Better With Metta

Last week I was looking at the difficulty of letting go of our habit of taking our thoughts seriously, and this eventually led me to think about whether there was a function in practices like metta, that goes beyond the worthy attitudes that they cultivate. Does metta have a wider role in the development of our practice, and does it actually have an important part to play in the development of the mental practices like mindfulness and meditation?

I came to these questions when I was sitting in meditation one morning recently and a pleasant thought popped into my mind. I observed a cycle building as the mind explored the thought and became more attached to it, but I also noticed that the thought was generating a warm feeling in the process. I decided to switch my attention away from observing the process of thinking and onto the warm feeling instead. A warm glow became established in my heart area, the warm glow of metta.

It is always very pleasant to bring up feelings of metta, and admittedly it is a practice that I often forget the simple, wholesome pleasure of. But as I was enjoying the metta, I realised that this warm feeling had also stopped the mind from being active; the cycle of thoughts coming up repeatedly had been broken. It made me wonder if this was just a coincidence, or perhaps this one of the purposes of these kinds of practice – to generate a feeling that had the potential to stop the mind in its tracks.

Did I just need to switch my attention away from the thoughts and onto the feeling that they brought up to quiet the thinking processes? Was this a skilful way to use thought or did it come with the risk that it might encourage more thinking? I was reminded of the ethos of tantra, where the energy of desire is transformed  into the energy that supports liberation. But this kind of tantric ethos when unskillfully invoked can be just another vehicle for self-deception if we allow it to be an excuse for not tackling our desires and habits. Using thought deliberately is something that really needs us to be very honest with ourselves about our motives, so I proceeded in my investigation with caution.

Although using my stray thoughts to make metta had worked well on that day, this effect didn’t last, because the next day my mind was full of thoughts and not responsive to my previous approach. This time instead of being able to extract the feelings from my thoughts, I was just stuck with thoughts as usual.

But it was as I was writing The Mind in the Mirror last week that some of the pieces started to fall into place about why metta had been able to break my train of thought. The importance of taking a vantage point away from the thinking mind had become much clearer to me while I was writing that post, and that was when I thought about metta again because it is another mode that we can inhabit that is not our thinking mind.

Although we usually start a metta meditation with some people or things to get us started, once the loving feelings have come up the state itself can be fairly objectless. There is an object of course, it is the feeling of metta, so it isn’t truly objectless. I contemplated what it was that created this objectless quality, and I think it is because it doesn’t need to be felt for someone or something, it can just be felt, one can just have metta.

Perhaps it isn’t so much objectless though, perhaps it is more like it creates a feeling of subjectlessness. In our usual subject object relationship the object is whatever you are interacting with and the subject is you. When you have got a feeling of metta in place that isn’t directed at anything in particular, that also blurs the lines of you as the subject – the doer – of the feeling. There can be, at times, just a feeling of metta with need for a sense of ‘someone’ to make it.

The thinking mind always has an object. When you think, you are always thinking some thing, or about some thing, which also implies that there is always a ‘you’ who is thinking about these things. When you try to have no thoughts, but still from the vantage point of the thinking mind, then there is still an object: the object simply becomes the lack of thoughts. The subject is still you but now it is ‘you not having any thoughts’. A thinking mind with no thoughts in it doesn’t do much to create a feeling of subjectlessness, one always seems to remain acutely self-aware and consequently there is little feeling of peace that comes from it.

‘Objectless awareness’ is a term that gets used a lot and leads to many long discussions about whether it is possible for us to really ever be aware without needing an object of perception of some kind. Perhaps if we understand it as referring to the thinking mind having no object then it makes more sense; if we are operating at the level of awareness then the thinking mind doesn’t need an object because it isn’t active, it can just sit quietly doing nothing watching everything that is happening. Metta is quite a physical experience, and this kind of strong physical sensation  might be able to move our attention away from the thinking mind and into a different mode of experiencing.

