Being my Own Gentle Friend by Sharon Salzberg
The Pali word metta has two root meanings.
- One root meaning is the word for “gentle.” Metta is likened to a gentle rain that falls upon the earth. This rain does not select and choose—”I’ll rain here, and I’ll avoid that place over there.” Rather, it simply falls without discrimination.
- The other root meaning for metta is “friend.” To understand the power or the force of metta is to understand true friendship. The Buddha actually described at some length what he meant by being a good friend in the world.
He talked about a good friend as someone who is constant in our times of happiness and also in our times of adversity or unhappiness. A friend will not forsake us when we are in trouble nor rejoice in our misfortune. The Buddha described a true friend as being a helper, someone who will protect its when we are unable to take care of ourselves, who will be a refuge to us when we are afraid.
“Being My Own Best Friend”
The practice of metta, uncovering the force of love that can uproot fear, anger, and guilt, begins with befriending ourselves. The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend. According to the Buddha, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” How few of us embrace ourselves in this way!
With metta practice we uncover the possibility of truly respecting ourselves. We discover, as Walt Whitman put it, “I am larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness.”
A Simple Metta Practice
Sit comfortably. You can begin with five minutes of reflection on the good within you or your wish to be happy. Then choose three or four phrases that express what you most deeply wish for yourself, and repeat them over and over again. You can coordinate the phrases with the breath, if you wish, or simply have your mind rest in the phrases without a physical anchor.
Feel free to experiment, and be creative. Without trying to force or demand a loving feeling, see if there are circumstances you can imagine yourself in where you can more readily experience friendship with yourself. Is it seeing yourself as a young child? One friend imagined himself sitting surrounded by all the most loving people he had ever heard of in the world, receiving their kindness and good wishes. For the first time, love for himself seemed to enter his heart.
Develop a gentle pacing with the phrases; there is no need to rush through them, or say them harshly. You are offering yourself a gift with each phrase. If your attention wanders, or if difficult feelings or memories arise, try to let go of them in the spirit of kindness, and begin again repeating the metta phrases:
- “May I be free from danger.”
- “May I have mental happiness.”
- “May I have physical happiness.”
- “May I have ease of well-being.”
There are times when feelings of unworthiness come up strongly, and you clearly see the conditions that limit your love for yourself. Breathe gently, accept that these feelings have arisen, remember the beauty of your wish to be happy, and return to the metta phrases.
The Need for Happiness
What unites us all as human beings is an urge for happiness, which at heart is a yearning for union, for overcoming our feelings of separateness. We want to feel our identity with something larger than our small selves. We long to be one with our own lives and with each other.
If we look at the root of even the most terrible addictions, even the most appalling violence in this world, somewhere we will find this urge to unite, to be happy. In some form it is there, even in the most distorted and odious disguises. We can touch that. We can draw near and open up. We can connect, to the difficult forces within ourselves, and to the different experiences in our lives. We can break through the concepts that keep us apart. This is the true nature of love and the source of healing for ourselves and our world. This is the ground of freedom.
Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world. Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves. We can open to everything with the healing force of love. When we feel love, our mind is expansive and open enough to include the entirety of life in full awareness, both its pleasures and its pains. We feel neither betrayed by pain nor overcome by it, and thus we can contact that which is undamaged within us regardless of the situation. Metta sees truly that our integrity is inviolate, no matter what our life situation may be. We do not need to fear anything. We are whole: our deepest happiness is intrinsic to the nature of our minds, and it is not damaged through uncertainty and change.
In cultivating love, we remember one of the most powerful truths the Buddha taught—that the mind is naturally radiant and pure. It is because of visiting defilements that we suffer.
Difficulties of the Mind
The word defilement is a common translation of the Pali word kilesa, which more literally translated means “torment of the mind.” We know directly from our own experience that when certain states arise strongly within us, they have a tormenting quality—states like anger, fear, guilt, and greed. When they knock at the door and we invite them in, we lose touch with the fundamentally pure nature of our mind, and then we suffer.
By not identifying with these forces, we learn that these defilements or torments are only visitors. These forces are adventitious, not inherent. They do not reflect who we really are. The defilements or the kilesas inevitably arise because of how we have been conditioned. But this is no reason to judge ourselves harshly. Our challenge is to see them for what they are and to remember our true nature.
