Skip to content

Metta practice

I have to admit that I don’t take this whole unemployment thing well. I’m not actually in any financial trouble, in fact this ought to be like a vacation — full pay and benefits until mid-September, followed by significant severance if I haven’t rejoined Sun somehow — but I still don’t do it well. What’s worse, because I am perfectly capable of worry about the relatively distant future even if it isn’t realistic, I start noticing everything that makes me feel financially limited; currently I’m waiting for some payments for various freelance writing things, and for various reasons they haven’t come through.

When that happens, I start feeling something else: I feel that there is something wrong with me. I’m certainly not alone in this. In fact, I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach, and also listening to her podcasts. She is a therapist who also has a long-time Buddhist practice, and before that a long time as a yogini in an ashram.

She tells an interesting story. The Dalai Lama was visiting a seminar for Buddhist-oriented therapists, and one of the therapists asks how to deal in a Buddhist fashion with the feeling of self-hate, the feeling that one is not valuable, not good enough, not acceptable?

HHDL[1] said, “The what? Is that some kind of emotional disease?” When they assured him it was one of the most common emotional issues in the West, he was basically dumbfounded.

Now, it’s easy to see how he might find this a little odd: he had, after all, been told since he was about five years old that he was the fourteenth incarnation of a great Lama, and the incarnation of Avalokitesvara Boddhisattva besides. I’d be very curious to find out if that’s common among regular civilian Tibetans, much less Chinese, Mongolians, and so on, but that’s just an aside. In the mean time, though, I want to talk about that sense in itself. Tara’s whole book talks about dealing with that sense of yourself through consciously taking tender regard for yourself.

“Tender regard” here has a name in Pali and Sanskrit. In Pali it’s metta; in Sanskrit maitri(मैत्रि).[2] The word is often translated “lovingkindness,” which I think sounds a little goofy, but there it is, that’s the translation you’d usually find.

In any case, though, the emotion, the feeling, is pretty familiar. It’s the feeling of kind regard you have, for example, when you see a kitten or a puppy.

You are here.

You are here.

Metta is very closely related to karuna (करुन) the compassionate recognition of another’s suffering. (See my post on “Karuna and Jesse Helms.”)

In the Mettasutta, Buddha teaches a particular way of training ourselves to evoke this feeling. This is called metta practice.

It begins with yourself. Compose yourself for meditation, get comfortably seated, and then say to yourself:

May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be free.
May I be at peace.

While you say those phrases, try to remember how you felt about the kitten picture (or if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like kittens the hell with you you can imagine a puppy, or a newborn baby, or whatever.) The point is, though, to feel that particular feeling about yourself.

You then, to continue the practice, extend that to someone you love.

May she be well.
May she be happy.
May she be free.
May she be at peace.

Extend it to someone to whom you’re pretty indifferent.

May the guy at the desk in the health club be well.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be happy.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be free.
May the guy at the desk in the health club be at peace.

Extend it to someone you dislike.

May Jerry Seinfeld be well.
May Jerry Seinfeld be happy.
May Jerry Seinfeld be free.
May Jerry Seinfeld be at peace.

You continue this to larger and larger groups, until (if you’re feeling mystical) you extend it to “all sentient beings through this and all the innumerable Dharma realms.” In each case, though, you’re trying to retain that feeling of metta and of karuna: you are striving to feel tender regard and compassion for them.

What’s interesting is that, based on Tara’s book, I’m starting to understand something about that first stage: when I’m feeling, as I am now, that I’m not good enough, inadequate, some kind of freak, I need to remember to have metta and karuna for myself.

This is a little tricky.

One definition of karuna I’ve seen is “understanding without judging.” Of course, when I feel like I’m not good enough, that’s the very opposite of “understanding without judging.” Instead, I get caught up telling myself a story that I should have done something different, that I should be someone different. What I get caught in that story, I feel like hell. When I’m telling an editor (as I was this week) that I didn’t get the check because they sent the check to my old mailing address, even though I made a special effort to warn them that they needed to use my new mailing address, the story I’m telling myself is about how I’m bad for causing them trouble.

This is the very definition of duhkha. In fact (stealing a line from Tara, who was quoting someone else) the heart of duhkha is telling ourselves that things should be somehow different. Of course, the next step of that is to remember that the editor was in a position I could easily have been in myself; extend metta and karuna to the editor as well. But, truthfully, at least for me the issue is usually not about someone else, it’s about myself: what did I do, why did it happen, what did I do to deserve this? Remembering to practice metta helps me break that habit.

  1. This is apparently how insiders refer to him: “His Holiness the DalaiLama.” []
  2. A small warning: I’m just learning devanagari, so don’t take my spelling as authoritative. If you are reading this and catch an error, please leave a comment. []

{ 3 } Comments

  1. amba | 2008-Jul-29 at 22:30 (@979) | Permalink

    Although on the masthead and a vital, entrenched part of the editing team, I am still paid on a freelance basis (suits them because they don’t have to give me bennies, which I get anyway through J’s Screen Actors Guild; suits me because they don’t have to deduct taxes; I’m supposed to tax myself, but can put it off), and because of that I go through this frequently. Even though I send an invoice every month, even though I attempt to get them everything they need work-wise when they need it, even though they know it’s a hardship for me when my payment is late, time after time ten days pass — about the amount of time it takes to get paid when things go well, and, I think, very reasonable — and then we get to the two-week mark, and then I have to pester them. In summer, the people who sign and countersign the checks are often just on vacation, so tough. Once the publisher let it sit on his desk and simply forgot to sign it. Etc. The only way I can be sure this WON’T happen is to as the editor-in-chief to take special pains to expedite my payment, which is humiliating and makes me feel like I’m making nuisance demands. I have to meet a debt management payment by the end of each month (automatic debit) and it is a hair-raising squeaker way too often. My family bails me out from time to time, sometimes to help with extraordinary expenses, sometimes temporarily, when the check is late, all of which also makes me feel like a beggar and a liability.

    But this is part of the free-lance life. In the 1970s I was doing monthly book reviews for VIVA, the short-lived sister publication of Penthouse. Time and again I’d have to ask for my check, and once someone told me “Anthony Guccione [Bob’s father, who signed the checks] doesn’t like to sign checks.” You know he signed the big ones, for the color separations and the ad salespeople and the printers. It’s always the writer who gets screwed, first of all because we’re being paid so little compared to the visual and administrative people that paying us must almost feel dispensable; and second of all because most writers are riddled with self-doubt — it’s a side effect or necessary occupational hazard of writing, somehow; the uncertainty that you can actually do it THIS TIME is essential to the life-and-death struggle to do it well. If you didn’t feel your very existence was at stake, would you fight so hard and come out with something as good? (Or is that just me?)

    Anyway, it all adds up to a sign on our backs saying KICK ME. Or maybe it says, STIFF ME.

  2. Charlie | 2008-Jul-30 at 15:01 (@667) | Permalink

    Yay, comments!

  3. Charlie | 2008-Jul-30 at 15:01 (@667) | Permalink

    BTW, I remember quite liking Viva.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.