Mettā: What It Is, What It Isn’t
An Interview with Shaila Catherine
This interview was conducted by Insight Journal in preparation for a course she taught at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies February 2016 on Liberating Mind and Heart: Practice and Study of Lovingkindness. Other interesting articles, interviews, and programs of study and reflection lead by leading Buddhist scholars and meditation teachers can be found at https://www.bcbsdharma.org.
Insight Journal: How has your relationship to mettā changed over the years?
Shaila Catherine: When I was first introduced to meditation in the 1980s, the classic model was a 10-day meditation retreat emphasizing mindfulness. At some point during each retreat there would be a guided mettā meditation. And I have to admit that at first I hated it.
IJ: Why did you hate it?
SC: I really liked the silence of mindfulness practice, and all the phrases felt disruptive. It was hard enough for me to just be mindful of the breath and body. Juggling mettā and mindfulness didn’t feel like something I wanted to do.
As my practice developed, I grew more appreciative of the subtle attitudes we bring to our experience. When is our perspective on something or our attitude toward something constricted? And when is it open? I started to appreciate how lovingkindness and the brahmavihāras could support an open, kind, gentle response to life.
Then in the mid 1990’s, a friend of mine was doing a lot of intensive lovingkindness practice, and I really liked what I saw in him. The change in his character was so noticeable and beautiful, and I thought, “Intensive mettā – that’s the way to go.”
A few years later I found an opportunity to do a four-month self retreat – just mettā for the first two months, and then compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity for the remainder of the retreat. I timed it so that I could attend a five-day lovingkindness retreat led by Sharon Salzberg and then go directly from there into my personal retreat to deepen the practice.
IJ: Were there any specific moments during that retreat when your understanding of mettā really opened or shifted?
SC: My usual dinner during that retreat was rice cakes with tahini, jam, and raisins. This was late summer/early fall. I would usually sit outside to eat, but there were a lot of flies. I’d be holding my rice cake with one hand and using the other to wave away the flies.
Not too long into the retreat, I decided put a bit of jam on one finger and hold it out at arm’s length. The flies ate the jam off my finger without bothering my rice cake.
When we get into conflict, it’s often because we haven’t seen an alternative. We haven’t widened our perspective enough to notice a simple shift that would take the conflict out of the situation. I think about that jam on my finger as a reminder that sometimes the mind can narrow in on what it wants or what it’s doing or how it wants things to be. With a slight shift in attitude, the mind might find a way of dealing with the situation that recognizes the needs of other beings, even if it’s as simple as offering a bit of berry jam to some hungry flies.
IJ: Was there a particular moment when you became fully convinced of the value of mettā, or did it happen gradually?
SC: The best part about that long mettā retreat was that I wasn’t in any rush. I had four months, and I had no other purpose than cultivating kindness. I didn’t have the goal to get to x, y, or z jhāna, to go through various stages of insight, to attain or accomplish anything. When I was walking, eating, sitting in the garden, doing my yogi job, sitting in the hall – every perception and every experience was an opportunity to engage with whatever was happening with a mind imbued with mettā.
I worked systematically through the formal instructions using the phrases and the categories: benefactor, dear friend, neutral person, difficult person, and all beings through all the directions. Little by little, the boundaries between the categories gradually dissolved. Eventually, mettā didn’t diminish when I brought to mind someone who had hurt me, and it continued to increase I brought to mind a difficult person, a dear friend, and someone who had been kind to me. That’s when I really gained confidence in lovingkindness as a powerful wholesome force.
Up until then, I think it all felt a little sentimental. But during that intensive retreat I saw that mettā really was boundless. The mind did not waver when attention shifted from one type of being to another. When the mind is thoroughly imbued with mettā, it does not create a sense of division between self and other. The heart is open, expansive. It is as the suttas describe – an immeasurable deliverance of mind.
IJ: So it was really just a matter of getting a critical mass of intensive practice – so mettā could gain enough momentum to continue on its own.
SC: An intensive mettā retreat isn’t necessary for everyone. Some people find mettā easily available in both meditation and their daily lives. But during my retreat a shift occurred, and I could no longer see it as just a nice, virtuous thing to do.
IJ: That seems to be one of the biggest misconceptions – the idea that mettā is about liking everyone or being happy all the time. Could you talk a little about what mettā really is and what mettā really isn’t?
