The Many Faces of Mettā
The focus for today’s family gathering was very timely – Mettā. Not only as a perfection of character, but also as a life skill, it’s hard to find a buddhist teaching as fundamental as Goodwill. But explaining this skillful emotion or it’s underpinning is deceptively hard.
The reason for this is that while we often know the feeling of mettā when we experience it, in its practice and display in the world it takes so many different forms. Mettā comes from the pāli word Mitta, or friend, and at it’s core it’s the state of wishing the best for another being: sincerely desiring their welfare. Sometimes this takes an active form, like Generosity, Kindness, Encouragement, Assistance, or Teaching. At other times, it shows a more passive aspect, as in Love, Appreciation, Gratitude, or Forgiveness.
Many know of the practice of Mettā bhavana as a sort of guided meditation. We use our mind to bring up joyful and appreciative thoughts as an antidote to ill-will. This is incredibly useful and supportive for meditation, as it cleanses the mind of many basic obstructions. Our Perception of the world is unfortunately biased – we’re either seeing things in a positive light or a negative. While neither perspective is inherently true, knowing when it is skillful to favor one perception over the other gives us the ability to balance and brighten our minds.
Once the mind is balanced, however, Mettā is not simply a mental posture. We cultivate appreciation, gratitude, and goodwill not just for the feeling. The actions of body and speech that result from these mindstates are just as important. They will engender harmony, build supportive relationships, and heal damage from our misdeeds. It is the expression of mettā that we speak of in every day life.
Not only is Mettā the underlying cause for dozens of skillful ways of being, but it can give us tremendous strength in trying times. Our story for this pāramī was The Brave Little Parrot (Jataka Tales, and The Brave Little Parrot – Inquiring Mind ). When we think in terms of ourselves it’s like we grow smaller, but when we keep others in mind it’s amazing the things we can do.
We also had a simple activity. We started by gathering in a circle. One person had a ball of yarn, and chose to express something they appreciated about someone else in the circle. As they did they would pass the ball while hanging onto the yarn that was being fed out. Each person chose someone else in the circle to appreciate and very quickly we had a big and intricate web of yarn connecting each other in all directions.
Every kind act is like a string that connects us to someone else. But in forming a connection to others, we also connect to those they support. Even if we couldn’t think of an appreciation for someone else in the circle we were at most one person away from them in the web. And now, what would our own web of connection and relationship look like? Even if we think of someone we have difficulty with – could we be only one or two friends distant from kindness to them?
It’s also nice to see visually how supported we are. It’s very easy in the modern world to feel cut off or isolated, but just a few moments to think and appreciate others reveals the amazing amount of energy flowing between each of us!