We can understand the inherent radiance and purity of our minds by understanding metta. Like the mind, metta is not distorted by what it encounters. Anger generated within ourselves or within others can be met with love; the love is not ruined by the anger. Metta is its own support, and thus it is free of inherently unstable conditions. The loving mind can observe joy and peace in one moment, and then grief in the next moment, and it will not be shattered by the change. A mind filled with love can be likened to the sky with a variety of clouds moving through it—some light and fluffy, others ominous and threatening. No matter what the situation, the sky is not affected by the clouds. It is free.
The Buddha taught that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down the positive forces such as Love or wisdom, but they can never destroy them. The negative forces can never uproot the positive, whereas the positive forces can actually uproot the negative forces. Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt, because it is a greater power.
The Power of LOVE
Love can go anywhere. Nothing can obstruct it. No external condition can prevent love; no one and , no thing can stop it. The awakening of love is not bound up in things being a certain way. Metta, like the true nature of the mind, is not dependent; it is not conditioned. When we practice meditation and perceive this quality of mind, we also contact the essence of metta. This produces a tremendous change in perspective. At first it is as if we were sitting on the shore and watching waves dance on the surface of the ocean. Later in meditation it is as if we are under water, in the calm, still depths, watching the waves above us moving and playing. Still later we perceive that, in fact, we are the water, not apart or separate, and that waving is happening. This is also how metta embraces all.
Directly seeing the natural radiance of our minds re-teaches us our own loveliness. To allude to a phrase in the Zen tradition, this is our original face before we were born—before we were born into identification with a separate, limited self. Recognizing our own power to love points us directly to recognizing this primordial radiance.
Confidence in our innate potential to be loving human beings empowers the cultivation of metta. Our potential to love is very real and is somehow not destroyed, no matter what we experience: all of the mistakes that we might make, all of the times that we are caught in reaction, all of the times we have caused pain, all of the times we have suffered. Throughout everything, our potential to love remains intact and pure. Through practicing metta in meditation and in daily life, we cultivate this potential. Love joins with our intention, as partners in healing ourselves and our world.
In some ways our greatest ally in this practice of love is our wish to be happy. This wish functions as a homing instinct for freedom when we can unite it with understanding what actually brings us happiness. But sometimes we may feel that we do not really deserve happiness; we may feel almost ashamed of wanting it. Yet this wish is one of the finest things about us, opening the door to transcending our limited lives.
True Spiritual Transformation
For a true spiritual transformation to flourish, we must see beyond this tendency to mental self-flagellation. Spirituality based on self-hatred can never sustain itself. Generosity coming from self-hatred becomes martyrdom. Morality born of self-hatred becomes rigid repression. Love for others without the foundation of love for ourselves becomes a loss of boundaries, codependency, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy. But when we contact, through meditation, our true nature, we can allow others to also find theirs.
We so often in our lives serve as mirrors for one another. We look to others to find out if we ourselves are lovable; we look to others to find out if we are capable of feeling love; we look to others for a reflection of our innate radiance. What a tremendous gift, to enable someone’s return to the awareness of their own loveliness! When we see the goodness in others, we are enabling them to “flower from within, of self- blessing.”
See One Good Thing
Seeing the goodness in someone does not imply ignoring their difficult qualities or unskillful actions. Rather, we can fully acknowledge these difficulties, while at the same time we choose to focus on the positive. If we focus on the negative, we will naturally feel anger, resentment, or disappointment. If we focus on the positive, we will forge a connection to the person. Then as we look at their negative traits or actions, we do it as their friend. If two friends are looking at such difficult things, they do so standing side by side.
This mirroring quality, whereby we “re-teach a thing its loveliness,” is one of the greatest attributes of metta. The power of metta enables us to look at people and affirm the rightness of their wish to be happy; it affirms our oneness with them. The power of love reflects both to ourselves and others the manifold possibilities available in each moment.
Looking at people and communicating that they can be loved, and that they can love in return, is giving them a tremendous gift. It is also a gift to ourselves. We see that we are one with the fabric of life. This is the power of metta: to teach ourselves and our world this inherent loveliness.
Metta binds all beings together. Buddhist psychology identifies it as the cohesive factor in consciousness. When a person experiences anger, the heart is dry. It becomes moist when that person feels love. When we put together two substances in nature that are dry, they cannot cohere; there is no way for them to join. When we add wetness, these two substances can bond; they can come together. In just that same way, the force of metta, loving-kindness, allows us to cohere, to come together within ourselves and with all beings. The beauty of this truth moved the Buddha to say that sustaining a loving heart, even for the duration of the snap of a finger, makes one a truly spiritual being.
source- Loving-Kindness by Sharon Salzberg
Adapted by G Ross Clark