This week I didn’t teach meditation because I had an appointment to renew my driver’s license. This is a necessary life event that’s hard not to dread — all that dreary standing in line and then sItting around in the crowded DMV office waiting for your number to be called, having your papers shuffled through by bored bureaucrats who’d rather be anywhere but behind that counter; then taking a test, waiting some more, then a vision test, photo, etc. etc. So many lines, so much waiting! You know the drill.
There was a line outside the building when I arrived — uh, oh, here we go — but it turned out it was just for those with no appointment. The appointment line was empty! In fact I was a little early and the young woman who came in behind me had an earlier appointment time, so I encouraged her to go ahead of me. After receiving a number, I sat down and settled in, expecting a long wait, but before I could pull out my reading material my number was called.
At my assigned window I was greeted by a friendly clerk. Because I had filled in the renewal forms online, I just gave my thumbprint, took my vision test and paid my fee. Then she sent me off to “the red carpet where they are waiting to take your picture.” I told her that sounded like a lot more fun than it probably is. We laughed, she called me sweetie, and we wished each other a good rest of our days.
On the red carpet, while waiting for those in front of me to have their pictures taken, I couldn’t help noticing a woman who had been at the window next to me who was also getting her licence renewed. She had received the same instructions I had, about the photo and then the driving test in the room beyond, but after her photo was taken she didn’t seem to think there was anything else she needed to do. The photographer told her the next step and she wandered off dazedly in the general direction and eventually ended up at a touch screen test station, as did I.
After my test, I was behind her in line again. The computer had told me I’d passed, so I was just waiting for the clerk to issue my temporary license, which he soon gave with a cheery congratulations and, I later noted on my receipt, a smiley face and star! (see it with logo above) Aw! This is indeed the new DMV! I felt not just the usual relief of getting a chore over with, but as if I’d been to a well-choreographed party with thumbprint invitations all along the way so everybody knew my name. Well, ‘party’ may be overstating the case, but you get the idea. Compared to the mindless cattle-herding experience I had come to expect over the years, this was a relatively fun romp.
But my companion was not feeling it. She had failed the test royally. She just couldn’t understand how that was possible. The clerk gave her a printout of her test and suggested she go review it and then she could take it again. He was kind and patient with her as was everyone along the way. What a difference from the brusque impatience people who don’t follow the drill are often given in these kinds of situations!
I sent her metta (infinite lovingkindness), and metta to all who know and love her, and a hope that she is not alone because it looked as if a major life challenge is arising for her. We’re all in this life together, and wishing each other well is a powerful part of that. I felt that quality of lovingkindness from the staff of the DMV yesterday. They cared. And I bet a good part of their caring is knowing that their employers care about them and they can feel it. There was definitely a cultural shift in this place! Their kindness radiated through me as I drove home, and undoubtedly that benefited other drivers along the way. That’s how kindness works!
I arrived home earlier than my ten AM class usually begins, but there had been no way of knowing I would be out so soon. In fact, I had had such little faith in the bureaucratic nightmare of the old DMV that I had even wondered if I would be able to make my afternoon appointment!
And then the doorbell rang. Uh oh! One of my students must not have read my reminder email. But no, it was someone I’d never met at the door, a woman who had been wanting to attend and showed up, not knowing that the class had been cancelled. I invited her in, gave her the tour — here’s where we sit together with the view of the mountain, here’s the cupboard full of extra pillows, blankets, socks, etc., here’s where you get a glass of water, and here’s the garden with the waterfall, the oak trees, the blooming rhododendrons and the decks and paths to roam, quietly engaging with nature. She felt right at home. Then we sat down to get to know each other and to see what she was looking for in a class. Happily it turned out to be a good fit and we had a lovely leisurely exchange. As we were winding up, she said how fortuitous it was that she happened to come today and that I was at home.