SC: Mettā is not sentimentality. And mettā is not affection. It’s not about turning somebody we don’t like into somebody we do like – or pretending to like everybody. Mettā is an attitude of benevolence, of good will toward all beings. Now, “good will toward all” kind of reminds me of a Christmas card. But think about what it would be like to actually pervade the world with good will toward all – no enmity, no hostility, no fear. It’s an extraordinary quality to bring into the world.
IJ: What does your daily mettā practice look like these days? Do you spend a certain amount of time on just mettā, or is it more free-form than that?
SC: These days my practice of mettā is quite free-form. But I’ve been through a number of different phases in the development of mettā. When I was living in the monasteries in Thailand, some people were meditating and some were cooking and engaged in service work. But we were all asked to practice lovingkindness before we got out of our mosquito nets each morning. It was a very simple thing that everybody could do, and I continued that commitment for many years after returning home.
IJ: Were you using the traditional phrases for that morning mettā practice?
SC: “May I be safe from danger and harm. May you be safe from danger and harm. May I be happy, free from mental distress. May you be happy, free from mental distress. May I be free from illness and pain. May you be free from illness and pain. May I live with ease in the world. May you live with ease in the world.”
IJ: What effect did that practice have?
SC: I’d earlier noticed that my worst thoughts of the day – the nasty, unconscious, uncontrolled, habitual stories – arose between the time I woke up and the time I ate breakfast. The quality of my mind during that first half hour of the day was really dreadful – sarcastic comments, worries about what I would be doing during the day, or lingering resentment over what somebody did the day before.
After I had established this practice of morning lovingkindness, those nasty thoughts vanished. They genuinely stopped arising. It is so much nicer to start the day with the attitude of lovingkindness than with worry, impatience, and agitation.
IJ: Are there any other times or places in particular that work well for mettā?
SC: I travel a lot, so I find myself doing mettā in the airport when everyone’s waiting. It’s a nice reminder that we’re all in this boat together.
When there’s mettā, we naturally notice the needs of other people. When we’re busy, it’s easy to forget that the woman in line in front of us at the supermarket or the man who serves us coffee – they also have their issues and struggles. There are small and big ways in which we can be rude and inconsiderate, but when we practice lovingkindness the humanity of other people naturally becomes more visible. We see others – and that seeing often naturally includes the wish for others to be happy. This is most apparent for those we relate to as neutral people – people we might see and interact with all the time, but very often don’t really see.
I have an Israeli student in Jerusalem. It doesn’t snow in Jerusalem very often, but when it does everything slows down. This student didn’t get her newspaper delivered that morning because of the snowstorm, but she wanted to know when the paper would come, so she called the company to find out. The person who answered said that she was the first person she’d spoken with that day who wasn’t angry. This meditation student told the woman at the newspaper that she had made a commitment not to add any more hate to the world – there was already more than enough. I think that’s a beautiful way of putting it.
IJ: Was it difficult beginning and maintaining that morning mettā practice you started at the monastery in Thailand? Did it sometimes feel like, “I don’t care about all beings being happy. I don’t want to say all this stuff.”
SC: It was easy because I gave myself the freedom to do it quickly. Some days it was just, “May all beings be happy,” and then darting off to the bathroom. Some days I would continue the phrases through my shower and the rest of the morning. Other days I would just lie in bed for an hour or so contemplating mettā. I didn’t put many constraints on it.
IJ: The course you’ll be teaching at BCBS this February is on mettā. But many know you for your samādhi practice and the books you’ve written about samādhi and jhāna.
SC: Well, aside from the mettā retreat we already talked about, I have also done a number of multi-month retreats at IMS’s Forest Refuge, using mettā – as well as compassion, joy, and equanimity – as the objects to go into jhāna.
When I was training with Pa Auk Sayadaw, the brahmavihāras were among the many meditation objects that we used to develop jhāna. They’re very conducive to concentration, perhaps especially for meditators who have a disposition toward aversive states. The cultivation of lovingkindness, for example, brings with it rapture and happiness. When joy arises, it is natural for the mind to stay close to the meditation object because the experience is so tranquil and pleasant. If the mind is caught in aversion, negativity, ill will, or the habit of being excessively judgmental, practices that dissolve those qualities will bring the mind closer to concentration.
Lovingkindness, compassion, and joy can establish the first three jhānas, and the fourth jhāna is attained through equanimity. When I teach jhāna, however, I usually emphasize the breath as the primary object. This is the approach that I shared in my first book, Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity. I personally enjoy using the breath as a primary meditation object. Meditating on the breath develops a mental sign (nimitta) and clearly demonstrates how the perception of the object becomes refined along with the refinement of the mind.
