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Hurnse Gaper, Hurwenen, Holland (18th July, 1998)
In Buddhism, meditation on loving-kindness has a very important place. The words loving-kindness are a translation of the Pali word metta, which means friendliness. There is an interesting quotation from the Buddha about the importance of metta. He was talking to a group of monks and he told them that if they could practice loving-kindness even for the time that it would take to snap their fingers, they would be worthy of being monks.
To my mind this has two important implications or two meanings. One is that even if you practice loving-kindness for just a few moments, that is good enough. The other is that it shows the importance of developing loving-kindness.
An interesting psychological point is that one is asked first to practice loving-kindness towards oneself. It shows that it is important to make a connection with oneself. It also shows that for different reasons we may not like ourselves or we may even hate ourselves. We can have this self-destructive aspect, and in a way we are acting like our own enemy. Instead of being our own worst enemy, loving-kindness can help us to be our own best friend.
One very important way of being our own enemy is this habit we all have of giving ourselves minuses in different situations. To put it in another way, we have this inclination to see only the negative aspect of ourselves. Related to that is that we imagine that others are giving us minuses as well. In this way we are like our own enemy, creating a lot of suffering for ourselves and others. One of the meditation masters, Thich Naht Hanh, put it very well; he said we always look for what is wrong in us, never for what is right. It is with the help of awareness and loving-kindness that we can work with this very strong destructive aspect in ourselves.
Meditation on loving-kindness can also help us to learn to see the positive in ourselves. For that we need to consciously bring up and reflect on our own goodness and the positive qualities we have. When we see the positives we develop self-respect, whereby we see more and more of our own goodness and the kind things that we do. I think it is very important to develop self-esteem or self-confidence, because with the self-destructive aspect in us we lose this ability to appreciate ourselves.
Seeing the good in ourselves can create a lot of joy and happiness. I feel that this is very important in the spiritual path. This is the first step of loving-kindness, using meditation of loving-kindness in order to generate a lot of joy and happiness. And of course, when you are happy this can also be infectious, it can affect other people. But the first step is to have this joy, happiness and lightness. The next step is to see your feelings as impermanent, because when you hold on to them they can cause suffering. It is important to realize that they don't belong to us. In Buddhist terms, you see anicca, impermanence and anatta, the absence of a seperate self.
Another aspect of loving-kindness that I emphasise is the importance of feeling grateful. I think we take this very important spiritual quality for granted. When I was in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha is said to have become enlightened, I was reflecting on what is known about what the Buddha did after he had attained enlightenment. One of the things which is recorded is that he contemplated for seven long days the Bodhi tree which had given him shelter. Without closing his eyes to sleep, he stayed looking at the tree, showing his gratitude. Often we take the good fortune we have for granted. We take for granted that we have eyes to see, ears to hear and food to eat.
When this was mentioned in Nilambe, the meditation centre where I live, there was a nun from Thailand who made a very interesting point. She said that not only should we feel grateful for the positive things, but we should also feel grateful for the challenges, for the opportunities in life to work with ourselves. So for instance, when we get angry we can feel grateful that we have an opportunity to study anger. Sometimes when we have physical pain we start hating the pain and the body, but it is possible instead to feel grateful. We can make it an object of our meditation. In this way we learn to be grateful for positive things, the blessings we have; and we can also be grateful for the difficult situations we face, because they can be very valuable learning experiences.
Another aspect in relation to loving-kindness is learning to heal our psychological wounds by forgiving ourselves and forgiving others. These wounds may have been created in childhood or in subsequent relationships. If we do not really heal our wounds, one thing that might happen is that this may create problems in our relationships which cause suffering for ourselves and for others. They can create certain destructive patterns in our relationships. They can also affect our bodies. They may create tensions in our bodies that are related to these repressed emotions or wounds. They can also create illnesses in us. They can also affect our sleep and dreams, so that we might get angry in our sleep, or we might cry in our sleep, or have frightful dreams. These things can be related to the unhealed wounds that we carry. Or we can have sudden emotions, and we can't find a reason for them. Suddenly we feel like crying, suddenly we experience fear or we feel panic.
Another way that these wounds can affect us is when we are dying. A big problem when a person is dying can be the wounds which they have not healed. They may surface in a very strong way. While we are living we can suppress them, we can push them away and not look at them, but when we are dying our mind and body become weak, then these wounds can surface. Unless we heal these wounds we cannot live peacefully and we cannot die peacefully. The meditation on loving-kindness can help us to heal these wounds by forgiving ourselves and by forgiving others, although both may be difficult.
It is sometimes difficult to forgive others because the wounds we carry are normally created by those who are close to us. It is very interesting to reflect on that. People who are distant don't create wounds: penfriends never fall out! Only friends do who are close to us. This is an important aspect of close relationships.
