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It All Matters: On Metta, Feelings, and Forgiveness
Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.
In our monastery, there is a practice for those who are really upset with someone else. They’re told to give the other person a gift. It’s usually the last thing that anyone in this situation wants to do, yet it can bring about great transformation. I haven’t had to do this—I don't know if it’s that I’m able to keep good relationships for the most part, or if I’m simply conflict-avoidant—but there are plenty of times that I’ve felt irritation, anger, or ill will mount up in great piles until I feel lost in it. The version of gift giving that I've taken on in these circumstances is to offer the gift of loving-kindness, called metta in the earliest recorded discourses of the Buddha. It may take me a while, but once I notice that I’m stuck in ill will I make a point, during either our sitting or walking meditation periods, to send that person the energy of loving-kindness.
It’s a good check-in for my attitude toward humanity in general. If I’m stuck in the idea that people are inherently bad and need to be punished into goodness, it’s easy to stay in irritation with thoughts of retaliation. But eventually I notice that I carry the same thoughts about my own nature as I do about the other and no one can be punished into goodness. It’s just not an effective strategy for change. When I can come back to the understanding that all beings are doing their best to be happy and it’s only pain and trauma that blocks our basic goodness, it’s easier to see that anyone who causes me pain is themselves in pain, so wishing them happiness can make both of us happy.
After practicing this for a number of years I know that offering this gift is for both of us, and I benefit first. But what I am still learning is what it takes to get to the point of wanting to make the shift of awareness from defense to basic goodness. Sometimes I can remember to turn around my thinking, offer metta, and free my own heart, within a few minutes or hours from a difficult interaction. Other times, it takes weeks or longer.
In a way, this is a question for practitioners of all contemplative paths—what makes the shift happen from good intentions to action? Anyone can read a wise teaching and intellectually grasp the practice, but that doesn’t guarantee the application of the lesson. What bridges idea and realization? Whether it’s the moment of discipline needed to turn off the TV and eat in silence if we know that we want to make a practice of mindful eating, the fierce willpower to stay away from what we’re addicted to, or the unconditional generosity needed to offer a gift to someone with whom we’re angry, exploring the terrain between intention and action can help to smooth the path for all of us.
On a simple level, I like to learn about the paths others have trod, whether through conversation, books, or movies. Knowing that someone else has been able to fundamentally change themselves awakens great courage in me. Repeated reading and listening to teachings in person, recorded, and in print is also an important way for profound lessons to sink slowly into the depths of my consciousness. With an Internet connection, we now have an almost endless supply of wisdom teachings from around the world, teachings that previous generations could only dream of accessing a tiny fraction of. We are living in an age of abundance in many ways.
But the most important factor in moving from pain to healing and transformation is not so easy to access. The willingness to feel pain is the most powerful tool I’ve found to transform consciousness. It sounds pretty bleak written like this, yet I know it to be true. When I’ve needed to send metta to a “difficult person,” the only way I could access genuine loving-kindness that healed me started by first giving myself the space to feel the hurt underneath the difficulty.
This might seem illogical. How can we not feel our hurts? Well, we usually feel a little bit of discomfort or pain and then our brains, hardwired for comfort and security, reach for the food or entertainment or antagonistic thought that is most likely to distract us from the painful emotion. We constantly experience the tip of the icebergs that are our feelings but rarely the whole thing. This pattern works well in terms of physical pain. Touch a hot stove and the body will learn to avoid repeating that action at all costs, automatically. But since the brain cannot distinguish emotional from physical pain, we’re wired to avoid all pain.
But wait: isn’t being stuck in rage and despair all about our emotions? No—these are usually merely a byproduct of being stuck in stories and thoughts about our emotions in order to avoid feeling the sensations. It can be hard to make the distinction between the two. When I realize that I’m stuck, I sometimes simply repeat to myself, “I am willing to feel this fully.” The next time the you find yourself stuck, see if this phrase or another that resonates for you can bring you more deeply into felt sensation. Body scans can also bring us into physical sensations of emotions without getting lost in discursive thought. Explore how the emotion lives in the head, the neck, the arms, the chest and belly, the back, and the legs. It’s important to notice the places where the emotion is felt and where it is not felt. The physical sensations will also change, an embodied reminder of the truth of impermanence.
We want to feel better, but often we first have to feel worse. There’s an almost alchemical reaction in emotional and spiritual healing that requires the feeling of what we avoid in order to be freed from it. The psyche is so well set up to protect us from our pain that it’s easy to think there is nothing more to feel. But if we’re stuck, then there is more to feel. What we resist persists and the only way out is through.
The times I’ve been able to successfully release hardness in my heart through sending loving-kindness required me to first feel the hurt behind the conflict. If I told myself, “Sister Ocean, you’re angry so you need to send that person metta,” then the tension remained. Be it frustration with the incapacity to release frustration, the hurt of insensitivity or cruelty, or the rage at a gross injustice, there are no shortcuts to healing. Now when I feel rage, I know that there is a deep hurt inside so painful that the rage arises to protect me from feeling it. And when sorrow arises, I can often detect the point when the raw feeling gets masked by thoughts like, “Oh no, how am I going to deal with this? I wish it would just go away.” There are so many ways to deflect discomfort, yet once understood and practiced, anyone can learn to dive in and make it to the other shore.
I was recently moved and inspired to read The Book of Forgiving by Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu, based on their experiences with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process. They write, “The only way to stop the pain is to accept it. The only way to accept it is to name it and, by naming it, to feel it fully.” (Tutu 73) After all that they’ve witnessed and endured, they have arrived at this same core understanding.
I must admit that sometimes I hesitate to use the word forgiveness. There can be an implication that forgiveness is “the spiritual thing to do” and if you can’t forgive, there is something wrong with you. Rather, I see forgiveness as the byproduct of letting go and healing. We don’t need to try to forgive but we can recognize that our willingness to feel fully is what carries us the farthest on our paths. Vulnerability, being exposed to the possibility of physical or emotion harm, is essential and actually the most courageous attitude that we can take. It’s one thing to say that hatred never ends through hatred, but learning to live a life of non-hatred takes work. Fortunately, the rewards are extraordinary. Let me end with more of the hard-earned wisdom of the Tutus:
It all matters
If you are standing before me, beaten and bleeding, I cannot tell you to forgive. I cannot tell you to do anything, since you are the one who was beaten. If you have lost a loved one, I cannot tell you to forgive. You are the person who has lost a loved one. If your spouse betrayed you, if you were abused as a child, if you have endured any of the myriad injuries humans can inflict upon one another, I cannot tell you what to do. But I can tell you that it all matters. Whether we love or we hate, whether we help or we harm, it all matters. (Tutu 157)
Fronsdal, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Tutu, Desmond M., and Mpho A. Tutu. 2014. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. New York: Harper One.
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