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THE PRACTICE OF METTA

For hatred is never appeased
by hatred in this world;
only by kindness
is aversion appeased.
This is the eternal law.

Dhammapada 5

 

THIS EVENING I would like to talk about the practice of metta, a meditation which most people will find very useful. Metta is generally translated as 'loving-kindness'. This may be too big a word, because we tend to think of 'loving, kindness' as grand and wonderful, and sometimes we cannot generate that kind of love for everything.

The English word 'love' is often misused. We say 'I love to eat fish and chips,' when what we mean is 'I like to eat fish and chips.' The Christians talk about 'Christian love': this means the love of your enemies, it does not mean liking them. How can you like your enemies? We can, however, love them – which means that we will not do anything to harm them. We will not dwell in aversion towards them. You can be kind to your enemies, kind towards people who are not very nice to you, who insult you and wish you harm. They may be unpleasant people whom you cannot like, but can love. Metta is not a superman's love – it is the very ordinary ability to just be kind and not dwell in aversion towards something or someone.

Right now, if a man walked into this room – drunk, ugly, diseased, stinking, cursing and swearing, with warts all over his face – we could not even consider liking him ... but we can be kind. We would not have to punch him in the nose, curse him and force him out of the room. We could invite him in and give him a cup of tea. We can be kind, we can do something for someone who is repulsive and disgusting in some way. When we think to ourselves, 'I can't stand that man, get him out of here, he is disgusting,' it becomes impossible to be kind, and we are creating suffering around what is unpleasant to us.

There is a great lack of metta in the world today, because we have over-developed our critical faculties: we constantly analyse and criticise. We dwell on what is wrong with ourselves, with others, with the society we live in. Metta, however, means not dwelling in aversion, being kind and patient, even towards that which is bad, evil, foul or terrible. It is easy to be kind towards nice animals like little kittens and puppies. It is easy, to be kind towards people we like, towards sweet little children, especially when they are not ours. It is easy to be kind to old ladies and old men when we do not have to live with them. It is easy to be kind to that which agrees with us politically and philosophically and which does not threaten us in any way. It is much more difficult to be kind to that which we don't like, which threatens us or which disgusts us. That takes much more endurance.

First we have to start with ourselves. So, in traditional Buddhist style, we always start the practice of metta by having metta for ourselves. This does not mean we say, 'I really love myself, I really like me.' When we practise metta towards ourselves, we do not dwell in aversion on ourselves any more. We extend kindness towards ourselves, towards conditions of body and mind. We extend kindness and patience even towards faults and failings, towards bad thoughts, moods, anger, greed, fears, doubts, jealousies, delusions – all that we may not like about ourselves.

When I first went to England, I asked the Buddhist people there whether they did the practice of metta. They said, 'No, can't stand it; it's so false. We're supposed to go around saying, "I like myself, I love myself, may I be happy." It's so soppy, wet, foolish – I don't really feel it. It seems so false and superficial.' On that level, it sounded a bit silly to me too, until I realised that it wasn't taught in the right way and had become sentimental, a cosmetic covering up of things. The people of England could not go along with it; they would rather sit and analyse themselves, look at their faults and exaggerate them out of all proportion. They thought they were being honest with themselves.

When we practise metta towards ourselves, we stop trying to find all our weaknesses, faults and imperfections. Usually when you have a bad mood or start to feel depressed, you think, 'Here I go again – I'm worthless.' When this happens, have metta for the depression itself. Don't make a bad thing out of it, don't complicate it – be at peace with it. Peacefully co-exist with the depressions, fears, doubts, anger, or jealousy. Don't create anything around them with aversion.

Last year, a woman came to ask me about depression. She said, 'I suffer from depression on occasions. I know it's bad, I know I shouldn't, and I want to know what to do about it. I really don't want it, I want to get rid of it. What do you suggest?' Now what is wrong with depression? You expect that you should never feel depressed, because of an idea that there's something wrong with you for being that way. Sometimes life just isn't very pleasant, it can be downright depressing. You can't expect life to be always pleasant, inspiring and wonderful.

