May 9, 2020
Most of the guided meditations I do are mindfulness meditations. But every now and then I'm met with a metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. When that happens, I tend to feel a slight disappointment, followed by some degree of acceptance, followed again by a vague trust and commitment to see it through. Some might even call this sequence faith.
Metta, for those who don't know, is essentially the conscious cultivation of love and compassion for others. In my experience, this has involved bringing to mind a person whom I already have warm feelings for, drawing those feelings out of myself, and then sending them out to the person via my little mental wishes: May you be happy. May you be free of all (unnecessary) pain and suffering. May you have peace. Etc. It can and usually does feel contrived, and I'm not very good at producing these feelings (or any others) on demand. But by the end of most metta sittings, I feel imbued with a certain nutritive grace. So I soldier on.
There are actually a few metta variations. One is to direct the feelings the other way, toward oneself. I struggle with this one the most. And I doubt that that's uncommon. What has helped me significantly with this, though, is imagining myself as a child, and then directing all my love and compassion at this earlier, uncorrupted iteration of myself. At present, I maintain enough self-loathing to fuel my humility and humanity, and give rise to the better angels of my nature. And while I try to limit it to that, I'm more successful some days than others. But it's much harder to loathe a child, especially one whom I know so well, and whom I'm forty years removed from.
Another variation involves directing these feelings of lovingkindness at someone you neither love nor like, and whom you perhaps even despise, or find otherwise repulsive. For some reason I find this to be the least challenging, and least contrived, of them all. I don't know exactly why. But I think it's at least partially a result of my own self-awareness, which shows me regularly how my invasive thoughts and emotions sometimes emerge from me as anger, irritability, annoyance, impatience and my many other outward uglinesses, which I happen to find repulsive. With only the slightest mental shift, it is incredibly easy and cleansing for me to think of someone I detest, and then, rather than continue down that path, imagine that same person as a carrier of some profound illness. In doing this, I find that my instincts actually reverse. Instead of hopelessly and compulsively scrutinizing all the awfulness that seems to radiate from this person, I find myself wanting only to apply some balm to their psychic wounds.
One basically has two options when navigating a life: leading with love or leading with something else. For many of us, that something else is often a form of resistance or opposition, both of which reduce life to some kind of toxic sport, one where nothing changes in the end but for the corrosion incurred within. Leading with love, however, nourishes us and instructs us as to what we should leave behind, what we should ignore and let go of. It guides us to ask ourselves: When you die, what kind of life will you want to have lived? What collection of nights and days? And when I think about it this way, it's so obvious. I want a collection full of peace and love. This is not the same as having a collection absent resistance, absent opposition, absent the fighting of good fights. It just means approaching and fighting those fights with love. I have a lot of work and learning still to do in this area. But I've literally got nothing better to do. And what a bountiful time it is to perform such tests.
Brian Leli, May 2020
Cheryl Strayed: I think the thing is that we keep circling around is everything that’s scary about this moment has existed all this time. This whole 51 years I’ve been alive and the whole 61 you’ve been alive, this has always been true.
George Saunders: Yeah.
Strayed: I think what’s happening for me and you and everyone right now is it’s amplified, and suddenly it’s on our doorstep. So in some ways, it functions as it’s this real thing that’s happening. It’s also a metaphor—a metaphor, really, for the truth of human existence, which is that we’re mortal, and that we don’t have control, and that we have to simply try our best, keep the faith, and maybe pray to the divinity in each other and honor the divinity that is within each of us.
Saunders: Yeah. I think it does remind me so much of 9/11 and that feeling—I think it’s called sympathetic compassion where you’re not in danger yourself, but you can imagine the fear and danger someone else is in. And that longing to want to do something, or really, in its most profound, you’re longing that that person not suffer, you’re longing that that person be happy. And that’s very profound. And I think if we can cultivate that feeling of wishing the best, that’s such a powerful thing. And I think that’s what we’re here to do all the time. But in these situations, you feel it. We talk about anxiety—the anxiety of the moment—and I’ve been trying to think that some of that is useless. Some of it is just neurosis. But part of the anxiety is kind of like I read somewhere that there’s a meditation you can do where you imagine a person that you love very much drowning just beyond your reach. And that feeling that comes up when you do that is actually compassion. I’m sure another part of that meditation is you imagine somebody who isn’t so close to you drowning out of your reach, and you could actually grow your love in that way, I think. That part of this, I think, is I’m trying to think about the usefulness of that—the fact that you could cultivate a feeling of concern for other people, and that that concern could get larger. So I suppose if you’re looking for something that this moment conveys that isn’t negative, the potential for that might be, as you said, to pray and to try to lure out the better parts of ourselves.
