FACETS OF METTA
Copyright 1995 Sharon Salzberg
"Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness"
by Sharon Salzberg, 1995, Shambala Publications.
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DharmaNet Edition 1995
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.
P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951
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A pearl goes up for auction
No one has enough,
so the pearl buys itself
Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned. Like the
pearl, love can only buy itself, because love is not a matter of
currency or exchange. No one has enough to buy it but everyone has
enough to cultivate it. Metta reunites us with what it means to be
alive and unbound.
Researchers once gave a plant to every resident of a nursing home.
They told half of these elderly people that the plants were theirs to
care for -- they had to pay close attention to their plants' needs for
water and sunlight, and they had to respond carefully to those needs.
The researchers told the other half of the residents that their plants
were theirs to enjoy but that they did not have to take any
responsibility for them; the nursing staff would care for the plants.
At the end of a year, the researchers compared the two groups of
elders. The residents who had been asked to care for their plants
were living considerably longer than the norm, were much healthier,
and were more oriented towards and connected to their world. The
other residents, those who had plants but did not have to stay
responsive to them, simply reflected the norms for people their age in
longevity, health, alertness, and engagement with the world.
This study shows, among other things, the enlivening power of
connection, of love, of intimacy. This is the effect that metta can
have on our lives. But when I heard about the study, I also reflected
on how often we regard intimacy as a force between ourselves and
something outside ourselves -- another person, or even a plant -- and
how rarely we consider the force of being intimate with ourselves,
with our own inner experience. How rarely do we lay claim to our own
lives and feel connected to ourselves!
A way to discover intimacy with ourselves and all of life is to live
with integrity, basing our lives on a vision of compassionate
nonharming. When we dedicate ourselves to actions that do not hurt
ourselves or others, our lives become all of one piece, a "seamless
garment" with nothing separate or disconnected in the spiritual
reality we discover.
In order to live with integrity, we must stop fragmenting and
compartmentalizing our lives. Telling lies at work and expecting
great truths in meditation is nonsensical. Using our sexual energy in
a way that harms ourselves or others, and then expecting to know
transcendent love in another arena, is mindless. Every aspect of our
lives is connected to every other aspect of our lives. This truth is
the basis for an awakened life. When we live with integrity, we
further enhance intimacy with ourselves by being able to rejoice,
taking active delight in our actions. Rejoicing opens us tremendously,
dissolving our barriers, thereby enabling intimacy to extend to all of
life. Joy has so much capacity to eliminate separation that the
Buddha said, "Rapture is the gateway to nirvana."
The enlivening force itself is rapture. It brightens our vitality,
our gratitude, and our love. We begin to develop rapture by rejoicing
in our own goodness. We reflect on the good things we have done,
recollecting times when we have been generous, or times when we have
been caring. Perhaps we can think of a time when it would have been
easy to hurt somebody, or to tell a lie, or to be dismissive, yet we
made the effort not to do that. Perhaps we can think of a time when
we gave something up in a way that freed our mind and helped someone
else. Or perhaps we can think of a time when we have overcome some
fear and reached out to someone. These reflections open us to a
wellspring of happiness that may have been hidden from us before.
Contemplating the goodness within ourselves is a classical meditation,
done to bring light, joy, and rapture to the mind. In contemporary
times this practice might be considered rather embarrassing, because
so often the emphasis is on all the unfortunate things we have done,
all the disturbing mistakes we have made. Yet this classical
reflection is not a way of increasing conceit. It is rather a
commitment to our own happiness, seeing our happiness as the basis for
intimacy with all of life. It fills us with joy and love for
ourselves and a great deal of self-respect.
Significantly, when we do metta practice, we begin by directing metta
toward ourselves. This is the essential foundation for being able to
offer genuine love to others. When we truly love ourselves, we want
to take care of others, because that is what is most enriching, or
nourishing, for us. When we have a genuine inner life, we are
intimate with ourselves and intimate with others. The insight into
our inner world allows us to connect to everything around us, so that
we can see quite clearly the oneness of all that lives. We see that
all beings want to be happy, and that this impulse unites us. We can
recognize the rightness and beauty of our common urge towards
happiness, and realize intimacy in this shared urge.
If we are practicing metta and we cannot see the goodness in ourselves
or in someone else, then we reflect on that fundamental wish to be
happy that underlies all action. "Just as I want to be happy, all
beings want to be happy." This reflection gives rise to openness,
awareness, and love. As we commit to these values, we become
embodiments of a lineage that stretches back through beginningless
time. All good people of all time have wanted to express openness,
awareness, and love. With every phrase of metta, we are declaring our
alignment with these values.
