holistic kindness: mettā, the ninth pāramī


POSTCARD#420: Bangkok: Excerpts from Pāramī, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods” by Ajahn Sucitto. Click on the above link to download the file as pdf mobi or epub. Print copy also available by post.

Click on this link for the Karaniya Metta Sutta

Ajahn begins with mettā as loving-kindness that includes releasing others from being the objects of our projections, lust and idealism – self and other. Mettā allows others to not be the way I want them to be for me. Mettā means ‘recognizing otherness’. We don’t have to make people the same as ourselves or judge ourselves, based on what we think about other people.

It’s valuable to bring to mind that each of us has at some time been on the receiving end of freely given goodwill. So when you’re feeling bitter, anxious or lonely – remember this: at some time you have been seen with a loving and sympathetic eye.

The Mind of Self and Other

Mettā is an extension of the affective and responsive mind or heart. How crucial its alignment is! On the one hand, the mind can get trapped by fear, greed, hatred and delusion, and on the other hand it can extend in generosity and other perfections. The main issue for the mind is how it relates to what happens. Relationship is fundamental, because we are actually never a stand-alone being, but always a ‘being with’ or a ‘being in,’ or even a ‘being with the sense of being without.’

Consciousness is just this awareness of ‘being with’ in the various fields of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and thinking. And in that process of being with, consciousness automatically establishes the sense of a subject and an object: a seer who sees a visible object, a hearer who hears an audible object, etc. Out of that duality, the sense of self and other arises. That’s the program of consciousness.

Notice that self and other are relative positions that depend on each other. You can’t have an experience of self without an other (animate or inanimate) that is in contrast to it. However for each mind, the emphasis is on the self; the ‘me, mine’ part is the crucial aspect in a world of changing others. Even in your own mind, there appears the self (the subject) as a watcher and the other (the object) as thoughts and emotions. Or the self is how you conceive yourself as being, and other is what you should be, might be, or were.

This is self-view, and it’s the norm for unawakened beings. Self-view rests on the assumption that these dependently-arisen polarities are actually separate and autonomous. It infers a self, despite the inability of that self to own or control the body or mind that it adopts as its own; despite its genetic and psychological inheritance from others; and despite its inability to rest unsupported by sights, sounds, affection and purposeful activity – all of which are outside its dominion. Self-view is blind to interdependency. Consequently, its flooding ignorance sweeps us into a sense of separation and alienation, whilst all the time asserting that this is our empire.

Accepting Otherness

In the practice of kindness, we look into the mind as it is happening, a moment at a time, with the intention to gentle it out of the hold of aversion, depression and anxiety. To support this, the teaching is that, although the sense of self-other happens by default, we can have some say over its emotional and energetic flavouring. Our current intention doesn’t need to be tense, inadequate and critical; it can be uplifted and uncramped. The sense of self-other can catalyse and give occasion for an intention to offer support. This intention is essential for a happy life, because if we don’t use the relational experience in a kind and generous way, then defensiveness, anxiety, fault-finding and grudges are going to haunt our lives and impair the lives of others.

Mettā is non-aversion, but it’s also non-fascination and non-projection. It releases others from being the objects of our projections, lust and idealism. It allows others to not be the way I want them to be for me. True love for another means that you don’t appropriate someone or project your unfulfilled wishes or needs onto them. Instead, mettā means recognizing otherness, and feeling that it’s OK. We don’t have to make people the same as ourselves or judge ourselves, based on what we think about other people. We don’t have to feel we have to win them over, or feel that they should satisfy our emotional hunger. And when mettā is fully developed it can allow us to be with the irritating and the unfair and the messy, so that such perceptions no longer even take hold.

It’s the same for ourselves: when we hold ourselves with the mind of goodwill, we don’t have to feel intimidated and compelled to prove ourselves. We have all been small, weak and stupid. We have all been totally irresponsible infants, awkward adolescents, made a mess of things, lied, cheated and maybe even killed. Yet we changed. These were all visitors and forces that occupied the mind. Now there’s no denying the responsibility for allowing one’s mind to be so occupied, but our current responsibility is one of cultivating virtue, discernment and kindness, not of obsessing and sustaining the burden of guilt and denial. And one of the major healing tools for this process is mettā. With this we take on samsāra with non-aversion and non-projection. We can accept the presence of the petty-mindedness, the guilt and anxiety as visitors conditioned into the mind, and work with them. Then there is nothing to hide from or dread anymore. This is a more useful approach than going through another round of anguish, self-hatred and defensiveness. By stilling these reactions, mettā enables us to penetrate to, and remove, the root cause of ill-will – often towards ourselves – underneath the complexes.

Start with Empathy

If you can regard this mind as it really is, you become compassionate. People’s minds are conditioned and formed around circumstances. You realize that people may not know much about kindness simply because they haven’t received much of it. Hurtful, abusive things may have been done or said to them; appreciation and warmth may have been in short supply. Consequently, such minds can have sour flavourings which attach to their sense of self and others, and which engender aversive or mistrustful responses. The default then is a distorted relational sense in which pleasure and personal security come from besting others, even through making fun of or scapegoating them. A boundary has been created which blocks empathy. And it doesn’t even feel bad at first: getting more than another, putting others down or taking revenge has the same sweet burst to it as a drug. That’s why it takes over.

But it doesn’t have to, all that’s needed is for someone to tell the truth about suffering and the note of empathy is struck: ‘You mean you feel like that too!’  Suddenly the conflict, the ‘you’re so different from me,’ falls away. No one has changed anything except the self-other line up, but in that moment of empathy there is a mutual deepening. The way out of ill-will is not through judging who’s right, but through finding common ground. Kindness, or non-aversion, begins with empathy, the sense that we’re all in this same samsāric ocean together, struggling in the floods.

(Continued next week 21 May 2021 with Holistic Kindness, the Mettā Pāramī) Part 2)

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