Week 1, Day 1: Revisiting Metta
I’ve always wanted to enjoy doing metta practice. Loving-kindness meditation seems like a useful way to learn to be sweet with yourself and by extension with others. Yet, each time I’ve approached it, I wind up disappointed with myself for not being kind enough, loving enough, and even being nasty in thought to myself and others the whole time I’m sitting. I catch myself, of course, remind myself what I teach in meditation groups—each phrase is an invitation, offered up as the sound of a horn from the lighthouse on a foggy night. “May you be safe” it drones, and the direction of safe harbor is made clear, as is everything blocking that path. “May you be peaceful and content.” And on.
But, in practice, I fall so quickly and easily into the eternal trap of focusing on the fog that I start ruing the horn. “I don’t feel safe; I don’t feel protected… I sure as hell don’t feel peaceful or content!”
The longer I sit, the meaner and more hopeless the mind becomes.
On occasion, though, there are days that I feel connected and grounded already. Days that I have the presence of mind to meet the fog where it is, to sit solidly within it and experience it on its own terms, weathering the torrents of all that negative self-talk without identifying with it. Sitting firmly and without needing the fog to pass. Breathing in, breathing out.
That’s on good days.
On the rest of the days, I get swept into the depths and allow the mind to continue its torture until the bell goes off. I then bow in the darkness, lie down, and perseverate myself to sleep.
I really want metta to work for me. So I read lots of articles, try different guided versions from various teachers—collecting new ways to torture myself as I sit unable to contact the qualities of loving or kindness and overwhelmed by everything else that arises. This is not skillful means.
Sometimes I can find a spark of compassion for not having easy access to these qualities in the present for not having learned them in the past. The rest of the time, I’m just really, really tired of still being stuck!
This weekend, I found an article by Jack Kornfield. With Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, and Tara Brach, he is one of my favorite Western meditation teachers because like them he devises ways to practice that interrupt old habits of self-depreciation. Teaching us to build our muscle in meeting them without getting taken under.
In the article, “How to Do Metta,” Jack offered an approach to metta that I’d never seen before. He acknowledged that some people struggle to offer the phrases to themselves. He suggested, then, to start metta by offering the phrases to one person you truly feel love for, really feeling the love and earnestness behind the offering as you make it. Then, he wrote, offer the phrases to another person you truly love, again deeply opening to the feelings.
Then, Jack said, imagine these two beings feeling this much love this deeply as they offer the phrases to you. Brilliant! The qualities—love, kindness—are already cued, and all that shifts is the direction they’re aimed.
Today was my first day trying this approach. Of course, the self-deprecation came up. Of course the mind continued its torture what seemed like the whole time I sat—old habits are not going to just dissipate. But they were joined by these new feelings, cultivated at first in the direction of well-loved others. So this time, as the judgments and berating set in, love and kindness began seeping between them.
Like Bactine® on a sunburn. The red skin is still too warm and achy, all puffy and bubbled. The burn isn’t instantly sprayed away. At the same time, though, there’s a deep sensation of cooling relief.
We’ll see what happens as I continue the practice.
Please let me know how it works for you.