Mettā functions differently as a concentration subject. Mettā does not progress via the development of the nimitta, and sometimes it is difficult for beginners to distinguish the qualities of mettā from the qualities of the concentrated mind. But mettā has many other benefits that make it an attractive and worthy meditation object. Mettā naturally dispels the hindrances, aversion in particular, long before the deep states of concentration arise. It soothes, calms, invigorates, and strengthens the mind of the meditator. And mettā is naturally accompanied by joy and pleasure. These benefits are available with or without the attainment of jhāna. So, if I see a student struggling to establish concentration and discouraged with their practice, I might encourage mettā. Mettā nurtures the right attitude, supports the gradual deepening of concentration, and if a meditator is so inclined, it can be developed for jhāna.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much which object people begin with. To develop mastery in concentration the meditator will become skilled in the absorption attainment, the perception of the object, and the discernment of the mental factors. Any practice that strengthens right concentration (sammā samādhi) is worth developing, and mettā is certainly an excellent meditation object that can bring deep concentration and jhāna.
IJ: The suttas don’t mention the phrases, but instead talk about radiating the brahmavihāras in all directions.
SC: I first learned mettā practice using the structure of the categories of the types of beings (benefactor, dear friend, neutral, etc.), and from there going to a directional radiation of mettā. Sometimes I use phrases to stimulate the arising of mettā; sometimes I develop it systematically using the categories of types of beings; and at other times I’ll simply radiate mettā in all directions.
There are a variety of ways to cultivate lovingkindness. But whether I am using a general or systematic method, for me lovingkindness is always relational – it is an attitude that relates to beings. Even when mettā is simply offered and radiated in all directions, there’s a sense of beings there. It’s like sitting in a lush garden or a grassy field with a symphony of different insect, bird, and animal sounds. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to distinguish one insect sound from another, or one bird sound from another, or the sound of one animal walking by from another. Nevertheless, all of those sounds are expressions of life – of beings. So for me, the concept of beings is an integral part of how I understand lovingkindness practice – it is an attitude toward all living beings, all life.
IJ: There’s some disagreement over what role the brahmavihāras play with respect to insight and liberation.
SC: The experience of nibbāna will not be based on the thought, “May all beings be happy.” Awakening is not going to occur just by resting the mind in an attitude of all-pervading lovingkindness. The liberating experience comes out of seeing that there’s nothing to cling to. From the limitless pervasiveness of mettā, we simply shift the attention to look at the quality of mind that’s generating mettā. You’ll see that the mind that knows mettā is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self. The body may be comfortable, and the mind may be filled with joy and mettā. The mind might be quite pure, containing nothing unwholesome. Nevertheless, the experience of mettā is impermanent. Clearly seeing impermanence is what leads to the cessation of craving, the ending of attachment, and the depth of release that allows us to realize nibbāna.
Mettā creates fabulously wholesome conditions. But we also must look into the mind and know that there’s nothing there to grasp or cling to. Then we will realize not just the peace of a mind filled with benevolence, but the peace of release – the peace of nibbāna.
We can use mettā as a skillful approach to relationships in life; to deepen samādhi and create wholesome mental conditions; and to liberate the mind from attachment and the causes of suffering.
IJ: So it seems like mettā is good for a lot of different things. And it’s just a matter of cultivating and playing with it to see what it can do and what it can’t.
SC: The most important thing is that we actually do develop mettā. It’s a beautiful and wholesome state. Lovingkindness is an intention. It’s an attitude. It doesn’t necessarily require an intensive retreat to develop. It’s a mistake to think of it as something that we can only cultivate with our eyes closed, meditating.
IJ: Do you want to say anything else about your course at BCBS this February or what the main take away will be for people?
SC: The course is appropriate for all levels – anyone who has done a lot of lovingkindness practice, and anyone who is just curious about different ways of incorporating lovingkindness into their practice. We’ll have some sutta study time, and we’ll have some practice time, which will include some guided meditations. In the mornings we will look at what the Buddha taught, and then practice those teachings during the afternoon.
The sutta study component will examine the contexts in which we find mettā taught in the early discourses. For example, on some occasions the Buddha introduced mettā as a means of meeting abuse or overcoming fear. On other occasions mettā was a vehicle for deepening concentration and liberating the mind.
The intention is not only to develop an intellectual or conceptual understanding about what mettā is and is not, but also to gain a genuine meditative taste of this profound quality and an integrated experience of its value in our lives.