Some people are uncomfortable with sending metta (loving-kindness), but metta practice is an important part of awakening to the present moment. Why? Because metta is the way we can stay fearless in the face of what terrifies us in any given moment. That’s right! Loving-kindness may sound like some wimpy practice, but it is brave and valiant! Practice it and you will see this for yourself.
In class we did another extended metta practice. Metta uses phrases in the form of “May I be…”, ‘May you be…” and “May all beings be…”. These blessings are empowering. They are not begging for something from someone far away. (If you believe in God, don’t imagine your God as small and distant. Let God be infinite! That is the nature of God.) Metta is infinite and we quiet down enough to attune to it. In this state we are able to be both receptors of and conduits for metta. This is most definitely not a wimpy practice!
But perhaps if you feel resistance, it is not the wimpy factor but the woo-woo factor. Okay, I get that. I’m very uncomfortable with anything that seems too ‘out there’ myself. There’s this inner skeptic that just shudders. That’s good in that I don’t easily succumb to any old idea that comes down the pike, but it’s unfortunate in that even something that is valid and valuable may just be too much for me to embrace.
There are two things that can help you if you feel the same. First, Buddhism’s been around 2500 years and is a solid established set of teachings that works. Second, science is catching up! The deeper research goes into understanding the nature of energy and matter, the more it sounds like Buddhist teachings. I doubt there’s a scientific study on metta per se, but I also have no doubt there will be. Waiting around for some white-coat in a lab to tell you it’s okay is kinda wimpy. Give metta practice a try and see for yourself.
Even though I always use the same four blessings: ‘May you be well’, ‘…at ease’, ‘…at peace’ and ‘…happy’, you might choose variations on those. For example, a traditional one is ‘May you be free from harm.’ I don’t use that one because it is more complex and incorporates a word — ‘harm’ — that brings forth constricting mental imagery.
If you find different phrases that feel right for you, feel free to use them instead. But remember that they are not requests for specific outcomes, like, ‘May I win the lottery” or ‘May my son ace his test.’ This kind of specificity cuts out the infinite nature of metta. It’s back to just you thinking you know best, wishing for something out of fear. Very constricting and definitely not metta.
Here is a deeper look at the ones I use:
May you be well.
This covers all physical and mental imbalances that cause any kind of disease. By sending the metta of wellness to ourselves and others, we are attuning the balancing energy of wellness. We do not have to provide any other prescription or cure. We do not have to define the illness. May you be well is sufficient for the purpose.
Clearly this is not to be confused with any anti-medical agenda. May you be well might include, without actual mention, ‘may you be smart enough to go see the doctor’. But for the purposes of well wishing, if we get specific we are putting too much of a constraint on the energy, putting it too much through our own knowledge based, instead of allowing it to activate a field of energy and allow for whatever needs to happen to happen.
Sometimes ‘May you be well’ is in effect, ‘may you be well in this time of transitioning out of life’ when sent to someone who is dying. ‘May you be well’ accepts Wise View of the nature of impermanence and interconnection.
May you be at ease.
As we sit in meditation, we become aware of tension in the body and mind. We learn ways to release the tension to whatever degree we are able. We can see how this tension is the way the body holds onto the stories of the past and the fears for the future that keep us from being fully present. If we let go of the tension in the body then the mind is better able to stay fully present in this, the only moment that exists. All other moments are just thoughts — memories and imaginings. This is the ease that we are wishing for ourselves and others. May you find ease in this moment. It’s not about having an easy life, living in the lap of luxury, only sitting on the softest of chairs. However, if you find that you tend toward harshness and spartan ways, a little of that kind of ease would not go amiss!
May you be at peace.
This is a blessing that acknowledges that within each of us is an ongoing struggle. Various aspects of self (rooted in misunderstanding of experiences we were too young or too blind to understand at the time) vie for power over our thoughts and actions. As we sit in meditation and our thoughts settle down, we are able to hear the ones that arise more clearly. We can see the contentious nature of the things we constantly tell ourselves. We can see the inner struggle.
So this blessing creates a spacious quality of awareness and understanding that creates a peaceful abiding within us. When a fear-based thought arises, it is seen, acknowledged but as it passes through the spaciousness of metta and awareness, it is just a thought, and doesn’t have the power to cause harm. This is blessing we give ourselves and others through our wish for peace.
May you be happy.
This blessing may feel like someone is suggesting we just ‘snap out of it’ and put on a happy face. Given all the good things in life, they feel we should be happy or we are ingrates.
When sending this and other blessings to a ‘difficult person’ we might have resistance as well: If that person is bent on doing something immoral, aren’t we wishing them success in this wrongful endeavor?
In both cases, we need to better understand the nature of metta. The happiness we are talking about is not the result of any external cause or condition. It is not the thrill of achieving or acquiring anything. It is a joy that arises when we savor the experience of being alive in any moment, regardless of circumstances. This comes from understanding the nature of impermanence and interconnection; and that grasping, clinging and pushing away cause suffering. Challenging experiences are seen more clearly. With metta we are empowered to face fear that in the past has made us run the other way. We are better able to hold the joy and the sorrow of life with equanimity. This is what we wish for ourselves and for all others. We recognize that harmful behavior is a reaction to fear. So if someone is behaving badly, sending metta is not condoning their behavior. It is addressing their core fear, and in doing so might cause a shift of understanding within them. But when we send metta we are not trying to change anyone. We don’t need to! Accessing metta is powerful beyond measure and doesn’t need or benefit from specific instruction from us.
Metta in any moment
Sending lovingkindness is not something we reserve for a particular time of day when we are sitting in meditation. In every moment we have perfect opportunities to practice metta. For example, when driving, if another driver does something really unskillful, that could have killed us, we naturally contract into fear. Often that kicks us into judgment, anger and sometimes causes us to do something unskillful ourselves. What if instead of reacting, we take that action as a reminder to be present and to be compassionate. We might remember times when we been unskillful on the road. Perhaps this person is going through some life challenges, is racing to the hospital to be at the bedside of a loved one who is dying. We don’t know! And because we don’t know, there is room for us to negotiate a little with our judgments and anger. We can decide to give that person the benefit of the doubt. In that moment we may feel moved to send them some loving-kindness. ‘May you be well.’ And in that instant, something shifts within us. We are present, alert, alive and sensing our connection with all of life.
There are moments when we would benefit from sending metta to ourselves. We notice we’re upset about something. We focus on physical sensation, and probably notice tension in the body. We send some loving-kindness to ourselves and to the person or situation we are upset about, and we find we can come back into balance.
Always keep your access to infinite loving-kindness handy. It’s free and it has so many valuable uses!