Why Loving-kindness Doesn’t Have to Be Lovey-dovey

One of my favorite things each day is getting my daily e-mail for Tricyle Magazine. There’s always an inspiring dharma teaching or quotation from an article at the website that I almost always want to go and read. Given that this blog is all about metta practice, and since Gil Fronsdal is a teacher I’ve admired and listened from the beginning of my Buddhist practice,  I was especially intrigued by this email:

Lovingkindness doesn’t have to be lovey-dovey

“Metta (lovingkindness) practice is the cultivation of our capacity for lovingkindness. It does not involve either positive thinking or the imposition of an artificial positive attitude. There is no need to feel loving or kind during metta practice. Rather, we meditate on our good intentions, however weak or strong they may be, and water the seeds of these intentions. When we water wholesome intentions instead of expressing unwholesome ones, we develop those wholesome tendencies within us. If these seeds are never watered, they won’t grow. When watered by regular practice, they grow, sometimes in unexpected fashions. We may find that lovingkindness becomes the operating motivation in a situation that previously triggered anger or fear.”

— Gil Fronsdal from “Five Practices to Change Your Mind at Tricycle Magazine. (You will need to join Tricycle in order to read the full article.)

Metta Refuge Commentary:

I think Gil Fronsdal is making a great and important point here. Metta (loving-kindness) is all about intentions and watering those good intentions. Doing metta work, we may initially feel like we are a dry and barren field. Our intention to want to love and be kind might seem like the most fragile little sprout.  Or, we may not even feel like a sprout but a dormant, (apparently) lifeless seed, lying in the parched ground of our barren, mostly loveless life.

At first, we may feel almost nothing when we try to do metta, other than this bare desire to develop good will toward ourselves and others. But if we water this little sprout—and regular metta practice, regular watering is essential to its steady growth—we will find our ability to love and be kind does grow into more loving (and skillful) ways of being with ourselves and others and the world.

Sometimes, when we do metta, powerful emotions and feelings will arise—anger, sorrow, self-condemnation, even hatred and feelings of revenge. Rather than rejecting these feelings, or stopping our metta to examine these feelings and their origins, I find it more skillful to just note the feelings and to gently go back to cultivating our intention to develop good will.

In other words, try not to blend your metta work with your self-examination and insight meditation. Metta is its own form of concentration. Metta concentration, rather than being on the breath, is on our intent and on feelings of good will directed to objects of our loving-kindness—ourselves, friends, loved ones, neutral people, and “difficult” people. By refusing to get pulled into self-examination or self-analysis, which we can always do later, we develop the concentration, strength, and power of our metta practice.

Keep in mind, that as Gil says, metta is not about “positive thinking” or forcing ourselves to love or feel kind. Loving-kindness can no more be forced than can we force a rose bud to flower. If we don’t feel kind or loving, we don’t feel kind or loving! Just see this without judgment or condemnation, and go back to your intent to develop good will. If we provide the right conditions, the “rose bud” of good will and kindness appear and blossom of its own accord. Even if we feel like we don’t want to be loving or kind to ourselves, or to another, or others, we can want to want to! In metta, it’s all about intent.

None of this should imply, however, that loving, positive feelings are irrelevant or without value. Wholesome feelings feed us. Again and again in the suttas, the Buddha urges us to cultivate wholesome thoughts and mindful actions. One of the most skillful ways to start a session of metta meditation is to bring to mind something, someone, or something that evokes in us feelings of good will and love. Ajahn Brahmavamso talks about this skillful means extensively in this wonderful talk you can read in the Metta Resources section of my blog:

Ajahn Brahmavamso Teaches Loving-kindness

My own experience has been that as you develop and deepen your metta, more and more it simply becomes a way of being—a spontaneous and naturally loving and kind attitude toward oneself, others, and the world. The deeper one goes into metta, the more loving-kindness becomes something beyond limited human feelings and emotions. The only way I can describe what I’m talking about is to say that love starts to feel like the backdrop or context for everything. It’s love, but it’s an impersonal love—a love that one can’t really say is “I” or “me” or “mine.” It just is.

So, yes, when we start doing metta, it doesn’t really matter if we feel love or kindness toward or about any particular person or group we’re doing metta for (especially the so-called “enemies” or particularly difficult people). If loving and kind feelings naturally arise, these certainly should be used skillfully. But finally, it’s all about intentions, the skillful desire (yes, some desires can be used skillfully!) to develop good will. As our hearts open up, more and more we will find that unselfed and unselfish love become the very context of being and action.

Even when we are feeling down on ourselves and self-condemnatory, metta points us to something bigger and freer than our present personal sense of ourselves or our ability to love. It points to the limitless—to love that is not conditioned or contingent. It points to love that is not fabricated but essential. This kind of choiceless love can hold the whole world in its heart. It can bring loving-kindness, compassion, and healing to the world’s suffering and sorrows.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

8 Responses to “Why Loving-kindness Doesn’t Have to Be Lovey-dovey”

  1. I think I’m finally beginning to understand . . . thanks.

    michael j


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