the people you get most annoyed with? Often it’s the people you’re closest to: siblings, parents, children, and (perhaps especially) partners. If we fall into the trap of thinking of the fourth stage of the practice as being about an “enemy” it would seem to be very inappropriate to include any of the people I’ve just mentioned.
When we do think of including those people in the lovingkindness meditation, we probably think of them as people we love, and include them in the second stage or leave them until the fifth (bearing in mind the traditional advice not to include them in the second stage).
But this stage, really, is about working with conflicted relationships. And so I think it’s entirely appropriate to include people we’re close to, because we usually clash with them quite often. Those clashes, because they involve high-stakes relationships, can have a very negative effect on our sense of well-being. Sometimes those clashes are about major issues, but they often come down to small things, like how that person loads the dishwasher, or the way they leave the bathroom sink after using it. I think it’s a very good use of the fourth stage to call those people to mind — and to call to mind the specific things they do that annoy us — and to cultivate kindness for them. This is an opportunity, once again, to treat the meditation practice as a rehearsal (see below).
It’s a shame when we have a meditation practice that’s designed to help us become kinder, and yet we spend it becoming angry instead. And yet this can happen when we’re calling to mind someone we have a habit of being angry with. Our mindfulness slips, and we start thinking critical thoughts about that person and wishing that bad things happen to them. It’s natural that this happens, of course. None of us is perfectly mindful.
But in order to prevent this from happening, it’s helpful to get a better handle on how what happens psychologically in order to produce ill will.
The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pointed out that human freedom relies on the fact that there is a gap between stimulus and response. If we’re mindful we can make choices in that gap. We can choose how we will respond in any given situation. Buddhist psychology draws a similar distinction, and located the gap between feeling and volition (you might think of that as emotion). So let me explain what these two things are, what the difference is between them, and how the ability to choose arises in between them.
In common usage we tend to use the words feeling and emotion pretty much interchangeably, but in Buddhist psychology feeling (vedana) refers to our basic, gut-level likes and dislikes. Feelings are sensations created in the body by ancient parts of the brain. They’re basically of three kinds — pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And their purpose is to flag up potential benefits (pleasant feelings being the signal that those are present) or potential threats (which is when unpleasant feelings arise. When there are no potential threats or benefits present, or if we’re not sure what we’re feeling, then we call the feeling tone that arises “neutral.”
These feeling responses are automatic — we have no control over them. And they often arise in response to people. Imagine, for example, you walk into a room full of people you don’t know. As you look around the room there will be some people you want to gravitate toward, because your brain creates pleasant feelings in response to seeing them. This is your brain telling you there’s a potential benefit in being associated with them.
There will be some people you want to avoid, because your brain creates unpleasant feelings when you look at them. This is your brain highlighting a potential threat — perhaps those people show signs of emotion or behaviors you’re not comfortable with.
Lastly, there will be people you essentially ignore. Your brain hasn’t detected any potential threats or benefits associated with them, and so it doesn’t generate any feeling response. That’s a neutral feeling response. You ignore these people because there’s no feeling to direct you toward or away from them.
Paying attention to these feelings is very useful. Sometimes we override the gut feelings we have about situations and regret it later, because these feeling are often very accurate. I can remember times I just haven’t trusted someone, even though I didn’t know why. And it turned out that in fact they were untrustworthy. Presumably, parts of my brain outside of conscious awareness had picked up on signs that this person wasn’t honest — perhaps their emotional displays hadn’t been entirely consistent with what they had been saying, for example.
Of course those gut feelings are not always accurate — evolution favors a certain degree of caution. If the woods look dark and scary then it may well be favorable to your survival to avoid going in there.
Volition (or “emotion”)
While feeling responses are automatic and we have no control over them, volitions, although often habitual, can be changed through conscious choice.
A volition is a desire, a wish, an emotion. Anger, for example, usually involves the desire to energetically and forcefully create change. Often when we’re angry with someone we believe that they are not responding to, or won’t respond to, messages delivered in a more reasonably tone. So the first time you ask your children for your attention, you may do so in a quiet and pleasant tone of voice. The third and fourth time, you’re talking more loudly and forcefully. Your volition is to break through resistance.
