Metta: A truly portable practice
Sending metta (loving kindness) is something we can do all day every day without needing any special preparation. It is perhaps the most portable of portable practices. We can practice it in the grocery store line, on the phone and in traffic. We don’t shut our eyes; we don’t shut down in any way. We simply generate a warm sense of kindness for ourselves and others with whom we are interacting.
Road Metta instead of road rage
My first experience of sending metta while driving was back when I had to go past the hospital to get to and from my home. It seemed as if I was always encountering dangerous drivers on that stretch of road, and it upset me. Those drivers were risking my life along with their own. (Again we can notice that we are always most upset by people who have some control over us. Another driver’s unskillfulness (or ‘idiocy’ as we may be more inclined to see it) is threatening to our physical well being. So we get afraid and feel angry.)
Then one day I saw someone turn in front of oncoming traffic instead of waiting until he had sufficient space to make the turn safely. I realized he must be rushing to get to the hospital that he wasn’t thinking of his own safety or anything else but whatever thought or emotion engulfed him at that moment. Perhaps he had someone in the car that was bleeding or about to deliver a baby. Maybe he had just received a phone call that a loved one was dying and he was rushing to be with them in their last moments. Then it dawned on me – more of a ‘duh!’ moment than an ‘aha!’ one I admit — that people drove more erratically on that stretch because of their situations and their resulting emotional distress. They or someone they loved was ill, hurt or dying.
For a long while after that realization I began to send some form of loving-kindness and well-wishing (not yet called metta because I wasn’t studying Buddhism then) every time I drove past the hospital, not just to the patients inside but to the drivers coming and going.
Then I began to realize that even people who weren’t driving to or from the hospital might be in a challenging situation – maybe they just had an argument with a someone, got some bad news, had a sleepless night, worked too many hours, were feeling ill, were excited, angry, and they were behaving unskillfully because their minds were elsewhere.
It didn’t make me feel very safe to realize this. Nor did it make me feel very safe to realize that at times I have driven mindlessly too. This recognition made me less quick to judge. I always felt justified in my judgments. After all these are huge machines capable of great harm! But I realized that getting caught up in my judgments could compound the problem. How often do angry drivers, reacting to the mindlessness of others, actually cause accident? You see drivers yelling, giving the finger, tailgating and antagonizing other drivers, putting everyone in great jeopardy just to vent their views of who was right and who was wrong. This kind of behavior puts everyone on the road around them, including themselves, in much greater danger.
Road rage is epidemic and the cure is metta. First metta to ourselves, noticing the fear that arises, then metta to others, understanding that whatever they are caught up in that makes them mindless in their driving is rooted in fear. When we feel frustration rising up within us in traffic, we can use the opportunity to respond by driving more mindfully. By setting the intention to be more fully present in this moment, noticing whatever feelings arise and using metta to soften them, we do a great service to ourselves and all around us.
Age and experience carve room for more metta
Realizing that others are suffering and that their ‘jerky’ behavior arises out of mindlessness instead of intention helps us to access an ability to send metta more freely. Aging also helps us develop more compassion, as we discover through our own experiences of loss and pain that life isn’t easy for anyone. When I was young I sometimes wondered why old people walk so slowly. Was it because they didn’t have anything to do or anywhere to be? Well, of course, that could be a part of it in some cases, but I came to another understanding when I was in my thirties and my back went out for a week. I looked as if I’d aged fifty years over night as I hobbled around hunched and aching. Suddenly I understood! Old people move slowly because they hurt! This was a horrible realization, but one that carved my heart open to hold more kindness.
If we haven’t experienced real pain, it’s hard to imagine it. I just received news that my titanium hip, implanted two years ago, has been recalled! Not surprisingly this freaked me out because even though Johnson & Johnson will cover the cost of replacing the hip should it need replacing, they can’t live through the experience of having it replaced. They can’t do the hospital stay or the physical therapy before and after. They can’t take my place as I relearn to walk, or spend the weeks my husband spent helping me in every way imaginable. As I was dealing with this news, a younger person who is very dear to me said, ‘Well, maybe that’s when you decide to just live with a bum hip.’
