When I originally heard the word “metta”, I was attending my very first ten-day meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, an Insight meditation center in the gorgeous hills of Woodacre, California, a few years ago.
If you will, imagine a scene where the lyrics to Sting’s song “Fields of Gold” veritably springs to life amidst rolling hills of long grasses, copious amounts of majestic oak trees, and a smattering of wild turkeys that amble comfortably between two large wooden meditation halls, and you will get some sense of my surroundings.
The word metta was explained to all of us in attendance by one of the resident meditation teachers during an afternoon dharma talk. Metta, they explained, can be translated from the Pali language into “loving-kindness”.
I immediately assumed in that moment that this word was describing something that I had already experienced in terms of the depth of its flavor. “I’ve got this!” I thought to myself.
After all, I had already, by the age of 29 (when I was attending this particular retreat) fallen deeply in love; felt love grow from a drop into an oceanic swell; fallen catastrophically out of love and then wallowed in the sticky mire of heartache which followed; struggled and wrestled with thinking I wanted and needed love; desired and deserved love…ached, whined, pondered, analyzed, and spun totally out of control with aversion to the idea that I would never find “my one true love”.
These experiences, I thought, should be more than enough to “know” something about love, I reasoned to myself.
However, I was soon to discover that the word “metta” and the meditation practice associated with cultivating the experience of loving-kindness in one’s heart (rather than the mental concept of love) was far more complex than I had imagined.
Indeed, I was to find that the experience of directing loving-kindness towards myself was initially very challenging for to me to truly feel as a meditation practitioner, even though I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for 7 years at that point.
I was comforted to find that other people in the meditation hall, when we broke the noble silence of the retreat to ask questions of the dharma teachers, felt similarly as I did.
In all honesty, I had spent the first couple decades of my life being not altogether kind or compassionate towards myself, in my heart-mind. I had been, prior to starting my meditation practice in 2006, pretty quick to judge myself as inadequate; too weak; overly forceful; strange; too boring; not good enough; not skillful enough; not wealthy enough; strong enough; smart enough…and on and on.
The very good thing is that after starting my meditation practice, I was finally able to become aware of these thoughts, and started to develop the ability to see that my thoughts, especially the negative ones, were not actually “who I was.”
Perhaps one could say that some of these judgmental thoughts came from cultural conditioning. After all, we live in a society that constantly tries to sell us on the idea of obtaining perfection.
But whatever the source of these thoughts, the silver lining of noticing them was that when I began to practice Vipassana, I learned that the mind has a strong inclination to suffer (and to find an endless well of resources to replenish the feeling of suffering) and that meditation was a path to the end of this particular kind of suffering.
So in spite of the fact that practicing loving-kindness towards myself seemed initially to be a very daunting task – turning a loving and compassionate gaze upon what I perceived to be a plethora of inner flaws – I sensed that practicing it would be essential to my ability to heal and develop greater emotional and spiritual resilience.
After all, how was I to be the kind of mother, wife, friend, teacher, family and community member who could offer authentic love and kindness to the people in my life, if I could not first offer it to myself?
Ruth King, in her seminal book “Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism From the Inside Out” has a brilliant quote describing the essence of the metta practice. She says:
“Kindness is the water of humanity. Without water, we harden. Kindness is an attitude, an aspiration, and a practice. It is also core to spiritual life and religions. In the tradition I’m trained in, we practice metta, which the Pali word for unconditional kindness – friendliness and genuine acceptance. Metta is part of a constellation of heart practices referred to as the Brahmaviharas, or divine abodes.
Metta is not a prayer for help from something or someone outside of ourselves. It is not an ego-driven kindness based on possessions, attachment, or grasping, nor is it overly sentimental. Rather, metta is a genuine desire for all beings, without exception, to be safe from inner and outer harm, to be healthy and content, and to live with ease.” (pp. 93)
I love this particular description of metta being like water. Water is such an incredible source of nourishment for the entire planet. It is life giving and containing. It grows the crops we need to eat to survive – it rains down from the sky and replenishes our fresh water springs – it hardens into glaciers and floats in the furthermost regions of our planet, to offer a vital support for our entire global ecosystem.
Water literally holds all life on this planet in balance. It also reminds me of how replenishing it feels to jump into the ocean, or any cool body of water on a hot day – holding the magical ability to figuratively ‘wash all of our cares away’.
This brings me to the point of this particular blog post – I have often wondered how the healing waters of a regular mindfulness meditation practice, and within that, having a metta meditation practice can potentially be a kind of alchemical process by which we develop our ability to adapt, survive, and yes – perhaps thrive in this ever changing and often times chaotic world?
How can a metta practice become a ‘medicine bowl’ that we carry with us in our hearts? A medicine bowl that is full of calming, centering and healing energy that we can access no matter where we go, and with whom we come into contact with?
From the vantage point of this question, I would like to ask that you engage in a little imaginative visual meditation practice with me.
I hope after reading this, you find that the image of a medicine bowl is something that you can bring into your own meditation practice, should it resonate with you.
Please bring to your mind the image of a beautiful bowl that you have made with your own hands. It can be made of any material that you like. It can be any color, any size, and it can be decorated with any symbols, shapes, or art that have positive meaning to you.
