“When we keep opening past any version of who we are that is crafted by others, when we see that we are far bigger than the person who is delineated by family or cultural expectations, we realize that we are capable of so much more than we usually dare to imagine.”
– Sharon Salzberg
‘Metta’ is an ancient Pali word meaning loving-kindness and is a fundamental concept of all schools of Buddhism. A popular practice in Theravadin schools is metta meditation, when concentration is centered on love and wellbeing towards all individuals including oneself. In this extract from her book about kindness, meditation teacher and co-founder of the Insight school, Sharon Salzberg lays out why directing metta towards ourselves is so important for generating positivity which is then passed out into the world. She points out the difference between the healing potential of remorse, which can be very constructive, and the hostility of guilt. We can choose what we focus on, Salzberg writes, so we need not become fixated on the aspects of ourselves we feel to be loathsome; we can learn how to be kind.
Loving ourselves opens us to truly knowing ourselves as part of a matrix of existence, inextricably connected to the boundlessness of life. When we keep opening past any version of who we are that is crafted by others, when we see that we are far bigger than the person who is delineated by family or cultural expectations, we realize that we are capable of so much more than we usually dare to imagine. In this spirit the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “I am larger and better than I thought, I did not think I held so much goodness.”
Yet we might find it far easier to fixate on our bad choices, on the mistakes we’ve made, on the time we stayed silent because we were too timid to speak out, on the afternoon we blurted out a statement without any sensitivity to the consequences, on the awkward incident where now, looking back ashamed, we yearn more than anything in the world to be able to somehow erase it all because we were just so wrong.
An interesting distinction can be made in Buddhist psychology between the state of remorse and the state of guilt. Remorse is considered a skillful state of mind. We recognize that we have said something or done something that has created harm in some way, and we experience the pain of that. But because we essentially forgive ourselves we can let go, and thus we have the energy, the inspiration, not to go on repeating the same mistakes. We need the courage to learn from our past and not live in it.
Guilt, on the other hand, is considered unskillful, because of the component of lacerating self-hatred in it. We go over and over the harmful thing we have done, continually blaming ourselves, stuck there until we are drained. The result is that we are left with no energy to actually transform our actions. We all know those days riddled with guilt—the open acknowledgment of the harm we’ve caused subsumed by a wave of disbelief that we can ever do better. The honest realization of the disharmony we have created takes second stage to a conviction in our supposed enduring and everlasting immorality.
“An interesting distinction can be made in Buddhist psychology between the state of remorse and the state of guilt. Remorse is considered a skillful state of mind.”
So while we heal in part by realizing where we’ve acted wrongly and by feeling genuine remorse, we heal much more completely by remembering that the damaging actions that we recollect are only a part of who we are and of who we might yet become.
Toward that end, a traditional Buddhist contemplation practice is to think of the good within us: the good we have done, the potential for good we can activate. We reflect on the skillful or wholesome actions we’ve done, on the times we’ve had difficult choices to make in areas of morality, and on the times we have tried to be truthful or loving. We reflect on the times we have cared enough to reach out beyond our timidity, on the ways in which we’ve tried to help someone instead of just carelessly letting the chance go by.
The Buddha taught this practice of reflection, obviously not for the cultivation of conceit or arrogance or to increase our neurotic self-preoccupation. He offered this teaching because even if these times of goodness have been fleeting accomplishments, recalling them can fill us with buoyancy and lightness of heart. They remind us of all we are capable of being and help us determine how to live out our aspirations more fully, instead of merely thinking about our deepest values as distant abstractions that we can never achieve. This kind of contemplation becomes the impetus for leading a better life, because we truly believe we can. This becomes the compassionate context in which we can honestly and directly look at the times we have not been so skillful, and go beyond them.
When we find ourselves dismissing our good actions or rejecting any real chance of change, dwelling in a sense of dissatisfaction, convinced that we don’t have enough and we are not enough, we feel impoverished and alone. If we are practicing this reflection acknowledging the good within us, a commitment to change isn’t about despair or depression over who we are right now; it’s not dispirited. We aren’t coming from a place of hopelessness, as though not really believing there could be any more to us than our recklessness and our faults. We know there is a bigger picture of who we are, and we trust in it. Then we become galvanized to actualize it.
A cornerstone of the Buddha’s way to developing genuine happiness is metta meditation. Metta is a word in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, that means lovingkindness or friendship. Metta involves silently repeating phrases that offer good qualities to oneself and to others. It is part of the living tradition of meditation practices that cultivate spaciousness of mind and openness of heart. Classically, metta is taught along with meditations that develop compassion, sympathetic joy (the ability to rejoice in the happiness of others), and equanimity. Together these four are known as the Brahma Viharas. Brahma means supreme, or best. Vihara means abiding or home. So the Brahma Viharas represent our heart’s most supreme abiding, our best home. Metta is the foundation practice of the Brahma Viharas.
Underlying our usual patterns of self-preoccupation, stinging self-judgment, and fear is the universal, innate potential for love and awareness. Metta meditations are based on gently practicing the reflections and actions that point us back to that nascent place within, to feel more comfortable abiding there, to be able to cultivate the love found there and help it flourish.
The flavor of kindness permeates this entire meditation, from the continual refinement of our motives for doing the practice, to the skillful means we employ when we need to persevere in the face of difficulty, to the patience needed to forgive ourselves and begin again after being distracted and forgetful. Metta is considered a concentration practice, which means that we have an object we have chosen to focus on, and we continually shepherd our minds back to it whenever we notice our attention has wandered.
Imagine just for a moment the amount of energy you expend in being lost in brooding over the future, in obsessive planning, in ruminating about the past, in comparing yourself to others, in judging yourself, in worrying about what might happen next. That is a huge amount of energy. Now imagine all of that energy gathered in, returned to you, available to you.
“Metta meditations are based on gently practicing the reflections and actions that point us back to that nascent place within, to feel more comfortable abiding there, to be able to cultivate the love found there and help it flourish.”
The return of that enormous amount of energy, normally dissipated and lost to us, is why concentration practice is so healing and empowering. We experience wholeness, the unification of our being, as we gather this energy back in. What is striking is the fact that this is our own energy—we don’t have to contemplate the daunting task of somehow finding it or fabricating it. It is our own, but we ordinarily waste quite a bit of it.
Concentration may be difficult to develop at first. We may be beset by sleepiness as we are getting more relaxed, with the line between relaxation and sluggishness very blurred. We may find a remarkable degree of restlessness and agitation within, as thinking and planning and worrying bubble up. There might be wild swings of desire and attachment that seem to come out of nowhere. Sudden anger or impatience might fill us. We might have onslaughts of doubt as we wonder why in the world we are sitting there, attempting to concentrate on such phrases. All of these experiences are natural, and if we relate to them with gentle awareness and compassion for ourselves, they may come up, but they won’t dominate. We need just be patient and persistent.
It is important to note, too, that we don’t mistake the phrases of metta for some sort of magical thinking. If we say the phrase, “May I be healthy,” over and over again, for example, it does not follow that we will never be sick. Rather, we are using the phrase as a way of surrounding ourselves with beneficence and good will instead of disparaging ourselves or carping at ourselves.
People often find some difficulty in caring for themselves, in receiving love, in believing they deserve to be happy. Developing care toward ourselves with the power of concentration is the first objective, the foundation for later being able to include others and finally all of life in the sphere of kindness.
From: The Force of Kindness