What is it that cause most people suffering in this modern world? I wouldn’t be able to quote firm statistics here. Only my perceptions, what I’ve seen and experienced. And it seems to be separation. Many of us isolate ourselves these days. Through fear, primarily and also confusion and delusion.
This isolation is awful. It is almost as if we build our own cell and lock ourselves inside of it.
E.M. Forster wrote “only connect” in Howard’s End. Look it up if you have time. It is an interesting quote when taking in the context of the time it was written. For me, this phrase plays a great part in my Buddhist practise and is the antidote to isolation. To break down the walls of our cell, all we have to do is set out each day with the intention to connect. To connect with the people and the world around us.
This talk is about how we approach the breaking down of these walls, from a Buddhist practise perspective. So we introduce this word metta. This is a key word in Buddhist practise. The two cornerstones of Buddhist practise are Satipathana, which we know as mindfulness, and metta.
Metta, roughly translated, is loving kindness. These words that are used in Buddhism, satipathana, metta, anapan sati etc. These are all terms expressed in the ancient Indian language of Pali. Pali emerged around the same time as Sanskrit but whereas Sanskrit was a written language and generally only understood by the nobility and senior priests at the time, Pali was the language of the general population. It is an extremely rich language and many of the words need a whole book to translate them. Metta is one such word. However, please don’t worry. This talk won’t last for hours! I’m going to take you through the essence of the Buddha’s message here.
Just one thing to think about before we dive in to the depths of this. I’ve seen many mindfulness courses being rolled out to corporates because of the promises of some of the benefits that mindfulness will bring in to the organisation. The one thing these courses have had in common is that they haven’t included compassion. The Buddha was very clear on this. That mindfulness and compassion are inseparable.
I believe that the reason that these corporates are avoiding this area of compassion because of an impression that it introduces vulnerability or a lack of drive. That somehow the organisation will become somehow less competitive and won’t do as well, if the workforce are in general becoming more compassionate. So, at the end of the day, I believe there is fear playing in here on the part of the senior managers looking to take on mindfulness practise in their organisations. They are not fully embracing the opportunity given here, by mindfulness. In fact, I see a lot of aggression developing in organisations. What is desperately needed is a good dose of compassion. Just recently we heard a tale from one of the organisations we come in to contact with. A member of staff came in and told her manager that she was suffering with anxiety from some problems at home. Her managers response was that she should ‘leave her problems at the door when she comes in to work’.
But lets delve in to this subject. In to Metta. As you will see in this talk, introducing Metta practise in your life is far from easy. This practise really is tough love. Later we will see why this doesn’t introduce weakness or a greater vulnerability. But it does introduce a more balanced and mindful approach to our dealing with others. It takes great tenacity and will-power and a huge amount of bravery and self honesty.
What is Metta?
Metta is made up of 4 elements. Love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity so we are going to spend a short while looking at these areas.
But first a quote from the Buddhist bible, the Pali Cannon, which may strike chords with you? Have a listen and just let your personal reaction and responses arise. Take an interest in how you feel about the verse.
This is what should be done, by those skilled in Goodness and who know the path of peace.
Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech. Humble and not conceited. Contented and easily satisfied. Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and Calm, wise and skilful. Not proud and demanding in nature. Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.
Wishing in gladness and safety, may all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be; whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, the great or the mighty, medium, short or small.
The seen and the unseen. Those living near and far away. Those born and those to-be-born. May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child.
So with boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.
Radiating 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 drowsiness.
One should sustain this recollection. This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views, the pure hearted one having clarity of vision. Being freed from all sense desires is not born again into this world.
- The Buddha’s words on Lovingkindness (The Metta Sutta)
Now clearly, the end sentence there brings in other aspects of Buddhism here that we won’t go into here, but how do people feel about this Sutta. Did anything call out or did you feel a sense of resistance to any of it? Group discussion
Metta practise and mindfulness practise are not considered separate. They intertwine and support each other. We cannot begin to truly connect unless we can reside fully in the moment. And without a sense of compassion it is almost impossible to let go of our own desires and aversions which colour our view so that we can be completely mindful. I think that metta practise is particularly challenging because of the amount of self honesty required. As you will here, we can literally fool ourselves that we are going through life with an approach of loving kindness. This is called the close enemy of metta. We appear, to others and to ourselves to be embracing loving kind-ness. True self honesty pays attention to the very thoughts that are appearing in our minds, at the moment those thoughts are first born. This practise requires us to notice these thoughts and ask ourselves ‘Is this metta?’ This is where the challenge starts.
It is important to understand that the practise isn’t an intellectual exercise. We have to truly taste the nature of mindfulness and meta and the only way that I have personally found is through meditation. If we try to adopt the practise in our daily, busy lives, we are not giving our mind the opportunity to focus fully and completely on what is arising. We will not see clearly how we are reacting emotionally and consciously to the world and to the people we are coming in to contact with. The day will just get in the way.