From this beginning, metta practice proceeds in a very structured way
and specific way. After we have spent some time directing metta to
ourselves, we then move on to someone who has been very good to us,
for whom we feel gratitude and respect. In the traditional
terminology, this person is known as a "benefactor." Later we move to
someone who is a beloved friend. It is relatively easy to direct
lovingkindness to these categories of beings (we say beings rather
than people to include the possibility of animals in these
categories.) After we have established this state of connection, we
move on to those that it may be harder to direct lovingkindness
toward. In this way we open up our limits and extend our capacity for
Thus, next we direct lovingkindness to someone whom we feel neutral
toward, someone for whom we feel neither great liking nor disliking.
This is often an interesting time in the practice, because it may be
difficult to find somebody for whom we have no instantaneous judgment.
If we can find such a neutral person, we direct metta toward them.
After this, we are ready for the next step -- directing metta toward
someone with whom we have experienced conflict, someone toward whom we
feel lack of forgiveness, or anger, or fear. In the Buddhist
scriptures this person is somewhat dramatically known as "the enemy."
This is a very powerful stage in the practice, because the enemy, or
the person with whom we have difficulty stands right at the division
between the finite and the infinite radiance of love. At this point,
conditional love unfolds into unconditional love. Here dependent love
can turn to the flowering of an independent love that is not based
upon getting what we want or having our expectations met. Here we
learn that the inherent happiness of love is not compromised by likes
and dislikes, and thus, like the sun, it can shine on everything. This
love is truly boundless. It is born out of freedom, and it is offered
Through the power of this practice, we cultivate an equality of loving
feeling toward ourselves and all beings. There was a time in Burma
when I was practicing metta intensively. I had taken about six weeks
to go through all the different categories: myself, benefactor,
friend, neutral person, and enemy. After I had spent these six weeks
doing the metta meditation all day long, my teacher, U Pandita, called
me into his room and said, "Say you were walking in the forest with
your benefactor, your friend, your neutral person, and your enemy.
Bandits come up and demand that you choose one person in your group to
be sacrificed. Which one would you choose to die?"
I was shocked at U Pandita's question. I sat there and looked deep
into my heart, trying to find a basis from which I could choose. I
saw that I could not feel any distinction between any of those people,
including myself. Finally I looked at U Pandita and replied, "I
couldn't choose; everyone seems the same to me."
U Pandita then asked, "You wouldn't choose your enemy?" I thought a
minute and then answered, "No, I couldn't."
Finally U Pandita asked me, "Don't you think you should be able to
sacrifice yourself to save the others?" He asked the question as if
more than anything else in the world he wanted me to say, "Yes, I'd
sacrifice myself." A lot of conditioning rose up in me -- an urge to
please him, to be "right" and to win approval. But there was no way I
could honestly say "yes," so I said, "No, I can't see any difference
between myself and any of the others." He simply nodded in response,
and I left.
Later I was reading the Visuddhi Magga, one of the great commentarial
works of Buddhist literature which describes different meditation
techniques and the experiences of practicing these techniques. In the
section on metta meditation, I came to that very question about the
bandits. The answer I had given was indeed considered the correct one
for the intensive practice of metta.
Of course, in different life situations many different courses of
action might be appropriate. But the point here is that metta does
not mean that we denigrate ourselves in any situation in order to
uphold other people's happiness. Authentic intimacy is not brought
about by denying our own desire to be happy in unhappy deference to
others, nor by denying others in narcissistic deference to ourselves.
Metta means equality, oneness, wholeness. To truly walk the Middle Way
of the Buddha, to avoid the extremes of addiction and self-hatred, we
must walk in friendship with ourselves as well as with all beings.
When we have insight into our inner world and what brings us
happiness, then wordlessly, intuitively, we understand others. As
though there were no longer a barrier defining the boundaries of our
caring, we can feel close to others' experience of life. We see that
when we are angry, there is an element of pain in the anger that is
not different from the pain that others feel when they are angry. When
we feel love there is a distinct and special joy in that feeling. We
come to know that this is the nature of love itself, and that other
beings filled with love experience of this same joy.
In practicing metta we do not have to make a certain feeling happen.
