Sunday, 24 February 2008

“We All Could Use Some Metta”

When I saw that my meditation center was having two upcoming workshops on metta, or the Buddhist practice of sending loving-kindness to oneself and others, I knew it was a class I should take. Practicing mindfulness steadily for six months had helped me to notice my constant judgment of others, especially people I did not know— passersby in the street. But I was unable to cure myself. I could not edit out the critiques in my head. I had something insulting to say about most women’s hairstyles and men’s clothing, but our small interactions also bothered me. “OK, don’t get so close to me,” I thought, or “Alright, tourists, we’re in the city now, so move it!” Of course, judging goes both ways, I also judged people in complimentary ways, noting nice outfits or an attractive man. But ridding oneself of all critique is the goal in Buddhism, and I had a long way to go.

Two workshops were offered, one for sending loving-kindness to oneself, and one for sending it to others. I thought about just attending the second one, but decided to start at the beginning, having never done metta meditation before. These workshops might be just the thing to help me confront my judgmental nature. Wouldn’t it be nicer to simply spread warmth to passersby, rather than critique?

When the day arrived to attend the workshop, I was glad that my husband, William, had agreed to come. He has much less trouble judging others than myself, but I wanted the company. We arrived at the meditation center twenty minutes before the workshop began, but already there were thirty people sitting on cushions, silently waiting to begin. William and I, hungry as usual, interrupted their silence with a debate over when we thought lunch would be. We also debated over where to put our lunch. “I put it downstairs, by our coats, no one will take it,” William said. “These are meditation people!”

When the teacher arrived, we quickly learned some metta meditation phrases, and were instructed to repeat these in a concentrated way for a forty-minute sit. We repeated the newly learned phrases in our minds.

May I live in safety
May I have physical happiness
May I have mental happiness
May I be fully at ease

It was actually difficult to remember these phrases in order with a sleepy mind at 10AM on a Saturday morning, after a long walk to the meditation center. After this forty-minute session of sending metta to myself, and a twenty-minute walking meditation repeating the same phrases, I was ready and eager to start sending this loving kindness to others. It was pleasant to send metta to myself but already I had begun to judge the people sitting next to me. “Does he have to sigh every minute in order to maintain concentration?” “I know this is a meditation retreat, but is it appropriate to wear pajamas?” were some of the comments that slipped into my mind while I was trying to wish myself safety and serenity.

After this lapse in concentration, I noticed how I had begun to change the phrases. My metta thoughts became variations of:

May I live in danger
May I have physical suffering
May I have mental suffering
May I be ill at ease

I began to wonder; maybe I secretly felt that I didn’t deserve these joyful thoughts? Is that why I changed the word ‘happiness’ for ‘suffering?’ I just shook off these thoughts, and laughed a little, because the mind changes words when repeating them over and over again. In fact, that was the only difficult thing about it, remembering the phrases, and trying to say them correctly. I had no adverse feelings to actually repeating them to myself and had no idea anyone else would, until we approached the participant introductions section of the workshop.

The teacher asked each of us to say our name and tell a little about why we decided to come. The participants on cushions near the front went into detail about their self-hatred and feelings of unworthiness. They said that sending metta to themselves was very difficult because they felt they didn’t deserve it and felt guilty for taking this time to help themselves instead of others.

Having lived in American society all my life, and realizing how the media and celebrities make many feel inferior, I suppose I shouldn’t have been so shocked by these casual confessions of inner self-hatred. I’ve had my share of friends with low self-esteem and tried to bolster them with compliments and praise. But I had not realized that these issues were so strong in some people.
I figured, of course, women traditionally have problems of guilt and self-sacrifice, having to be the nurturer in almost all social dynamics. But in this workshop men also confessed that no one loves them and they needed to start loving themselves. In fact, I was most shocked by the ease with which my fellow workshop participants spoke about their feelings of unworthiness, as if such confessions were as common as saying, “Hi, how are you?”

The teacher nodded her head with concern and understanding. Obviously, she had heard this before. When it was my turn, I simply stated that I came in order to control my criticism of others. I expected some type of reaction to my reason, but the teacher and others just nodded, and we moved along to William. Always the unexpected comedian at our meditation center, his remark, “I came because I could use some metta,” produced a full belly laugh from most of the participants. The teacher responded laughingly “Yes, I think we all could.”

