Category Archives: loving kindness

What I learned on my summer vacation

Family vacations are wonderful times to learn a lot about ourselves and our way of being in community and in the world. I remember one extended family vacation that my mother put together in a beautiful spot with perfect weather. Though everything went well, she was mostly tense and dictatorial and I was often grumpy and defensive. My main job as I saw it was to assure the safety and well-being of my two year old son and to pitch in cooperatively to keep the shared household running smoothly. But she saw me as her personal assistant and servant to assure the happiness of my brothers and their families whom she saw as the ‘guests’.

Because in the U.S., most of us don’t live in multi-generational family situations year-round, when we live for brief periods with our family of origin, a lot of old patterns resurface, and a lot of reactivity that replicates our childhood coping mechanisms shows up as well. We might be surprised, even horrified, to discover that those emotional cesspools are still within us when we felt we had become ‘better’ people.

It helps to see the pattern unfolding, even if it’s difficult to stop it from playing out. Just noticing it makes a big difference, helping us to understand its origins and its fleeting nature. We can rest assured that when the gathering is over, we will return home to our ‘normal’ adult ways. Being able to see these patterns arise gives us the chance to pause, send metta (lovingkindness) to ourselves and the rest of the family, so that we reconnect with our core intentions.

Because I had had negative experiences on family-gathering vacations my mother had hosted, I didn’t try to host one myself after I became a family matriarch. But a few years ago we happened to stay as overnight guests at a vacation home with our son and his family, and I discovered what I had been missing. Yes, extended time together can be stressful, but it can also be incredibly rich, sweet, funny and insightful. So I’ve started hosting simple little three-night summer mountain getaways, and I’m so glad I did.

We just returned from a mountain lake that has a rustic family resort vibe. It was a perfect choice for the age our youngest grandchildren are right now. We had a great time relaxing together, doing whatever anyone was in the mood to do, free of any agenda. As well as the fun of our group conversations, I had time alone with each family member — sweet moments I especially cherish.

My morning meditation got short shrift, as our grandchildren visited us when they woke up while their parents slept in, and I was too busy whispering and laughing. But my longtime practice helped me to stay grounded and present to enjoy it all and to hold the experience lightly. It would be so easy to get caught up in grasping and clinging, wanting to hold onto this special time and place forever. But impermanence is our nature. All we can do is savor the current experience and let it go, without regret or anticipation of the next great thing.

I didn’t completely master the advanced art of the zipped lip that all parents of adult children must learn if life is to be enjoyable, but I think I did pretty well, considering. I find the key is when judgy words are about to burst forth to ask myself, ‘What is my intention here?” and also “What is most important in this situation?” As a compulsive tidier and responsible tenant of vacation rentals (Oh, the pride I take in our AirBnB rating!) my first answer to what’s important defaults to making sure everything is just so, but with even a moment’s reflection I see that my relationship with my family is infinitely more important. And after all, it’s only for a few nights.

We are fortunate to not have reason to get into heated arguments, but decades ago I had that experience with other family members. I learned then to go to bed before alcohol consumption fueled wee hour dysfunctional disagreements. And again, to question my intention in needing to be right. Ah, the ‘I don’t know’ mind really comes in handy! Cultivating spaciousness for all voices to be heard without getting into battle. And if we let go of the need to convince someone of our view, we have the opportunity to learn more about what fears motivate their views, and that’s valuable information for us all.

All my past lessons helped me enjoy the gathering, but there’s always more to learn, and here are several I came away with this time:

#1 Explore off the beaten path
On the last day, after packing up, we took a little walk and decided to head away from the lake instead of toward it. (It’s understandable that we would always be drawn to the lake, but curiosity finally took us in another direction.) We discovered that right behind our cabin there was a beautiful wooded walking path to the grocery store, that was not only a short cut but a much safer way to walk with two children than on the street.

It makes me wonder what obvious/autopilot ways I have been taking in my life, ignoring beautiful and possibly even more direct routes.

