The story goes that, at the time of the Buddha, a group of monks wanted to do a quiet retreat away from the crowds of followers, so the Buddha told them there was a lovely glade in the forest where they could go and he would make sure they’d be left undisturbed. The monks found their way to the glade and settled down to meditate. But what they didn’t know was that the glade was inhabited by a gang of tree spirits who were really upset that these monks should come and make themselves at home in their glade. When tree spirits want to, they can be extremely scary, ugly, very smelly, and unbelievably noisy, ferociously shrieking all over the place. They did everything they could to spook the hermits and make them leave. As there was no peace, the monks couldn’t possibly meditate, so they hurriedly went back to the Buddha, begging him to let them go somewhere else. But no. Instead, he taught them a meditation practice of loving kindness, or metta in Sanskrit, which develops loving kindness toward everyone, including ourselves and our enemies. And then he sent the monks back to the forest. His famous last words were, “This is the only protection you will need.”
Thinking the Buddha must be mad, very reluctantly, the monks went back to the glade, sat down, and began practicing what he had taught them. And it worked! The tree spirits, who at first were very displeased to see the monks return, no longer had any effect on them. For all the tree spirits antics, the meditators just kept sitting there and beaming out loving kindness. Long story short, eventually the spirits were won over by the waves of compassion emanating from the robed ones and, far from chasing them away, they who had once been so ferocious now became disciples.
The question is: Who are the tree spirits? They are everything that goes on in our own minds—all the doubts, insecurities, fears, anger, negative thoughts; the list is endless—that keep distracting us. And the point here is that loving kindness has the capacity to overcome all manner of monsters and ghouls and lead us to a true heart opening, proving that love is more powerful than any opposing force. Rather than trying to eliminate negativity, we cultivate the opposite; seeing and knowing pain, we bring kindness.
Doesn’t this sound so nice? Just be kind and loving—how great, what a cool idea, let’s make kindness hip. But in practice, it’s not always so simple, such as when someone says or does something that is hurtful. Can kindness still flow when the ego is upset? There was a monk who meditated for many years on the quality of patience. He was immersed in everything to do with serenity and tolerance. One day, another monk walked past him and said, “Eat shit!” The first monk immediately replied, “You eat shit!” Which goes to show just how hard it can be to maintain our equilibrium, and that even monks can lose it as easily as we can!
Focusing on loving kindness shows us all those places that are bound in the ego and selfishness; it brings us up against our limitations and confronts our boundaries. Where do we meet our edge? Where is our capacity to step over the edge into greater consideration? How genuine is our ability to bring kindheartedness to a difficult situation?
For loving kindness to become an integral expression of our lives, we have to start by developing it for ourselves. And yet this is the hardest place to begin—how easy it would be if we could just skip this bit and start straight in with loving others! But without a true caring and kindness for ourselves, our capacity to direct these qualities toward anyone else is limited; if we don’t appreciate ourselves, then our love for others will be based on trying to find the love we need, in which case it won’t be genuine and unconditional.
It is extraordinary how difficult it can be to genuinely care for ourselves. It means being tender when we make mistakes and not putting ourselves down, however subtly. Every time, we say something uncalled for, make a fool of ourselves, or feel unworthy—in all those moments, we can bring acceptance, kindness, and friendship; we can embrace ourselves just as we are.
As we focus on bringing loving kindness to ourselves, we may uncover a deeper belief that we don’t deserve this, don’t deserve to be well or to be happy, that we don’t believe we are good enough—a sort of built-in self-destruction clause. We have to keep inviting kindness into that self-negation and lack of self-esteem. This is not about brushing over places where we need to take responsibility for our behavior, but about embracing the humanness within us that caused such behavior to begin with.
We can repeat specific phrases to encourage the development of this quality, such as “May I be well, May I be happy, may all things go well for me, May I be peaceful.” The beauty of these phrases is both in the self-affirmation, and that we can use them all the time, wherever we are. Going to the doctor: May I be well. Going on a date: May I be happy. Going for an interview: May all things go well for me. Feeling stressed: May I be peaceful. And we can also apply this to others in our life. Being criticized by your boss: May she be well. Sitting in a crowded train: May all beings be happy. Stuck in a traffic jam: May all beings be peaceful. Someone giving you the finger while driving: May he be happy and not cause an accident! Repeating these phrases keeps our heart open.
Kindness does not stop with us; we can extend it outward from ourselves, like the ripples on a pond, toward our family, friends, and loved ones. This is relatively natural and effortless. But for loving kindness to be genuine it cannot just end with the people we know and like; it has to go further, toward those we don’t know and even don’t like. This includes people we may be having a hard time with, someone with whom communication is difficult, where negative issues have arisen that are pulling the relationship apart, where there is anger, resentment, or dislike. When we are affected by someone being hostile, dismissive, critical, or hurtful, then it’s often because there’s a hook in us for that negativity to grab hold of, a place where it can land that triggers all our hidden feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, doubt, even self-hate. However, when we extend kindness toward such a person, as we can in meditation, an extraordinary thing happens: The landing place, or the hook within, begins to dissolve. There’s no place for the negativity to take hold.
The negative reactions that arise within us during moments of discord or disagreement cause continued suffering and conflict. Extending kindness toward the adversary is, therefore, really extending it toward ourselves, as it releases the inner pain and puts us into a more balanced place. As a Burmese teacher once told author Andrew Harvey, “Out of compassion for myself, let me let go of all these feelings of anger and resentment toward others.”
As we focus on the adversary, all manner of divergent feelings may arise about what happened, about who said what to whom, and what someone did or didn’t do. To get to loving kindness, we have to accept those feelings while also letting go of the story and releasing the details. Who did or who said what is not relevant; what matters is the shared human experience. Hurt and disagreement and anger arise when we forget our essential unity and hang out in separate, isolated places, while knocking heads with each other. By letting go of the story, we are going beyond the ego’s affront to the shared space.
We can extend kindness toward people who are upset, angry, or irritable, whether their feelings have anything to do with us or not. In this way, we can stop negativity from affecting us. Whether it is our boss or a bus driver or our partner or teenage children, wishing them well helps us keep our cool.
From extending kindness toward an adversary, the natural next step is to extend it toward all beings, whoever and wherever they are. Theoretically, this sounds very straightforward but it can highlight hidden issues of prejudice and resistance. Can we really extend kindness toward terrorists, murderers, or dictators as easily as we can toward caregivers, charity workers, or our loved ones? Can we step beyond personality to the essence of shared beingness? Can we find a place where all beings are equal in our heart?
Prejudice can go very deep. It is only healed when we end the war within and accept those parts of ourselves we find so unacceptable. Then we will have the courage to accept those who are different from us, who have different beliefs, who are a different color, or who live differently. When we can tolerate ourselves, then we can be tolerable toward others and extend kindness to all, equally.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must widen the circle of our love until it embraces the whole village; the village, in turn, must take into its fold the district, the district the province, and so on, until the scope of our love encompasses the whole world.”
Loving Kindness Meditation is a powerful and transformative practice. It awakens our awareness of and care for others while also recognizing there is no essential separation between us. The meditation leads us through different stages, from developing this quality toward ourselves and our loved ones, to people we may be having a hard time with, and finally to all beings. This follows the opening and expansion of our awareness from self-centeredness to other-centeredness.