In exploring metta, the practice of sending loving kindness, we come to the challenge of sending it to a ‘difficult’ person, someone with whom we struggle or who pushes our buttons. This can be a family member, co-worker, client, or a public figure whose policies, beliefs or behavior seem wrong, maybe even evil to our way of thinking. (If you wonder why we would send loving kindness to such a person, look at the last post under ‘Obstacle #4. Metta Seen as Reward.’)
We picture this 'difficult person' and think, ‘May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be at peace,” or similar well wishing. If they are going through difficult experiences, we could send compassion with phrases like, ‘May your difficulties ease. May your struggles or sorrows be held in compassion.’ As you read this, can you sense that the activity of sending loving kindness and compassion softens our hearts, gives ease to our body, allows our mind to be more restful and spacious? Even if we question whether metta has any power or meaning, we can at least acknowledge a certain satisfaction in being able to do some positive action, even though it’s only within our mind. The behavior of others is beyond our control, and that can be frustrating and scary. We can’t change them, but we can send them metta.
So is it just about making ourselves feel better? Maybe yes, maybe no.
One student shared her experience of sending metta to her sibling with whom she had difficulty. She began the practice to find peace within herself, a release from feeling so distressed when this person would cause disruption at family gatherings. She did find peace as she practiced, but what surprised her was how her sibling began to open up and become less prickly. Remember that we are not saying this blessing out loud. The other person is not even aware of it. But the softening that comes with wishing someone well changes not just ourselves, but them too. Now the sibling have a closer more loving relationship than they have had in their whole lives. (The student did not have that goal in mind, remember. If she had hopes or expectations that her sibling would change, then probably that hope would have sabotaged the pure practice of sending metta.)
This is not the first time I have heard such a story. But most of us don’t take the time to do the practice it in a consistent way. It takes intention to do so. If our intention is to access the infinite quality of loving kindness and compassion, to allow ourselves to dwell in it, and then share it, perhaps with special focus on those with whom it is challenging to do so, then the loving kindness can be transformative.
Sending metta to a challenging person might feel like too big an assignment. So we start with what we can do. ‘May you be well...far from here.” “May you be happy...somewhere else.” That doesn’t sound very friendly, but it is a start. If we feel vulnerable and unsafe with this person, then it is skillful to keep our distance, but we can still send metta. If our well wishing seems half-hearted, at least it is a little crack in the door we can begin to enter more wholeheartedly as we follow our intention.
Metta is a practice unto itself, but it is also a gift that arises out of mindfulness practice. As we become aware of our connection with all life, the oneness of all being, we feel included, safe, loved without striving to earn it, and are then able to give love to all beings, even the difficult ones. These two practices combine create loving awareness.
If you are curious about where metta fits in the scheme of Buddhist concepts:
Metta - Loving Kindness - is the first of the Four Brahmaviharas.The other three are:
Karuna - Compassion - is a feeling that naturally arises out of that sense of connection. It is quite different from pity.
Mudita - Sympathetic Joy, happiness for the happiness of others, that also arises out of that sense of connection. Don’t be frustrated if this doesn’t feel so ‘naturally arising.’ Have compassion for yourself.
Upekka - Equilibrium. When our practice provides so much spaciousness that we can hold the extremes of emotion as in those when a loved one is dying and another is being born or getting married or having some positive experience. Our ability to make room for all to be held in a loving embrace is upekka.
The Four Brahmaviharas infuse our lives with connection, joy, meaning and a sense of balance. Each of the four has its own practice to help us develop, but each is also a gift of mindfulness, a fruit of the practice. Let knowing they exist keep you coming back again and again to meditation practice. But don’t turn them into a goal. Let go of striving. Practice with simple joy.