Some years ago a friend of mine was driving to a vipassana retreat with his lover of several years. He planned to sit the course, and she would be one of the managers. As they neared the retreat site, my friend’s lover told him that she had recently begun an affair with the other manager of the upcoming retreat. “I felt as if a knife had been thrust into my heart,” my friend reported.
He spent the retreat in a state of obsession and by the end of it, he was in a rage. Leaving the retreat did not alleviate his fury. The pain and anger only increased over the next days and weeks. He went to bed with it, woke up with it, dreamed of it. “My mind was creating a hell world for me. I realized that although the hatred was seemingly directed at them, it was actually poisoning me.”
He knew he had to find an antidote, and the only thing he could think of was to direct metta toward them. “I gritted my teeth and began saying the words, ‘May they be happy,’” he recounts. “And you know, from the very first time I said the phrase, something shifted. My heart felt lighter. I no longer felt like a victim who had been betrayed, because I saw that their being together was just life living itself. After some time I felt genuinely happy for them.”
Metta, or the practice of lovingkindness, is traditionally taught as one of the four brahma-viharas or heavenly abodes, the others being compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). But it is the powerful practice of metta which brings all four of these qualities together. The Buddha taught metta as the purification of the heart that allows for a transformation in how we relate to ourselves and to the world.
From the beginning years of her practice, Sharon Salzberg thought of the Buddha as primarily an embodiment of love. In fact, she saw freedom itself as the realization of unconditional love. For these reasons, Salzberg was drawn early on to the practice of metta, beginning in the mid-seventies with several self-study courses and followed by periods of intensive practice in Burma in the eighties. These periods of study, combined with her teaching of metta to hundreds of students, have culminated in her newly released book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. The first exhaustive description of the various practices of metta published in the western world, Lovingkindness takes you by the hand and walks you through the corridors of the heart using traditional and contemporary stories interspersed with ancient and modern teaching methods. To read it is to bathe the mind in calming thoughts of acceptance of samsara’s wild dance and one’s place in it. Yet this is not the acceptance of resignation. It is an empowered and practical understanding, as Sharon illustrates in the following story from Lovingkindness in which she is riding with a friend in a hand-drawn rickshaw through the streets of Calcutta:
The rickshaw man took us by shortcuts, through dark streets and down back alleys. At one point, suddenly out of nowhere, an extremely big man approached the rickshaw driver and stopped him. Then he looked at me, grabbed me, and tried to pull me off the rickshaw. I looked around the streets for help. There were a lot of people everywhere, as there often are in India, but I did not see a single friendly face.
I thought, “Oh my God, this guy is going to drag me off and rape me. Then he is going to kill me and nobody is going to help me!” My friend who was sitting with me in the rickshaw managed to push the drunken man away and urged the rickshaw driver to go on. So we escaped and got to the station.
I was very shaken and upset when we arrived in Bodh Gaya. I told Munindra, one of my meditation teachers, what had happened. He looked at me and said, “Oh Sharon, with all the lovingkindness in your heart, you should have taken your umbrella and hit that man over the head with it!”
Lovingkindness covers many of the basic aspects of creating harmony in relationships, whether they be with those we love or those we find difficult. It offers skillful ways to extend these caring feelings in a world so full of suffering, and even reminds us of a view in which to hold this vast suffering. In fact, this book serves as an excellent primer for the Buddha’s teachings in general. Here we find the four noble truths, the law of karma, the hindrances to concentration, and the mental factors conducive to abiding happiness. These classical teachings are interwoven with quotes from Einstein, Rumi, E.M. Forster, and the Haiku poet Issa, to name a few.
What makes Lovingkindness refreshing, however, is that the teachings are described with an emphasis on connectedness, on seeing unity, on the love that comes with recognition of our own true nature. Metta is conceptually framed as ground zero, from which radiates the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness and skillful means.
In quoting Galway Kinnell, Salzberg writes that the nature of metta is “to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Over and over again, the message in this book is that one must begin with self love and acceptance. Then it becomes possible, even likely, to expand the notion of “self” to include all beings.