The volition of hatred is different. When we hate we want to hurt and punish another person. So we’ll say hurtful things and think unkind thoughts about them — blaming them, wishing them harm, etc.
Volitions, or emotions, are active responses that arise on the basis of feelings. When we have an unpleasant feeling in relation to someone, usually we will habitually respond to them with the volition of ill will. This especially happens when we’re not mindful. However, when we do have mindful awareness, we have more choice over how we respond.
We’re able to have an unpleasant feeling response to someone and choose to respond kindly to them, or to cultivate kindness for them, choosing at the same time not to feed our tendency to react with ill will.
This is the gap: being able to experience the feeling responses that arise in us without reacting to them. We can learn to be comfortable with discomfort.
Letting go of ill will
Anyway, to get back to you and that difficult person and your meditation practice… Being aware of this distinction between feeling and emotion allows us to become comfortable with the discomfort of unpleasant feeling without giving rise to ill will.
When you find yourself, in your meditation practice, getting angry with the person you’ve decided to put in the fourth stage, you can choose to let go of the angry, critical, or hateful thoughts that are going through your mind, and instead let your attention drop down into the body in order to notice the unpleasant feelings that are present. And there always are unpleasant feelings in the body in this situation.
You can practice sitting with those feelings of discomfort. You can see them as a normal part of every human’s experience, and not as a moral failing. You can see them as simply a communication from an ancient part of the brain warning you that it, at least, thinks the person you’re thinking of is a potential threat. You can see them as just sensations, like any other sensation.
As you’re doing this, you’ll probably find that your angry, critical thoughts are already beginning to subside, even just a little. That’s a great start.
If you also recognize the unpleasant feeling you’re experiencing as a communication from a part of you that needs support, then now you’re open to offering it your kindness, as I described above. For example you can say, “I know this is uncomfortable, but you’re OK. I’m here for you, and I care about you. May you be happy. May you be at peace.”
Now you’re responding to discomfort with kindness.
And now that that’s happening, you can turn your kindness toward the person you’re in conflict with. You can be comfortable with the discomfort you feel as you call them to mind, and you can, at the same time, wish them well, regarding them with kind eyes, and saying:
- “May you be well.”
- “May you be at peace.”
- “May you be kind to yourself and others.”
There are some very bad people in the world. Sometimes evil seems to be not too strong a word for some of the actions that are perpetrated. So you may well wonder why should you develop kindness towards those who commit evil actions.
Partly it’s for ourselves. Hatred makes us unhappy. To hate is to suffer. To be sure, there can be a certain amount of pleasure found in hating. When we hate someone we feel superior to them, and that sense of superiority can be pleasurable. But pleasure is not happiness. Hatred is a state of mind in which we are not at peace, and are not truly happy. When we let go of hatred, we feel happier.
In contrast to hatred, kindness and compassion are indeed sources of happiness. When people experience these emotions, the parts of the brain connected with feelings of well-being become active. When we connect empathetically, we become happier.
We should ask ourselves as well, what kind of world do we want to live in? People who commit evil may be callous and hateful. What sense does it make if we become more like them by having hatred for them? If we want to make the world a better place, doesn’t it make sense for us to become kinder and more compassionate?
It makes sense then that if you want the world to be a better place you would want all beings to experience metta — even the very bad ones. In fact especially the bad ones, since if evil people were to experience Metta, there would be no evil done. I’m not suggesting that we can “wish” bad people into becoming good people, simply that it’s rational to wish that those who commit evil were free from the unwholesome mental states that lead to their actions. This implies that we should have compassion even for those who commit evil actions.
Understanding Causes and Conditions
A meditation student of mine who is a psychotherapist pointed out to me that most of the actions that we would label as evil are committed by people who suffer from what is known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, and that scientific research studies have shown that up to 75% of all those in the US criminal justice system fit the diagnostic criteria for this personality disorder.