There are other qualities ascribed to metta  besides its obvious role as the remedy for both the hindrance and fetter of ill will. Buddharakkhita says that metta serves a purpose as a “maturing factor”, it allows all of our other merits to ripen, and he goes as far as to say that we cannot gain the full benefit of our accumulated merit without cultivating the practice of metta[1], so it clearly creates some conditions that open up our potential in one way or another which suggests that it could be more than just our lack of ill will making these other things possible.

Ñanamoli also ascribes a similar foundational role to metta in helping us to cultivate the steps of the Eightfold Path. He separates Right View as being the only factor that metta alone cannot cultivate, and  he points out that metta is instead reliant on Right View to be fully perfected:

“Right View gives insight into the real nature of existence of being and non-being, with all its mirages and deceptions, and it is only with its help that the practice of loving-kindness is perfected, lifted out of the impermanence of even the highest heavens, and directed to the true cessation of suffering.”[2]

This is an interesting point because it could be taken to suggest that there is something more in the process of making metta than just having an open heart if it requires Right View for it to realise its full potential.

Metta then seems to serve a variety of purposes and assists in the development of a range of necessary qualities. The Buddha describes metta as universal love that leads to freedom of mind[3], and while this can mean very directly freeing the mind from all the suffering that our ill will and negative thinking cause us, I think it is also pointing to a much more fundamental freedom of mind, as in a complete release from everything that binds us to suffering. So again the suggestion is there that the power of its action goes beyond just not thinking badly of anyone or anything.

Part of metta’s wider effect might come from helping to shift the position of attention away from engaging with the world at the level of the thinking mind then. Thinking back to the beginner meditators in my post two weeks ago Are You Really Meditating?, Brown and Engler wondered if not using traditional preliminary practices left Westerners with a lot of ‘working out’ to do to learn to inhabit the inside of their minds when they started meditating. Metta, which can start to be cultivated within the preliminary practices like dana (generosity) and sila (following the five precepts), could be fulfilling a role of showing the beginner a new place to engage with experience from, a place that isn’t the thinking mind. The better-prepared beginner then might get the advantage of already knowing experiences outside of the thinking mind, so shifting attention away from the thinking mind onto awareness might be an easier job for them and reduce the long acclimatisation process that many Western beginners seem to go through.

One of the great benefits of metta of course is that it fosters a sense of ‘allowing’ and patience, not just with people or situations, but also with physical and mental sensations, and, importantly for self-critical Westerners, with ourselves and our own foibles too. A better-prepared beginner who has cultivated some metta practices might then also find it easier to let thoughts go because it could be easier for them to accept the chaotic mess they find inside their mind, and the features of their personality that they weren’t previously aware of once they stepped into their inner world. If you accept what you see in there, you are much less likely to want to analyse and understand it, so  again you can just let these thoughts go and move your attention away from your thoughts.

Although I’ve been talking about metta as a method to take us away from the mind, metta does have a specified role in supporting the development of the mind too. Metta is actually also a preparation for jhana meditation, and perhaps this preparation works partly because training your attention to sit on the warm feeling of metta helps you to learn to not get involved in thoughts. This naturally creates the right kind of focus that would allow your concentration to develop into jhana. The first and second levels of jhana are a very physical experience, much like metta meditation, and require you to focus on the feeling that arises in the body in the same way that metta meditation does, so it seems like you could draw a straight line of progression from metta to the first jhanas.

The irony for many Westerners is that we can fail to get much out of metta because we get so caught up with what our minds have to say about it, whereas if we could let our focus fall on the feeling of metta our mental chatter would get pushed into the background. A lot of Westerners struggle with metta initially; sometimes because it seems so sentimental, and sometimes because we have so little in the way of examples of boundless love that we can’t tap into what it is that we are trying to cultivate.

Sometimes when we try to do metta we get stuck at the point where our mind says ‘this is silly, you can’t just sit and beam metta waves out to the universe’, or ‘am I doing this right? Do I need to do more?’, or ‘I can’t feel anything, this isn’t working’. Needless to say this disrupts the flow of the metta meditation quite significantly; it tends to benefit from running smoothly and from the warm feelings that come up building gradually onto each other. If you keep stopping and starting you will struggle to get your metta more than a few inches off the ground.

