Learning About Lovingkindness
From “Lovingkindness" by Sharon Salzberg. Copyright 1995 by Sharon Salzberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. , Boston, Mass.
What unites us all as human beings is an urge for happiness, which at heart is a yearning for union, for overcoming our feelings of separateness. We want to feel our identity with something larger than our small selves. We long to be one with our own lives and with each other.
If we look at the root of even the most appalling violence in this world, somewhere we will find this urge to unite, to be happy. In some form it is there, even in the most distorted and odious disguises. We can touch that. We can connect to the difficult forces within ourselves, and to the different experiences in our lives.
Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as parts of the world. Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves. We can open to everything with the healing force of love. When we feel love, our mind is expansive and open enough to include the entirety of life in full awareness, both its pleasure and its pains. We feel neither betrayed by pain nor overcome by it, and thus we can contact that which is undamaged within us regardless of the situation.
Metta sees truly that our integrity is inviolate, no matter what our life situation may be. We do not need to fear anything. We are whole: Our deepest happiness is intrinsic to the nature of our minds, and it is not damaged through uncertainty and change.
In cultivating love, we remember one of the most powerful truths the Buddha taught–that the mind is naturally radiant and pure. It is because of visiting defilements that we suffer.
|Our deepest happiness is intrinsic to the nature of our minds, and it is not damaged through uncertainty and change.|
The word “defilement" is a common translation of the Pali word kilesa, which more literally translated means “torment of the mind." We know directly from our own experience that when certain states arise strongly within us, they have a tormenting quality–states like anger, fear, guilt, and greed. When they knock at the door and we invite them in, we lose touch with the fundamentally pure nature of our mind, and then we suffer.
By not identifying with these forces, we learn that these defilements or torments are only visitors. They do not reflect who we really are. The defilements, or the kilesas, inevitably arise because of how we have been conditioned. But this is no reason to judge ourselves harshly. Our challenge is to see them for what they are and to remember our true nature.
We can understand the inherent radiance and purity of our minds by understanding metta. Like the mind, metta is not distorted by what it encounters. Anger generated within ourselves or within others can be met with love; the love is not ruined by the anger.
Metta is its own support, and thus it is free of inherently unstable conditions. The loving mind can observe joy and peace in one moment, and then grief in the next moment, and it will not be shattered by the change. A mind filled with love can be likened to the sky with a variety of clouds moving through it–some light and fluffy, others ominous and threatening. No matter what the situation, the sky is not affected by the clouds. It is free.
The Buddha taught that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down the positive forces such as love or wisdom, but they can never destroy them. The negative forces can never uproot the positive, whereas the positive forces can actually uproot the negative forces. Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt because it is a greater power.
Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it. “I Am That," a book of dialogues with Nisargadatta Maharaj, includes an exchange between Nisargadatta and a man who complained a great deal about his mother. The man felt that she had not been a very good mother and was not a good person. At one point, Nisargadatta advised him to love his mother. The man replied, “She wouldn’t let me." Nisargadatta responded, “She couldn’t stop you."
The Pali word metta has two root meanings. One is the word for “gentle." Metta is likened to a gentle rain that falls upon the earth. This rain does not select and choose–“I’ll rain here, and I’ll avoid that place over there." Rather, it simply falls without discrimination.
|The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend.|
The other root meaning for metta is “friend." To understand the power or the force of metta is to understand true friendship. The Buddha actually described at some length what he meant by being a good friend in the world. He talked about a good friend as someone who is constant in our times of happiness and also in our times of adversity or unhappiness. A friend will not forsake us when we are in trouble nor rejoice in our misfortune.
The practice of metta, uncovering the force of love that can uproot fear, anger, and guilt, begins with befriending ourselves. The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend. According to the Buddha, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection." How few of us embrace ourselves in this way! With metta practice, we uncover the possibility of truly respecting ourselves. We discover, as Walt Whitman put it, “I am larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness."
Seeing the goodness in someone does not imply ignoring the difficulty qualities or unskillful actions. Rather, we can fully acknowledge these difficulties, while at the same time we choose to focus on the positive. If we focus on the negative, we will naturally feel anger, resentment, or disappointment. If we focus on the positive, we will forge a connection to the person.
Looking at people and communicating that they can be loved and love in return gives them a tremendous gift. It is also a gift to ourselves. We see that we are one with the fabric of life. This is the power of metta: to teach ourselves and our world this inherent loveliness.