During my long and varied work life, I have occasionally been employed in retail and food service. Invariably, some customers would be rude, angry, destructive, or just generally irritating. Sometimes these would be repeat customers – someone I had to deal with more than once. In office settings, usually there has been a difficult coworker; and of course occasional flare-ups happened with someone with whom usually I worked comfortably. Even in close relationships with family and friends, sometimes conflict and resentment arise. It seems now these types of feelings are expressed regularly and loudly, in political, social, and commercial settings, nationally and globally.
Before I started practicing the way of Buddha, I learned a Buddhist practice that helped me remember how to act in a loving way toward another, even when feeling unloving toward them. It is called metta meditation. Metta is a Pali word translated as “loving kindness.” A web search on metta will reveal many references and resources, both traditional forms and more modern interpretations. I will just explain how I have used metta practice and how it has helped me; I hope that you will explore the use of metta meditation and see if it benefits you also.
In metta meditation, we express a short series of well-wishes toward ourselves, someone beloved by us, a friend or ally, someone neutral to us, and an enemy or someone with whom we have difficulty. We use the same series of well-wishes toward all five categories of beings. Initially we are building up a reservoir of goodwill and affection, of love. As we continue the recitations, we offer this store of goodwill to others. The well-wishes include physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. For example, common phrases are “safe and free from harm,” “be happy,” and “know peace.” Here is an example of a metta meditation that I have used:
May I be safe from illness, injury, and harm.
May I be free from fear, anger, worry, and anxiety.
May I know peace.
May I remember kindness and generosity.
May I find the joy of my own true being.
May I be happy.
We start by saying these phrases for ourselves, because the prevailing belief is that we naturally love ourselves more than anything else. In my experience, this is not always true – whether from self-criticism, a feeling of being selfish, or past abuse, sometimes starting with ourselves does not generate that reservoir of love we seek to create. Sometimes it is better to start with someone or something we genuinely already feel loving toward – maybe it is our spouse or child; maybe it is a pet or even a favorite tree. Toward this loved one we find it is easy to say “May you be safe and free from illness, injury, and all harm... May you know peace... May you be happy.” We fill ourselves with good intention toward this person. We want the best for them. We hope for their good health, for their peace of mind and security, for their happiness. We remember their good qualities. We are filled with warmth and goodwill on their behalf. It may be that we can feel this way about ourselves easily, or we may need to work into it.
Either way, beginning with yourself or with someone you love, recite the series of well-wishes you have devised or adopted from another source. Then follow that series with a second round for the person you did not begin with – yourself or your loved one. The third recitation of these phrases is for a friend or ally, someone who maybe is not as close but toward whom you feel positively. Bring that person to mind – picture them and smile, then say the good-intentions for their benefit. Next say these words for someone who is more neutral to you – perhaps a neighbor or a clerk in a frequented store, a delivery person seen occasionally. Finally, bring to mind someone you feel has harmed you or toward whom you feel anger, and offer exactly the same set of good thoughts for that person.
It is important to take time when doing this practice. Take time to quiet yourself beforehand and be in a place where you will be undisturbed. Maybe after many hours of practice these phrases will come to mind instantly in daily encounters, but at first it takes practice to nurture these feelings toward ourselves and others. Mean the words as you say them, or allow the meaning of the words to permeate your consciousness and develop.
When I have used this metta meditation, I have experienced valuable benefit. My feelings about myself have become more affectionate and tempered with a sense of humor, a little more self-compassion, and kindness. When offering the phrases for someone else, sometimes I find myself walking in their shoes, willing to see what circumstances might lead to their ill-being or anger. After many repetitions, I have found that when I again see a person I have considered an enemy, I am no longer able to be unkind or rude to them: I have wished so much for their well-being in my meditation that I feel the same when I see them in person. My change of attitude usually elicits a similar change in them. Both of us are happier.
Sometimes we add one more round of recitation for all beings. “May all beings be free from...” Our storehouse of love, then feeds the entire world.
*Recommended books on metta meditation: Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh; Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.