‘Whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth […] The liberation of the mind by loving-kindness surpasses them all and shines forth bright and brilliant’ (Buddha, Itivuttaka, 27)
At Amavarati Monastery, Ajahn Sumedo spoke of the familiar criticism levelled at loving-kindness:
‘When I first went to England, I asked the people there whether they practised mettā. They said, “No, can’t stand it; it’s so false. We’re supposed to go around saying, I like myself, I love myself, may I be happy. It’s soppy, wet, foolish — I don’t really feel it” [….] I realised it wasn’t being taught in the right way’
Metta isn’t about practising superhuman love, it’s grounded in reality. One is asked simply to develop a more compassionate mindset. As Sumedo said:
‘Metta, means not dwelling in aversion, but being kind and patient even to what is bad, evil, foul or terrible. […]Sometimes life just isn’t very pleasant; it can be downright depressing. […] The wise person can always learn from both extremes, coexisting peacefully with all conditions.’
Many of us are carrying a great amount of emotional pain. How are we supposed to practise loving-kindness for the world, when we have trouble practising it it toward ourselves? Before we can develop compassion for the world, we must develop it for ourselves
‘We think of loving ourselves as a gross indulgence or an inflated quality; liking ourselves is unseemly and definitely unspiritual. But the Buddha pointed out that if we cannot have loving-kindness towards ourselves, then we cannot possibly have real loving-kindness towards any other being’
When it comes to a serious mental health problems a common accusation can be: ‘why do you behave like this?’ If I was a therapist, I wouldn’t ask these questions. But if they were turned back on me by a patient, and they asked: ‘why do I act like I do?’ I’d answer ‘because you’ve suffered a lot.’
Over the years I’ve discovered how stubbornly resistant to change personalities really are. In Buddhism they talk about ‘inclining toward Nibbana.’ The same can be said for recovery: ‘Inclining towards recovery’ is a much more helpful stance in getting better. We don’t chase, fight or struggle, we just gently aim. Its a subtle thing.
This is where Metta meditation can help.
In Zen Buddhism ‘Bija’ literally means ‘seed.’ When seeds of suffering are overwatered, they tend to suffocate the garden of consciousness. If we try to annihilate unpleasant emotions either by repressing them, or be fighting against them, we end up suffering more. Negative mind-states have to be experienced in order for them to be processed. As such, we can only get better, by letting seeds bloom wilt and die.
Kamma must be the most overused catchword of the 21st century. But return to the Buddhist meaning there is a simple law of cause and effect. If we are attentive we can see kamma, in our day to day life. After too many times waking up in hospital beds, I finally learnt the cause of my suffering, also has its effect. That by avoiding loving-kindness, I was ending up in a destructive cycle of unrelenting crisis. It may seem trite, but by practising of Metta I I’m cultivating more compassionate and peaceful states of mind. By inclining towards recovery, I’ve noticed progress and pitfalls, but I’d rather be here than were I was any day.
The abbot of Amaravati Monastry has a useful way to develop Metta, the key skill is in using your imagination:
‘Begin where you are, bring your attention to your body […]As you breathe out, imagine a golden light spreading from your heart, reaching out into your body, as if your heart were a lamp […]With each out-breath, slowly permeate the body, out to the limits of the skin, with loving-kindness like a warm, gentle golden light filling the whole frame of the body, slowly and gently soaking into every corner, to the fingertips... the toes... the bones... the organs. […] spreading beyond the bounds of the room... reaching out and spreading forth from the building... reaching out through the town... to the trees and streets... the air... the cars... the buildings... without discrimination... through the houses of your friends... through the courthouse... the stores...the shops... the empty spaces... the offices... the local jail... the schools and playing fields... passing through people, dogs, cats, cockroaches, all the beings of the area. Feel and imagine this light spreading, surrounding, and permeating the entire space of the town, passing through every wall, every creature, every face’
In the old days I thought if I practised loving-kindness to myself, I was dishonouring my own pain, negating all that I’ve been through. Over time, I’ve realised that I can honour the truth of whats happened, but I don’t have to suffer so much. Practising Metta may seem ridiculous, but it’s a serious business. The brain’s natural inclination to neuroplasticity, means real change is possible. For me, the clearest evidence, is that after many years of inhaling poison, I thought I was to damaged to ever come good — but rather unexpectedly I learnt to breathe fresh air.