My first meditation retreat was in 2004, in Ladakh, northern India, at the far western end of the Himalayas. Our meditation hall was an army tent and our international group of retreatants slept in huts made of mud bricks, baked by the sun. Though we were in a region where Vajrayana is predominant, the practice was Theravada so we spent our time mostly in silence, following the breath as we sat and walked slowly on the dry, bare earth, and we finished each with metta, the meditation on loving kindness. This was the biggest revelation to me—that one could meditate by offering loving kindness to oneself, to loved ones, to people toward whom our feelings are neutral, and finally to those one finds difficult. The practice of metta quickly became my favorite time of day until our final day when, in the last segment, we were guided to offer metta to a number of public figures, including the then-US president George W. Bush.
I felt a chill pass through the room. There was not a single American at the retreat in the Himalayas, yet there were plenty of strong opinions about this president, who at that time was campaigning for re-election amid the war in Iraq. My first thought was, “He doesn’t deserve love or kindness! Look at all the harm he’s causing!” Of course, I kept silent, brooding over this ridiculous practice. Slowly, the thoughts changed. I remembered the teaching that everyone is searching for happiness, though often through unskillful means. And after a week of offering metta to those I found slightly annoying, I was able to see that when anyone is truly happy, they are at peace and do not need to wage wars or throw around epithets. Wishing metta is actually the sanest thing that any of us can do for our enemies. During that sit I found that even I, who at the time identified even beyond the left end of the political spectrum, could open a space of caring for George W. Bush, seated firmly on the right. On that day, I learned that metta can produce miracles.
Metta is the ninth of the ten paramis, or transcendent qualities of an awakened being. Often translated as loving-kindness, metta can also be thought of as goodwill, friendliness, or non-aversion. When a group of monks had gone into the forest to meditate and were being bothered by the spirits there, the Buddha taught them the practice of metta by contemplating in this way:
“May everyone be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy. . . . Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. Let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.” (Thich Nhat Hanh 2007, 11)
It is said that the spirits were appeased and took to the meditation, and the monks were able to practice in the forest in peace. While this may sound naïve to the modern, scientific mind, there is a deeper truth to be found in this teaching. The cultivation of this love brings safety because love fills the spaces where worries and agitation normally reside. Out of non-fear, a great ease emerges that is the ground of freedom, which includes freedom from false views. Much harm comes from our false views, so reducing them is a protection. More importantly, practicing metta is a powerful way to experience what my teacher, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, calls interbeing—the lived experience of emptiness, of no separate self, of Buddha Nature. Grounded in our Buddha Nature, we are stable and less likely to be hurt by slights and aggression. We will still experience pain, but we need not suffer. Dwelling in our Buddha Nature is a great protection indeed! These are but a few blessings of the metta parami.
So why place such a joyous and powerful practice near the end of the list of parami? Because even metta is not a panacea. When our hearts are hard and closed, practicing metta can remain intellectual and dry, bringing up more bitterness than love. If we are filled with guilt and shame and we have not experienced unconditional love, metta can reinforce a sense of unworthiness. If we are arrogant, metta can bring up more pride, with thoughts such as, “Aren’t I a good person for sending love to those suffering people over there. Thank goodness I’m better than them!”
This is why we cultivate generosity (dana) and morality (sila) early in the development of the parami, to really know our innate goodness. Renunciation (nekkhama), patience (khanti), and truthfulness (sacca) can cut through pride and the sense of a separate self. Wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), and resolution (adhitthana) can train us to look beyond our doubt and our false perceptions of who deserves love and who does not, getting in touch with the reality of things as they are. With a healthy sense of self-worth balanced by the wisdom of non-self/interdependence, meditation on goodwill is more likely to bear fruit. While metta can be practiced on its own, if you find yourself falling into any of the aforementioned traps, it might be a better time to focus on the first eight parami.
If you are new to the practice and you want to try it out, start with just the most basic element. Bring into your heart and mind someone who is easy to love, whether a grandparent, a child, or even a pet. Whatever thought brings up a flow of warmth to the heart, hold onto that thought for the heart to remember what unconditional love feels like. Only when we are fluent in bringing up feelings of warmth and kindness do we then go on to direct that caring toward those who are difficult to love. For many people, the hardest person to feel kindness towards is oneself. Fortunately, it is the practice that matters, not the quality. Metta is not another thing to add to a list of “shoulds” or something to beat ourselves up about “failing” at. We need not only practice metta to ward off fear and ill-will. It is like jazz—best when improvised, something to enjoy for its own sake. In the words of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz (c.1325–89):
With That Moon Language
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?
(Ladinsky 2002, 175)
With another US election fast approaching—one that many people around the world are watching closely and with some fear—remember that metta meditation might not change the outcome but it can change your experience. And when you are changed within, outer change becomes possible. Why not send the candidates, the American voters, and everyone affected by American policies your loving-kindness this week? When there is another news report about the crisis in Syria and it feels like there is nothing you can do, send metta—not in lieu of action, but to transform your fear and to be ready for what you can do to care for our messy, painful, and beautiful world. And know that one less person living in fear is already its own small and precious miracle.
For more practices on love, see Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2007. Teachings on Love. Berkley, CA: Parallax Press.
Ladinsky, Daniel. 2002. Love Poems from God. New York: Penguin Group.