The metta bhavana can be a tough nut to crack. Its five stages, outlined in a recent post, are meant to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for different people, first for oneself, then for a friend, then for a neutral person, then for an enemy, and finally for everyone in the earlier stages, with an increasingly expanding circle that eventually includes all sentient beings.
I’ve learned a few ways of going about the meditation from different sources, including teachers, fellow sangha members, books, and even Google searches. The goal is to create a sense of loving-kindness, and how you get there in your own practice seems to be unimportant, so many people have advised me to try different approaches until I find one that works for me. Right now I’m using varying approaches that seem to work better for the different stages.
For Stage 1, where the focus is oneself, I usually visualize myself in a happy and safe setting. I’ve called up images from childhood, probably more iconic than historical, because I doubt I’m the only person who finds it much easier to feel loving-kindness for the child version of myself than for the adult version of myself. But using this kind of visualization opens the door to running away with the storyline, and a metta bhavana meditation can become a stroll down memory lane. Other times I’ll simply imagine myself sitting there on the cushion, from the vantage point of an observer who thinks, “this guy isn’t so bad after all…” That’s not quite metta, but it at least prepares the way.
For Stage 2, visualizing a close friend smiling or laughing usually does the trick, but I sometimes find myself wanting to know what my friend is laughing about. So off I go, following the storyline as I create it. Other times I’ll recite (some version of) the lines that many people use in the metta bhavana: May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be loved… The danger there of course is that it’s easy to simply recite the lines and forget about the metta itself, to just go through the motions without any emotion. But Stage 2 is generally the easiest stage, probably for most people, because you start from a point of naturally feeling metta for a close friend. That’s why one of my teachers sometimes reverses the order of the first two stages, starting with the one that comes prepackaged with a good amount of metta to get the ball rolling.
In Stage 3, I’ve found that what works best for me, so far at least, is to imagine that neutral person doing something mundane that I’ve never actually seen him or her do. Riding the subway, waking up in the morning, smiling at a partner or friend. There’s no storyline for me to fall into, but there is a sense of familiarity. This person does the same sort of things that everyone else does, myself included. So these images come with a sense of camaraderie, with that crucial recognition that we’re all in this together. That makes metta easier to cultivate.
I’ll skip to Stage 5 now, and then come back to Stage 4, and the lifeboat. Stage 5 starts out easily enough for me, with all four of us in a room, and me feeling by that point in the meditation enough metta to go from face to face and look on each of the players with loving-kindness. It’s the spreading-out that’s challenging for me. The expanding sphere image doesn’t work for me for the admittedly ridiculous reason that a sphere will include the layers of the earth before it reaches people on the other side of the globe, and I find myself fixating on images from high school geology textbooks. (I’ve admitted that this is ridiculous.) Spreading out over the surface of the planet is good enough, but I’m a bit of a map geek, so there are geographical distractions. Plus, it’s all so abstract, with a bit too many special effects for my tastes. What I usually do is a kind of shuffle of faces that I’ve encountered through the day, some real, most composites or complete fiction, and I try to look on each one as a real person, with all the same desires and challenges that I have. It’s a bit like walking down a crowded street and making an effort to look on each passer-by with metta, with a recognition of similarity rather than otherness.
Stage 4 is of course the most challenging, and the technique I use depends on whether I’m calling to mind simply someone who annoys me, or someone who I actually think of as an Enemy. Smiling, happy images tend to work for the former, while using the moon trick works for the latter. One of my teachers, the one who shared the moon trick with me, recently had another great suggestion for when I’m having a hard time getting past the past:
Imagine yourself in a very rough sea, with waves crashing around and on top of you. You’re coughing up water and at risk of going under, of drowning, but your Enemy is a few feet away in a lifeboat, and he or she is reaching out to you, trying to pull you out of danger, to save your life.
That really changes the dynamic! Suddenly the Enemy is not all bad, and maybe even quite good. You can imagine the look on his or her face, reaching as far out as possible to grasp your hands, really desperate to save you from drowning. Obviously you feel gratitude, which isn’t quite the same as metta, but which is at least something you can work with as a foundation for evoking feelings of metta.
I have a feeling that the metta bhavana is always going to be a work in progress, and it’s probably the case that people develop different approaches at different times, or with different players in the mix. The good news is that there’s an endless supply of practice opportunities off the cushion. The guy on his cellphone in the elevator next to me? May he be happy, may he be free from suffering… The woman paying by check in line at the grocery store ahead of me? May she be safe from inner and outer harm… And me? May I be filled with loving-kindness, at least some of the time…