As we go through the talk, I hope that you will begin to appreciate why.
So to the 4 elements of Metta.
Love. The first element of Metta. This is probably the trickiest one of the lot. The love we are talking about here isn’t the one we see portrayed in so many of our movies here in the west. It isn’t romantic love. It is an unconditional love and it applies to everything we come into contact with. Ourselves, the world around us other people. All other people. When you consider that word unconditional, it carries huge implications. Most of the things we consider that we love, come with conditions. Even family members, if they behave badly towards us can drop them off our Christmas card list! However, there is no doubt that we have all felt this unconditional love. Any time you have sat on a hilltop and admired the view or the sunset or a gorgeous rainbow. These things, we don’t attach conditions to. We know they are temporary and we just love these experiences exactly as they are. Through practise, we strive to develop the same kind of love towards all that we find around us. Not easy, put possible.
So if we then consider the types of things that generally we feel drawn to. If you consider that for just a moment……. Group Discussion anyone like to contribute what they have found?………… can anyone spot anything that these different things have in common? ………Further Group Discussion. in general, these things that we love are usually highly complex and also generally have a feeling of impermanence about them. We might find many things attractive.
I personal find e-type jags pretty attractive and also some graceful bridges. Neither of these seem particularly impermanent. But when I consider, say, a rose. Different emotions come up. If I contemplate a rose for a while a sense of wonder and also that same feeling that I get when I contemplate a sunset. It is a different emotion. It feels like a warm smile in the heart area. This is the type of love that we are considering when we talk of Metta. Perhaps Joy, might be a good word to use here.
Next. Compassion. The second element of metta. An interesting word. Literally “with passion”. Now what does that mean? Well, again, we are not talking here about the type of passion associated with romantic love. So here, literally, we are exploring that old phrase “to really understand someone’s position, we must walk a mile in their shoes”. So true empathy. Really seeing the situation that may be causing another person suffering. Not from our perspective, with our assumptions and conclusions but from theirs. Again, this is another difficult area to examine and it takes time to appreciate the quality fully. We must recognise the different perspectives of the other person in a given situation, without critique. After all, we cannot argue that other persons feelings. Misplaced they may be but the feelings are definitely there and simply telly the person that their feelings are misplaced generally doesn’t remove the feeling. Usually all that does is wind the other person up! So we have to approach with gentle open-mindedness. After all, if they are suffering, then the one thing you do both agree on is that neither of you want to suffer!
We all have the power of empathy, often what stops us feeling it is fear. Are we brave enough to walk that mile in the other Person’s shoes? This is why it is called compassion. Because to really enter in, we have to feel their passion! And when we have “enough challenges of our own, why would we want to do that?”
Well, this is what Buddhist practise asks of us.
Compassion is an extremely generous act. We are truly walking along side someone. The Buddha taught us that to be generous is a key to our own spiritual progress. Let me tell you something that feels a little odd in the western mind. We know and understand that when we are generous, we do it without expectation of a return. But when we practise generosity from a Buddhist perspective, there IS a return and we are encouraged to enjoy it. If you are truly mindful and fully paying attention at the moment where you perform that generous act. Right in the moment, pay attention. Pay attention to the act of the generosity and pay attention to how YOU FEEL. Not afterwards but right in the moment, you will feel a great warming in your heart. This warming is Metta and it is a massive tonic. As Buddhists, we practise generosity and we are encouraged to pay attention to the effect deep within us. So there is no material pay-back from the other person but there is a massive spiritual payback! And this is so powerful.
I would encourage any of you, when you are feeling down or depressed or a little disconnected in the world, go out and seek out someone who needs help. And help them. Pay full attention while you do this and see how it makes you feel. Really see their situation, respect their response to it and help them in any way you can. If you take anything away from this talk tonight, take this piece of advice. Use generosity as a potential antidote to depression. It is incredibly powerful.
Then we move on to sympathetic Joy. The Third element of Metta. Put simply it is the practise of rejoicing in others happiness. Mostly we are able to connect with this. Particularly when we consider our families. Of course we can rejoice when our relatives are happy. This last week, my brother and his family were staying with us and his daughter found out that she had achieved her grades in her A-Levels. A gorgeous moment and it is very easy to experience sympathetic joy at times like this. But this area presents us with a much tougher challenge. Picture yourself at work. You work hard all day and you have a colleague at the same level. Then, one day, your colleague is called in to the boss’s office and given a promotion. You graciously shake your friends hand and offer out to them how happy you are for them. BUT, how do you really feel? What’s going on inside. Sympathetic Joy requires great honesty with yourself.
