Editor’s Note: The following is the eleventh in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.
There are probably a million or more things to say about ‘metta’ or loving-kindness, but in this short space I will say only one.
We don’t have to practice metta like the drudgery of scales on the piano.
We just have to feel it.
Practice makes perfect is a familiar saying. But is it always helpful? No, especially when it comes to practicing loving-kindness, the ninth of the ten paramis.
It’s a rare child who learns to play the piano or ride a bike on the first go. That’s why it’s often critical to try and try again when you’re learning something new. Even as adults, we need to practice when we meet new challenges—like a new job or communicating more effectively with someone we love. In cases like these, you’ve got to throw yourself at it wholeheartedly over and over again. Then with enough practice, we experience the joy of seeing our new skills in action—like gliding on a bicycle down a hill on a hot summer afternoon or speaking compassionately about what we feel instead of blaming others.
Many of the paramis are skills that we can improve with lots of practice, too. Resoluteness, generosity, morality, patience are four that jump out at me. These four skills don’t always come automatically. I have to remind myself to stick firm, to share, to not harm, and to be patient. If I didn’t practice them, I’d be a whirling ball of trouble everywhere I showed up. But with effort (another parami), I can channel my energy into a kinder, more helpful human being.
Metta, or loving-kindness, is different.
Metta isn’t an acquired skilled; metta is everywhere.
I don’t have a logical explanation for this claim, so I offer only my belief, or what philosophers call an ‘essential’ argument.
Metta is inside us, it’s all around us, it’s above and below, it’s the air we breathe and the ground upon which we walk.
I was reminded how simple the ‘practice’ of metta is yesterday while checking in by phone with Chas diCapua, one of TCVC’s visiting teachers. For the past few weeks, I’d been doing metta in the mornings and wanted to ask Chas a few questions like, “What should I do if I have a hard time holding the image of a group of people in my mind?” and “Is it OK if I sidestep the metta phrases to investigate something that arises?”
Chas answered my questions and then said gently, “Remember, when you’re doing metta, you don’t want to struggle. You want to go with what brings ease of heart.”
“Ah, right!” I responded with relief and a long outbreath.
However, in the next moment I held a long in-breathe and watched a not so subtle thought appear, “Ugh! You’re so stupid! How could you forget that metta is about being gentle and loving with all beings!”
At first this thought was weighed down with lots of aversion. But then with awareness, I had one of those ah-hah moments. “Oh, there is very little metta present for this being just now!” In this recognition, a feeling of loving-kindness arose.
With metta present, something else happened. I had felt an intention to hit myself on the forehead and even sensed pressure fill the palm of my hand. But the natural connection to loving-kindness stopped the intention from transforming into action. My hand relaxed and I breathed out again; safe from harm’s way.
During this conversation, I didn’t make metta happen. I didn’t force it. I didn’t practice it. I didn’t try hard. With direct connection to the aversion and awareness, metta arose all on its own.
Do you remember those black crayoned art exercises we used to make back in elementary school? The teachers would hand out manila paper and we’d get to scribble a crazy rainbow of colors all across the page. Then we’d be instructed to color a thick layer of black crayon over the entire sheet. Last, we would etch a drawing into the black canvas with a penny and a colorful design would appear.
For me, metta feels a little like those magical drawings. When we open with awareness and connect with our experiences, like penny to paper, the beautiful energy of loving-kindness emerges.