Using this lesson, on the drive home down the mountain, we stopped in Jamestown, an old gold mining town off the beaten path. A passerby gave us the peace sign, a relic of a bygone era for sure. It’s main street is about two blocks long and it has all the requisite architectural features of the old West circa 1856, with raised wooden sidewalks under overhanging balconies. It had the requisite number of antique shops for any small California town before it becomes too popular for shopkeepers to sell some old bottles for a dollar each for our grandchild’s Harry Potter magic potion collection and then carefully wrap them in a gift bag.

We also chose a more scenic if less speedy way into the Bay Area, and arrived home refreshed. A perfect ending to a lovely getaway.

#2 Vacation food is not offset by exercise
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t doing that much exercise. We walked around quite a bit but also did a lot of lounging on the beach enjoying the sight of our kids and grand-kids playing in the water, and all the various families with children and elders of all ages having a great time together. I have never heard the word ‘grandma’ spoken from so many different young mouths.

I used to see vacation as an opportunity to over-indulge, but since I’ve found a way to eat in a balanced and satisfying way, my treats were tasty but sporadic and my reward was that I felt good. If my scale on returning home begged to differ, that’s its problem!

#3 Having better cell phone coverage is not always a blessing
Some in the family had AT&T and were blissfully free from knowing whether anyone was trying to reach them. We have Verizon, whose infinitely better coverage in remote areas is much appreciated in almost all circumstances. Except this one. Eventually, I had to just turn it off and put it in a drawer. We were surprised to discover that even though we couldn’t text each other our whereabouts or make plans, we kept finding each other quite naturally, just like we all did before cell phones were invented. 😉

#4 Put away the camera most of the time
With my phone in a drawer, I was without a camera. But I have found that ‘capturing’ the moment as a future memory is sometimes really losing the moment because I’m focused on framing and adjusting and not paying attention with all my senses. A camera cannot capture the experience anyway — the feel and smell of mountain air, the textures of sand, water and sun-warmed skin — and while a video camera gets the sounds as well, it imposes itself into the situation, altering behavior. Our grandchildren hate having their photos taken anyway.

#5 Always bring seat cushions
We just happened to toss in some outdoor seat cushions as we were packing for the trip, and boy did they come in handy! The cabin kitchen table had a hard bench banquette that was much improved by the cushions, and they were easy to transfer out to the picnic table on the deck where fast and furious games of Yahtzee taught the grandchildren a lot of math skills. Our kids took the cushions to outdoor movie night and said they wouldn’t have survived without them.

So let’s consider this: Where in life might we add a little extra cush? It doesn’t have to be a physical cushion. Our language, for example, has cushions that make conversations more comfortable like  ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘maybe you’re right.’ Hugs, pats, holding hands — small gestures convey a lot of love and soften the sometimes rough edges of life’s interactions.

#6 Apply practical lessons to inner life
We are all learning things every day. These are usually new facts, practical solutions, etc., but it can be helpful to see how they could apply to other areas of our lives, including our inner lives.

So, what have you learned lately?

What gets in the way of loving-kindness?

When we see how loving-kindness (metta in the Pali language) makes all the difference in our lives and in our relationships, why is it sometimes so difficult to muster?

Believing that metta is finite
When we practice sending metta 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. 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.

Feeling metta is uncool
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 notice that, investigate your assumptions if it feels right to do so. You don’t have to justify your feelings and certainly you don’t want to force yourself to change. 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.

Thinking that sending metta to yourself first is selfish
Traditional metta practice always has us begin with ourselves first. People often have a problem with this instruction. 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? Sending metta to someone else first is not sending true metta at all. It’s just being nice and is kind but usually comes with caveats. It hasn’t been fully received so it doesn’t come from that infinite source. How can we be a conduit for something we haven’t opened to fully?

Resistance to giving metta to ourselves first may come from 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.

If you say sure, cute kid, but look at what a mess I made of my life; remind yourself that errors in judgment made before you were thirty were made by a not-fully-formed brain! You’re off the hook. A little forgiveness please! Errors made later may not have that excuse, but certainly you can find ways to learn from them to live a more balanced, loving and ethical life from this moment forward, rather than beating yourself up again and and again.