‘Living with a bum hip’ sounds pretty benign for someone who has never experienced ongoing physical pain and all its ramifications on one’s life. And it’s not our fault if we don’t understand, but it is something we can become more aware of. If we are around someone who is in pain, or who has gone through a major loss, we can notice how the idea of such pain or loss scares us. We can sense how our muscles tighten up and our mind shuts down, not wanting to allow for the possibility of such pain in our own lives ever. But if we simply notice this tightening and this fear, we can send compassion to ourselves. We can understand how we might feel that way. As we soften within ourselves, we are better able to soften toward others.
Metta practice can cause a shift
By sending metta we shift the energy of any moment. When we are giving ourselves a hard time about something, pausing to send a message of loving-kindness really helps to create some space around the harshness of our judgments. This is not a way of letting ourselves off the hook of responsibilities and commitments. It is bringing much needed spaciousness and softening around the way we see them.
Metta reminds us we are not alone
At its most basic, sending metta helps us to notice that others suffer just as we do. This makes us realize that we are not the only one in the world with problems. By sending metta to ourselves and others, we connect on a deeper level, one that is not vested in isolation and self-protection from a world we perceive to be frightening.
If we have social anxiety or a general sense of discomfort around other people, sending metta is a valuable practice. If we are afraid to speak, afraid of being judged, then sending metta to ourselves and others brings us into a more open and accepting sense of the way things are. It helps us discern when a situation is actually threatening and if so what is the best way to respond.
An ongoing fear-based interpretation of the events in our life puts us in constant danger. Danger first to our own health from being saturated in the neuro-chemicals produced by our fear and from the tension we hold in our muscles. Sending metta can help to diffuse a potentially threatening situation. The pheromones that we put out when we are fearful can attract predatory response from even benign sources. We all know someone in our lives who seems to be victimized at every turn. We think of how predatory animals are able to sense fear. Fear attracts fear-based predatory behavior, even in people who aren’t usually prone to violence. Some chemical interplay occurs. Does this excuse violence? Did the victim deserve it? No, and no! But it does give hope that we can, by empowering ourselves with the ability to be conduits of loving kindness, soften our fear and change the message we are putting out into the world. And from that connected sense of loving kindness, the world responds in kind.
For those who say ‘I’m no victim!’ it’s important to recognize that a fear-based view of the world can also create a tough stance, a shell that no one can pierce, or a prickly way of being that can create misunderstandings and negative reactions. Sending metta to ourselves, we begin to dissolve the fear that calcified into a shell. Sending metta to others, we recognize that they are also often acting out of fear. We recognize we are not alone in our inner struggles, that these struggles are universal in nature. We don’t have to defend our separate shell. We don’t have to make others wrong to be okay with ourselves.
As we continue to make sending metta part of our practice or even the core of our practice, it activates the shift from being caught up in the relative truth of our personality-driven lives to recognizing our intrinsic connection to all beings, to all life, to all that is.
When we bath ourselves in metta, we shift from a state of blaming ourselves or others for causes and conditions, to a much more powerful connected way of being. It gives us perspective to see more clearly what is happening.
We don’t give ourselves metta because we deserve it, or withhold it because we think we don’t. It’s not a reward for good behavior. It’s not a pat on the back. Jesus was an excellent example of this universal quality of loving-kindness. The worst sinners were worthy of his loving-kindness and compassion. He didn’t fear contamination. He didn’t hold his nose while doling out food baskets. He truly recognized the oneness of life.
It’s perfectly alright to feel resistance when presented with this idea of metta. I had a dharma teacher who really struggled with the concept of metta. She reluctantly taught it when asked, but the idea of loving-kindness was just too gooey and treacle-sweet for her. We students appreciated her honesty, her willingness to see her own resistance and to explore it a bit with us, in order to help us explore what resistance we might have.