Take a moment to really see this bowl in your mind, until the picture becomes very vivid. This bowl is big enough to place anything into, and yet it still magically fits right inside of your heart where you can access it whenever you need it.
Now the key is, inside of this bowl, you can place anything that brings you closer to the experience of interdependence – which is a word that means that all people and things are interconnected.
The idea is that by feeling into a sense of interdependence and sensing how connected we are to everything around us, we can start to feel into a greater sense of belonging.
This feeling of belonging, from my experience, is like a doorway to metta, or loving kindness, because deepening our understanding about how we are connected to everything around us is a great way to begin to start feeling more kindness towards yourself and others.
It is like developing a more loving relationship with your surroundings and everyone in them.
Now, imagine that you are bringing into your medicine bowl images of moments in this life when you have felt happy – perhaps these might be memories of your childhood; or your favorite place to relax on days off work; of walking in nature; or even special places you have visited during your travels.
Next, picture times in life when you have felt relatively healthy – and if those times are not readily available, you can picture images of what being healthy ideally means to you. You are eating well, getting out and moving, and feeling good. You can place these in your medicine bowl as well.
Next, you can pictures places where you feel safe – perhaps this is in your home, or in your church, or at school, or maybe it is the home of a cherished friend or family member. Gently place these images into your medicine bowl.
Now lastly- and this will require a bit of imagination – try to picture what finding and embodying peace and freedom is all about to you.
Maybe you have a vision of people who have been in conflict lovingly embracing one another. Perhaps this means having the ability to come and go as you please, wherever you please. Perhaps you envision freedom as the ability to be who you want to be without judgment.
Let your mind expand and visualize what you might feel like – and what this world might look like if you, and everyone around you, were experiencing peace and freedom, right now.
Now do your very best to take these images, all of them, and place them inside of the medicine bowl that you created at the beginning of your meditation practice. Do your very best to trust that they will remain there forever.
And now, (and this, I think, is the best part of this meditation practice) you can start to cultivate this medicine bowl in little moments of every day life ways that you might not expect.
For example, perhaps you are standing in your kitchen doing the dishes, or cooking, and you recognize “hmmm…in this moment, I feel safe, happy and content.” You can put this small moment of metta, too, into your medicine bowl.
Or maybe you are walking around your neighborhood and you see a ray of golden sunlight dappling down onto the sidewalk…or you hear the beautiful sound of a chorus of birds singing in a tree. Maybe you catch out of the corner of your eye the sight of a child happily running free down your neighborhood block, and this brings you a momentary feeling joy.
You can say to yourself, “This moment of happiness, I will put into my medicine bowl.” Drop by drop, you can always find new ways to fill your medicine bowl up with metta!
There are limitless examples of little ways in which we can keep filling up our medicine bowl, and our capacity to feel loving-kindness for ourselves!
It is my hope that you can see your own ability to build up a reservoir of well-being in your medicine bowl to use during the stressful moments of life, which all of us experience at one point or another. This reservoir adds to itself, and reflects outwards each time we add to it like the ripples of a body of water when hit by the smallest of pebbles.
Then, our loving-kindness can start to vibrate outward and positively impact ourselves first, and then everyone whom we come into contact with.
I also believe that this medicine bowl practice can be a very important way to develop inner resilience. Theravada Buddhist teachings often mention that life brings with it change and impermanence – and with that, as is a part of our human experience, there is suffering. Suffering, to me, can be a synonym for stress.
Additionally, for those of us who are involved in the work of social justice, feelings of work-related stress can become very overwhelming, as we engage with, and conscientiously support communities and environments that are struggling with various forms of social inequity and injustice.
So during those moments when we are feeling emotionally depleted or worn out, we can dip into our medicine bowl for a refreshing splash of the healing waters of metta, in order that we may continue the important work we have to do in the world!
I will end this blog post with one last quote from Ruth King’s book “Mindful of Race” that I find to be a great example of what might motivate us to turn again and again to our meditation practice as a practice of peace – to develop the ability to be kind and loving not only towards ourselves, but also, to turn towards the possibility that we may one day be able to send some of the contents of our medicine bowl towards the people who we do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with:
“A metta practice will not make what we don’t want go away, nor will it make what we do like stay. Through this mindfulness practice, we are not trying to change what we are facing. Rather, we are freeing ourselves in the moment by loving ourselves, and we are training ourselves to embrace what is right here, right now, with friendliness and intentional goodwill. But most important, it is about maintaining goodwill toward all, even toward our antagonists.” (pp. 94)
Being able to send metta to literally every single being on the planet is a pretty lofty goal. I, for one, am not claiming to have developed my metta practice to this point. However, I can definitely see the advantages of consistently building a metta practice in order to decrease conflict inside of ourselves, thereby decreasing conflict in the world around us.
By repeatedly practicing metta first for myself, and then for the people who are close to me, and by recognizing and becoming more aware of the plentiful but little moments in life that can fill up my medicine bowl – like spending time with a beloved family member – or taking a walk in a park or by the beach – or going to a yoga class – or simply sitting in silence for a few moments throughout my day – or just slowly and mindfully eating a good meal – I know am working towards developing the ability to direct loving-kindness towards all beings in this world.
It is seemingly little things like building up our inner medicine bowl that eventually will grow into a tremendous force for positive change in this world.