December 9, 2013
No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
Now that we’ve completed the exploration of the Eightfold Path, we’ll move on and look at what the Buddha taught as the Brahma-Viharas, translated from Pali as the Heavenly or Divine Abodes or Dwelling Place, also known as the Four Immeasurables. They include loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). Through meditation practice, each is cultivated not only as a beautiful state of mind and heart, but also and I think more significantly, as a way of being, and ultimately as a way of life.
Individually, the brahma-viharas are powerful guideposts, and reflections of our most natural and essential goodness. As a whole, they are a precious gem and a trusted ally. Accessing my capacity to act out of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy or equanimity for myself and/or others, brings me right back to balance, to what is most important, and keeps me fully in the present.
Just as mindfulness is like shining a flashlight on the mind, bringing into view just what is present in this moment, practicing with the brahma-viharas is like shining the light on the heart; accessing, illuminating, and bringing out its most basic nature.
Metta is often translated as Loving-Kindness, Loving Awareness, or simply Love. I recently heard John Peacock, the British Pali scholar translate metta as “to grow fat with friendliness.” I think that’s great. I love the idea that at any time, I can expand my capacity to be friendly.
Metta practice is the continual undoing and uprooting of any existing ill will, no matter how subtle. And it can be hard to see; all the various forms of internal judgment of ourselves and others, the continual cultural conditioning that tells us we’re flawed, unworthy or not enough. Metta is the beautiful and transformative practice of developing non-ill will. It resets our default setting to a state of friendliness and kindness. It is said that this kind of goodwill is like a gentle rain falling indiscriminately over everything.
Cultivating metta is traditionally done through a very specific and systematic practice of inclining the heart towards goodwill and kindness for ourselves and others; those we know and love, those we know but might not love, those we don’t know at all, and ultimately for those we find difficult.
When we deliberately tap into our own capacity to wish any amount of goodwill towards anyone, even a little bit, our own pain, discomfort, or struggle is lessened. Even if this happens once or hopefully as it becomes habit, we feel better, our minds are clearer, and we become kinder. We’re more easily able to look into the eyes of the person living on the street, maybe even say hello, and see that were it not for a million different causes and conditions, we, too, could be this person. This is the expansive quality of metta. It levels the playing field.
Metta Meditation Practice
In formal practice, one recites metta phrases silently as blessings, intentions or resolves. It can be helpful to visualize yourself (or the person or people to whom you’re offering metta) feeling contented, peaceful, and happy while saying the phrases. Sometimes I enjoy putting my hand over the heart center while keeping the image in mind and saying the phrases. This connects the mind and heart directly to the intention of the practice. Try gently smiling, too. It relaxes the body.
Outside of meditation, these phrases can be used anytime and anywhere you might feel fear, anger, anxiety or any uncomfortable emotional state. Just saying to yourself “safe and protected,” as you pass by a traffic accident, can bring some ease to the moment.
Metta practice is not magic. This is important. But offering goodwill calms and stabilizes both the mind and heart, and that is good for everyone.
Common Metta Phrases
May I/you be peaceful and happy
May I/you be safe and protected
May I/you be healthy and strong
May my/your life unfold with ease
May I/you be contented and pleased
May I/you be protected and safe
May I/you be gentle and kind
May I/you meet this moment with ease