In the aftermath of World AIDS Day on December 1 and the funeral service of gay and prisoner rights activist Ray Hill on December 2, let us focus on Metta or loving kindness. Contemplate an inspiring meditation led by Rev. Diane McGehee of Bering Memorial United Methodist Church at the Rothko Chapel during AIDS Day observances:
Can you see me? They say that God sees me and even delights in me.
I like that, It’s hard to believe that anyone could see and delight in me.
Can YOU see me and not my disease?
Can you see past the labels?
“She has HIV/AIDS,” they say with wagging, shaming tongues.
As if this disease defines me.
As if one mistake, one act by someone against me, could even begin to capture the complexity of who I am.
I am not this disease.
I am not contained in a single choice—not mine or anyone else’s.
Can you see me in my innocence?
The child inside who just wanted to live, who was finding her way in an often-confusing world, seeking love, seeking life, just like you did and do?
The child who chose to live, who still wants to live, who fears I might not.
Who wishes with every breath I could take it back, not let them do that to me, not make that choice.
But I can’t, not any more than you can undo your choices, or the choices made against you.
Can you see me? Am I really that different from you?
Can you see my hopes, my dreams, my loves, my choice for life in the midst of this thing, this horrible thing that has me in its grip, but is not me?
Can you see me? Can you choose to see me?
Will you choose to see me?
I am more than my disease, so much more.
I am love embodied in human flesh, walking among you, longing for relationship, for dignity, for acceptance.
Longing to be seen and loved as ME.
[2 minutes of silent contemplation]
Metta is the first of the Brahma Viharas (Divine Abodes) that the Buddha taught his disciples. With Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upekkha (equanimity), there are four classic practices to open and balance the heart.
One of my meditation teachers, Marie Mannschatz, says that when we are aware and alert, we tend to act in loving ways, accepting life as it is, without trying to change it.
Metta is more of a mental state than a feeling. By practicing loving kindness, we gradually develop unconditional friendliness and let go of critical judgments. As we learn how to treat ourselves and others tenderly, we are on a path of self-education in a course that lasts throughout our lifetime.
We long to see who we really are, but we don’t like what lies beneath our idealized self-image. On meditation retreats, we face our imperfections, we see how often we compare ourselves to others, and we encounter our many opinions. Metta practice purifies the mind and releases us from fear and doubts.
Marie tells a story about a scientist who blew hot breaths onto a butterfly to accelerate its process of leaving a cocoon. The butterfly emerged with wet and useless wings, and it died without being able to fly. We must respect slow, wise, natural rhythms of growth within and outside of us.
The Buddha stated, “People who love themselves will never harm others.”
When we can accept ourselves just as we are, we have the freedom to change our unhealthy habits. Self-love is different from egoism, which creates addiction to desires, contraction in the body, and separation from others. In contrast, healthy self-love is characterized by a sense of liberation, expansion in the body, and generosity towards others.
With Metta practice, we use simple, honest phrases that we plant like seeds in the heart. An example is: “May I accept myself with all of my imperfections.” The Buddha taught Metta to a group of fearful monks who wanted protection from savage beasts in the forest.
Traditionally there are five stages of Metta practice, first directing loving kindness towards oneself, and then in sequence to a benefactor or loved one, to a neutral person, to a difficult person, and finally to all beings everywhere.
Over time, by repeating each stage, the heart opens.
Sometimes during the practice, we notice resistance arising or we have feelings that seem to be the opposite of loving kindness.
We can practice viewing any judgment or aversion like clouds that are obscuring our true loving Buddha nature. The “near enemy” of Metta is attachment, which can seem like loving kindness, but which has an element of possessiveness or jealousy.
Part of the practice is to forgive ourselves for attachments and to admit, without shame or guilt, “What I did was not skillful.” By observing objectively what works and what does not work in our interpersonal relationships, we can forgive ourselves and thus develop a greater capacity to forgive others for their errors. Little by little, we can free ourselves from the burden of hatred and resentment.
Metta is said to produce 11 blessings:
Having pleasant dreams
Receiving love from others
Receiving love from devas (celestial beings) and animals
Receiving protection from external harm (from fire, weapons and poison)
Having mental pleasure and serenity
Having a face that is brilliant and serene
Dying in peace
Having a fortunate rebirth
Traditionally we repeat four phrases of Metta.
Try feeling in your heart the resonance of the final word of each phrase.
May I (you) be peaceful and happy.
May I (you) be healthy in body and mind.
From inner and outer harm may I (you) be safe.
From all suffering, may I (you) be free.