Mettā: A Foundation of Kindness

The Brahmaviharas Part 2

Carrying on with the theme of the Brahmaviharas, this week I am looking at mettā , or loving-kindness as it is commonly translated into English. Most people are instinctively drawn to ideas about love, and it is a fairly universal belief that the power of love is a tremendous force for good in the world, so it is unsurprising that it finds its way into the prime position among the Brahmaviharas and has such a central role in the Buddhist path of practice.

But the kind of love we’re talking about in mettā practice isn’t the kind of tender affection that we might feel looking at a basket of kittens. Mettā is a deeply transformative practice of openness and acceptance of people and situations that ultimately allows the mind to access states of peace. It isn’t just about learning to be good; it has a powerful effect on helping us to let go of our reactivity and acts as an important foundation to the ongoing development of our practice.

Often in my writing I start by exploring the meaning of a word because we rarely get a complete understanding of the depth of what it means from one translation, and mettā  is a word that particularly needs this treatment. Despite how widespread its use is, some teachers find the common translation of loving-kindness to be misleading and prefer to use other terms. Their concern is that people misunderstand the loving part to be pointing to our more common understanding of sentimental love, and all the attachment that brings with it. When we look in the suttas, the emphasis on how we are to understand mettā  is focussed less around ‘love’  per se and more around ‘not hating’.

Treating mettā  as meaning love, while it does help to inspire us and is a good way to generate a lot of positive feelings, can create  problems for us, because we find ourselves faced with people and situations that we can’t imagine being able to ever have that kind of love for. In reality we are trying to do something impossible, but we can end up turning it on ourselves and feeling like bad Buddhists or cold hearted because we think we ‘don’t have enough love’.

It can be useful when someone shows us that there is more to mettā  than just bursting with love for everyone. Ajahn Sumedho gives a much more achievable explanation of what mettā means:

“Mettā is not a superman’s love; it is the very ordinary ability just to be kind and not dwell in aversion towards something or someone.” [1]

It can come as something of a relief to hear mettā  described in much more accessible terms. Widening out the parameters of mettā  from just meaning love in the usual sense allows us more scope to understand just what it is that we are trying to develop. Bhikkhu Analayo for instance prefers to use the term ‘benevolence’ for mettā, which puts more emphasis on bringing a sense of  warmth and generosity to our attitude to others. Thanissaro Bhikkhu likes to use the translation ‘goodwill’ because it too points to a more open and amiable approach than love does. Others use the term ‘friendliness’ as the translation of mettā , because the word mettā  has its roots in the Pali word for friend, and again this shows that the quality of mettā  we are developing is perhaps less about deep affection than the word love can always convey.

All of these different translations bring their own colour though, and personally I hold all of them in mind when I think about what mettā  means and when I am trying to tap into it as a feeling. Mettā is, like so many Buddhist terms, a multi-dimensional one and understanding how to put it into practice can be supported by knowing all the aspects of what it can mean.

This multifaceted nature of mettā  practice is illustrated by the way its components are described in the Pali commentaries, with it having eight different elements to work on:

“The Pali commentaries explain: One loves all beings:

…by the non-harassment of all beings…; by being inoffensive (to all beings)…; by not torturing (all beings) …; by the non-destruction (of all life) …; by being non-vexing (to all beings)…; by projecting the thought, “May all beings be friendly and not hostile”; by projecting the thought,” May all beings be happy and not unhappy”; by projecting the thought, “May all beings enjoy well-being and not be distressed.”” [2]

To cultivate mettā therefore is to work on our tendency towards having negative feelings and intentions towards others, and this list of eight elements provides us with the specifics of what attitudes and actions we need to work out of ourselves to cultivate this mind state.

But we aren’t doing this out of a moralistic sense that ‘good is good’ and ‘bad is bad’, this exercise has very practical purposes and serves a fundamental role in the development of the path. As I wrote about last week, the crucial element we need to have in place to change our habitual responses to the world are wholesome mind states and intentions. It is these that reduce our knee-jerk reactions to sensory stimuli, which normally  manifest by indiscriminately grasping pleasant feeling or blindly rejecting unpleasant feeling.

Wholesome here again isn’t a moral judgement, it only refers to mind states and intentions that support the development of the path, and those mind states as I said last week are renunciation, good will, and harmlessness, with the unwholesome mind states being desire, ill will, and harmfulness.

Mettā  practice serves the function of developing intentions and mind states of goodwill, and its job is to eliminate mind states and intentions driven by ill will.  But as the most famous Dhammapada verse says, ‘hatred is never ended by hatred, but by non-hatred alone’, (Dhp verse 5) so we don’t remove our unwholesome mind states directly, instead we replace them with their positive alternatives.