In fact, during the practice we see that we feel differently at
different times. Any momentary emotional tone is far less relevant
than considerable power of intention we harness as we say these
phrases. As we repeat, "May I be happy; may all beings be happy," we
are planting seeds by forming this powerful intention in the mind. The
seed will bear fruit in its own time.
When I was practicing metta intensively in Burma, at times when I
repeated the metta phrases, I would picture myself in a wide open
field planting seeds. Doing metta we plant the seeds of love, knowing
that nature will take its course and in time those seeds will bear
fruit. Some seeds will come to fruition quickly, some slowly, but our
work is simply to plant the seeds. Every time we form the intention
in the mind for our own happiness or for the happiness of others, we
are doing our work; we are channeling the powerful energies of our own
minds. Beyond that, we can trust the laws of nature to continually
support the flowering of our love. As Pablo Neruda says:
Perhaps the earth can teach us,
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
When we started our retreat center, Insight Meditation Society, in
1975, many of us there decided to do a self-retreat for a month to
inaugurate the center. I planned to do metta for the entire month.
This was before I'd been to Burma, and it would be my first
opportunity to do intensive and systematic metta meditation. I had
heard how it was done in extended practice, and I planned to follow
that schedule. So the first week I spent directing lovingkindness
towards myself. I felt absolutely nothing. It was the dreariest,
most boring week I had known in some time. I sat there saying, "May I
be happy, may I be peaceful," over and over again with no obvious
Then, as it happened, someone we knew in the community had a problem,
and a few of us had to leave the retreat suddenly. I felt even worse,
thinking, "Not only did I spend this week doing metta and getting
nothing from it, but I also never even got beyond directing metta
towards myself. So on top of everything else, I was really selfish."
I was in a frenzy getting ready to leave. As I was hurriedly getting
everything together in my bathroom, I dropped a jar. It shattered all
over the floor. I still remember my immediate response: "You are
really a klutz, but I love you." And then I thought, "Wow! Look at
that. Something did happen in this week of practice."
So the intention is enough. We form the intention in our mind for our
happiness and the happiness of all. This is different from struggling
to fabricate a certain feeling, to create it out of our will, to make
it happen. We just settle back and plant the seeds without worrying
about the immediate result. That is our work. If we do our work, then
manifold benefits will surely come.
Fortunately, the Buddha was characteristically precise about what
those benefits include. He said that the intimacy and caring that
fill our hearts as the force of lovingkindness develops will bring
eleven particular advantages:
1) You will sleep easily.
2) You will wake easily.
3) You will have pleasant dreams.
4) People will love you.
5) Devas [celestial beings] and animals will love you.
6) Devas will protect you.
7) External dangers [poisons, weapons, and fire] will not harm you.
8) Your face will be radiant.
9) Your mind will be serene.
10) You will die unconfused.
11) You will be reborn in happy realms.
People doing formal metta practice often memorize these eleven
benefits and recite them to themselves regularly. Reminding ourselves
of the fruit of our intention and effort can bring a lot of faith and
rapture, sustaining us through those inevitable times when it seems as
if the practice is not "getting anywhere." When we consider each of
these benefits, we can see more fully how metta revolutionizes our
When we steep our hearts in lovingkindness, we are able to sleep
easily, to awaken easily, and to have pleasant dreams. To have
self-respect in life, to walk through this life with grace and
confidence, means having a commitment to nonharming and to loving
care. If we do not have these things, we can neither rest nor be at
peace; we are always fighting against ourselves. The feelings we
create by harming are painful both for ourselves and for others. Thus
harming leads to guilt, tension, and complexity. Sleeping easily,
waking easily, But living a clear and simple life, free from
resentment, fear, and guilt, extends into our sleeping, dreaming and
The next benefit the Buddha pointed out is that if we practice metta
we will receive in return the love of others. This is not a heartless
calculating motivation, but rather a recognition that the energy we
extend in this world draws to it that same kind of energy. If we
extend the force of love, love returns to us. The American
psychologist William James once said, "My experience is what I agree
to attend to. Only those items I notice shape my mind." Perhaps this
is partially how this law works -- opening to the energy of love
within us, we can notice it more specifically around us.
It happens on other levels as well. If we are committed in our lives
to the force of lovingkindness, then people know that they can trust
us. They know we will not deceive them; we will not harm them. By
being a beacon of trustworthiness in this world, we become a safe
haven for others and a good friend.
