– Transforming Our Unconscious Habits With Metta –
“What you think and ponder becomes the tendency of your mind.” — The Buddha
The problem though, if you’re anything like me, is that so many thoughts slip through awareness unnoticed. It’s like awareness loves to hide itself, to get lost in its contents, and so I don’t even realize what thoughts, intentions, and motivations are being cultivated. My actions, then, when I’m not mindful, just continue to be propelled by the habit patterns of my conditioning, by dogma.
The good news is I’ve found something that really seems to help: I try to make mindfulness the habit of mind by practicing vipassana, or insight meditation.
See for yourself, of course, but I think you’ll find that, as you cultivate more mindfulness through practice, you’ll increasingly become aware of your thoughts. You’ll be able to see just how much power your thoughts and their attending emotions have over your being in the world, how much they control your actions as well as your internal state of being.
And, as your mindfulness grows, as you are able to see more clearly each thought arise, you can then live a more intentional life. You will be less reactive to whatever thoughts arise, less reactive to people and emotions and situations. As you cultivate more mindfulness, you will be able to discern with wisdom what thoughts and actions lend support to your heart — to your values and aims.
“Learn something by being nothing for a while but the rich lens of attention.” — Mary Oliver
Mindfulness, Love, & Compassion
Through my own practice of mindfulness, one thing continues to grow very clear: that there is no space between me and what is known, that everything inter-is.
And as this direct insight strengthens, as the barriers between me and the objects of awareness dissolve, as I continually fall back into the single realm of knowing, into the glue and container of all things, a quite miraculous feeling of unconditional love continues to expand in my heart and mind, which then leads my thoughts and intentions more and more in the direction of compassion — compassion for myself, for others, and for the world.
“When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. And between these two, my life turns.” — Nisargadatta Maharaj
When the famously loving Buddhist practitioner and teacher Dipa Ma was asked whether to practice metta (loving-kindness) or mindfulness, she replied, “From my experience, there’s no difference. Love and awareness are one. When you are fully loving, aren’t you also mindful? And when you are fully mindful, is this also not the essence of love?”
Because all that you are and all that you can lend others is your mind, if you cultivate mindfulness through formal practice, I have little doubt you’ll find the practice of mindfulness itself to be an act of love and compassion, not only to yourself but to everyone around you, which is then reflected back at you. And so your intention for practicing, then, will be undertaken more and more out of the benefit for the world, for Experience.
Know the Feeling Directly
Now, this feeling of loving-kindness that I’m pointing to is quite different from Hollywood’s version of love — that is, love with attachment, romantic love, or a grasping, limited love. Loving-kindness is not extended to us because of who we are (a child, friend, or lover) or what we’ve done or how we look.
It’s extended to us without conditions. It’s extended to us merely because we are — we exist, we are bound up with the whole, inextricably linked to the cosmos, to god, to awareness, or whatever else you wanna call that which encompasses all things. Loving-kindness, then, is simply the generosity and openness of heart that wishes well to all beings.
And it’s exactly this — the selfless, expectation-less, and condition-less nature — that, I think you’ll discover, makes the quality or feeling of loving-kindness so remarkable.
One of the first things I think you’ll find is that, because it doesn’t rely on things being a certain way, it’s always available. You can tune into love, into well-wishing, whenever you want. No subscription necessary. It’s free to access and free to give.
Another thing I think you’ll find is that the feeling of loving-kindness has a tremendous purity and fullness to it. Whether it’s directed to another person or to one’s own experience, when the feeling of loving-kindness is present, there’s no room for harmful thoughts — for doubt or insecurity or hate or fear. The moment is one of true purity.
I think you’ll also find that, unlike conditional love, the feeling of loving-kindness is remarkably stable. In a world that knows only change, romantic love too often turns into disappointment, resentment, and jealousy when things don’t last or go as expected. The feeling of loving-kindness, though, is not easily shaken since it’s simply the wish ‘may you be happy.’
Finally, I think you’ll find loving-kindness to be among the most expansive states of mind. Unlike conditional love, where our capacity to love is limited by our time and attention (we can’t be best friends or lovers with everyone), the feeling of loving kindness knows no boundary.
The feeling of loving-kindness, of goodwill, is wide open. It can blanket the world. It can encompass and embrace all beings, in all space and at all times. It’s entirely without limit.
Incredible, no? When you really take the time to explore the space of possible mind-states, to connect with one that is so free, so stable, and without limit shows, I think, just how special and inspiring loving-kindness is.
“Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that — it lights the whole sky.” — Hafiz
Practices to Cultivate Metta
How can you cultivate loving-kindness? Well, be as creative as you want. Once you know and familiarize yourself with the feeling, there’s plenty of ways to cultivate it.
You can write letters to friends, family, and strangers to wish them well, to remind them of all the love they carry. You can go serve at a local shelter or school. When you speak with people, you can look them in the eyes, wrap them in care and attention, really connect with them, really try to understand them. You can hold a door for someone, pick up some trash on the street, smile at the clerk in the checkout line, count your blessings before you fall to sleep, acknowledge a good deed, etc.
Because, however, our states of mind have been deeply conditioned by so many outside influences, because so many of us have been conditioned to carry feelings of ill-will or insecurity towards ourselves, because so many of us have been taught to fear and hate others, because so many of us have learned to close our hearts and minds, it’s extremely important that you actively build a formal practice of loving-kindness. It’s important you work hard to unwind all the bad habits you’ve developed over the years, that you commit yourself to rewiring all those neural pathways with some love fiber. As the Buddha said, “with dripping drops of water, the jug is filled.”
“If we were aware that we all contain love within us and that we can foster it and develop it, we would certainly give it far more attention than we do.” — The Dalai Lama
Again, build a practice that works best for you. But here are a couple ways that’ve helped me to grow this feeling of loving-kindness into something quite extraordinary — into something I didn’t even know was possible, and which continues to surprise me.
(1) Loving-Mindfulness. Every morning, I start my mindfulness meditation by asking myself sincerely and honestly, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I choosing to sit here looking directly at the nature of my mind?’
And right then, when I pose this question, I realize that I keep showing up every morning because I’ve seen and felt that this practice actually changes my capacity for experience — it continues to expand, enrich, and enhance it. It makes me better situated in each moment and in each encounter to engage more wisely with whatever is arising. This is good for me, of course. But it’s also good for everyone around me. It’s good for my relationships. It’s good for my writing. It’s good for my being in the world.
I realize, then, that I’m not practicing merely for myself. I’m practicing for every relationship and encounter I have with others and with the world. I sit here and observe my mind because I genuinely want to be a better friend and family member. I genuinely want to be a better person. I want a better world. And I recognize that my mind is the only vehicle to these ends. So, by practicing mindfulness right now, I am preparing for every moment and interaction to come.
My mindfulness practice, then, is itself an expression of loving-kindness, not only to my self but to the world, to Experience.
(2) Metta Practice. Another way I cultivate loving-kindness is by practicing concentrating on the feeling itself for extended lengths of time. In contrast to mindfulness meditation, then, where I sit in open awareness not concentrated on any particular thing, in a formal metta practice, my goal is very narrow and directed: I try to spark the feeling of loving-kindness and then hold onto it and enhance it for as long as I can.
I think you’ll find this beneficial in a few ways. First, if you make it a habit through practice, you’ll find that loving-kindness will increasingly become your natural state of mind. And, second, I think you’ll find that by practicing in this way, your concentration will increase, which increases your capacity for mindfulness, which increases your capacity for wisdom. And so your life just continues to spiral upward.
You are an infinite expression of love. Can you feel that? If not, try to clean out your awareness of all those stories, of all those empty concepts, of all those illusions, until you connect directly to Experience, until you are no longer separate from the space in which everyone and everything arises. This is love. Not yours or anyone else’s. It’s just love.
“May you be skilled in goodness. May you be able, honest, and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech, humble, modest, and simple in living. May you remain composed and calm, not proud and demanding in nature. May you do nothing the wise would reprove. May you wish in gladness and in safety that all beings be at ease, that they be happy, safe, and secure. Whatever living creatures there be, without exception, strong or weak, omitting none, the short, tall, big, and small, whether seen or unseen, living near or far, born or unborn, may all beings be happy. May none deceive or despise another. May none through anger or aversion, through hatred or resentment, wish harm on another being. As a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart may you cherish all beings. Radiating goodwill and kindness over the entire world, spreading upward to the skies, and downward to the depths, outward and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will, whether standing or walking, seated or lying down, free from drowiness, may you sustain this recollection. With virtue, vision, and purity of heart, holding no longer to selfish or crooked views, and being released from all sensual desires, may you be free from suffering. May you truly be at peace.” — The Buddha