Sometimes we meet people who can see us whole and before an immense sky, who don’t judge or discriminate, and who seem to radiate feelings of genuine caring and love and kindness toward everyone they meet.
They may be well-known people like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi. They may be different teachers that we’ve been with or ordinary people in our lives. With all these people, they give their love not because of who we are, because of our position or title or wealth, but simply because we’re fellow human beings.
When the Dalai Lama greets you, you feel like you’re the most important person in the world because his attention is undivided. He has said that one of his great practices of lovingkindness is trying to treat whoever he meets as an old friend.
This very special quality is the feeling of mettā, the Pali word for lovingkindness. It’s the generosity and openness of heart that simply wishes well for all beings. Although we derive great benefit from the feeling and practice of lovingkindness, it does not seek any self-benefit.
Mettā is not given with the expectation of getting anything in return. Even when we direct mettā toward ourselves, it is simply the gateway to an open heart.
Because there is no expectation, mettā is not dependent on external conditions, on people, on ourselves, being a certain way. For this reason, mettā doesn’t easily turn into disappointment, ill will, or jealousy, as love with desire and attachment so often does. What gives lovingkindness its great expansive power is that in the end, when developed and practiced, it makes no distinction between beings. It’s not a feeling limited to those closest to us.
We might feel close to one, two, five, twenty, even a hundred people, but certainly not to everyone in the world. Mettā, though, has this power to embrace all beings with the simple wish “May you be happy.” For this reason, it is called one of “the boundless states of heart and mind,” one of “the immeasurables.”
The Sufi poet, Hafiz, beautifully captures this boundless quality of love in his poem, “The Sun Never Says.”
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
The Practice of Metta
The first time I did intensive mettā practice I was in Bodh Gaya, India, at the Burmese Vihāra. Munindra-ji was giving me the progressive instructions, starting with sending loving wishes to myself, then to a benefactor, and then to a friend. Then he said to start sending mettā to a neutral person.
At first, I didn’t quite register who that would be, but he explained that it is someone that we don’t have any particular feelings for one way or another. At that time, there was an old Indian gardener at the Vihāra, someone I passed many times a day.
It was a bit shocking for me to realize that he was, indeed, a neutral person, in that I never really gave him any thought at all. I started sending mettā to this gardener, “May you be happy,” spending many hours a day in this practice. Something quite amazing began to happen.
My heart would light up every time I saw him, and I had such warm, loving feelings for this “neutral person.” He was no longer neutral. This was a real turning point in my practice, realizing that our feelings do not ultimately depend on the other person or even on their behavior.
How we feel about someone is up to us. There is great purity and a quiet happiness in moments of genuine mettā, because those moments are not mixed with anything harmful, either to oneself or others. The only wish is for all to be happy, to be free of enmity and hatred, to be at peace. A moment of mettā is a moment of pure gold.
Excerpted from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein. Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Goldstein. Published by Sounds True.