Sharon Salzberg on Metta: The Song of the Heart

A reflection from Nora

“Metta is the song of the heart,” Sharon Salzberg said sometime during the workshop she offered in St. Paul October 5th & 6th at the UM-Twin Cities St Paul Student Center.

The two-day event was jam-packed with mini-meditation sessions, Q & A periods, and lots of snack breaks. In fact with 150-200 people in attendance, the weekend felt less like a retreat and more like a big metta cocktail party. The party included: local meditators from groups like event co-sponsors Tergar & the U of M Center for Spirituality; folks who had traveled from the East Coast and around the Midwest; a healthy dose of outstate Minnesotans; and a lively contingent from Common Ground.  .

Somewhere between all the lemon bars, lively discussion, and instruction, Sharon offered dozens of one-liners and heartfelt jewels that are only now just sinking in to my heart.

Jewels like, “Metta is the song of the heart.”

Sharon’s framework for teaching metta (loving kindness) and its siblings—karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity)—was one of how we practice them.

First, she urged us to look at our intentions. Then she asked us to consider the skillful means with which we offered them. Last, she said we can explore the immediate outcome of the action.  Above all, she reminded that practicing metta isn’t about changing how we feel or forcing a certain experience.  Rather it is about bringing attention and awareness to our intentions, skillful means, and actions.

Sharon also shared the traditional metta phrases that she learned from Sayadaw U Pandita in Burma back in the mid-1980s and she told the told the story of how she has adapted them over time to better suit  American culture.  The classical phrases are and Americanized adaptions are:

May all beings be free from danger, or… May I be happy.
May all beings be free from mental suffering,
or …. May I be peaceful.
May all beings be free from physical suffering,
or … May I be healthy.
May all beings have ease of well-being,
or … May I be at ease. 

Here are some of the insights Sharon shared that were helpful to me.  Apologies in advance for any errors in my translation or understanding!

  • Lovingkindness and compassion arise from the ground of wisdom and equanimity.
    Wisdom is the ground or foundation of the practice.  As wisdom develops, a natural balance begins to arise and this balance is equanimity.  With wisdom and equanimity in place, we naturally see how deeply connected we all are. The energies of loving-kindness and compassion embody this connection.
  • Our vulnerability is the springboard for compassion.
    When we experience suffering, we can choose to remain isolated and feel separate.  Or if our wisdom and equanimity are present and balanced, we can see and experience the profound connection underlying all suffering.
  • Equanimity promotes an energy that allows us to take healthy action.
    The balance that equanimity offers isn’t distant or indifferent to suffering.  Nor does it overwhelm us and keep us in a place of depression and despair.  It frees us to take wise action.
  • Awareness is the ethnical basis of mindfulness practice.
    We can’t know everything and we don’t have all the answers.  But that doesn’t mean we should walk away from tough issues or be glib.  We can plant seeds that will bear fruit.  We have to. In fact, this struggle to be a good person, to engage in the challenges of living with an “alive spirituality and morality” is what we have to do. It is the natural result of awareness.
  • Metta and the divine abodes are gifts of the spirit. They are dana or generosity of the heart.
    We can choose to give these gifts and we can choose how we will give them.  With attention?  With skillful means?  With energy so that our metta ripples out into the wide world.
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