The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.
– The Buddha
I went into the week-long Metta retreat with Sharon Salzberg at IMS last week thinking I knew a little something about metta practice. I certainly didn’t have much experience with the technique, but had done enough that I thought I understood the gist of it. When I try to articulate exactly what I was misunderstanding now, I can’t quite put my finger on it. I was clear that the technique was to create a basic wish for the well being of others, and that this was more for internal transformation than any kind of altering of external phenomena. Perhaps I was just lacking an intensity of experience with the technique to clearly feel the depth of its power. But as I settled into the practice over the first few days I felt as though it was a brand new practice I had never encountered before. And that it was brilliant.
For years I’ve been striving to see God in everyone, to see everyone as a manifestation of Love. But with decades of momentum of my mind operating out of judgment, fear, desire, etc., it can feel sometimes like not much change is actually taking place. I have felt the truth that “where we place our mind is where it will incline” for years, but could never seem to place my mind outside of concern for myself for very long. The way I understand it now is that metta is a way to retrain the mind towards love, towards friendliness, towards goodwill. A kind of rewiring of the brain so that our first instinct is more likely to be open and friendly rather than fear based or closed off. Sharon described it as “inclusive rather than exclusive”.
Much of the meditation practice I’ve done is to shift from the relative level of awareness, to the absolute. Investigation into the nature of the big Self, but perhaps without creating an effective bridge from the “small self”. So this technique that works so intimately with the relative level, with our relationships, and helps build a sort of ladder to awareness of interdependence, is a revelation. Through day after day of intensive focusing on good feelings about myself, people I love, people I barely know, and people I’ve had more difficulty getting along with, I could sense a subtle shift where my mind would default at more of a place of compassion and friendliness. Everything started to just feel a bit more sunny, they describe it as a “gladdening of the mind”.
And though it of course ebbed and flowed throughout the week, and as soon as we began speaking again at the end I could feel the same reflexes and defenses waking back up, there was enough of a shift to give me hope. To imagine living with a heart strong enough to hold an awareness of Love in even the most difficult circumstances is revolutionary, and worth the greatest effort. I have made this technique the centerpiece of my practice for now and am excited to be working with it.