The reason we need to substitute our tendency to ill will instead of  trying to eradicate it head on is that neither letting our ill will out, nor trying to repress it will make it go away. The expression of our ill will might feel good for a moment or two as we vent some spleen but our tendency to react like that won’t be lessened by it, in fact it will be reinforced. But suppressing our ill will also won’t work to uproot it, it will merely turn that negative tendency in on ourselves.  So the only way to really tackle it is to little by little retrain our responses to be ones of goodwill instead. [3]

This might sound a little mechanical compared the uplifting feeling that comes from ideas of universal and unbounded love for all beings, but Thanissaro Bhikkhu guides us to remember that sentiment and mettā are not the same thing:

“… If you truly feel mettā  for yourself and others, you can’t let your desire for warm feelings of love and intimacy render you insensitive to what would actually be the most skillful way to promote true happiness for all.” [4]

The mettā practice of the Brahmaviharas is also meant to develop a solid foundation that the other Brahmaviharas can then develop from. Bhikkhu Analayo points out that it is the only one of the Brahmaviharas that has its broad range of applications through acts of body, speech, and mind given so much attention in the texts, indicating this pivotal role that it serves.[5]

The scope that the practice of mettā  has, and what its realised form would look like is shown in the beautiful and inspirational Cūḷagosiṅga sutta( MN31), where the Buddha finds three monks living and practicing together in perfect harmony, ‘blending like milk and water’ and viewing each other with ‘kindly eyes’. If you think the kind of mettā  practice I’ve been describing so far is dry and functional, this sutta should show you that the outcome of the practice is anything but.

The way the three monks in the sutta share the workload of chores amongst themselves makes it clear that they all come to each task, and to each other, with a genuine attitude of goodwill:

“whoever returns first from alms-round prepares the seats, and puts out the drinking water and the rubbish bin. If there’s anything left over, whoever returns last eats it if they like. Otherwise they throw it out where there is little that grows, or drop it into water that has no living creatures. Then they put away the seats, drinking water, and rubbish bin, and sweep the refectory. If someone sees that the pot of water for washing, drinking, or the toilet is empty they set it up. If he can’t do it, he summons another with a wave of the hand, and they set it up by lifting it with their hands. But we don’t break into speech for that reason. And every five days we sit together for the whole night and discuss the teachings.” [6]

This cordiality among them is explicitly underpinned by mettā , as one of the monks, Anuruddha, explains  earlier in the sutta in the way he regards the other two monks he lives with:

“I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness towards those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.” [6]

The other two monks confirm that they take the same approach as Anuruddha, and it is their dedication to maintaining an attitude of mettā towards each other through their body, speech, and mind, both openly and privately that has created the conditions for their harmonious living.

Last week I was discussing whether the aim of the Brahmaviharas was about ethics and social cohesion, or whether it was primarily for the development of concentration meditation and concluded that it was impossible to separate the two out from each other. This I feel is reinforced by the Cūḷagosiṅga sutta, not only because clearly their mettā practice supports their relationships with each other, but also because after asking about their living arrangements the Buddha went on to ask the three monks if they have attained certain meditative states  to which they reply simply, ‘how could we not?’ The development of mettā  has created such optimal conditions in their minds and in their living arrangements that getting into deep meditation states is almost inevitable.

Now with all of this talk about how we are to regard other people, it is a good point to consider what part our attitude towards ourselves might have to play in cultivating mettā . The first stage of the standard mettā  practice is to direct mettā  to ourselves, ‘ may I be well’, and  Buddhaghosa points us to the suttas where the Buddha says that no one can be more dear to us than ourselves to give support to why we do this. [7]

Bhikkhu Bodhi feels this self-reflection serves a more practical and important purpose, because our ability to develop mettā, or any of the other Brahmaviharas for that matter, rests on our ability to wish that others could feel the way that we do. The act of directing mettā to ourselves is to make a connection to what it feels like to be well and happy, and through empathy we realise that others want to feel that way too which sparks our desire to wish it for them. [3]

Ajahn Sumedho sees self-love as also being an important part of getting rid of our self-hatred, something Westerners are particularly prone to:

“ When we practise mettā towards ourselves, we no longer dwell in aversion to ourselves. We extend kindness to ourselves, to our conditions of body and mind. We extend kindness and patience even to faults and failings, to bad thoughts, moods, anger, greed, fears, doubts, jealousies, delusions – all that we may not like about ourselves.” [1]

Given that the function mettā  fulfils as part of a wider practice is to reduce reactivity, the role of focusing on our self might be just as important in developing it as the focus on others too if we experience a lot of habitually negative ideas about ourselves.

But if you find yourself getting entangled in the different ideas about what mettā should and shouldn’t be though, or who it should be aimed at, or exactly how it is supposed to be practiced, it might be worth remembering that the practice of mettā  is meant to be liberatory – something in it has to function to free us, or help to free us, from our endless cycle of suffering. If the practice you are doing is creating more stress and doubt in your life instead of less, then it could be an indication that the way you are doing it isn’t working for you.

If trying to be kind and loving to all beings is draining your emotional resources then that isn’t reducing your suffering, and it might not be the way of doing mettā that you need right now. Likewise if you can give kind regard to everyone in your life except yourself then maybe that way of doing mettā  isn’t helping as much as it could.