If sending yourself metta is still too difficult, skip that step for now. Send it to someone you care about without exception, for whom you have wholehearted affection. Then pause and notice how that feels in your body and mind. See if you can activate that feeling for yourself as well.

If not, then go on and send metta to all beings, and if you can be wholehearted there, remind yourself that you are one of those beings. You are an intrinsic part of all that is. It also helps to remind ourselves that throughout the world at any given moment, someone is sending metta out to all beings, including us.

After we send ourselves metta with phrases like May I be well. may I be happy. may I be at ease. may I be peaceful, we may send it to someone who comes to mind who is in particular need of lovingkindness right now. To them we say words like May you be well. may you be happy. may you be at ease. may you be peaceful. And, because the nature of metta is infinite, it grows and glows, expanding out to shine its radiant loving light into even the darkest places. It encircles the earth in its loving embrace and continues to grow without ever dissipating. Extended traditional practices of metta may include a ‘neutral’ person and a ‘difficult’ person as well. It’s important to notice when sending metta to different people feels different. 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.

Seeing metta 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 to someone very close to us with whom we struggle, 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? Someone we may 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! 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. We have no agenda or specific 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, and so we 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.

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.

Love doesn’t have to hurt.

Metta heartsWhen we talk about love we may mean romantic love or the family and friendship ties that bind us in a love that varies in degree and complexity, depending on our own nature and what each party contributes and expects from the other. Think of all the relationships in your life. Each one has it’s own course, doesn’t it? Some are lifelong, some are brief interactions. Almost all are complicated.

Try this little exercise:
Pause and bring to mind a person with whom you once had loving feelings but no longer do.

Looking at that relationship, let yourself remember what was the initial connection: physical attraction, chemistry, shared experience, shared values, shared confidences or something else entirely.

Answer any of these questions that readily activate a response:

  • What was your initial goal in that relationship?
  • What were you planning to have happen that maybe didn’t?
  • How did that person fail to live up to their part of the deal?
  • How did you fail to live up to your part of the bargain?
  • What would have made the relationship a success?
  • What was that person’s agenda in the relationship, as far as you can tell? Was the agenda overt or hidden? Was it different from yours?

Before you get too caught up in a painfully familiar mental romp or rant, let’s look at the words in this exploration: Goal. Plan. Failure. Deal. Bargain. Success. Agenda.

What do they have in common? What world are they a part of?
Clearly these are all business terms. What business does business have in our relationships? We don’t like to think of love relationships in these terms. But if answers to the questions came up for you, then the business model fits, doesn’t it?

To whatever degree you suffered from the end of that relationship, I send you metta, infinite loving-kindness, and apologies for bringing it up. But I did it for a reason: It is valuable to distinguish between love that brings joy and love that causes suffering. And the difference is tied up in those business words. Love that causes suffering is a negotiation, and we think it’s not going well or it failed because we didn’t understand ‘the art of the deal’.  Sad.

Love that activates authentic joy is not a business transaction. It is not confined by the limited view of ‘I’ and ‘you’. It doesn’t require a return on investment. It doesn’t require a winner or a loser. It doesn’t circumscribe a small group of people who by reason of blood, hormones, preferences or proximity are the ‘us’ that in turn defines some external ‘them’ for whom we have no love or maybe even understanding.

Love that activates true joy, softens the heart, and deepens contentment is called metta in Pali and maitri in Sanskrit. There is no English word that properly captures its meaning. Some people call it friendliness. I call it infinite loving-kindness. Every meditation I lead, I end by doing a traditional abbreviated metta practice of well wishing, first to ourselves, then to someone (or a group of people or a situation) that’s in particular need of loving kindness right now. Then out and out so that we are sending metta to all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

But there is a longer traditional practice that actually teaches us how to access the ability to send metta. Many people are uncomfortable with sending metta to themselves, feeling they don’t deserve it. Many people find resistance sending metta to a challenging or difficult person. This practice helps in both cases.

Take a few minutes to meditate, and then give this metta practice a try.

