The best protection for one another
is loving-kindness for one another.
From ‘A Heart Full of Peace’, Joseph Goldstein shares a wonderful experience: ‘… there was an old gardener at the little monastery where I was staying. I saw him every day, but I had never really given him any thought at all. He was just somebody I noticed in passing. It was quite startling to realize how many such people there were around me, beings for whom I had completely neutral feelings. That in itself was an illuminating discovery. So every day for weeks, I began visualizing this old gardener in my meditation, repeating phrases like “May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering.” After a while, I began to feel warmth and caring for him, and every time we passed my heart just opened. This was a great turning point in my practice. I understood that how I feel about someone is up to me, and that feelings do not ultimately depend on the person, his or her behavior, or the situation. The gardener remained the same. He did not change what he was doing or how he related to me. But because of a turn in my own understanding and practice, my heart began to fill with genuine feelings of kindness and care.’
In loving-kindness meditation, before we radiate thoughts of loving-kindness (metta) to others, we first suffuse ourselves with loving-kindness for ourselves, till it gently overflows to others. Yes, we need to top up before spilling over! Though metta meditation is often mistaken as a mere feel-good self-help visualisation exercise, it is really not so. In its genuine practice, gentle but tangible (though difficult to measure) ripples or waves of heartfelt metta are generated and radiated in specific or all directions. As your metta pervades space through you, you become a source of living metta. Metta is not only meant to be felt by its practitioners, but experienced by its recipients too. The effects might be faint at first, but practice does make perfect – such that metta can even traverse across vast distances. There is a reason after all, that metta is ultimately known as an immeasurable and sublime quality, for benefiting one and all. The Buddha is of course the best example, who was able to stop an enraged and intoxicated elephant from stampeding towards him in its tracks. Metta thus has the ability to touch and sooth the savage ‘beast’ within us, and to awaken our inner goodness.
Goldstein’s case above is an example of practising metta to first transform oneself. This is definitely beneficial, though the further practice leads to real transformation of others too. Of course, how open-hearted the other party is plays a part in his or her receptivity of metta too. When we truly allow metta to transform our thoughts to be loving ones, our speech and actions will become loving too, which helps us relate to others in more loving ways, which in turn helps others to easier relate to us in similarly in return. Metta is to be practised not just mentally, but physically too. A Dharma friend I was chatting with remarked that he never needed to send metta to anyone to improve their relationship. My reply was that it might mean his own metta was not strong enough, to be motivated to send metta to even any one specific person! The ones we care the least for, whom we might not hate, should be our subjects of metta too! The other possibility is that his metta was already so strong, that he radiates it readily most of the time to everyone in general! But as long as our metta is not perfect, we do need to practise, to make it truly boundless.