It was an honor to join millions around the world in giving metta, loving-kindness meditation, to my fellow beings on World Day of Metta! Although, like most Buddhists, I do “formal” metta every day, as well as “metta in the moment,” it felt good to set aside a special time to give metta with so many others—I felt there was a really “good vibe” in my work today, similar to what one often feels in meditating (or praying) with a group of people, or sangha.
While there are many “formal” forms for the steps metta in various traditions, in general there is a basic expanding progression of attention: first giving metta to oneself, then a close or dear friend, then a “neutral” person (someone we know but don’t really have a relationship with), and then, the “difficult” person, and then all of these equally, and then in expanding spheres of loving-kindness, one eventually embraces all beings everywhere and finally, the entire universe.
A very important point: If you find it hard to give metta to yourself, as many of us in the West seem to, then start with metta for a beloved pet, or plant, or even a place—anything or anyone that evokes especially warm and loving feeling in you. Ajahn Brahmavamso talks about this skillful means of getting around stuck places, like the inability to love oneself, in a great talk you can read here:
In general, when doing my metta, I follow the standard steps of expanding love, but sometimes my metta work is very free form, like a good jazz improvisation, and I listen to what is calling to me from the world and to what my heart seeks to address. Today, for example, I initially worked with the metta suggestions given for World Day of Metta. This was good work and helped me give my loving intention and well-wishes specific focus. But after some time, I felt a shift, and my heart was drawn to new affirmations and intentions.
For example, while contemplating “May All Beings Be Free from Suffering,” I found new metta focal points arising in my mind. Trusting my heart, I stayed with each until I felt I had established a clear sense of loving presence and embrace of the those involved. Here is what arose:
May those struggling to be born, be born and live.
May those struggling to give birth, give birth safely and without pain.
May those in danger, find safety and see how to find safety.
May those struggling with death, be free of fear and feel loved.
May those struggling with death, let go of life and death, and find refuge in presence and being.
And so on….During the 2 hours, many more specific focal points came to mind as I opened up my heart, and there was often a tremendous sense of flow and feeling directed to where the loving attention was need. But sometimes, there was clearly a need to stop and really zero in on some place of resistance, or pain, or sorrow, or hurt. Often, when recalling some suffering in the world, I would be led back to giving loving attention to suffering in myself. And vice versa, often working through pain and “stuck” places in my own heart, I naturally moved outward to share that metta clarity and opening up of my heart with those in the world who might be having similar struggles.
The truth is, we can’t really separate our own happiness and well-being from that of others. To be human is to live in relationship. As my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, likes to say, we have “interbeing” and we “inter-are” with all things and all things with us, for even as we are individual and unique, we are also individual and unique in relationship to what is not our self! Indeed, we are literally made up of “not self” elements, for that is the very nature of what the Buddha called dependent origination or co-origination. In my own practice, I have found that loving-kindness practice, metta, is every bit as skillful a means as meditation in helping to break down the painful barriers between self and other.
So, with metta, as with all of the multifarious facets of the Buddhadharma, the big idea is to practice, to just do it, and regularly. Like a good musician, to improve we will do a lot of formal hard work—what the great jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis calls “going to the shed and “chopping wood.” There’s just no way around it! On the other hand, in the practice of the metta, if you start with the formal sequence, be open, to some improvisation. Listen carefully to your heart and pay attention to where there is contraction and tightness, and where there is opening up and spaciousness.
Listen also to where you heart, or personal, or family, or world events may be calling you to give metta. You may want to go there—or you may not! Sometimes the monkey-mind wants to flit from object to object, with no depth, no feeling, no real heart. Giving metta is not a filibuster! It’s not “positive thinking.” Nor is it a rote, mindless repetition of “may you be happy” or any other phrase or mantra. Metta is loving attention. It is in fact, meditation, wherein the “object” of mediation is not one’s breath, or other anchor, but the loving-kindness itself—the feeling of well-being and love being given to and embracing another.
The loving-kindness embracing its object is itself our focus of attention. And when our mind drifts off, as it surely will, countless times—no problems!—our mindfulness will eventually note that and help us bring our focus of attention back to our object of loving-kindness. And when you bring it back, bring it back with a smile to yourself, as the Buddhist teacher Bhante Vimalaramsi always says. Smile and relax, letting go of any tightness or tension that may have arisen when we lost our attention.
This is how we develop great metta “chops,” as musicians like to say. Practice and improvise, practice and improvise. Be creative; be disciplined. Follow forms; allow creative play. Don’t get stuck in technique but don’t abandon what helps you unbind and open up, even if initially that discipline might seem limiting and tight.
Trust the process of learning how to love fully, freely, and without hindrances and without getting stuck. The metta itself will transform you. Unselfed love is the great liberator. All we have to do is just do it. The loving-kindness itself will transform us into agents, if not angels, of light and love in the world, and that is so very very needed!