Compassion in Action – Chapter 3
This is part of the Compassion in Action series. If you just found this and are wondering what’s going on, click here for chapter 1.
Chapter 3 – Metta and the Inner Smile
“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.” – The Buddha
When it comes to our emotional state, we can often trace how we feel in the moment back to specific events that occurred in the external world. However, as we saw in the previous chapter, the events themselves do not carry any particular positive or negative charge. Clipping nails on a bus is just clipping nails on a bus, it’s not a good thing, and it’s not a bad thing. The “spin” on the event happens internally, once we process the information.
This is why two different people can react in two completely different ways when faced with the exact same situation. A harsh word spoken to a sensitive person may cause tears, while the exact same words spoken to another may just be laughed off and forgotten. The emotional reaction we feel is a result of how we process these words, and that processing happens completely on the inside.
Once we begin to realize that our emotional reactions are not completely out of our own control, we begin to be curious about emotions in general. Are emotions like the weather, something totally out of our control that we just have to deal with as they come, or are they more like TV channels, where we can change the station if we don’t like what’s playing? And if they are like TV channels, why are there so many dramatic soap operas always on?
The Buddhists practice meditations designed to cultivate Metta, which is a Pali word that can be translated as loving-kindness. It is not only loving-kindness for oneself, but for others, and all creation. A typical Metta prayer can be found below:
May I be happy
May I be free from suffering
May I have ease of well-being
May I awaken to the light of my own true nature
May you be happy
May you be free from suffering
May you have ease of well-being
May you awaken to the light of your own true nature
May all beings be happy
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings have ease of well-being
May all beings awaken to the light of their own true nature
In the prayer, we bless ourselves, wishing for happiness, freedom from suffering, and spiritual awakening. We then bless others, and all beings everywhere. The order is important – in order to spread light to others and creation at large, we first must find the light within ourselves. One candle can light many others, but only if the original candle itself carries a flame, and this is why practice is so important. Words in a book can be inspiring, but they are forgotten as soon as the page is turned. This is why turning this prayer into a meditation practice can be so powerful.
None of this is terribly complicated, but it is important to experience and practice it to make it real. Again, we recall my guru’s wisdom – an ounce of practice is worth tons of theories.
Here are the simple steps to perform a Metta meditation. It can be done in only a few minutes. In fact, you can do it right now, as you read this book.
Sit in a comfortable position, with your spine straight, and your eyes closed. Take a few breaths, calmly feeling the rise and fall of your chest, gradually bringing focus to your heart. Think of someone you love. It can be anyone, even a pet. Feel your love for that person in your heart. Love is emotional, but it is also physical. Feel the love in your heart center, and with each breath, try to feel more love. Stronger, deeper, more intense love. Eventually, you will not need to think of the person anymore, and can just focus on this feeling in your heart. It is easy – we are born to love.
Now, after some time focusing on the love in your own heart, expand your love to encompass your entire body. Feel your body sitting in a bubble of love, from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, all around you. With each breath, stoke the flames of your love. You can use your imagination, but feel it too – this is not a mental activity.
Next, expand that bubble of love to encompass the whole room you are sitting in, and then your whole house, and then your whole city. Feel love for everyone and everything in that bubble. Expand it to cover your entire country, and the whole planet. Feel love for the planet, and all its inhabitants. Expand to include the entire Universe, and everything within it, as it is now, as it has been in the past, and as it will be in the future.
And finally, collapse that bubble down, and draw it back into your body, sealing it back into your heart. Love yourself. Love everything about yourself. Love the manifestation of Love that is you. And then calmly open your eyes, and go about your business.
How do professional pianists get to be good at playing the piano? They practice. How do tennis players improve their game? They practice. How do spiritual seekers become enlightened? They practice. In order to get good at anything, we practice until we have mastered the skill, and this includes everything all the way up from walking on two legs to performing brain surgery.
What we are doing in this meditation is practicing our ability to spontaneously generate love. We start in a controlled environment, without distractions, and we learn how to light that fire. Once it is easy in that environment, we then make things harder, doing it outside, or during our commute. Once we can generate loving-kindness in those situations, we up the ante further, practicing during arguments, or in emotionally toxic environments. And eventually one day, in the middle of some tragic, heart-wrenching experience, you will be able to take five minutes out, and command your heart to love, and it will respond. And you will have a light to dispel the darkness.
