The first time I heard of metta, the cultivation of loving-kindness taught by the Buddha, was at my first meditation retreat in Ladakh, India. It was eclectic experience – our meditation hall was an army tent, our dharma talks were recorded teachings by Joseph Goldstein and we were guided by practitioners who had never taught before. It was strange and wonderful.
We finished each day with a traditional metta meditation. On our last evening we did a special practice, expanding the realm of our offering until we included all beings. Then we were invited to include specific “difficult” people, including George W. Bush (then campaigning for a second term in office.) There wasn’t a single American at the retreat, but in the silence a tension arose. All I could think was, “No way! He doesn’t deserve love!”
I examined my reaction. I had recently felt very happy sending love to all beings. Did I really mean, “All beings except for George W. Bush?” For the first time, I realized he might not be happy. I was angry with him for policies I found unacceptable, yet I was holding onto my own discrimination. Seeing this, I knew what I had to do. I practiced metta for the former American president. It was uncomfortable at first but then my heart expanded. I felt happy! This was the moment I knew that metta would become an essential part of my practice.
I’ve continued practicing metta in many ways – on retreat, walking down the city streets, in suburban shopping malls, at meetings and sitting quietly in the forest. Now, I practice on the country road that runs along our monastery. It all started with the slugs. When it rains, the slugs seek refuge on the road. I
started by moving some with twigs and leafs but it was a slow process. I was never sure if I was doing more harm than good. Then I found a trick – to nudge the slug with my shoe until it curled up, lightly pressing the sole of my shoe onto the sticky bottom of the slug for easy transportation to the grass, wishing it happiness, safety and wellbeing.
After a few days of heavy rain, I went for a walk. There were so many slugs on the road, I couldn’t move them all to safety. After the first few I gave up and just walked up to the hilltop, feeling conflicted. Since I had come up my “great method” for slug transportation, I had started to expect myself to move every slug that I saw on the road. My expectations were too high. As I came down the hill it dawned on me that not stepping on a slug is already an act of kindness, that every actions counts. So I started offering metta to all the insects I passed on the road, whether I moved them or not.
Of course, it’s not only about the slugs. Often my wish to serve, to be compassionate and generous meets up with the limitations of life. I feel torn when deciding what to do given constraints of time, capacity, and conditions. The slugs reminded me that opening the heart is the most important part of the practice. A few acts made in peace are more beneficial than trying to save the world in a panic. I know this, and I forget. And then I remember again that the being is more important than the doing.
The other metta practice that I’ve developed here, “on the road”, is for the people who pass in their cars. I like to smile and wave at them. One day I passed someone that was clearly hunting deer. I considered not waving, wondering what he thought about our vegetarian, brown-robed community. Then a little voice said, “Just smile and wave at everyone. Even if he thinks we’re strange, at least he’ll think that we’re happy, strange people.” So that’s what I did. He gave a surprised nod and I took it as a good sign!
Bit by bit, my waving and smiling has become my metta practice. Cars pass filled with parents bringing their children to school, with farmers driving tractors to care for the vineyards, with tourists and with many hunters. As each car passes I smile, wave and offer a wish of wellbeing and safety. Indeed, all I really do is to remember that this is a real person who wants to be happy. The rest comes naturally. The more I practice, the clearer it becomes that the first person who benefits from this practice is me.
There are still many moments when I get angry, frustrated and feel hurt, when I forget that the other person is “real.” The beautiful thing is that just by doing the formal practices, metta starts to arise spontaneously. The other day a Sister told me to do something with a very sharp tone of voice and I felt angry with her. Then without even trying, the thought arose, “Oh – she’s feeling stressed. She needs kindness.” I silently offered her metta and my anger vanished. When I notice that I feel scared, hopeless or helpless, I practice metta and I am transformed. It’s a small offering to make to a world in such turmoil but it’s a step. And when we do it together, it becomes a great power. Will you join me?
May everyone be happy and safe and may all hearts be filled with joy.