A way of developing this forgiveness is by realising that you are human and others are human also. We sometimes put ourselves on a pedestal and this can be very unrealistic, it may be too idealistic. In Western culture the model you use is often the model of perfection. What happens is that you fall down from this pedestal of perfection, and consequently you suffer from guilt and self-hatred. You give yourself a minus because you have fallen from this pedestal, because you couldn't live up to your own expectations. This is what we do in relation to other people also: we put them on pedestals. In Buddhist terms it means that you want to behave like an enlightened person and you expect that also from other people. And when others don't behave like enlightened people you give them a minus and start hating them. This is how you create so much suffering for yourself.
I sometimes say that if you make a mistake, you should remember: "Don't be surprised, you are still not enlightened". And when you see someone else make a mistake: "Don't be surprised, they are not enlightened either". This is a very simple, direct way of accepting ourselves, our humanness, our imperfection and accepting the imperfection and humanness of others.
There are four positive qualities that are mentioned in the Buddhist texts and we have four Pali words for them. These words are: Metta (loving-kindness), Karuna (helping others in their suffering), Mudita (being happy about your own happiness and being happy about the happiness of others) and Upekha (a detached mind, a mind that is cool, but not cold). These are four beautiful qualities that can be developed. These four qualities are very important in meditation and in life.
In everyday life one should develop friendliness or metta towards oneself and others. And if in your daily life you see people who are suffering, make it a point to do something for them. Then you are practising karuna. Sometimes there is a small thing, a little thing, that you can do in such a situation, just some little act of kindness. In this connection Mother Theresa has said somthing very wise. She said you do not have to do great things, just small acts of love are good enough. With this you develop an openness to the needs of others.
The quality of mudita is to rejoice in your own goodness. To rejoice over our own happiness is something we don't generally do, we simply neglect that. Even more difficult is to rejoice in the happiness of other people. When others are suffering it might be easy to help them. But when they are happy, for us to really experience happiness for them is not so easy. But it is worthwhile trying because it can give more happiness to ourselves. When your own meditation is not going well and you hear that someone else's meditation is going well, can you really be happy then?
The quality that is needed for this is to have a non-reactive mind. In fact this is one of the qualities that we are developing in meditation, upekha. When we are sitting, whatever happens within us, we learn to observe it with a mind that is non-reactive. And when things are happening externally, like noises and disturbances, again we can relate to them without reacting.
To have this quality of equanimity - to be cool but not cold - is extremely important when helping others. Sometimes in helping others we create suffering for ourselves because we are reacting instead of responding. When we react in the course of helping others, we get emotionally excited and stirred up. Responding is trying to do something while keeping a clear mind. It is important to learn to respond and not to react in any situation. But as you are still human, it is possible that you will react instead of responding. In that case you can reflect: "Why am I reacting?" It is possible to learn from this experience of reacting and hopefully, ideally, remind yourself not to react but to respond next time.
Normally we react because we are surprised. Again it is human that we are surprised, because we all have a model and expectations about how things should be. When something happens which goes against this model and our expectations we are surprised and react to it. It is quite human to have ideas and models, but at least when you are reacting, you can reflect on it. Ask yourself what the model is, what the expectation is that you are having.
But don't have the idea, I will not react. Because if you have this ideal of not reacting, then when you react, you will be reacting to that. When you react, make friends with it and try to reflect on it in a very gentle and friendly way, otherwise you will be giving yourself minuses. This is the important thing. We all make mistakes. When we make mistakes, try to make an effort not to give yourself a minus. Though not giving yourself a minus doesn't mean that you just allow such things to happen; you do not indulge in them.
Loving-kindness is important in this respect. You can have a very friendly conversation with yourself. You can ask in a very friendly way: "What did I do? Why did this happen to me?" instead of: "I shouldn't have done this". That last thought is a big minus. Just try to understand why you behaved in such and such a way. So then you can really learn from your mistakes, without giving yourself a minus. In a sense you should give yourself a big plus, because as you have become more aware of your mistakes you can learn from them. You can even rejoice. You can see in this way the importance of loving-kindness. In the same way that you relate to your own mistakes you can then relate to the mistakes other people make.
Yet the self-destructive force in us can be so strong that it is difficult to be friendly to ourselves. The self-destructive feelings can really overwhelm us. This is why awareness is so important in the practice of meditation. When you realise that you have this self-destructive tendency, and this aspect arises together with the minuses, you should immediately catch it. You realise that it is a very strong tendency, a strong conditioning, a habit. It is important to realise that it is only a habit, it is only a conditioning. It is not representing something real. When you see it as a habit you don't give it such a power and energy as when you take it as real.
A very interesting exercise is to ask yourself every day: "How many minuses have I given myself today?" Then try and see also the differences in the minuses you are giving yourself: big ones and small ones. Finally, rather than feeling bad about it, you can laugh at it. Then there is a lightness and even a joy. In the practice of meditation I think it is very important that we work with ourselves in a light-hearted way, even with our shortcomings, rather than be heavy, beat ourselves, or be very serious and intense.