EXTENDED METTA led by Stephanie Noble

This practice is not just for meditation. Activate infinite loving-kindness whenever you are being hard on yourself or someone else in your thoughts. Someone cuts in front of you? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be well. Someone in your life causing you heartache or headache? Send them some loving-kindness: May you be at ease. Discovering yourself putting yourself down in some way? Send metta: May you be at peace.

Metta practice grows joy in the moment and in your life, expanding in ripples out in all directions. Perhaps you are actively working with energy. Or perhaps you are simply grounding yourself in a loving space. Either way the effect is powerful, transforming your relationship with everyone and everything around you.

This all sound pretty good, right? Naturally we would prefer to love in a way that creates joy, not all the suffering that comes with clinging, worrying, trying to match the other person’s level of engagement, etc. But we have been loving in one way for so long, and our culture totally supports that way, fascinated by all the emotional turmoil, intrigue and drama. We may want to get rid of the suffering way and switch over to the joyful way, but pushing anything away just activates more suffering. Instead, we use the mindful tools we have been developing:

We cultivate spaciousness to hold all that is arising in our experience. If what is arising is the limiting entangling kind of love, then we cultivate spaciousness to hold all that tangled mess in a compassionate way.

We also do inquiry, noticing that kind of love’s thorny nature. Without judging it, we can simply be present with it. This clear seeing softens our attachment to it. Just like some junk food you might be addicted to, if you saw how it was actually made, you might go off it. When we see the toxic components of this long-suffering love, we see how ill-fitting it is, how insidious it can be, how it is all surface glamour with no depth, all soap opera and no real feeling, all fear and not in fact love at all.

Seeing that, we might want to toss love on the junk heap and live a life of solitude. While there’s nothing wrong with solitude, we often choose it as a way of hiding from something we are afraid of. Perhaps we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re no good at relationships, and we accept that judgment without inquiry. Naturally, as part of our practice, we’ll want to question such assumptions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Examples of failure in relationships will arise to answer these questions, but there is likely to be more answers than we have previously noticed. We stay with the process, continuing to cultivate spaciousness and compassion to hold it all in an open loving embrace.

Whatever we find, we do metta practice. This practice can become an inherent part of our being present in the world. We can do it whenever we think of someone. We can do it when we are with someone. We can do it for ourselves every time we feel ourselves faltering. Metta practice keeps us in touch with the expansive nature of all being. It softens the seemingly impermeable barrier between this seemingly finite person and a world of seemingly other beings. How joyful it is when recognize there are no barriers, that we are all one infinite ongoing cycle of life loving itself.

As to those negotiated relationships, hold them in loving-kindness. See when you are slipping into a contractual state of mind; send metta to yourself and the other person.

If you are doubting this will make a difference, just try it. It can’t hurt. And if you discover it does make a difference, let me know! I love gathering stories of the wondrous effects of metta.

The Ripple Effect

The impact of our words and actions cause a ripple effect beyond our immediate circle of family, friends, neighbors, associates and brief encounters with strangers. Each impact affects them and in turn everyone in their circles, rippling out further and further until no being is untouched. This is true for each one of us. We are all powerful. Our words and actions truly matter.