This disorder is almost certain to have a genetic component, so that many bad people are born that way and not made that way, although certain environments can probably make these genetically based traits worse. Many people, in committing evil, are therefore passing on the results of a sickness that they suffer from — a sickness that prevents them from feeling empathy, remorse, and anxiety.
Additionally, they may feel compelled to lie, even when it’s not necessary, have difficulty learning from past experience, and have trouble controlling their impulses in the way that most people can.
Evil as an illness
There’s no reason why we should feel any less sympathetic towards a criminal who, because of a genetic defect, has a lower than normal ability to control his or her impulses, than towards a person with any other genetically based physical or mental condition.
If we can feel sympathy for a person who suffers from, say, Downs’ Syndrome, then why not cultivate sympathy in meditation towards someone who has a genetic disorder like Antisocial Personality Disorder that ruins the lives not only of its direct sufferers but also those who are unfortunate enough to be exploited or harmed by them?
As an aside, I hope (although I have no personal experience on which to build this hope) that those suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder can learn to control their impulses. Some mental health professionals have shown that individual and group therapy can help those suffering from this devastating condition to learn to experience and to deal with their emotions, and to learn to have more moral concern for others.
I don’t want to appear to be saying that those who act destructively should be absolved from all responsibility for their mental states and actions, simply that not everyone is starting from the same place in learning to take such responsibility, and that it is helpful to them and to us if we have sympathy for those in such an unfortunate position.
You might well ask though: how is you cultivating kindness towards a bad person going to have any effect on them? Isn’t it just a game that you’re playing inside your own head?
It’s true that your meditation practice is not likely to have much effect on another person (although you never know – some interesting research has been done that shows that this does happen), but at the very least it will have an effect on you. It will help you to be more truly compassionate. It will reduce the amount of intolerance and hatred in the world by reducing the amount of intolerance and hatred in your own heart (which is the only place where you can guarantee to make a difference).
Conversely, having hatred for another person is, in the vast majority of cases, going to have no effect on them whatsoever. But it will hurt you, so why not let go of it?
You can see this stage (like the neutral person stage) as being a rehearsal for life outside meditation.
You might want to think about something as simple as how you will greet the person you have difficulty with when you next meet. If you can be more friendly than usual then it will have a definite effect on your relationship. I’ve heard from many people who have worked on cultivating kindness to someone they’ve had longstanding problems with, and who have found that when they’ve met this person after a long gap, the relationship has changed. I assume that this is to do with the meditator’s attitude, body language, tone of voice, choice of words, and so on having changed in a way that communicates to the formerly difficult person that they’re now no longer seen as an enemy.
If you’re aware of any unhelpful patterns that the two of you have established, then you might like to think of a friendly and respectful way that you can change those patterns — perhaps by giving them genuine praise, or by apologizing for something you have done wrong.
Of course if there’s a bad history between the two of you then your well-meaning actions might well be misinterpreted as a manipulative trick. But if you’re being genuinely kind, eventually that will be recognized.
It’s also worth watching out for the reaction we commonly have when we hold out an olive branch only to have it knocked out of our hand with an angry blow. Often we have a naive assumption that if we do something “nice” then the other person “should” appreciate this and that if they don’t — well, that just shows we were right about them all along! Genuine kindness is based on an empathetic appreciation of the other person as a feeling being. It’s not a superficial attempt to “be nice.” If you are rebuffed, this is just another opportunity to practice empathy, and to understand that it takes time for people’s attitudes to change.
Anger and resentment are like dust that we throw into the wind. It blows back on us. They’re like excrement we pick up to throw at another person: they might end up smelling, but we’re going to be pretty stinky ourselves.
Most Thursday afternoons for several years I drove an hour west, to Concord, the New Hampshire state capital. I left my car in the visitors’ parking lot of the prison there, and after handing over my drivers license and signed in I made my way through a series of heavy doors made of buff-painted steel bars that slam shut behind me.
I went up a staircase that gives me a brief view of the prison yard, usually at the time that the inmates, in their green jackets and pants, with gray sweatshirts if the weather is colder, are moving from one building to another.
