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The Issue at Hand

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Chapter 21: Metta

May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.
All living beings,
Whether weak or strong,
Tall, stout, average or short,
Seen or unseen, near or distant,
Born or to be born,
May they all be happy.

-from the Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata I.8

 

Metta, or loving-kindness, is one of the most important Buddhist practices. Most simply, metta is the heartfelt wish for the well-being of oneself and others. When describing metta, the Buddha used the analogy of the care a mother gives her only child. Loving-kindness is closely related to the softening of the heart that allows us to feel empathy with the happiness and sorrow of the world.

Loving-kindness is also understood as the innate friendliness of an open heart. Its close connection to friendship is reflected in its similarity to the Pali word for friend, mitta. However, metta is more than conventional friendship, for it includes being open- hearted even toward one’s enemies, cultivated perhaps from empathy or from insight into our shared humanity.

Metta practice is the cultivation of our capacity for loving- kindness. 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 intentions, however weak or strong they may be. At its heart, loving-kindness practice involves giving expression to our wishes for the well-being and happiness of ourselves or others.

In metta practice we water the seeds of our good 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 loving-kindness becomes the operating motivation in a situation that previously triggered anger or fear.

Recognizing and expressing goodwill have a softening effect on our hearts. At times this evokes feelings of love, tenderness, and warmth. At other times this softening of the heart can expose difficult or painful buried emotions. Allowing all these emotions to surface in their own time is one function of loving- kindness practice.

When we find difficultly in relating to others and ourselves with intentions of kindness, the practice of metta can provide a useful reference point to help us see what we are in fact feeling. The absence of loving-kindness can be an important cue, not to provoke self-criticism, but to remind us to slow down and pay more careful attention to what is actually happening.

The practices of mindfulness and loving-kindness support one another. Metta practice complements mindfulness by encouraging an attitude of friendliness toward our experience regardless of how difficult it may be. Mindfulness complements loving- kindness by guarding it from becoming partial or sentimental. Metta can foster a closeness in our relationships to others; mindfulness can help keep us balanced in those relationships. Mindfulness can bring freedom; loving-kindness ensures that our path to freedom is not aloof from others.

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