This ripple effect has no time boundaries. My parents died over twenty years ago, my grandparents over forty years ago, yet their words are alive in me, still affecting my idea of self and my interpretation of situations. Their words or actions are still sending ripples reverberating down the generations to my children, their children and beyond; to nieces, nephews; to friends and casual acquaintances and their progeny. There truly is no end to it, especially to harsh statements with echoes that keep wounding again and again. The self-doubt that sabotages me so often comes in the form of ‘Who am I to do…?’ My aunt says this is the question the women in my family have lived with for generations. No need to keep us barefoot and pregnant! It seems we have a built in self-stifling mechanism. I doubt this is something exclusive to my family. Does it sound familiar to you? Recognition of the power of our actions and words might make us afraid to say or do anything for fear of causing harm. We could become very self-conscious and tentative. Or it could inspire us to be fully conscious, to be present in this moment and to generate universal loving-kindness. (Which sounds kinda sappy until you do it.) To be present in the moment takes practice. (See basic instructions.) Transmitting lovingkindness is also a practice that begins with ourselves first (May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at peace.) because otherwise we are saying we don’t deserve it. In this way we belittle ourselves and think our words and actions don’t matter. When we think we are of little consequence in the world, the consequences to ourselves and those around us can be painful, sometimes even catastrophic. As you know all too well, the news is filled with the horror stories of some person’s destructive actions. Notice how that someone is always reported to have felt powerless. We are each of us powerful. We don’t acquire it or earn it. This is not a pep-talk. Power is a pre-existing condition of life. It is just the nature of our interconnection, the ripple effect of our actions and words. Through meditation we develop the skill to be fully in the moment, awake and connected. We can sense the ripple effect that we and all beings have in the world. If this seems like an overwhelming responsibility, relax. Remember that at the same time this is true, it is also true that our whole galaxy is only a speck in the cosmos and we are one of seven billion people on this little planet. So it is not all up to us to save the world or to solve every problem.
We can look at history and see that one person can make a difference in the world. Look at Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to name just a few. They weren’t born any more powerful than any other person on the planet. They just used their power as skillfully as they were able for the benefit of all beings. Of course, we don’t need to be high-profile to make a difference. We are all powerful in our own ways, using the skills we inherit and the ones we develop as the natural expressions of the life force that we are. But even more important than believing that we each CAN make a difference is understanding that we each ARE making an impact on the world already. If we are stuck in fear, feeling powerless, our words, actions and non-actions are causing pain. If we are present, if we can let go of the need to prove anything to anyone, then we send out powerful waves of loving-kindness that benefit all beings for generations to come. Now that is power!

Metta resistant? Exploring deeper.

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!

Metta Questions Answered Here

At the end of every meditation I lead, I offer some guided metta (loving kindness) practice, usually just to ourselves and then to all beings. In this week’s class I led a series of metta exercises to more fully explore and experience the power of metta.


Traditional metta practice is to first send metta to ourselves with well-wishing phrases like: May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.


Then we send out metta to a person it is very easy to send such well-wishing to: a small child, a beloved elder, someone we wish all good things without any undertow of grumbly qualifications.


Then we send metta to what is called a neutral person. This is someone we know only through brief interactions, such as the grocery store checker, a neighbor, a mail deliverer, etc. May you be well, etc.


Then we send metta to ‘a difficult person’. This could be someone close to us with whom we have challenges. For whatever reason, they push our buttons. We just don’t get along. Interactions are frustrating, unsatisfactory and unsettling. This is probably a person whom we don’t like to think about too much because we get agitated.
If there is no such person that comes to mind, we can focus on a high-profile person whose beliefs, choices or actions we find reprehensible.


Of course, we can always send metta to someone we know whom we feel especially needs some extra blessings right now.


We always end by sending out metta to all beings. May all beings be well, etc. This is not just a nicety, but a reminder of the infinite nature of metta, and a reminder that we, as part of the circle of beings, are worthy of metta too.


Sometimes people have a difficult time sending metta to themselves, but we cannot skip this part or the rest will not work. In order to demonstrate this, I did an exercise where we skipped the metta to ourselves and just did the easy, neutral and difficult person. We checked in to see how that felt after each one.


If you would like to demonstrate this to yourself, try sending metta out to a ‘difficult person’. Then do a round of sending metta to yourself. Then try sending metta to the difficult person again, and see what shifts.


After the practice, I gave a dharma talk on metta, but because I have talked and written so much about metta, I think here I will provide a little Metta index with links to the various metta talks as they answer a variety of questions you might have.





















As you can see there are lots of posts on metta. Why? Because it is SO central to the cessation of creating suffering for ourselves and others. It can also help us be more present to savor and engage in this moment. So give yourself some metta and then share it far and wide.

We send loving kindness to the Five Hindrances and voila!

In our ongoing exploration of the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, we are lingering a bit at the Five Hindrances to give ourselves some time for it all to sink in. We need time to practice what we learn so that it is experiential rather than theoretical.

Whatever we are exploring, whatever we are doing, the two most important things we can remember are our paired intentions: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind to ourselves and others, especially when we find that we or they have not been present at all.

