Four Obstacles to Metta Practice

Obstacle #1. Belief That Metta is Finite

When we practice sending metta (the Pali word for loving kindness) we are activating our natural sense of generosity. This generosity comes in part from understanding the nature of impermanence. We see that all we ‘own’ is temporal, not ours to begin with, and not the source of our happiness in any case, so there is only suffering in clinging to it. This frees us to be open hearted and generous. We still use common sense in managing our affairs, but we can do it with a different attitude. There’s a great Sufi expression: ‘Trust in Allah but tie your camel.’ We can find a balance between sensing the oneness of all that is and being responsible for the physical well being of ourselves and our dependents. The art of doing so is addressed within the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

Because in our lives we manage finite resources, making hopefully intelligent fiscal choices, we may approach sending out loving-kindness in the same way, as if it is a finite resource we need to manage. This is an obstacle! When we think loving-kindness is finite, we mete it out in careful doses, perhaps only to those whom we care deeply about, those we see as having the greatest need or those we deem the most deserving.

It’s so important to realize that metta is not a limited resource. This took me a long time to realize. Insight came one day when I was riding in our car going over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and I was wrapping our car in loving light as I often did since long before I began studying Buddhism. Then I recognized that just wrapping our car — just sending metta to us — was not very loving or kind. So I extended it out to the vehicles around us, and then beyond to the whole bridge, then the whole highway of vehicles coming and going in both directions.

Then I came to another mental obstruction. I thought, ‘We can’t all be accident-free. Somebody’s got to crash. It’s beyond statistical probability that we could all be well.’

Aha! Here was a belief I could question! Is that true? Must someone be sacrificed to the gods of probability? A phrase came up that reminded me that it was not necessarily true. It’s not a Buddhist phrase but the wording found at the bottom of any financial investment brochure: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

That’s true! In the case of all of us driving along the freeway, it might be a statistical probability that some percentage would crash based on what has happened in the past, but that is all subject to causes and conditions. What if a fundamental condition changed? For instance, what if it became more common than not for us all to be fully conscious, fully present while driving? Statistics show that 80% of all accidents are caused by distracted drivers. So if everyone were paying attention, the likelihood of a crash would be greatly reduced, right?

Then consider what would happen if everyone felt a palpable sense of connection with all other beings? What if we didn’t think of ‘that jerk in the other car putting everyone in danger’ or ‘that slow-poke keeping us from getting where we want to go on time?’ What if, instead, we felt compassion for them, a compassion that comes from a sense of connection, maybe simply from knowing what it is like to be reckless or overly cautious ourselves at times. Then the probability would increase that there would be neither jerks nor slow-pokes. Instead we would move together like starlings in a murmuration, capable of phenomenal flights in dense airborn communities, flying as one.

Okay, you may say that this is unlikely to happen. But the realization that it is possible gave me the freedom to let go of that locked in belief that somebody has to be sacrificed to the statistical probability of accidents. So I was free to be more generous with sending metta to all.

Obstacle #2. Feeling Metta is Corny, Not Cool

Another obstacle to sending metta comes up for some people, not for others. I had one meditation teacher who was apologetic about leading metta practice. She was a young woman, a brilliant explainer of concepts, but she was uncomfortable with surrendering to such an open-hearted practice. She would tell people she knew metta wasn’t ‘cool’ and might feel too treacly sweet a practice. It was something she was struggling with. She preferred the more intellectual aspects of Buddhism. Metta is by definition all heart.

We don’t all come to any aspect of practice with the same attitudes. If sending loving-kindness seems beyond your ability, then obviously that is an obstacle that you can either notice and live with or challenge. I can’t advise you there, because it is a totally personal matter. But you might consider the possibility that a practice that is awkward because it doesn’t come naturally, might be the very one to bring balance into your life. Just a thought.

Obstacle #3. Sending Metta to Self First Seen as Selfish

People often have a problem with the instruction to send metta to ourselves first. They feel it is selfish. But is it?

Well, it might be selfish if it were a finite resource. If we cooked, sat down and fed ourselves first before offering any of it to others at the table, that would certainly seem selfish not to mention rude.

But consider: What if we served a meal on dishes that hadn’t been washed? That would be beyond rude. It would render the meal unpleasant if not inedible. We could think of sending metta to ourselves first as part of the preparations of a meal, cleansing the vessel through which we offer the loving-kindness to others. Or we could think of it as tasting it first, as cooks do, to assure that the metta we are offering is indeed infinite loving kindness, not full of the hard to swallow and digest fear-based tightness that congeals our hearts. That said, I encourage you to not just ‘taste’ the metta, but to receive it fully.

Another analogy that is often used is the airline instruction to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before putting it on the child in your care. Why? Because if you pass out you will be unable to be helpful. Likewise, if you are cut off from a sense of connection with loving-kindness, then how can you possibly offer it?

Another resistance to giving metta to ourselves first is a belief that we are not worthy of being loved. If this is your challenge, you might picture yourself as the small child you once were. If that is difficult, get out a baby picture to remind you of how truly lovable you are. Allow yourself to look beyond the judgments you carry and simply focus on that child. This is still you. You are still the lovable being you have always been.