I know how depression arises when there are unhappy things and unpleasant scenes around; I saw a lot of it in my first year in England. After living in a warm, sunny country like Thailand, where the people have great respect for the monks, always addressing you as 'Venerable Sir', giving you things and treating you as if you were terribly important, I found that in England people treat you (the monks) as if you are crazy. London isn't sunny and smiling, it can be drizzling and cold and people are not interested in you at all. They look at you and just turn away without giving you a smile. In Thailand, life was so simple and easy for a Buddhist monk. We had nice forest monasteries in natural surroundings and our own little huts amongst the trees. In London we were cooped up in a grotty little house day after day, kept indoors by the drizzling rain and cold.

So all the monks began to feel depression and negativity. We would just go through the motions of being monks. We would get up at 4 a.m. make it to the shrine room to do a little chanting, get that over with and then sit in meditation for a while, drink tea, go out for a walk – just going through the motions. We weren't putting energy into anything we were doing; we were getting caught up in that which was depressing. There was also a lot of friction, a lot of problems in the group which had invited us to England, a lot of personality clashes and misunderstandings. When I reflected on it, I began to see that what I was doing was getting caught up in the unpleasant things that were happening around me. I was creating negative feelings around that. I was wishing I was back in Thailand, wishing the unpleasant things would go away, wishing it wouldn't be the way it was, worrying about people and wishing they were otherwise.

I began to realise that I was dwelling in aversion on the unpleasant things around me. There were a lot of unpleasant things happening and I was creating aversion around it all. I was complicating it all in my mind, so I was suffering for it. We decided to put effort into just being there; we stopped complaining, we stopped demanding or even thinking and wishing about being somewhere else. We began to put energy into our practice, getting up early, doing exercises to keep warm – and we began to feel much better. Everything around us was the same, but we learned not to create problems within ourselves over those difficulties.

When you have high expectations for yourself, thinking you have to be Superman or Wonder Woman, then of course you don't have much metta, because only very seldom can we live up to such a high standard. You become doubtful of yourself. 'Maybe I'm not good enough.' By practising metta towards ourselves, we can stop doing that. We begin to forgive ourselves for making mistakes, for giving in to weaknesses. It doesn't mean that you rationalise things away, but rather that you do not go on creating problems or dwelling in aversion on the faults you have and the mistakes you have made.

So by applying the practice of metta inwardly, we can become a lot more peaceful within ourselves, with the conditions of our minds and bodies. We become more mindful and aware, more awake to the way things are. Wisdom begins to arise, and we can see how we create unnecessary problems all the time by just following the momentum of habit.

Metta means a little more than just kindness. It is a penetrating kindness, an awareness – kind awareness. Metta means we can co-exist peacefully in a kindly way with the sentient beings within us and with beings outside. It does not mean liking, does it? Some people go to that extreme. They say, 'I love my weaknesses because that's really me. I wouldn't be me if I didn't have my wonderful weaknesses.' That's silly. Metta is being patient, being able to co-exist with, rather than trying to annihilate the pests of our minds.

Our society is very much one that annihilates pests both inwardly and outwardly, wanting to create an environment where there are no pests. I hear monks say, 'I can't meditate because there are too many mosquitoes; if only we could get rid of them.' Even though you can never really like mosquitoes, you can have metta for them, respecting their right to exist and not getting caught up in resentment at their presence. Similarly, if I have metta for the depressed mood at the moment and allow it to be there, recognising it and not demanding that it not be there, it will go. Feelings like these arise naturally and go away. We make them stay longer because we want them to go all the time. The struggle of trying to get rid of something we do not like seems to make it stay longer than it would otherwise.

The more we try to control nature, manipulate it according to our greed and desire, the more we end up polluting the whole earth. People are getting really worried now because we can see so much pollution from all the chemicals and pesticides that we use to try to get rid of the things in nature that we don't want. When we try to annihilate the pests in our minds, we end up with pollution too – we have nervous breakdowns and then the pests come back stronger than ever.

