BV-Metta-Joseph Goldstein

Before we practice metta or lovingkindness, I’ll refer to some reflections in Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness about this brahma vihara or divine abode. He alludes to metta as an aspect of right thought because a mind free of ill will leads to both our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. 

Excerpts from the Buddha’s discourse on metta point to the wholesome quality of goodwill:

In gladness and in safely, may all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be, whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, the great or the mighty, medium, short or small, the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away, those born and to be born—may all beings be at ease. Let none deceive another or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill will wish harm upon another. Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies, and downward to the depths, outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill will. Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down, free from drowsiness, one should sustain this recollection. This is said to be the sublime abiding.

Joseph cites the poet Rilke, who wrote about “the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” Most of us long to be with nonjudgmental people who treat us with genuine caring, love and kindness. We want them to see beyond our roles and our achievements to honor our essence as fellow human beings. 

When I was in the presence of the Dalai Lama, I felt fully seen and accepted. One of his practices is to greet everyone he meets as an old friend. With a generous, open heart, he wishes well for all beings,without any expectation of receiving anything in return. Ideally, lovingkindnessdoes not depend on external conditions or on the giver or receiver being a certain way. Once it is highly developed, metta has an undiscriminating power to include every being in the wish, “May you be happy.” For this reason, it is known as a “boundless state of heart and mind” or one of “the immeasurables.” 

Among the benefits of metta practice are that the heart and mind become increasingly gentle, patient and nonreactive. As we are less caught up in immediate likes and dislikes, we grow in discerning wisdom so that we can make skillful choices. With greater tolerance of ourselves and others, life feels lighter. In the words of the poet W.H. Auden, “You shall love your crooked neighbor/With all your crooked heart.”

Practicing lovingkindness is a purification process. Joseph cautions us to be aware of a mind state that masquerades as love but that actually blocks it. The mental state of attachment or clinging is known as “the near enemy of Metta.” Joseph gives examples of how this enemy shows up. For instance, in the midst of repeating metta phrases for the benefit of others, I might notice self-centered thoughts arising: “Is this practice benefiting me? Am I becoming more loving?” Or while sending good wishes to someone whom I find difficult, I might observe an underlying agenda: “May you be free of annoying qualities that make me feel aversion.” By acknowledging “clinging, clinging,” I can release attachment to any particular results and return to the simple practice of wishing others well. 

Dzogchen master, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, used to teach his students how to bring metta into daily interactions, “Relax, just relax. Be nice to each other. As you go through life, simply be kind to people. Try to help them rather than hurt them. Try to get along with them rather than fall out with them…” 

Joseph suggests focusing on the good qualities of people. He says, “We’re all a package of different qualities, some desirable, some not…. If we make it a practice to seek out and relate to the good in each person, then the feeling of lovingkindness grows quite naturally…. We all have an inner remote control. When we’re lost in some aversive state, or even just a neutral one, we can practice changing channels. The metta channel is always available.”

For meditation master Dipa Ma, there was no difference between practicing mindfulness or lovingkindness. She asked, “When you are fully loving, aren’t you also mindful? When you are fully mindful, is there not also the essence of love?  

*Now let’s practice mindfully to open the heart with a guided Metta meditation adapted from Noah Levine’s book Against the Stream.  

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Settle into the present-time experience of your body. Relax any physical tension in the eyes, jaw, shoulders, belly, and hands. 

Reflect upon your wish for happiness and freedom from suffering. 

Be aware of your heart’s sincere longing for wellbeing. With each breath, sense your wish to be safe and protected and to experience love and kindness. Connecting with an intention to uncover the heart’s deepest loving responses, begin to offer yourself kind and friendly phrases:

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm may I be safe. 

From all suffering may I be free. 

You may notice distracting thoughts and judgments arising about the practice or about your capacity for love. With a gentle and persistent effort, bring your attention back to the phrases. Repeat them like a mantra or statement of positive intention…. Exhale and let go of this stage of metta. Return to sensing the heart. 

Now bring to mind someone who has touched you with great kindness. Visualize or have a felt sense of this benefactor’s presence. Recognizing that this person shares your longing for wellbeing and love, offer metta phrases to your benefactor: 

Just as I wish to be happy, may you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may you be safe.

From all suffering, may you be free. 

Let the mind and body relax into the reverberations of each phrase. Don’t expect to feel loving instantly. Sometimes we perceive our lack of kindness and resist Metta practice. Resisting is a normal part of the purification process. Simply acknowledge whatever is happening and continue repeating the phrases in as merciful and friendly manner as possible. Exhale, releasing the image of the benefactor, and return to sensations of the heart. 

Bring to mind a beloved friend or family member. Picturing or sensing the presence of this loved one, repeat the metta phrases for their benefit: 

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may you be safe.

From all suffering, may you be free.

Exhale and sense your heart again… Bring to mind someone whom you do not know well, someone neutral—perhaps a person you don’t know at all, a passerby on the street or somebody waiting with you in a line. Understanding that everyone wants happiness and love, begin offering the neutral person loving-kindness. 

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may you be safe.

From all suffering, may you be free.

Exhale, releasing the image of the neutral person and breathing into the heart. 

Expanding the practice, include a person whom you find difficult in your life. Choose someone whom you have cut out of your heart. Recall that all beings wish to be met with kindness. Even those who are annoying, unskillful, confused, mean, or violent want to be happy. With the intention to free yourself from hatred, fear and ill will, direct metta phrases to a person who is a source of difficulty for you.   

May you be peaceful and happy.

May you be healthy in body and mind.

From inner and outer harm, may you be safe.

From all suffering, may you be free.

Pay close attention to your visceral responses. If this part of the practice feels overwhelming, choose someone less toxic, or take a break and gently redirect the phrases towards yourself for a while…. Exhale deeply and release the image of the difficult person, returning to the sensations of the heart. 

Now expand the field of loving-kindness to include everyone in our sangha. Gradually extend positive thoughts to all those in the city of Houston, the state of Texas, the United States, the hemisphere, and the entire world. Send loving-kindness to all who are cold, ill, thirsty, hungry, and homeless. Radiate an open heart to all beings everywhere. 

May all beings be peaceful and happy.

May all beings be healthy.

From inner and outer harm, may all beings be safe.

From all suffering, may all beings be free. 

After sending loving-kindness out to all beings everywhere, let go of the phrases and bring attention back to the breath and body. Be aware of the sensations and emotions that are present. Whenever you are ready, allow your eyes to open, and 

bring your attention to our sangha, sensing the support of practicing in community.