Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto
In case you’re new to meditation and have never heard of the metta bhavana, it’s a very old and basic meditation meant to cultivate feelings of metta, usually translated as loving-kindness. It’s not romantic love, or attached love, or even familial love, but rather the kind of love, compassion, kindness, courtesy, empathy, and all of those other good things that, if universally applied, would make the world a much nicer place.
You can get far better instruction on the metta bhavana than these few words here, but in a very quick nutshell, it’s divided into five stages. In each stage, your focus is a different person (people in the last stage), but the aim is the same. You actively seek to evoke and feel metta for the person (or people) you’re focusing on, maybe by conjuring up an image of the person in a tranquil and safe setting, maybe by saying his/her name, maybe by reciting – with heart! – words like “May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you…” You get the picture.
The stages of the metta bhavana have as their focal points or objects of concentration:
- Stage 1: Yourself
- Stage 2: A good friend, someone you love dearly but not in a sexual way, ideally with as little baggage and as few attached strings as possible
- Stage 3: A neutral person, someone who you see regularly and maybe know by name, but don’t have strong feelings for one way or the other
- Stage 4: An enemy, someone you know and dislike, have a negative history with, or someone who you’re bothered by or are having difficulties with
- Stage 5: Everyone from stages 1 through 4, then gradually a wider circle that expands to include all living beings.
When I first learned the metta bhavana, I remember thinking, “I don’t have any real enemies!” And it was probably even true at that time. I had people who annoyed me, just as I annoyed them, I’m sure, but that didn’t seem like much of a challenge. How hard is it to evoke feelings of compassion and kindness for someone who only annoys you?
As it so happens, I would soon enough be supplied with someone who genuinely rises to the level of enemy for me. A person who, on some days at least, I can’t think of without feeling a whole host of bitter and negative emotions. I don’t wish harm on this person, but I certainly have a hard time wringing any sort of compassion and kindness out of the tangle of emotions I do feel. Usually, I simply don’t think of this person, but every so often, when I’m feeling strong, I have my enemy for Stage 4 of the metta bhavana.
This can be tricky. On the one hand, it seems to be precisely the kind of challenge the metta bhavana offers us. If we can bring ourselves to feel compassion and kindness when it’s hard to do so, to say “we’re all human beings in the same boat, so I feel for you and your suffering because it’s mine, too,” we’d all be better people for everyone, ourselves included. On the other hand, most of us aren’t immune to flashes of strong emotion, and a perfectly well-intentioned metta bhavana can wind up creating hatred and ill will, and that’s not something we want to let ourselves steep in.
My solution is usually to simply pick an “easy” enemy. Someone who’s bothering me for some silly reason. But every once in a while I feel that my practice deepens if I come back to the Enemy, and actively look within myself to find and nurture the part of me that recognizes common suffering, that’s able to set aside a very real and bitter history and simply say, “despite it all, we have dukkha in common,” and that’s enough to create even a small spark of compassion and loving-kindness.
It helps that one of my teachers, a Triratna Order Member, had a very simple trick for me to use. I’d gone to him with the concern that my practice was getting clouded by feelings of hatred and ill will, and that I wasn’t able to handle a real enemy in the metta bhavana. He said that I didn’t always have to force myself to confront such a difficult person, that sometimes the “easy enemy” is practice enough. As for the Enemy with a capital E, he said, “put them on the moon!” It took me a moment, but I think I understood what he meant. Make distance, give yourself space. Encourage so wide a perspective that you don’t see the details of betrayal and anger and all the rest, just the outline of a person, far away, who’s trying to get through life the same as you are. Slowly, you can bring them back toward the Earth, and slowly the negative emotions will be replaced by genuine compassion and loving-kindness, with time and practice.
And if you have set-backs, hey, there’s always Pluto.