I might have felt the same as she did if I had been introduced to the concept before I had my own experiences of it, without the label of ‘metta.’ I used to send my version of metta to my loved ones whenever any of them left the house in order to protect them out in the world and bring them safely back to me. The sound of the garage door opening or the car engine being turned on would spark an automatic response in me of seeing them wrapped in light.
But my understanding of metta was very limited. I thought it was a finite resource to be hoarded. Until one rainy day we were driving across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and I wrapped our car in light. Suddenly that felt a little stingy, so I extended my enveloping light to include other cars around us. I wondered, “Why can’t I extend this to all people on the road today?” My mind answered, “Because statistically someone’s going to have an accident, so not everyone can be safe.” But then I realized that if we were all being mindful, staying present, we could shift those statistics. We could all get where we are going safely. It felt like awakening from a zombie state! Suddenly it was clear that this energy was infinite and for all, not finite to be hoarded.
I wrote a poem about my realization titled “Metta Cake,” which I have shared with you before. But here it is again.
A careful baker, I measured metta,
leveling each cup with the back of a butter knife.
Yet the cake would fall or simply lack sweetness for no reason I could figure.
My frustration mounted. I raged at the miller, the leavening, the oven.
But cake after cake was politely nibbled or set aside
by my carefully culled guests at my perfectly laid table.
I suffered deeply the humiliation of failure,
not to mention the waste of expensive ingredients.
But relentless, I kept trying, needing so badly to be seen,
if not as a baker extraordinaire, at least as a
really hard-working good-hearted person.
One particularly painstaking night,
exhausted from my futile labor,
I fell asleep in tears of self-recrimination.
To awaken in a dream world of metta beyond measure:
Of infinite love boundlessly flowing,
of hearts open to give without depletion,
to receive without questioning their worthiness,
in an endless circuit of loving light.
I woke to sense the warmth of sunlight upon my salty cheek.
I rose and threw open the windows to the boundless morning light.
I waved at a neighbor passing by, and was met with a radiant smile.
Then I took a stroll in the garden, plucking a peach off the tree.
Biting into its juicy flesh, my tongue delighted in its sweetness.
Maybe I would not bake today, I thought,
but if I did, it would be a kind of boundless baking.
Like the generosity of a peach tree whose fruit ripens
without concern for whether it will be eaten. Could I bake like that?
As if my cakes grew from an infinite source where I am deeply rooted?
I breathed in the fragrant air of all life intermingling in a rich chaos,
and felt an infinite and indiscriminant tenderness.
Why not? I thought. Yes, why not?
– Stephanie Noble
Metta and the Inner Critic
I wasn’t a natural born metta sender. I was raised by loving but highly critical parents. They judged others quite harshly and talked about them to each other, unaware that I was listening and learning what was acceptable and what was not in order to avoid being judged harshly by them. There seemed to be so many ways to go wrong in their intellectual and sophisticated world. Once I heard them discussing a friend who was writing a novel, scoffing at her for thinking she could accomplish such a feat. Years later, when I was 33 and writing a novel, you can imagine with what trepidation I approached the project, how fearful I was for all the harsh judgments that lurked behind the smiling faces of friends and family. You will not be surprised to know that that completed novel has sat safely in a drawer for the past thirty years!
A friend invited me to the symphony the other night and while anticipating attending the event, I realized I had some residual fears of being judged as gauche. I used to go the symphony with my father who could be very harsh about people who applauded at the wrong times. As my friend and I drove to the concert, I heard my mind plotting to sit on my hands and not clap until she did.
We hold these experiences tight within us, and may not even realize it until we give ourselves the spaciousness of mind to notice and discover, to unravel the tight knots of our thoughts and emotions and reveal the fear that binds them.
But noticing and discovering are only part of the practice. The other part is metta. We bring this kindness and compassion into our awareness. We treat ourselves with respect and caring. Whatever our religious or cultural tradition or our own intrinsic nature, we can do this. If we are to feel safe in our exploration, if we are to gain real insight, metta needs to be part of the mix.
And if we yearn for that shift to an awareness of our deep interconnection, there is no better practice than sending metta to open our hearts to understanding.