Our modern society does not encourage much metta towards the old, the sick and the dying. Our society is very much oriented towards youth and vigour, being fast and staying young for as long as possible. When you get old, you're kind of useless, you can't do anything very well, you're slow, you're no longer attractive, so people don't really want to know you. Many old people feel they have no place in society. They get old and are cast aside as useless people. Our society treats the intellectually handicapped and the mentally ill in the same way. We try to keep them away so that we don't have to look at them and know they're around. Trying to ignore the facts of life such as death, infirmity and old age results in an increasing amount of mental illness, mental breakdowns and alcoholism.

In schools in the United States, we tried to get all the intelligent students with high IQs together in one class and the slow and dumb ones in another. We did not want the intelligent students to be slowed down by the halting progress of the dumb ones. I think the most important thing the intelligent can learn is to be kind and patient towards those who are not as intelligent or quick as they are.

When we are forced to compete with our own kind, life becomes hectic and frustrating. Kindness, patience and compassion are much more helpful qualities for knowing how to live in the world than getting first prize and coming first in the class. Feeling that we always have to strive and compete to survive makes us neurotic and miserable. Those who can't compete feel inferior and just drop out. We have frustration and unfulfilment among the gifted as well as the not-so-gifted because metta has never been considered important.

When we practise metta we begin to be willing to learn from termites and ants, from people who are slow, from the old, sick and dying. We become willing to take time out to take care of somebody who is ill ... and that takes patience, doesn't it? We become willing to take time out of our busy lives to help and be with somebody who is dying. We become willing to try to contemplate and understand dying. This is the direction we must take to create a really humane and good society.

Before we can start making great changes in society, we have to start with ourselves, having metta for the conditions of our minds and bodies. We can have metta for the disease when we are ill. It does not mean that we are going to help the disease to stay for a longer time or that we should not have an injection of penicillin because we are having metta for the little germs infecting us. It means not dwelling in aversion on the discomfort and the weakness of our bodies when they are ill. We can learn to meditate on the fevers, fatigue, bodily pain and aches that we all experience. We don't have to like them, all we need do is to take the time to endure them and try to understand them rather than just resent them. When we do not have metta, we just tend to react to those conditions with a desire to annihilate, and the desire to annihilate always takes us to despair. We keep on re-creating all the conditions for despair in our minds when we just try to annihilate all that we do not like and do not want.

Living in a Buddhist monastery is good training for learning to live with people. As a layman, I had some control over whom I associated with, keeping close to certain friends whom I liked to be with and staying away from anyone I did not like. But in the monastery we did not have any choice, we had to live with whoever was there, whether we liked them or not. So sometimes you had to live with people whom you did not like or whom you found irritating and annoying. That was good for me because I began to understand people whom I would never have taken the time to understand otherwise. If I had had a choice, I would not have lived with some of the people, but as that choice was not available I learned to be more sensitive and open. I learned to have metta and allow people to be as they are, rather than always trying to force them to change, forcing them to be as I would like them to be or trying to get rid of them.

Wisdom arises when we begin to accept all the different 'beings' both within ourselves and outside, rather than always trying to manipulate things so that it is convenient and pleasant for us all the time, so that we do not have to be confronted with irritating and troublesome people and situations. Let's face it, the world is an irritating place!

From my own experience, I learned how frustrating life is when I have ideas of how I want it to be. So I began to look at my own suffering rather than just trying to control everything according to my desires. Instead of making requests and demands or trying to control everything, I began to flow with life, and that was much easier in the long run than all the manipulation that I used to do. We can still be fully aware of the imperfections and not dismiss them or be irresponsible; the practice of metta means we are not creating problems around it by dwelling in aversion. We can allow ourselves to flow with life.

Our experience of life sometimes isn't very pleasant, enjoyable or beautiful; at other times it's all of these. That's the way life is. The wise person can always learn from both extremes – not attaching to either and not creating problems – but peacefully co-existing with all conditions.


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