At the end of the four-hour exam I blinked at the computer screen. I was hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. The screen asked me if I wanted to continue to see my score. After six weeks of preparing for the GRE with tutoring, practice tests, and so many flash cards, yes of course I wanted to see my score. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. I felt my body calm and some of the tension release. My mind said, “I’m proud of you. No matter what your score is. You worked really hard and that is what counts. I love you.” I almost laughed out loud. I was not used to my mind being kind and loving. I was used to battling with my mind or accepting its abuse. So this felt like another person was talking to me in my own voice, but I know it was unmistakably me. That kind voice didn’t come out of nowhere it was the result of years of practice with metta, or loving-kindness meditation.
After this experience I began noticing other ways my mind was kinder. I have often struggled in meditation with falling asleep. Usually when I experience sleepiness I fight with myself the whole time trying to stay awake. I get angry that I am falling asleep and when my mind does come back to the meditation I greet it with frustration. Recently, I had a meditation where I was feeling sleepy. I noticed myself coming back to my breath and saying to my mind “welcome back”. It wasn’t the usual sarcastic welcome back, but rather a gentle and sweet invitation to return. Throughout the day I have noticed that my internal dialog has shifted. Now, it feels like I am talking to a friend rather than an adversary. For someone who has always been a perfectionist who struggles with self-love this is a big step, but it didn’t happen overnight.
This quality of metta comes out of the practice of metta and it takes time. I have worked with many people on their meditation practice and they all want to know, “How long until I feel it? When will I be transformed and feel unconditional friendliness all the time?” We all want to feel kinder, friendlier, happier, and at ease, and we all want to feel that way immediately. The beautiful part of Buddhist meditation is that it is realistic. It is not a practice that promises ubiquitous or instantaneous results. Likewise, the practice of metta is just that, a practice. We don’t meditate with metta once and feel transformed. Instead, we meditate regularly and focus our attention on the small ways in which metta has made our minds kinder.
It is important to notice the small ways in which our mind is kinder, without expecting big dramatic results. It took me three years of meditating before my mind finally told me it loved me and was proud of me. For some people it takes much longer. However, even when it does take a long time to notice change there are often small changes that we are missing along the way. For example, my mind didn’t jump from mean to kind. It jumped from mean, to less mean, to somewhat neutral, to kinder. One of the first things I noticed after practice with metta meditation was the absence of my abusive mind. This didn’t mean that my mind was kind but it just wasn’t so harsh. The biggest way I noticed this at first was that I wasn’t ruminating as much. Before, when I made a mistake I would spend the rest of the day or week thinking about how badly I messed that thing up. I would replay the situation over and over in my head. After meditating for about a year I noticed I was doing this less. Rather than spending a week upset with myself it was only a day, and then an hour.
After meditating for about two years I noticed that I wasn’t speaking to myself in a way that was mean, but rather somewhat neutral, with kind and harsh moments thrown in. This can be disheartening. It can feel like putting a lot of effort in and getting very little back. There were many times where I felt like Metta was pointless and I would never be kinder. When I felt like this I remembered the small changes. I looked for tiny inklings of progress and I continued. A kinder mind isn’t something that spontaneously develops. It is something we work for and cultivate over time.