At the top of the stairs I was buzzed through another door, signed in once again, and passed inmates sitting on a bench waiting to see various psychological professionals in the mental health wing. I stepped into the chapel, where the constantly rattling air conditioning was always turned up way too high and where a group of inmates would be patiently waiting.
And there, in the chapel, we meditated in the closest thing to silence a medium security prison will allow, with the fans rattling and distant doors slamming so loudly that you could feel the vibrations running up your legs and through your whole body. After the meditation we checked in to see how everybody’s doing, and then discussed the intricacies of practicing Buddhism in this inhospitable environment.
Visiting a prison is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the disadvantages of anger, and the many other states of mind that impel one human being to hurt another. Contemplating the disadvantages of anger is said to be an important way to cultivate metta, and that’s certainly true from my own experience. The disadvantages are perhaps nowhere clearer than in a prison.
The prison rules say that I’m not allowed to ask what crimes these men have committed, but as they’ve grown to trust me they’ve begun to tell me their stories. One molested his daughters. Another, driving under the influence of drink and drugs, killed a man. Another, in the course of burgling a house in order to feed his crack cocaine habit, murdered the house owner in a blind panic when the man caught him in his home.
Hearing this you’ll no doubt be surprised to hear that these men are amongst the most interesting, kind, and likable people I’ve ever met. Had I met these men at a continuing education class I was teaching at a local college I’d have been wondering what I’d done to have such an intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective body of students.
Murderers, rapists, and child-molesters may have committed monstrous acts, but from the outside they tend to look like anyone else. They don’t have horns and tails, let alone the cold, staring eyes of tabloid infamy. People who do terrible things can also have many fine and admirable qualities. They can show kindness and compassion, and are friendly, considerate, and respectful.
One of the things I’ve learned through working in prisons is that you can’t judge a person purely on his or her personality. A seemingly pleasant person can do awful things. But you also can’t judge a person purely on the worst thing he or she has done. You can’t ignore that either, but the worst thing a person has done does not define them.
What makes the people I work with different is the things they’ve done. Each of these men, under the influence of powerful emotions of craving or hatred, or of indifference to suffering, has done things to cause immense harm to others.
Emotions have a habit of carrying us away. Anger is a particularly corrosive force that eats away at our sense of ethical restraint until it breaks through entirely and we do something we will later regret. Anger hurts us while it’s present in the mind, it hurts others, and the consequences of our acting or speaking out of anger can haunt us for a very long time.
For this reason, the Buddhist meditation tradition encourages us to reflect on the consequences of acting out of anger in order that we begin to weaken its hold over us.
Consciously directed thought can be a powerful tool for developing greater emotional wisdom, and the metta bhavana practice is a direct antidote to anger.
Here are some questions and reflections to get you thinking about the disadvantages of anger.
Notice during the day when anger arises in your mind. What happens? Do you imagine yourself speaking hurtful words to another person? Do you imagine yourself acting violently? Do you find yourself actually speaking or acting in a hurtful way?
How does your anger feel inside? What’s the feeling tone? Do you feel a sense of enjoyment as you experience the energy of arousal? Do you perhaps find it painful to be harboring ill will?
What effect do your angry words and actions have on the other person? How do you think they feel inside when you express anger? Imagine that you’re on the receiving end of your own angry words. How would that feel?
What’s it like when you’re around a person who is habitually angry? Do you experience fear? Do you want to avoid that person? Now, what is it like for others to be around us when we’re angry? Anger isolates.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever imagined yourself doing when you’ve been under the sway of intense anger? Have you ever imagined humiliating someone? Hurting someone? Killing someone? Such thoughts are remarkably common, but just think how your life would have been different if your inhibitions had been lowered — perhaps by stress or alcohol — to the point where you had done something terrible.
The next time that you feel angry, pause, and bring your awareness to the heart. Just notice what’s there. If the mind wanders just keep on coming back to the heart. Does your anger change in any way as you do this? Do you notice any other feelings or emotions, like hurt, or sadness? What happens if you stay with those feelings? Often I find that as I stay with my heart the feelings of anger dissipate and may even change into compassion.