(When I first returned to meditation practice after many years, it was with a non-Buddhist teacher at the local community college who encouraged us to imagine a safe natural setting and rest there with open curiosity for our surroundings. He instructed us to notice if any animal or person came into our field of awareness, and if so, to ask them questions, that whatever answers they provided came from our deepest most connected wisdom.

I did this, and a many months long inner conversation ensued, most of which is in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within. But if at any time I had no particular question, I would just say, ‘Tell me what I need to know,’ and that wise inner voice would say, “I love you. I have always loved you. I will always love you.” That is a lot to know! So I share that with you because that voice was just my personalized version of a universal source that we all have access to if we sit and listen. All this to say, trust that you are loved.)

If staying with metta practice to yourself is still too difficult, skip that step for now. When you get to the stage of sending metta to all beings wherever they are, perhaps you can acknowledge that you are included in that ‘all beings.’ This will begin to allow for the possibility that you are ‘worthy’ of receiving metta until you understand the true nature of metta, discussed in next ‘obstacle.’ It also helps to remind ourselves that throughout the world at any given moment, someone is sending metta out to all beings, including us.


To proceed in the traditional practice, after we send ourselves metta with phrases like May I be well. may I be happy. may I be at ease. may I be at peace, then we send it to someone it is quite easy to feel a natural upwelling of loving kindness — a child, a grandparent, a beloved teacher, someone with whom there is no thick tangle of contradictory emotions. We say May you be well. may you be happy. may you be at ease. may you be at peace. We notice how it feels in our body to send metta to this ‘easy person.’

Then we send metta to a family member or close friend, and then to someone we see in our daily lives but for whom we have no deep emotions (a bank teller, a store checker perhaps) who is traditionally called our ‘neutral’ person. We may notice the physical sensations shifting, maybe tightening or numbing out, as we move into sending metta to someone for whom we have mixed feelings or no particular feelings. This noticing of how our thoughts and emotions affect physical sensation is a vital part of our practice. In general we just observe this, but in the case of sending metta we can actively dip back into the softened more spacious body sensations we had when sending metta to our ‘easy person.’ We are not forcing ourselves to feel what we don’t feel, just noticing and allowing ourselves to acknowledge that we have the capacity to be that spacious and open-hearted.

Obstacle #4. Metta Seen as Reward

What makes that shift from being soft and open to tight is at least in part this belief that metta is finite, but also that not everyone deserves it. This belief becomes even more pronounced when we come to the next step in sending metta.

At this point we are instructed to think of someone for whom it is challenging to have feelings of loving kindness. This might be someone very close to us with whom we struggle, or it could be a political figure or a criminal for whom we have strong negative emotions and perhaps lots of judgment.

This is where many people bristle. Why in the world would we want to send loving kindness to someone so undeserving?  We may have come upon this obstacle in sending metta to ourselves, but here we are asked to send metta to someone we see as an enemy or a monster.

It helps to think of metta as the sun that shines light on everything in its path. The sun is not picking and choosing who is worthy of sunlight! Nor does metta. The sun cleanses all it touches. So does this infinite loving-kindness.

We, being human, with our complex collections of experiences, patterns and emotions, carry the weight of our beliefs. Metta practice can soften our brittleness. Mindfulness practice can give us the clarity to see and disentangle some of the mindless and perhaps heartless patterns.

Metta is not a reward. We do not have to earn it. It is to be accessed and shared so that all beings experience this infinite loving kindness that shines like the sun on all beings. We have no goal in mind in doing this, other than being open conduits of loving energy.

Our own sense of compassion may rise up out of understanding that there are many people in the world who have never sensed this loving-kindness, who have always been constricted in fear, whose energy is compressed and therefore volatile, ready to explode. We may judge their resulting actions and resonate with that negativity, thus react by trying to block their access to this universal kindness, but if we sense into our body and feel the tightening and constricting, we know immediately that this is not the answer. The answer is always to access metta and allow it to inform our actions.

Once we have found a way to send metta to ‘difficult people’ then the way is clear to send it to all beings. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.

We remember that metta is infinite, that it doesn’t dilute with sharing. In fact
it grows and glows and encompasses the whole world, seeping into all the darkest corners around the globe,softening hearts, awakening minds and relieving suffering. Through sharing metta we feel our connection to all life on our little blue planet. We perhaps feel a tenderness for all beings — not just for the cute and cuddly ones, but for the ones who may be hard to look at because they are so beaten down, and also for those who, in their state of such extreme disconnection, do the beating.

When we do metta practice we enhance our capacity to access awareness of infinite loving-kindness, acknowledged by all the world’s spiritual traditions in various names. In this way we can hold the world in an open embrace, deeply understanding the transient nature of all matter, coming together and falling apart.  We can actively participate in the rich play of impermanence, using our ability to conduct infinite energy to activate peace, joy and gratitude.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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