May All Beings Be Happy

Two Buddhist meditation rituals, lovingkindness and sharing merit, can be valuable tools for healing.

Lovingkindness, or

metta

meditation, is a traditional Buddhist practice that helps us to move from a sense of dislocation and isolation into a more of a connection with ourselves and, ultimately, with all beings everywhere.



It's classically taught with three other practices; namely, compassion; sympathetic joy--feeling delighted in another's happiness rather than feeling jealous; and equanimity, or balance of mind. All four of these of qualities can be experienced within any one of them. Lovingkindness, for example, has strands of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity within it.

One of the difficulties with lovingkindness is that the word is not very common, which is a shame. Often the word "metta" is translated as "love," which is confusing. Sometimes we say "love," when we mean attachment or an exchange of some sort, such as: "I will love you as long as you love me in return or as long as the following 15 conditions are met." Sometimes we mean a kind of sentimentality, which isn't willing to open up to pain, dislocation, or torment.

Metta doesn't refer to either one of those conditions. The literal translation of the word is "friendship." So metta means knowing how to be a friend to ourselves and a friend to all of life. Its foundation is connection.

Because lovingkindness meditation deals with a sense of dislocation, it is a highly appropriate practice for the situation we find ourselves in today. I had an acupuncture treatment three days after the September 11 event. When the acupuncturist put a needle in me, it hurt so much I practically leapt off the table. I asked her, "What point was that?" And she said, "That's the getting-back-into-your-body point." I was in shock, as were many people. Now it's a process of coming home to ourselves, coming home to a deeper sense of community.

It's also a process of coming back to being present, because all of those states of mind that we experience--fear, anxiety, dread, grief--take us out of the moment: We either ruminate about the past or project into the future.

There's a great quotation from Mark Twain, who said, "Some of the worst things in my life never happened." Truly terrible things have happened, but then our minds spin out into the future and we create some kind of certainty about the terrible truth of tomorrow. We need to come back into the moment to enter a way full of wisdom, one that accepts the uncertainty of things.

The Metta Meditation
Loving kindness begins with ourselves. It's a tremendous sense of tenderness and care for ourselves, which is not our usual way of being. The classical progression of this meditation is that we begin the practice first toward ourselves, opening to and befriending all aspects of ourselves, not just those parts we like or that we present to the world, but even those things we'd rather keep hidden or those things that we have a vague knowledge of.

So we practice by repeating certain phrases: "May I be happy" or "May I be peaceful" The content of the phrases isn't so important; it's the aiming of the mind toward embracing one's self that's important.

Then we go from there to repeating the phrases for someone called a "benefactor," someone who has been generous toward or inspired us. Someone we respect, someone we feel grateful for. Then we move to a friend; then to a "neutral person," someone we don't strongly like or dislike. In our society, it would likely be somebody who serves a kind of function in our lives, like the check-out person at the supermarket, someone who we see from time to time but don't have a particular feeling about.

The next step is offering lovingkindness to someone with whom we have difficulty. This is a very tricky and complicated thing because we're not aiming for a state of acquiescence or collusion with unwholesome action.

The suggestion in the teaching is that you start with somebody that you have mild difficulty with. You don't begin with somebody who has profoundly hurt you, or has hurt the world really terribly. You begin with someone who annoys or irritates you. Part of the practice is developing confidence in the nature of love and our ability to love. If you find any one person or group of people too hard, it doesn't matter, just go back to someone that's easier.

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Sharon Salzberg
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