Sugar Calling #1, April 2020
Pain is the first proper step to real compassion; it can be a foundation for understanding all those who struggle with their existence. Experiencing real pain ourselves, our moral superiority comes to an end; we stop urging others to get with the program, to get their act together or to sharpen up, and start to look for the particular form of debilitation, visible or invisible that every person struggles to overcome. In pain, we suddenly find our understanding and compassion engaged as to why others may find it hard to fully participate.
David Whyte, "Pain," Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words
Significantly, when we do metta practice, we begin by directing metta toward ourselves. This is the essential foundation for being able to offer genuine love to others. When we truly love ourselves, we want to take care of others, because that is what is most enriching, or nourishing, for us. When we have a genuine inner life, we are intimate with ourselves and intimate with others. The insight into our inner world allows us to connect to everything around us, so that we can see quite clearly the oneness of all that lives. We see that all beings want to be happy, and that this impulse unites us. We can recognize the rightness and beauty of our common urge towards happiness, and realize intimacy in this shared urge.
If we are practicing metta and we cannot see the goodness in ourselves or in someone else, then we reflect on that fundamental wish to be happy that underlies all action. "Just as I want to be happy, all beings want to be happy." This reflection gives rise to openness, awareness, and love. As we commit to these values, we become embodiments of a lineage that stretches back through beginningless time. All good people of all time have wanted to express openness, awareness, and love. With every phrase of metta, we are declaring our alignment with these values.From this beginning, metta practice proceeds in a very structured way and specific way. After we have spent some time directing metta to ourselves, we then move on to someone who has been very good to us, for whom we feel gratitude and respect. In the traditional terminology, this person is known as a "benefactor." Later we move to someone who is a beloved friend. It is relatively easy to direct lovingkindness to these categories of beings (we say beings rather than people to include the possibility of animals in these categories.) After we have established this state of connection, we move on to those that it may be harder to direct lovingkindness toward. In this way we open up our limits and extend our capacity for benevolence.Thus, next we direct lovingkindness to someone whom we feel neutral toward, someone for whom we feel neither great liking nor disliking. This is often an interesting time in the practice, because it may be difficult to find somebody for whom we have no instantaneous judgment. If we can find such a neutral person, we direct metta toward them.After this, we are ready for the next step—directing metta toward someone with whom we have experienced conflict, someone toward whom we feel lack of forgiveness, or anger, or fear. In the Buddhist scriptures this person is somewhat dramatically known as "the enemy." This is a very powerful stage in the practice, because the enemy, or the person with whom we have difficulty stands right at the division between the finite and the infinite radiance of love. At this point, conditional love unfolds into unconditional love. Here dependent love can turn to the flowering of an independent love that is not based upon getting what we want or having our expectations met. Here we learn that the inherent happiness of love is not compromised by likes and dislikes, and thus, like the sun, it can shine on everything. This love is truly boundless. It is born out of freedom, and it is offered freely.Through the power of this practice, we cultivate an equality of loving feeling toward ourselves and all beings. There was a time in Burma when I was practicing metta intensively. I had taken about six weeks to go through all the different categories: myself, benefactor, friend, neutral person, and enemy. After I had spent these six weeks doing the metta meditation all day long, my teacher, U Pandita, called me into his room and said, "Say you were walking in the forest with your benefactor, your friend, your neutral person, and your enemy. Bandits come up and demand that you choose one person in your group to be sacrificed. Which one would you choose to die?"I was shocked at U Pandita's question. I sat there and looked deep into my heart, trying to find a basis from which I could choose. I saw that I could not feel any distinction between any of those people, including myself. Finally I looked at U Pandita and replied, "I couldn't choose; everyone seems the same to me."U Pandita then asked, "You wouldn't choose your enemy?" I thought a minute and then answered, "No, I couldn't."Finally U Pandita asked me, "Don't you think you should be able to sacrifice yourself to save the others?" He asked the question as if more than anything else in the world he wanted me to say, "Yes, I'd sacrifice myself." A lot of conditioning rose up in me—an urge to please him, to be "right" and to win approval. But there was no way I could honestly say "yes," so I said, "No, I can't see any difference between myself and any of the others." He simply nodded in response, and I left.Later I was reading the Visuddhi Magga, one of the great commentarial works of Buddhist literature which describes different meditation techniques and the experiences of practicing these techniques. In the section on metta meditation, I came to that very question about the bandits. The answer I had given was indeed considered the correct one for the intensive practice of metta.
Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness