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Cultivating Metta in our lives

In our daily lives, we meet all kinds of people. Some are pleasant and some are ill-disposed. We go through moments of anxiety, moments of stress and circumstances which are perplexing. On encountering unpleasant people, and in difficult times, a recital of the Karaniya Metta Sutta will produce beneficial results. The practice of what it contains will induce a tranquil state of mind, give us self-confidence and help us overcome difficulties.

The Buddha attained Parinibbana in a most dignified manner through His meditative attainment. Inset, after the Buddha attained Parinibbana, kings from eight different kingdoms came to request for a share of the Holy relics which would be worshipped by Buddhist followers.

The Pali word Metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship, amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. True Metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grow boundless with practice and overcome all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Developing Metta is essential to doing away with the self-clinging that binds us to suffering (Dukkha).

Scholars say the Karaniya Metta Sutta presents three ways to practise Metta. The first is applying Metta to one’s day-to-day conduct. The second is Metta meditation. The third is a commitment to embody Metta with full body and mind. The third practice grows from the first two.

The common practice is to begin by offering Metta to oneself. Then (over a period of time), Metta is offered to someone in trouble. Then to a loved one, and so on, progressing to someone you don’t know well, to someone you dislike, and eventually to all beings. Why begin with yourself? Because so many of us struggle with doubts and self-loathing, we must not leave ourselves out. Flower from within, for yourself and for everyone.

Focus

Metta has the unique benefit of softening and expanding the heart. When we practise Metta, we create the space to respond to life’s vicissitudes with clarity, which helps us to choose wisely. When we choose wisely, our lives are more harmonious. The quality of Metta encourages us to meet all experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, with benevolent acceptance.

The Buddha said the proximate cause for unconditional love is the recognition of the good qualities in ourselves and others. Every human being is a constellation of qualities - pleasant and unpleasant, skilful and unskilful. While it is healthy to open our hearts to all we see and feel, we can choose where we place our intention.

When we focus on what we don’t like about ourselves and others, we feed ill-will. How do we feel then, when we choose to focus on the good in ourselves and others? How do those around us respond?

So, the cultivation of Metta begins with the intention to focus on the good in all beings. Another way to help develop the quality of Metta is to take the time to see and understand the perspectives of others. We all experience our common reality from a variety of different angles.

The willingness to explore perspectives outside our own can help us understand the motivations of those whose behaviour confuses or threatens us.

The third way of cultivating Metta is to practise it as a meditation. In the practice, there are four traditional phrases that help develop the quality of Metta. These phrases are repeated silently to oneself with the intention of reflecting on their meaning and their relationship to the being to whom they are directed.

Quality

The Buddha called Metta “the limitless state”. There is nothing that is outside its boundaries. With time and intention, the quality of Metta begins to shift from the realm of effortful practice to a way of being. Metta becomes our foundation; it becomes the gentle cradle within which we hold all beings and all experiences, no matter how pleasant or painful. It becomes our own divine abode.

What is the purpose of Metta practice?

As the legend is told, the Buddha first taught Metta to a group of bhikkhus who were practising in a forest haunted by tree spirits.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, near the Nepalese-Indian border, to King Suddhodana, ruler of the Sakya tribe, and Queen Mayadevi in 563 BC

The bhikkhus were terrified and wanted to leave, but the Buddha sent them straight back to the forest with instructions to cultivate Metta. As the bhikkhus became skilled in Metta, the tree spirits stopped the harassment and began to appreciate their presence, even serving the bhikkhus during their retreat.

The Buddha taught Metta as a method for gladdening the mind, as a way of strengthening concentration, as an offering of generosity, as a way of meeting both verbal and physical abuse, as a way of overcoming fear, and as a way of living in concord in community. Metta is a practice that serves profound purposes.

Cultivating Metta

How do we cultivate loving kindness? Sit quietly. Feel your feet on the floor, your contact with the seat. Sense the uprightness of your spine. Let the posture be alert, but without excess tension. Gently close your eyes, or gaze softly at a neutral spot on the floor, and take a few deep breaths, feeling yourself sitting, letting go of thoughts about past and future. Let the breath move through the heart centre, warming you, nurturing you, and gently filling you with a sense of well-being.

We begin the Metta practice by developing the ability to generate loving kindness toward ourselves. Tune into a sense of yourself at your best. Think of some aspect of yourself that you respect and like. Imagine a situation when you helped others, when you acted from a place of heart that cares. Let yourself rejoice in your own virtue, and begin to silently repeat the phrases (compose three or four phrases that resonate with you) directing the sense of well-wishing towards yourself. We use ourselves as a kind of example, for we know we wish to be happy and not suffer.

“May I be safe from danger! May I be happy! May I be healthy and strong! May I have ease of well-being!”

After some time (perhaps 15 minutes), bring to mind someone who is easy to care for. Someone who you feel gratitude towards, who you respect, perhaps who has helped you, or a dear friend. Choose someone endowed with virtuous qualities, worthy of admiration. Begin to repeat the phrases of Metta for this virtuous person (another 10 or 15 minutes).

“May you be protected from inner and outer harm! May you be happy and peaceful in mind! May you enjoy strength, vitality and health in body! May you be blessed with ease of well-being in your social and material relations.”

Let the meaning of the phrases deepen in your consciousness. Contemplate the possibility of truly and simply wishing well. You can continue to develop Metta using yourself and a friend in this way for some time, allowing the stability of mind to deepen.

As the Metta grows clearer and stronger, it is possible to bring to mind more challenging people, those whom we may have some conflict with, offering the very same wishes of happiness for them.

Let the practice develop slowly. Little by little, phrase by phrase, day after day, our hearts will incline towards full-hearted care for all of life. Metta is the intention of goodwill. It is known through the clear absence of ill-will, resentment and selfishness in the mind.

Metta is not limited to reciting “May you be happy”; it is not a magical incantation. We use the phrases merely to remind ourselves of the deepest truths of love and connection. Metta is more pervasive and more natural than any words could express. Words are only pointers to the deep natural capacity of the human heart to abide in pure and complete love.

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