In some ways, the third stage of this meditation practice is the hardest, since we’re trying to cultivate metta for someone we feel little if anything for.
When we’re cultivating metta for a friend there’s a natural emotional engagement. There’s also a natural emotional engagement in the next stage, where we’re cultivating lovingkindness for someone we have difficulty with. In both cases we’re calling to mind a person that we have some kind of pre-existing interest in.
But in this stage of the meditation practice we’re calling a person to mind precisely because we have no interest or emotional engagement in them. It’s almost inevitable that at times we’re going to feel bored and restless while doing this stage.
But this is almost the archetypal stage of the metta bhavana practice — realizing that even perfect strangers are not perfectly strange, in that we all want to be happy and avoid suffering. That means that we know the most important thing about any human being before we even know them.
I remember the day, many years ago, when I had the insight that everything everyone does — whether it’s something I personally like or dislike, approve of or disapprove of, feel happy about or enraged by — they do because they think it will bring them happiness in the long term. At the time this was a huge insight for me, and I briefly felt an enormous sense of forgiveness and understanding because I understood, for the first time, that if I had the appropriate perspective it was possible to love anyone, no matter what they had done. (I found it impossible to maintain this perspective, but that’s another story).
But I sincerely believe that the most important thing you can know about another being is something that you already do know of some level — that that person wishes to be happy and wishes to avoid suffering. The more we can bear that insight in mind, the more our lives will be transformed for the better.
Another interesting aspect of this stage of the meditation practice is the fact that we have no interest in the neutral person (at least not at first). Now the phrase “having an interest in” can mean different things. It can mean you have a desire to know (as in “I have a strong interest in movies from the 1920’s”), and it can mean you have something at stake (as in, “I have a personal interest in the outcome of the decision”).
Not only do we naturally tend to lack curiosity (at least initially) in the neutral person, but we also have nothing at stake. When I call to mind the friend I’m strengthening a bond that enriches my life. When I call to mind the person I have difficulties with I’m addressing a problem that adversely affects my well-being. But with the neutral person it can seem that I have little or nothing to benefit by cultivating metta towards them in meditation. And this is yet another reason why it can be difficult to be emotionally engaged in this stage of the meditation.
Addressing the first kind of interest (having a desire to know) this practice enriches our lives because we become more interested in other beings as other beings. We find ourselves becoming more curious and more understanding. Other people become more real to us.
And this in turn addresses the second kind of interest (having a personal stake) as we realize that the lack of emotional engagement we feel towards others impoverishes our lives. And we also become increasingly aware that how we regard the vast mass of beings (and individuals from that mass that we happen upon in daily life) has a direct impact on our day-to-day states of mind. The more positively we regard others — even those we don’t know — the more content we are within ourselves.
Because this stage is so important, it’s worth spending some time practicing it and reflecting upon it. As always, we suggest you do the first three stages (together) for a few days before moving on to the fourth stage.