When we think about metta practice, we probably think of extending metta to ourselves and others around us. This makes sense, as the Buddha’s instructions were to wish “in gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease.” Metta is traditionally cultivated through the practice of offering wishes of wellbeing to sentient beings. This is an important practice, and also helps us build concentration. Recently, I have found it important to make effort to bring the quality of metta to insight practices.
I sit regularly, and catch glimpses of the patterns (or lack thereof) in the mind. Like many, I alternate between periods of insight practice and heart practices. This has been incredibly helpful to me, encouraging me to build a well-rounded practice and investigate the practices that I find unpleasant. I much prefer to sit in mindfulness or concentration, and only practice metta because a teacher instructed me to do so years ago. I continue to investigate metta, compassion, forgiveness, appreciative joy, and equanimity regularly.
In sitting in mindfulness practice, I began to notice a subtle attitude of impatience. When the mind wandered, I brought it back with as little resistance as possible, but a pervasive judgmental attitude was consistently present. It’s pretty natural that we have unpleasant thoughts during meditation or experience an unpleasant mood. I found, however, that this sense was present quite frequently. The mind did not behave exactly as I wanted, and I wasn’t allowing room for the mind to behave how it behaved. When I was resisting what was happening, I was completely in craving and aversion (and delusion, for that matter).
This mindfulness practice may be understood as a form of unkind awareness. I wasn’t bringing any quality of metta to my practice. Sitting with bare awareness, my practice was dry and cold. Although we may attend to experience with mindfulness, we cannot be fully skillful without some gentleness. With dry mindfulness, resistance has a tendency to arise. We fall into an aversive state toward the unpleasant experiences. Without the gentle mind filled with metta, it is difficult to respond wisely.
I began to make a concerted effort to bring some kindness to my insight practices, and noticed a difference very quickly. As I sat in mindfulness practice, I tried to sit with ease and respond with some gentleness to whatever I was experiencing. It’s not always easy. Sometimes I respond to something in meditation with frustration or resistance, but I try to respond to that frustration or resistance with some friendliness. As I began trying to bring a gentle mind to my practice, I began opening up to the unpleasantness that arose. I noticed subtle ways in which the mind fell into aversion which I had not been aware of before.
Practicing kind awareness is not always easy. How do we bring this kindness to our practice? For me, sitting with the heart practices intermittently is very helpful. Alternating metta and insight practices helps us bring each to the other. Like me, it may be beneficial to make a firm effort to bring gentleness to your practice. I like to start from the beginning of my sit. When I close my eyes and settle into a posture, I bring kindness to the body and breath right away. I take a few deep breaths, allowing the body to relax a bit. As Than Geoff suggests, I ask myself, “What kind of breath does the body need right now?” During my practice, I return to the breath quite a bit, using the breath not just as an anchor but as a rejuvenating experience. In addition, I notice when the mind falls into harsh thinking and judgement. I try each time to bring some gentleness to the thinking mind. Finally, it may sound silly, but I smile. Not a huge, silly grin, but a slight smile. When the smile fades, I bring it back. This practice has helped me immensely, reminding me of my intention to bring kindness to my practice.
If you’re interested in investigating metta further, I personally enjoyed Ruth King’s recent talk on Dharma Seed which can be found here.