More tragically we can get stuck in our metta development when the story comes into our mind that we don’t know how to love, that we have never received enough love, or that we don’t deserve the offer of metta towards ourselves – we’re unlovable even to ourselves. This is heartbreakingly sad, and really hard to get through because that voice in our mind sounds so convincing that daring to ignore it seems impossible.

But we must learn to put the contents of our thoughts to one side as I wrote about in Are You Really Meditating? otherwise there is little hope of gaining any benefits from any practice, be it metta, mindfulness or meditation. Thoughts are so sticky that we struggle to shake them off, and the habit of listening to them is so long standing that we need to work this issue loose from every possible angle. Personally, I feel that we should try every trick in the book, which means deploying other practices like metta to target this habit of ours of giving our thoughts too much attention.

Metta is one of the four qualities called the Brahmaviharas or ‘Divine Abodes’, they are wholesome mindstates that the Buddha suggests that we occupy as often as possible. I now see is that this ‘place to stay’ doesn’t just have to mean keeping ourselves in positive moods to stop ourselves from having negative mindstates like anger or jealousy, but it can also mean staying in vantage points outside of our thinking mind. We can be in a state of metta, karuna, mudita, or uppeka quietly observing the world; and if we are then we aren’t  sitting in the layer of the thinking mind, we are residing outside of that, outside of experiencing the world just in terms of what our thoughts are about it.

Metta is the fix for two issues, not just hate but for lust too[4]. When metta is properly cultivated you have no bias towards people that you like or against those that you dislike, everything you encounter is seen with the same unconditional regard. This can then support the development of equanimity, where you take that unbiased stance towards all people and carry it over to all situations and sensations. Again this skill will help to wean you away from the enticing thoughts that come up in the mind, the ones that drag you back into thinking, and allow you to be content and unmoved by whatever comes up in the mind.

As I pondered the state of metta when it is fully realised as being one where there were no favourites, not even ourselves, I felt a surprising amount of resistance to that idea. ‘I don’t want to not have favourites’, my mind chimed, ‘and I especially don’t want to be not  important to myself!’ We need to laugh at what our minds say to us sometimes because otherwise we can be hard on ourselves, and also because if we laugh instead of trying to stifle the things we don’t want to know about ourselves then we keep the door open to being honest with ourselves. I could see that my thinking mind had gotten involved in something that was nothing to do with it, so I ignored it; metta is not the job of the thinking mind!

I had always understood the role of metta to be about more than just loving everyone and being saintly; it also serves as a necessary source of peace and tranquility in the tough early days of being a new meditator before other types of meditation can reliably give some pleasant experiences. It calms an unsettled and fearful mind. It breaks the bonds of stinginess and allows generosity to flourish. It unseats ill will, negativity, and biases. It facilitates cooperation, openness with others, and real connection too.

But now I can see it as serving an important role in the cultivation of mindfulness and meditation through more than just its obvious job of squashing the hindrance of ill will. In the same way as being able to watch from a place of awareness, metta gives us another experience that is outside of the thinking mind and creates more space between our sense of self and our thoughts.

To see that my mind didn’t want to not have favourites, or to demote itself to being no more important than anyone else required an act of metta; only by being outside of the thinking mind was I able to  see these thoughts as thoughts, and to allow these thoughts to be witnessed without any interference or any sense of shame about momentarily not wanting metta to be fully realised.

Metta not only allows us to accept our thoughts as being just as they are in that moment, and to accept our mind as being just as it is in that moment, but it also helps us to step outside of the thinking mind and to see our experience as ‘just thoughts’ too. Without these qualities we would struggle to observe the mind’s real nature or the amount of dross it churns out, and without being able to do that we would be much less likely to realise that our minds shouldn’t be taken seriously most of the time.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


References

[1] “Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love”, by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/buddharakkhita/wheel365.html

[2] “The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon”, compiled and translated by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel007.html

[3] “Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love”, by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/buddharakkhita/wheel365.html

[4] “The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon”, compiled and translated by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel007.html

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