Mettā  doesn’t ‘just work’, it doesn’t have magical powers that override how it is being applied or what attitude you have while you are doing it. Bhikkhu Analayo picked out the results of an intriguing piece of research that suggested brief exposure to mettā  meditation can have an aversive effect if the person is already in a negative mood. [8] This supports that there is nothing inherent in mettā that has a curative or transformative effect, it has to be used in the right context and in the right way.

The instructions for practicing mettā  meditation in the Visuddhimagga imply this,  by starting with telling us that we need to reflect on why mettā  is beneficial for us, and why ill will isn’t. [7] This shows that we need to believe in the principle of mettā  as being the right thing to do for it to work, otherwise we won’t give up our views and opinions that maintain our ill will.

Sometimes people put limits on their mettā, saying they can give it to some or most people, but when it comes to evil dictators and murderers they just won’t. Doing that is  giving more weight to your opinions than to the principle of mettā, and it won’t allow the full transformative power of mettā practice to emerge. Mettā  won’t work if you want to fight against it and find exceptions for it; to work you have to fully take refuge in it as a noble and worthy concept and trust that it is going to take you to the right place.

As I said last week, sitting going through the standard mettā  meditation approach of wishing yourself well, then someone you like, then someone who is a bit meh, and then someone you dislike, as if you were reading out a takeaway menu, out of a sense of duty, or a sense of ‘this is just how you do it’ isn’t going to reap many rewards. You have to trust in mettā  as a means to reducing suffering and commit to making the effort needed to make it work.

Mettā needs to be done in the right way,  and if what you are doing now isn’t giving you much back  then maybe try taking another tack. If your focus on other people isn’t working then try focusing on mettā for yourself. If the standard mettā  approach isn’t working, try the radiation method. If meditation isn’t working, then try mettā  in action. If action isn’t working, try meditation.

Or even try putting your focus on not-self; in the radiation method of mettā meditation you do away with a central focus on a self completely, and just apply your effort to pumping out waves of mettā  in every direction. This state of selflessness in action could open up a whole new area of experiences for you and might be what you need to break through the barriers.

Of course what this practice is aiming at is a reduction in reactivity to any sensory experience, not just to the ones that appear to be triggered by other people and beings, so don’t limit your practice to only focusing on others or yourself. Mettā  fully developed includes being untroubled by the  situations we find ourselves in too, taking them exactly as they are, and not feeling the need to change them in any way.

The fullest expression of this attitude is found in the fourth and final Brahmavihara, equanimity, but mettā sets the foundations for it by starting that process of learning how to be okay with things as they are. When Ajahn Sumedho says in his most famous teaching, ‘it’s like this’, he isn’t just pointing to mindful awareness of what is happening right now, he is also pointing to the acceptance of things as they are in this moment, an attitude which sets its roots in mettā  practice. Each of the Brahmaviharas builds from the previous one, but having that solid foundation of mettā  is crucial because all of the others rely heavily on it.

So the mettā of the Brahmaviharas isn’t merely a sentimental exercise or aiming at becoming some kind of Buddhist saint who loves all and sundry, it is a truly foundational element of the practice both for the development of our meditation and for the cultivation of skilful acts, speech, and thoughts. For logic focused and self-loathing Westerners, mettā  has proven to be a difficult practice to embrace over the years, but it may well be the practice that we really need to help to quieten down our busy, thought fixated minds, and also to break through our societal baggage of hating ourselves.

When it gets presented as a soft centred wellbeing approach, as the mainstream version of it often is, it is easy to dismiss mettā practice as being anything to do with the ‘real business’ of reaching enlightenment. But when it is put into context as the first of four wholesome mind states to be developed that will allow the mind to stop its habitual reactivity, and the subsequent suffering that arises from those reactions, it is, I think, much clearer  that when compared to the other major practices of meditation, mindfulness, and insight it is every bit as important and far-reaching.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

References

1.      Ajahn Sumedho. Anthology v1. 29/07/2021. https://www.kowthamcenter.org/retreat/practices/metta/. Accessed 29 Jul 2021.

2.     Acharya Buddharakkhita. Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/buddharakkhita/wheel365.html. Accessed 27 Jul 2021.

3.     Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. 14/10/2017. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html. Accessed 27 Jul 2021.

4.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Metta Means Goodwill. 06/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/metta_means_goodwill.html. Accessed 27 Jul 2021.

5.     Bhikkhu Analayo. Compassion and emptiness in early Buddhist meditation. 2015. https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/compassionemptiness.pdf. Accessed 26 Jul 2021.

6.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Cūḷagosiṅgasutta MN31. 24/07/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn31/en/sujato. Accessed 29 Jul 2021.

7.     Buddhaghosa trans. Nyanamoli Thera. Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification. 23/07/2021. https://www.bps.lk/library-search-select.php?id=bp207h. Accessed 23 Jul 2021.

8.     Bhikkhu Analayo. Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. https://www.academia.edu/32702524/Early_Buddhist_Meditation_Studies.

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