On December 31st, we held a New Year’s Eve Intention Setting event. People came and sat together, practiced yoga, and mindfully set an intention for themselves for the coming year. These weren’t the typical “resolutions.” Rather, we all named something we could do that was realistic and related to our practice. I set my intention as practicing metta toward myself more consistently this year. Specifically, I set the intention to practice five minutes of metta every day toward myself. This seemed doable as I generally sit every day anyways at least once, so I could just mix in a few minutes of metta toward self.
I haven’t missed a day so far this year with my intention. Although my intention was five minutes a day, I’ve found myself sitting in metta practice much more often these past couple months. It’s been really wonderful to dedicate some time to sit down and cultivate some kindness and friendliness toward myself. Elizabeth and I sit on a 10 day metta retreat every year, but I don’t generally dedicate time every day to cultivate metta toward myself. Before taking on this intention, I mixed my sits about 50/50 between insight practices and heart practices, but of course wasn’t always practicing metta, and wasn’t always working with myself. This dedication to working with my relationship to ME has led to a few insights over the past two months.
Metta as Concentration
One of the things that I quickly noticed in my metta practice was just how much metta is a concentration practice. As I sit and repeat phrases toward myself, I of course find the mind wandering. As I bring the mind back to my intention and to the metta practice, it really strikes me how similar it is to bringing the mind back to the breath. With repeated metta practice, I found myself quite concentrated. When I sit in metta practice, the mind settles onto the practice much easier today. In my experience and opinion, this points toward the benefit of sitting regularly with one practice. We’ve mentioned that it can be beneficial to sit in one practice in our posts about How to Meditate (for Beginners) and Meditating for Beginners, and it’s always fun to be reminded of our own tips we offer others! Practicing consistently with metta has allowed me to settle into the practice with more ease and stability.
Investigating metta regularly has led me to see more deeply how much we shape our own experience. Whether it’s a thought of planning, thinking about something that happened earlier in the day, an interaction with another person, or general fantasizing, the way we respond makes a big difference. In sitting in metta for only two months, the mind has been much gentler in responding to arising thoughts and experiences. As the mind naturally responds more gently, I don’t tighten around each experience so much. Even when I don’t put a ton of effort forth to respond with metta, my mind has been a bit calmer in its responses. Obviously I’m not above experiencing anxiety, anger, fear, or any other unpleasant emotion. When these things to arise, I am able to respond with more friendliness and less (not zero) judgement toward myself.
Metta for Self and Others
Although my intention and focus has been on cultivating metta toward myself, I’ve found myself practicing metta toward others much more frequently. I often start with five minutes toward myself, move to five minutes toward a “good friend,” five minutes toward a neutral person, five minutes toward a difficult person, and ten minutes radiating out metta to my neighborhood, town, state, country, and world. Because of this intention to practice for myself, I have ended up cultivating metta toward others. It’s a beautiful by-product of my intention. Furthermore, I’ve seen that by putting any effort forth in the cultivating of this friendliness has ultimately led to it not mattering in what situation I find myself. The quality of metta is present more often regardless of the experience; that is, my cultivation of lovingkindness toward myself has led to a growing sense of lovingkindness in general.
Metta and Mindfulness
I speak quite frequently about this when I teach about metta or about mindfulness. The two are deeply interconnected. With metta practice, we must have some mindfulness to notice when the mind wanders, when we come up against judgement or ill-will, and when we’re resting in ease. With mindfulness practice, metta can help us respond more gently to our experience and thus see it more clearly. To me, this is where the proverbial rubber meets the road in metta practice. As we cultivate metta, we are able to bring it to our other practices (including daily living). In my concentration and mindfulness sits, the mind has been generally a tiny bit more gentle with what is arising. Although the mind is of course reactive and falls into the unwholesome roots, there’s been a bit more clarity arising from a mind of kindness.
Metta is not a Feeling
This is something I’ve taught about extensively, and always seem to have a hard time articulating. These two months have been a reminder of this point, as I deeply see that metta isn’t really an emotion or feeling. I have a strong habit of trying to figure things out and the mind wants to categorize information. For the first few years of my practice, I nonconsciously identified metta as a feeling just like love, happiness, anger, etc. These two months have shown me once again that metta seems to be below emotion, or coming before feelings.
I’m never sure exactly how to describe what I mean by this. I’ve used the words mood, orientation, lens, heart-state, and more to try to explain what metta is. The most accurate comparison I can think of in my own experience is true depression. When experiencing clinical depression, it’s not necessarily an emotion you’re experiencing. In my depression I bounce between anger, sadness, apathy, irritation, and more, but the underlying depression remains present. Metta is this way. It is a pervasive mental mood from which stem emotions such as caring, love, generosity, and awareness.
This understanding of metta of mine has come through my own experience. It may not be your personal experience, and that’s okay! I don’t want to seem like I think my experience is better than yours, more “spiritual,” or more “right.” I have seen that when I tune into metta in my life, it is deeper than a thought or emotion of lovingkindness, friendliness, gentleness, or goodwill. It’s a pervasive lens through which I experience emotion, thoughts, people, and experience.
I’m grateful for my intention, for my follow through with my intention, and for the Buddha’s teachings on metta. The practice has completely changed the way in which I relate to myself and respond to others, and I couldn’t have imagined that such a transformation was possible. I am in a state in my practice in which I truly look forward to sitting every day. I know it won’t always be like that, and I may cling when change comes, but for now I will enjoy its presence!
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