This is a simple meditation, but the more you practice, the more you’ll be able to control your emotions and mood. Just look at some of the masters of Buddhist meditation if you need convincing. Have you ever seen the Dalai Lama look anything but completely happy and full of love?
Buddhism is not the only tradition that practices generating loving-kindness. Back in my late-teens and early-twenties, I spent a lot of time studying Qi Gong, the Chinese art of energy cultivation and movement. There are thousands of Qi Gong schools and techniques, and many of them are linked with martial arts practices.
One of the more common kinds of Qi Gong that has found its way into a lot of books on Western bookshelves is based on Taoist styles. The Taoists place a great deal of emphasis on the quality of the energy that you circulate around your body. Before doing any practice, you first have to generate the right kind of loving, happy energy to work with. The idea is that you aren’t going to visualize dirty-brown toxic sludge flying around through your meridians, because that is going to send your body completely the wrong message, but are going to focus on clean healing energy instead.
The way I was taught to generate this was very similar to the Metta meditation we just looked at, but instead of starting with the focus on your heart, you start with the focus in your head, at the point between your eyebrows. You close your eyes, and start smiling. You aren’t imagining the smile, but are actually, physically smiling. As you smile to yourself, you breathe that smiling, joyful energy right into your face. Then, once you’ve built it up, you circulate it around your body, visiting each organ and sending healing energy to various centers.
For whatever reason, the act of actually smiling has an effect on our mood, and it makes it much easier to feel happiness. Have you ever seen those statues of the Buddha meditating? Next time you come across one, take a look at his smiling face. It’s an easy trick to make your Metta meditations easier. After you practice this way for some time, you’ll be surprised to find yourself smiling without meaning to. The body knows how to find this kind of energy all on its own.
This is a good time to stop and talk a little bit about happiness. We’ve discussed trying to convert agitated thoughts to happy thoughts, but what exactly do we mean by happiness? Let’s do an experiment. Take a minute, and imagine to yourself what tomorrow would look like if it were a perfect day. The happiest, most perfect day you can think of.
I live in Wine Country, so I don’t have to look too far to come up with an example of what a perfect day might look like here. It would go something like this…
You begin by waking up to someone bringing you breakfast in bed. The food is amazing, cooked to perfection by a master chef, with amazingly fresh ingredients. You then get taken on a drive down a picturesque street with vineyards on either side, and enjoy some wine tasting at world renowned wineries. Next, it’s off to the spa, for the best two hour massage you’ve had in your life, and maybe a swim in the hot springs. Finally, dinner at one of the Michelin-rated world class restaurants, with the best of everything the area has to offer.
Everyone is going to put their own spin on this particular fantasy, but I think you can agree if you won the day I described in a lottery, you’d probably be excited about it. Who doesn’t like to be pampered all day long?
But let’s break the fantasy down a little bit and look at the bigger picture. Remember the chef that made you the amazing breakfast in bed? How early did that person have to get up to begin preparing your meal? The oranges for your orange juice were picked just then and squeezed by hand. Did you have bacon? A pig died for that bacon.
The chef might enjoy her job, but I guarantee that she is not going to be getting up early for free to squeeze that orange juice for you. She’s doing it because she’s getting paid to do it. It’s work for her. And the pig surely didn’t volunteer to be your bacon.
What about the drive down the road in that limousine, to take you to the winery? Who is driving you? Does that person want to be there? They don’t get to drink any wine. They have to sit in the car wearing an uncomfortably hot chauffeur outfit during your tasting. Do you think that’s what they would have chosen to do with their time if they could do anything they wanted?
Next you had a massage. Who massaged you? Was it a pretty girl? Were there two of them? Did things go farther than just a simple massage with those two pretty girls? I don’t mean to be crude, but let’s be honest: most guys coming up with this sort of perfect day fantasy have something like that penciled in there somewhere. We do share 99% of our DNA with those sex-crazed bonobos, don’t forget. The massage therapists might be glad to have jobs, but you can be sure they aren’t going home to rave about how awesome it was to be on their end of it.