I had a student write and say that after three years of practicing the mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana practices, with his practice being daily for the previous several months, he’d noticed that he was experiencing an upsurge in anger and irritability. He was naturally concerned about this and he wondered whether this was going to be the shape of things to come.
This is something that I’ve heard from a number of people, and in fact it’s something that I’ve experienced myself.
In writing back to my student I could think of a few things that might have brought about the surges of anger he talked about.
1. The most likely thing, I think, is that he was becoming more aware of his feelings.
Meditating puts us more in touch with ourselves. We’re practicing being aware of the body and of the sensations that arise within in. What happens when we practice any skill is that the parts of the brain responsible for that skill become larger. This gives us a greater ability to do the task related to that area of the brain, which in this case is to detect feeling. In more experiential terms, we feel our feelings more strongly. We become, in a way, more emotional.
Now this means that we experience pleasant feelings more strongly — things like the warm glow we get when we’re being kind. But it also means that we feel our unpleasant feelings more strongly too — such as the inner sense of tension and pressure that indicates frustration.
It’s great when those pleasant feelings happen. But when stronger-than-usual unpleasant feelings arise, we’re not used to them. We don’t know how to handle them. And so we over-react, and find ourselves blowing up.
So what do we do about this?
Well, the parts of the brain the detect feelings have become larger and more active. So we also need to grow the parts of the brain that are responsible for responding to those feelings with kindness and compassion. We need to practice bathing ourselves in kindness. My main advice would be to keep coming back to the experience of “loving eyes” over and over again during the day. Not just during meditation, but every time you remember to.
I’d also suggest the practice of self-compassion. If you’re feeling your feelings more strongly, then you’re feeling painful feelings more strongly. If you’re experiencing painful feelings more strongly, you’re suffering more. And so you need to practice offering yourself emotional support and kindness, especially at times you’re hurting.
We can welcome any painful or uncomfortable feelings into our experience and just sit with them, taking a friendly interest. It’s valuable to locate the sense of hurt in the body, to see exactly where the feelings are situated, and to send kindness there, repeating “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering,” just as if this were a friend who was in pain.
2. Sometimes we enjoy the pleasant feelings that come with kindness, and react with aversion when those feelings are disrupted.
Cultivating kindness feels good. It gives rise to warm, glowing, open feelings. Sometimes can find ourselves in a good mood. That of course is enjoyable.
But what happens when someone does something to disturb our good mood? Sometimes we don’t like this, and we get angry.
One thing to do here is first to distinguish being kind (which is an empathetic intention to cherish the well-being of ourselves and others) from pleasant feelings. Put more emphasis on the former, and less on the latter, and it won’t matter so much if those feelings aren’t there.
Another thing to do is to recognize that feelings come and go. Happiness doesn’t depend on the presence of pleasant feelings. It arises from being at peace (and being kind) whatever we happen to be feeling.
3. There may be some other forms of clinging and attachment going on.
I remember noticing this in my own practice many years ago. I was living in the city at the time and was fairly new to meditation. I really wanted quietness to meditate in, but there was always something going on outside my flat — taxis idling, people fighting, a guy shouting the titles of the newspapers he was selling. When I got disturbed I’d end up getting annoyed because of the frustrated desire for silence that I had, and sometimes I’d have quite violent emotions arising — highly ironic when you’re doing the development of lovingkindness practice!
I had become very attached to having what I thought of as the “right” conditions for meditating.
I found it helpful to put my expectations words so I could become more conscious about the clinging that was going on. This allows you to take the expectation (perhaps something like “I expect it to be quiet when I meditate”) and analyze it to see if it makes sense, and to see what other assumptions might go along with that expectation or underlie it. And you can counter that with a more realistic perspective, perhaps along the lines of, “I live in a place where there’s noise. I can’t expect it to be quiet when I meditate. I can’t control the noise. But I can practice accepting the noise.”
Sometimes these forms of clinging go quite deep. I used to find I had an assumption that that ran like this: “I’m special, and my meditation practice is special, and I expect the world to recognize that.”
