We held a New Year’s Intention Setting class this year on New Year’s Eve. I set the intention to practice metta daily for myself. Metta is the first of the four brahma-viharas and the practice of cultivating loving-kindness or gentle friendliness toward a being, who in this case happens to be myself. I wrote back in March about my experience over the first few months, including the concentration aspects, learning how to relate in a new way to experience, and if metta was an emotion or feeling.
Now July, I thought I would offer an update on how the practice is going, some new thoughts, and touch upon a few points I made before and related growth. I recently went on a 10 day silent metta retreat at Spirit Rock, where I meditated 6 or 7 hours a day on metta. That has shaped my experience greatly, and the daily practice has been a beautiful experience as well.
We covered this question in our recent post What is Metta?, but I want to offer a more personal experience of investigating this question. Since this practice of daily metta began in January, my experience metta has changed repeatedly. I often teach, first and foremost, that metta is not a feeling.
We often hear the translation of metta as love or lovingkindness. Because of this we tend to think of metta as an emotion or a feeling. Rather, metta is more akin to affect or a lens through which we experience things. Much as dana is the act of generosity and caga is the state of a heart inclined toward giving (more about this in our post Dana and Caga), love is the act of care or kindness and metta is the mind and heart state inclined toward loving.
In the past few months and on my metta retreat, I’ve experienced metta as a bit of a mood as well. Just as we may be sad, irritated, or content, metta can manifest as a mood or attitude. When we’re irritable or irritated, things annoy us, we snap at others, and are harsh with ourselves. When in a state of living from metta, we accept and care for things, we speak with kindness, and are able to respond to ourselves with more gentleness. Especially on intensive retreats, we can experience a state of pervasive and deep metta. I’ve also found this to be true from practicing daily.
As I’ve been working daily with metta, I’ve continued to see that when we’re working with one practice, we’re really cultivating and utilizing many different things. Metta is a practice in building samadhi, or a state of concentration. As we repeat phrases and tune into the feelings in the body that may arise, we are cultivating a mind that can focus and be contently still.
We also are both utilizing and cultivating our mindfulness practice. We notice when the mind begins to wander, when we are on autopilot with the phrases, and when pains in the body arise. My regular metta practice for myself has really reminded me just how intertwined these practices are. When we’re cultivating a gentle and kind heart, we’re also cultivating a wise and focused mind.
This also applies to our lives outside of meditation practice. As I’ve cultivated metta for myself these past 7 months, I have really experienced how metta can cultivate other qualities and help me in my daily experience. Specifically, I’ve noticed that metta practice for myself has helped me be aware of what is going on with me. As I am cultivating a state that is less reactive and more accepting, I’ve found myself able to see when I am agitated, joyous, or experiencing something that is not neutral. One of the practices I do is a practice in metta for my own body, and I’ve found an ability to notice pains and discomforts in the body a bit more quickly and with less reactivity as well.
Naturally, as I work with metta, I come into contact with suffering. Karuna, or compassion, is the response of metta when it meets pain and suffering. Especially on retreat, I really have been able to investigate the difference between metta and compassion. The strongest experience I’ve had related to this thought is that metta and compassion really are the same thing. Although we differentiate between the two by saying that compassion is related to suffering, it really is the same in experience in a sense.
When I experience something painful or am having a moment of suffering, responding with compassion means not resisting, showing up for my experience, and trying to respond with a level of caring presence. We call this compassion, but it really is a response of metta. If I were going to describe a metta response to a personal pain, it’d be the exact same thing. I just think this is important, as it has shown me that I can continue to cultivate and respond with metta regardless of the situation.
Metta and compassion feel different in a way as well. This is because suffering is present with compassion and we’re really working to be with the pain. We feel different in a general friendliness than we do when responding tenderly to a difficult experience. On retreat, I actually noticed that I had switched to compassion a few times just by the way it felt. However, the mind/heart state remained pretty stable in metta.
The Capacity for Care
I was recently reading Sharon Salzberg’s new book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. In one of her chapters, she begins with the quote from Zelda Fitgerald, “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.”. The chapter goes on to talk about the capacity of our hearts, and I strongly recommend reading it (along with the rest of the book).
In my own practice and experience, I have seen this daily metta practice impact my perspective on the capacity of the “heart.” I use heart in quotations like this because I’m not talking about the capacity of my physical heart to pump blood. Rather, I’m referencing the capacity to feel and hold emotional experiences. Especially looking at self-compassion, I feel a change in my sense of how much pain I can hold, how much I can care, and how open and vulnerable I’m able to be. I can’t say my actual capacity has changed. Rather, it feels like I am recognizing more how much potential is present in the human body and mind to care for ourselves and others.
I will update a few more times before the year is up, so stay tuned!
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