After the introductions, the teacher spoke about metta’s use in American society. She emphasized that we need help sending metta to ourselves. But she also told us a little about how metta meditation came to the US. A renowned Burmese master named U Pandita had taught metta to some of the American meditation teachers, most notably, Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg then taught metta workshops all over the country, and some of her students became teachers of it themselves. After this brief history, I wondered, if sending metta to oneself is so desperately needed in America, was it also needed in ancient Asia, during the Buddha’s time? Did Asian people feel guilty, or unworthy of sending themselves loving-kindness? Did this practice only become prevalent in America, where metta meditation is a combat to our collective low self-esteem? I went home after this first workshop with these questions in mind, and did some research on the ancient Buddhist texts and contemporary literature on the topic.

Looking through two Buddhist sutras, and two commentarial works on the subject of loving-kindness, I found no reference to the idea that sending metta to oneself should be difficult. One is supposed to start with what is easiest, meditating on oneself, then move on to a loved one, and then the more challenging neutral person and difficult person. The whole point of starting in this way is to build up enough metta to be able to send it to one’s enemy. The sutras explained why the metta meditation is laid out in this order in the same way the metta meditation teacher had. But she added that sometimes it is ourselves who can be the enemy or difficult person, and we should start out with the loved one in order to build up our personal metta. This seems to be a skillful adaptation of the sutras for our guilt-ridden society.

When I went back for the second workshop on sending loving-kindness to others, I had more compassion and less judgment for my fellow participants. How could I judge people who have trouble wishing themselves loving-kindness? This experience, aside from the practice of meditating with the actual phrases, has helped me to see our frailty, and how we all need compassion. Of course I have not stopped judging altogether after this one experience, but I have tried to be more compassionate. It is sad that American society has many who hold such self-hatred, but at least they admit it and are doing something about it. This experience shows how the meditation techniques of Buddhism are being used for self-improvement, to stop judging oneself and others. This may be only part of the message of this tradition, but for some people, this is a necessary beginning.


  1. No past lives, no future lives, just guaranteed oblivion
    who could ask for less?

    Stay on groovin' safari,

  2. Metta meditation isn't a traditional part of Zen, but I practice it occasionally and it seems to be very valuable. One danger with it, from personal experience is that we can feel pressure to be 'nice' all the time, denying much of the reality of our inner world. But, as long as you're aware of this danger it's a valuable practice it seems to me.

  3. Tor, did you comment on the right post?

  4. This narrative is well-constructed and insightful. Thank you, Brooke. I find that I actually do have a difficult time putting myself before others - in other words, unlike you, I do judge myself. That doesn't mean that I have difficulty sending metta to myself, but it does mean that I find sending metta to myself very useful. Sending to others, those in my life, is a breeze. Sending it to strangers and "all sentient beings" is the most challenging aspect for my metta practice. Do you also find that component difficult? Thanks for discussing this useful aspect of meditation and sharing your personal insights with all of us.

  5. Analogous to charity starts at home, I believe that cultivating loving kindness starts from self love, or self care. So is sending metta. If we don't have the capacity to love ourselves, in a wholesome way, it's difficult to direct the love to others.

    Thanks for sharing, Brooke.

  6. Good posting. (you must be kind a complcated, I guess...)

    The part with your inner voice turning the phrases around was funny, I had sth. similar and want to share thoughts, its the first time I read this..

    in my case, a part of me split of and paralleled the sound of my inner voice in a weird evil way, in order to confront me with my in-authenticity, which is my interpretation, and so its an indicator to "feel further" right in that moment, or to shadow work(btw, such a workshop is also good for confronting your feelings towards others, ; )

  7. Hi,

    I was listening to a talk by Sharon Salzburg a few weeks ago and was interested to hear that Sharon had asked the Dalai Lama about self-hatred.

    The Dalai Lama visited the US a few years ago and Sharon asked him what he would suggest people who feel a self-hatred do in their meditation. As the story goes, the Dalai Lama was stunned and had to have the translator repeat the question a few times. To paraphrase his answer, he said, perplexed, 'But why would people with Buddha nature feel self-hatred?' It was a totally foreign concept to him!

    So...maybe things are different in the west than in the east!

    Great post, will become a follower of this blog

  8. Well if you ask me I have a lot of critics about the society of these days, and well the principal onces can be the insecurity and the reaggaeton.. just if this can be named music... in anycase life it's to short lets try to find some ways to live better.
    Good luck people, nice post.