Now this kind of assumption seems rather absurd when it’s spoken out loud or written down, which is the whole point of the exercise! Put it into words, and you realize how unrealistic it is. Once you’ve realized the absurdity of the ego’s view of itself it’s a bit easier to find a lighter attitude, laugh at yourself, let go of your expectations more easily, and maybe once again state a more realistic perspective: “I’m not the center of the world. Other people are just doing what they need to do. They don’t know I’m meditating, and even if they did, why should they care? It’s up to mean to learn to be at peace with whatever arises.
So those are a few suggestions as to why one might feel an upsurge in difficult emotions through meditation, and of the kind of things we can do about them.
There were times years ago when it was simply painful to sit with myself in meditation because I disliked myself so strongly. And that self-hatred would also spill out into my relations with others in the form of intolerance, ill-will, and a preoccupation with judging. Someone who had been practicing quite a lot longer than I had been (I was a relative beginner at the time) suggested that I do a lot more lovingkindness meditation.
So for quite a long time I did the metta bhavana meditation on a daily basis. But somehow even that wasn’t enough, and so I came up with a way of doing the practice that helped me with my self hatred (or low self-esteem, as people call it nowadays).
What I did was to take the first four stages of the practice and apply them to myself. That may seem at first glance like a selfish act, but it wasn’t really. In order to become a more compassionate being I had to learn to live with myself first, and so the question of selfishness doesn’t really arise — in helping myself I was helping everyone around me.
The first stage I did in the normal way — I just wished myself well.
In the second stage of the meditation practice, where we normally cultivate lovingkindness for a friend, I called to mind all the qualities I liked in myself. These were the parts of myself that I was friendly towards. And I’d name these qualities and wish them well.
For example, I respected my own intelligence and so I’d repeat: “May my intelligence be well. May my intelligence be happy. May my intelligence be free from suffering.” I’d do that for the whole of the second stage of the practice, sometimes spending the whole stage on one quality that I appreciated in myself, but more often calling to mind a few different qualities. That seemed to be the most useful way to do the practice — calling to mind as many positive qualities as came to mind. But if I could only think of one thing then I’d wish that part of myself well for the whole 10 minutes or so.
In the third stage, which is generally where we wish a neutral person well, I’d think about qualities that I hadn’t yet developed, and I’d wish those parts of myself well. Those qualities were neutral in the same way as people I haven’t yet met are neutral — they were parts of myself that I hadn’t yet developed a relationship with, just as neutral people are simply people that you haven’t yet established a relationship with. So I might repeat something like, “May my confidence be well. May my confidence be happy. May my confidence be free from suffering.” This stage was pretty easy — there were plenty of qualities that I wanted to develop but didn’t think I had in any great degree. It didn’t matter if I already had the quality to <em>some</em> degree — as long as I felt I needed to develop that part of myself much more than it was developed already then it was suitable for inclusion in this stage.
Sometimes I’d include in the “neutral person” stage qualities of mine that other people had expressed appreciation of but which I didn’t really appreciate much myself. I can’t remember what those were in any great detail, but sometimes someone would tell me that I was friendly, for example, while that wasn’t the way I thought of myself.
In the fourth stage — the stage where we usually cultivate lovingkindness for someone we have difficulty with — I’d call to mind those parts of myself that I didn’t like. I’d say things like “May my ill-will be well. May my ill-will be happy. May my ill-will be free from suffering.” Those qualities were my inner “difficult people.” There was no shortage of these! I found it very beneficial indeed to wish these troublesome parts of myself well. In this stage of the practice some genuine compassion for myself would often emerge.
Lastly, I’d conclude the meditation in the usual way by spreading my well-wishing into the world in wider and wider circles.
So in the middle three stages I was relating to different parts of myself as if they were other people — people I liked, people that were strangers to me, and people I was in conflict with. This seemed to offer a deeper way of working with the practice than the normal first stage, which involved a more general sense of cultivating lovingkindness towards “myself.” It takes that idea of “myself” and deals with it in more detail and deals with it in, I found, a more useful way.
I’ve sometimes suggested when others are afflicted with self-hatred that they take the same approach I did, and so I’m offering up this modified approach to the metta bhavana meditation in the hope that some will find it useful.