And finally, now you went to the world class restaurant. Fancy! That footman stood there the whole time you were having dinner, watching to make sure that if you dropped your napkin, he’d be there in an instant to pick it back up. That’s hard work. You probably ate some fois gras while you were in there as well, and fois gras is a whole realm of suffering unto itself that we don’t really have space to get into.
In other words, this “perfect day” that we have concocted is only perfect to us, and comes at the expense of many other beings. Many of them are getting paid, and they have agreed to take on the burden because of that, but the happiness part of this deal is one sided – you don’t have to pay someone to have them do what naturally makes them happy. If you add up all the happiness among all the participants in this drama, you might just break even. You’re actually in negative territory if you count what the goose had to go through become the fois gras.
Furthermore, the happiness as we’ve defined it in this example is completely based on sense pleasures, which are dependent on the external world. Because of that, all of it is fleeting and impermanent. The breakfast comes, you eat it, and then it is gone. The wine tasting begins, you drink, and then it is over. The massage begins, lasts for some time, and then it’s finished and you have to leave.
That which is born must die. It is the nature of this world, and nothing can escape destruction. When we look to these external things for happiness, how can we be surprised to find that our happiness is also fleeting and impermanent? How could permanent happiness ever come from anything that is itself not also permanent? Think about that. And yet that’s the lie that we keep telling ourselves, and which society reflects back to us in an endless stream of marketing messages and cultural brainwashing.
This example was admittedly biased towards activities that resulted in being pampered and served, and you might be arguing to yourself that it is entirely possible to construct a perfect day scenario that doesn’t require anyone else to work on your behalf or endure anything to make you happy. You could go for a run out in nature, have a picnic at the park, take a nap in your hammock, and then watch the sunset with the love of your life. No footmen get harmed in that perfect day. But can you escape the impermanence? If it still demands participation from the world, requiring nature, or a park, or a sunset in order to happen, it’s still all going to collapse into dust just like Cinderella’s carriage when the clock strikes midnight. This kind of happiness is extremely fleeting. It’s there and gone in an instant, and you’re left having to clean up and do the dishes at the end of it.
In contrast to happiness as we’ve just described it, consider joy. We’ve all experienced joy, especially in youth, with a boundless feeling of happiness that bubbles up from inside. There is no reason for this joy. We aren’t joyful because of anything that happened, or anything that was given to us. We are joyful for no good reason.
This is a very different kind of feeling than the one that comes attached to sense objects. Rather than being dependent on those sense pleasures, joy doesn’t require anything in order to exist. It is a feeling that comes from the soul, not from the material world. Peel away all the various masks and lists that the ego has constructed, and you’ll find that this is actually your natural emotional state.
When you’re in joy, you smile and laugh for no good reason. You aren’t laughing at anything, you are just laughing. It’s not a rational cause-and-effect sort of thing, but more a way of being. When we start seriously practicing generating Metta, this is what will start to emerge from the depths. At first, you’ll feel it in your meditations, and eventually it will show up in your day to day reality. A few pages back I commented on the Dalai Lama. How hard do you think you’d have to try to get that guy to laugh at a joke? Not very. You can see the mirth in his eyes when he’s sitting there doing nothing.
The point is that there are different kinds of happiness available to us, and it is very easy to lump them all into the same category if we aren’t being careful. But there is a huge difference between happiness that originates from sense pleasures and consumption, and the happiness that spontaneously arises from the soul.
To construct a perfect day based on the first kind of happiness requires all sorts of contortions and expense to set up, most likely takes advantage of others in some sort of way, and ends up giving us a deflated let-down feeling once it is all over. It’s like when you were a little kid and opened all your Christmas presents, and then realized it was all over. This kind of happiness doesn’t last very long, and leaves a bad aftertaste.
Constructing a perfect day based on the second kind of happiness is a different matter altogether, as it doesn’t require anything special to happen in the material world. You feel joyful because you are feeling joyful. It’s a positive feedback loop. Joy begets joy. Because of that, the external world is irrelevant when it comes to constructing the perfect day. You can sit there on the couch, or on a bus, or in your office, and the day will be perfect because that joy will be flowing. The joy itself is the perfection in the day.
This is the treasure that we are cultivating with our Metta practice. This is the gold that spiritual seekers throughout the ages have been willing to renounce the world to find.