So we bring this second intention to our exploration of the Five Hindrances. We send ourselves metta, universal loving kindness, as we practice noticing the presence or absence of a hindrance.

We send metta to whatever it was that had us so distracted up until this moment of awareness, and we send it out to all beings, without exception. This practice creates within us an intrinsic understanding of our deep connection with all of life. Our thinking mind can do the scientific research to explain that this oneness of all being is so, but metta practice brings it home to us in a much deeper and more profound way.

In any given moment, when we find ourselves distraught or lost, resetting our paired intentions to be present and kind is the skillful means to recognize what’s going on and to dissolve habituated patterns of suffering in our lives.

Pause and notice what’s going on with you right now. What is your current state of mind? See if you notice any of the Hindrances (desire, aversion, restlessness and worry, sloth and torpor, and doubt) in residence. If so, the recognition alone can do a great deal to dissolve a hindrance. But recognition alone can be pretty heartless, can fall quickly into patterns of judgment or discomfort with acknowledging a hindrance.

Enter metta!  We can greet the hindrance with universal kindness. This kindness is not an indulgence. It simply gives us the opportunity to be able to spend more time with the hindrance without having to fight it, avoid it, deny it, or claim it as a personality trait. With universal kindness we are able to simply be with it and recognize it for what it is.

Claim it as a personality trait? You may wonder who would want to claim any of these negative states. But in the chronic rush to get some sense of identity, we may claim even the most unattractive traits. We might call these hindrances ‘character defects,’ and own them, claiming the shame as well. We might say about ourselves, ‘I’m just lazy.’ or  ‘I’m a terrible worrywort.” Stop and think if there are some of these claims you have made, or continue to make. This level of noticing is very useful.

The Buddha asks us to look closer, to sit with any hindrance we discover. He asks us to see them for what they are, to meet the hindrance and know that it is not us.

It is not us. Phew! But does that mean we are not responsible for the words and actions that arise from our experience of one of these states? No, of course not. We learn how to skillfully navigate these challenging mental states by being mindful, which includes both awareness and kindness. We will explore Wise Speech and Wise Action further along, but the Buddha put this instruction of noticing hindrances first for a reason, so we will stay with it for now.

Metta dissolves the sense of isolation that keeps us so attached to the hindrance to shore up a sense of identity we can cling to. With metta, we sense our interconnection with all of life and don’t need to rely on what we thought were ‘personality traits’ to make us visible in the world. The hunger for visibility arises from a deeply ingrained fear of disappearing. But when we sense our interconnection in the infinite web, we can, in that moment, let go of our need to build up a separate identity.

In that mindful moment when we see a hindrance clearly and send metta to it and to ourselves, if we can stay present to notice what happens to the hindrance, then we teach ourselves the benefits of the practice. We don’t have to take anyone else’s word for it. We know for ourselves the effectiveness of mindfulness practice. The experiential learning of the practice is more valuable than all the teachings. The teachings are to inspire the practice and shine a light in the darkness when we are stumbling about. But the teachings without mindfulness practice are like a bouquet of cut flowers, pleasant at the time but not able to take root and grow. The practice and the teachings together are like a plant given all the right conditions to grow strong and produce fruit.

In meditation or any time during our day, when we recognize we have not been mindful, then suddenly we are being mindful in that moment. At that moment, if we can be kind, if we can send metta instead of castigating ourselves for having not been mindful, then we are able to be mindful in this moment as well. So metta plays a very important role in mindfulness training. It cuts off our tendency to see ourselves as uniquely unqualified to do this practice. With metta, we get that this is the natural way of things, and that we are as vital and acceptable a part of the fabric of life, knots and all, as anyone else.

Next week we will look at applying metta to each of the hindrances. Until then I hope you will take the time to practice noticing these mind states that arise, noticing the thoughts and emotions that arise when you notice, and add loving kindness to the mix, so that you can stay fully present with the experience.

You might be better able to notice these mind states arising in someone else. This is still useful, as long as it is done with loving kindness. If you find you are judging harshly, then you have a hindrance of your own you can notice! All good.