Usually when we consider the word ‘sympathy’ we consider feeling and sharing someone else’s pain. Sometimes this is actually easier to do than honestly sharing someone else’s happiness and being truly sympathetic of it. Here, we are turning the understanding of sympathy on its head. We are being sympathetic to someone’s good fortune. We get faced with the challenge to this element of Metta all the time. I think particularly this is more challenging in the west because we are taught to be so competitive here. To constantly strive to be better than our workmates. Our organisations reqard us when we go above and beyond whats required of us and we stand out. This is an understandable practise but it has an unfortunate side effect. It can turn people away and against each other.
It is almost as if the concept of sharing and taking a view of rejoicing for someone else’s successes and happiness goes against the grain.
This word joy is also a very interesting word. Sometimes it gets associated with pleasure but the two are very different. Essentially pleasure is driven by the way we react to things external to us. We “take pleasure” in things. But Joy is driven internally. It arises internally from our own state of mind. So here, with sympathetic Joy, the feeling arises internally. It is true love arising in relation to our response to another person. It is genuine. Not some artificial response prompted by how we “think” we should behave in a given circumstance. It is real and genuine joy. Group discussion. How do we feel about this?
Finally equanimity. The forth element of Metta. Well this is even trickier. Here we are challenged with developing an equal and open heartfelt compassion to all that we come in to contact with. This cuts back into the root of one of the Buddha’s first sermons where he talked about suffering, or Dukkha, as he called it in the Pali language. The essence of the sermons was that suffering is not experienced as a result of whatever is happening to us. Suffering is caused by OUR RESPONSE to whatever is happening to us. If we can learn to develop an approach of acceptance to life as it transpires, we can let go of the suffering. If we look at the implications of this, we see that many things in our own personal lives cause us suffering. Let’s list a few……….Group Exercise....
So that is quite a list. Some of these are big and some are small. Metta, compassion, equanimity asks us to develop a level of acceptance towards these things that we perceive as leading to suffering.
The worldly winds. Buddhism gives us a potential framework to examine the different influences on our lives and a way to see how we react to them. To start to explore equanimity we can start to mindfully pay attention to the worldly winds and meditate on our reactions to them. They are –
Pleasure versus Pain
Praise versus Blame
Success versus Failure (also referred to as Gain versus Loss)
Fame versus Disrepute (also referred to as Honour versus Disgrace)
Let me give you an example here. A few weeks ago, a group of friends were coming down to visit us. They asked me to book them all in to a local hotel. Which I did. One of the group cancelled last minute which is fine, things come up. He told me he had informed the hotel and cleared it all up so everything was fine. But the hotel contacted me on the day they all arrived and said that because one person was a no-show, I would have to cover the cost of the room. I explain that the gentleman had had the conversation with them and cleared this already. The hotel denied any knowledge of the conversation. I got back in touch with the friend and asked him to contact the hotel urgently and clear this up. His reaction was a little off, telling me to ‘calm down’ and that he’d already sorted it with the hotel. I left it with him.
The next day on facebook a post appeared from him, saying, “wow that Spraggy, what an over-reaction”
So here we have a classic worldly winds situation. Never mind the rights and wrongs here. Just consider which of the worldy winds is at play and how it is blowing me.
Fame or infamy – well it was all over facebook.
Praise or Blame – this one is fairly obvious
Loss or gain – monetary.
These types of event occur all the time, every day.
Equanimity is therefore asking us to see both sides of these worldly winds. The things that cause us suffering, we are tasked with appreciating that they are as much a part of our rich life experience as the things which give us pleasure. If we can get to this place then we stop grasping and desiring those things that we think cause us pleasure and stop pushing away the things that we perceive as causing us suffering. This way we reach a place of contentment and from this, true joy emerges.
So, all this sounds like a massive task. We approach little by little, day by day. The Buddhist practise for this is called the Metta Bhavana. Here, bhavana translates as “the cultivation of”. So the cultivation of Metta or loving kindness. It is a formal sitting meditation but it does engage the more creative side of the mind. It takes many weeks to work through but it is an exceptionally rewarding meditation as it starts to make a change to you and the way you see the world. It truly alters your perceptions of the world around you.
– describe the practise and describe my own experiences –
Self, The good friend, the neutral person and the enemy.
Then the practise of the worldly winds.
Notice, that the first person we consider is self!
Talk about the complexities of human interaction. The infinite types of human out there. The rich tapestry of potential situations both positive and negative that this gives us.
So this is Metta and this is the Metta Bhavana.
But we can also engage with the other areas and aspects in our meditation.
We can examine the worldly winds that have impacted us during the day. We can re-experience the tension or the pleasure they have given us. Noticing and understanding. It is through this deep process of noticing that acceptance and contentment starts to creep in.