The next set of benefits the Buddha points out promises that if we
practice metta we will be protected. Devas, and other invisible
beings, are classically taught as part of the Buddhist cosmology, but
we don't have to believe in the intervention of invisible forces in
order to comprehend how the practice of metta protects us. This
assertion does not mean being protected in the sense that nothing bad
will ever happen to us, because clearly the vicissitudes of life are
completely outside our control. Pleasure and pain, gain and loss,
praise and blame, and fame and ill repute will revolve throughout our
lives. But nevertheless we can be protected by the nature of how we
receive, how we hold that which our karma brings us.
Albert Einstein said, "The splitting of the atom has changed
everything except for how we think." How we think, how we look at our
lives, is all-important, and the degree of love we manifest determines
the degree of spaciousness and freedom we can bring to life's events.
Imagine taking a very small glass of water and putting into it a
teaspoon of salt. Because of the small size of the container, the
teaspoon of salt is going to have a big impact upon the water.
However, if you approach a much larger body of water, such as a lake,
and put into it that same teaspoonful of salt, it will not have the
same intensity of impact, because of the vastness and openness of the
vessel receiving it. Even when the salt remains the same, the
spaciousness of the vessel receiving it changes everything.
We spend a lot of our lives looking for a feeling of safety or
protection; we try to alter the amount of salt that comes our way.
Ironically, the salt is the very thing that we cannot do anything
about, as life changes and offers us repeated ups and downs. Our true
work is to create a container so immense that any amount of salt, even
a truckload, can come into it without affecting our capacity to
receive it. No situation, even an extreme one, then can mandate a
Once I had a meditation student who had been a child in Nazi-occupied
Europe. She recounted an instance when she was around ten years old
when a German soldier held a gun to her chest -- a situation that
would readily arouse terror. Yet she related feeling no fear at all,
thinking, "You may be able to kill my body, but you can't kill me."
What a spacious reaction! It is in this way that lovingkindness opens
the vastness of mind in us, which is ultimately our greatest
Another benefit of cultivating of metta is that one's face becomes
very clear and shining. This means that an unfeigned inner beauty
shines forth. We know in life situations how mind affects matter, how
if we are enraged about something, it shows in our face. If somebody
is full of hatred, it shows in the way they stand, the way they move,
the way their jaw is set. It is not very attractive. No amount of
make-up, jewelry, or embellishments bring beauty to a sullen,
disgruntled, angry face. In just the same way, when someones mind is
filled with the rapture of lovingkindness or compassion, it is
beautiful to see the expression of light, of radiance, on their face
With the practice of metta one also has a serene mind. The feeling of
lovingkindness generates great peace. This is the mind that can say,
"You are really a klutz, but I love you." It is a feeling endowed with
acceptance, patience, and spaciousness. This great peace allows union
with all of life, because we are not relying on changing circumstances
for our happiness.
The peace of metta offers the kind of happiness that gives us the
ability to concentrate. Serenity is the most important ingredient in
being able to be present or being able to concentrate the mind.
Concentration is an act of cherishing a chosen object. If we have no
serenity, the mind will be scattered, and we will not be able to
gather in the energy that is being lost to distraction. When we can
concentrate, all of this energy is returned to us. This is the
potency that heals us.
If we practice metta, another major benefit is that we will die
unconfused. Our habitual ways of thinking, acting, and relating to
life tend to be the ones that are strongest at the time of death as
well. If we spend a lifetime feeling separate, apart, cultivating
anger, giving way to frustration, to fear, to desire, that will likely
be the mental-emotional environment within which we face our death.
But if we have lived our life in a way that honors our connectedness,
reflects our oneness, and cultivates caring and giving, that is likely
to be how we will die.
The last specific benefit the Buddha spoke of was being reborn in
happy realms as a result of filling our hearts with lovingkindness.
The potential for rebirth again and again in various realms of
pleasure or pain is part of the Buddhist worldview. For someone who
subscribes to this vision of life, rebirth in a realm where one can
attain liberation is most important. For those who don't subscribe to
this vision, the benefits of metta can surely be seen to come to us in
Metta is the priceless treasure that enlivens us and brings us into
intimacy with ourselves and others. It is the force of love that will
lead beyond fragmentation, loneliness and fear. The late Hindu guru
Neem Karoli Baba often said, "Don't throw anyone out of your heart."
One of the most powerful healings (and greatest adventures) of our
lifetime can come about as we learn to live by this dictum.
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From Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon
Salzberg, copyright 1995. Reprinted by permission of Shambala
Publications, Inc. Available at local bookstores or from Shambala,