I told her that it was all thanks to Gavin Newsom. “Really? How so?” she asked, confounded but intrigued. (You know you think your new meditation teacher is of sound mind and you’re on the same page and then she comes up with some weird statement like that! Wha’???) I told her where I’d been and where I’d probably still be but for our new governor keeping his pledge to make the DMV a top priority. (I have no idea if he directly impacted the changes, but excuse me if I’m feeling effusive and willing to give him credit. I just whisked in and out of the DMV in a festive mood with plenty of time to spare! It may take time to change major technology and systems, but changing a culture and inspiring workers by making sure they know how important they are doesn’t take long at all. So yes, I’m willing to credit him and his leadership team.) So because he kept his campaign promise I arrived home in time to greet her.
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.
The ninth Paramita is Metta or lovingkindness. This is a quality we are very familiar with in class because I end each meditation with a metta practice, sending it first to ourselves, then to some person, a group or a situation in particular need of metta right now. And then 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.
This is such a wonderful practice. In the middle of a difficult meditation, when the mind is glued to solving some life problem, it is hugely helpful to send metta to that problem or person, and then return to the breath. The practice is all we can do, and the best we can do, in that moment.
Since my paired intentions in life for a number of years have been to be present in this moment and to be compassionate with myself and others, metta practice is very much a part of how I am able to live my resolve. My students have also found it to be a very useful practice.
This week, focusing on metta itself, I led a full metta practice. So I include a recording of that practice here in case you want to try it. It attunes you to the true nature of metta. This particular practice is very helpful if you have difficulty being kind to yourself and for any reason feel you don’t deserve lovingkindness. It is includes the ‘difficult person’ component of the practice, and that is super helpful if you are struggling with someone in your life who pushes your buttons.
METTA PRACTICE (10 minute audio recording)
As mentioned in the audio recording, you can send metta from any distance. Sometimes you have a person in your life who is very draining, who activates difficult volatile emotions in you, and you aren’t feeling strong enough to be with them. That reminded me of this poem I wrote twenty years ago when I was recovering from a long illness:
Dirt Bag Dharma I don’t know how long I had been ill… Long enough to see myself as fragile, wan, weak, in need of protection from violent images and emotion that could suck the life right out of me. But I needed soil for my garden and the young worker assigned to shovel ten bags of dirt for me was apparently way overdue for a break, and no doubt had other grievances fueling his anger. I backed off — to give him space, I thought, but really more to give me space, as I retreated to the cocoon of my car to wait. Feeling guilty, I began to send him metta: May you be well, may you feel ease. At first the words had a begging quality like the prayers of a small child, cowering in a corner, terrified of the boogey man. But the words became an invocation And suddenly I saw myself more clearly: how knotted in fear I seemed, as knotted as the worker out there both of us suffering our grievances. The metta repeated became a shaft of light breathing into me, releasing me from my victim stance, revealing instead my capacity to be a conduit of compassionate healing energy. Across the muddy yard, I saw him too. still shoveling dirt into bags, still bent, still angry, still suffering. So I returned to his side and soon we were chatting — who knows about what, it didn’t matter, because — all the while I breathed in his suffering and out that radiant light. Soon his shoulders softened, his voice lost its edge. I heard a low chuckle at something I said, and when his boss yelled another order, he didn’t bark or bristle as he’d done before. Instead he smiled at me, rolled his eyes as if to say, ‘Maybe it’s not much, but it’s mine and I can handle it.’ In that moment, standing amidst in the mud, amidst my ten bags full of dirt, it dawned on me that I am well.
I have taught and written so much about metta over the past decade of teaching that I’m just going to supply links to previous posts.
Anxiety about the election? This is from another political season, where we explore sending lovingkindness to the candidate we are voting against. Now there’s a challenge that brings up the true meaning of metta and adds clarity to our understanding.
Trouble with a relationship? This post includes examples from my students about the difference sending metta has made in their relationships.
Metta is also the first of the Four Brahmaviharas, or ‘heavenly abodes’, another set of Buddhist teachings. These are beneficial states that are both practices and experiences of being: Metta or lovingkindness; Karuna, compassion; Mudita, empathetic joy; and Uppekka, equanimity. We spend most time focusing on metta, because that practice leads quite naturally to the other three.
May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. May you be happy.