The Two Tiers of Buddhist Loving-Kindness Practice

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Spend some time in any Buddhist setting anywhere and you will quickly recognize a predictable cultural norm: Kindness. This kindness, a conscious inclination of the mind and heart, is the outer manifestation of a core inner ideal: Buddhism elevates loving-kindness (often called metta, from the Pali language) as the one human attribute to be cultivated above all others.

As such, the practice of metta is as basic to meditation training as the development of mindfulness. Without metta, meditation can be intellectually skillful but emotionally dry, an abstract exercise devoid of humanness. Metta leavens the headiness of meditative investigation with the softness of the heart; it is what fuels the courage to witness the mind and body in "whatever arises" without self-cruelty, and to be with others with less judgment or hostility.

For me, metta practice is actually two-tiered.

At the most basic level, metta is an exercise, a training. It's a "what if" experiment to test how it might feel to strengthen my capacity for loving-kindness, to nudge my kindness beyond its currently constricted borders. It's like going to the gym, but for a different kind of "heart" conditioning. It requires neither perfection nor expectation of feeling kindness beyond what is available in the moment. The metta may or may not feel genuine, but there's no harm - and quite possibly there's benefit -- simply in trying it on for size.

The beauty of this practice is that it allows the exploration of metta even my heart is closed, with the full recognition of how hard it can be to transcend my own pettiness. I am willing to believe that the practice itself may open the heart, much as years of sit-ups slowly toned my unruly abdomen. This is metta as training, as gentle softening, as reminder, as practice.

But there's a second, deeper level of metta: "No matter what." For me, this is the ultimate challenge and deepest aspiration of metta practice: to develop a sense of loving-kindness towards myself and others no matter what.

All metta practice involves tilting one's view towards seeing the good in others, leaning in the direction of a generous a heart. This can be hard enough. But offering this benevolence to ourselves and others no matter what? Wow - that's a pretty high bar.

Still, this is the bar that great sages of the human spirit - the Buddha, Jesus, saints and prophets of all stripes - have pointed us to. "It was easy to see God in all things that were beautiful," said St. Francis of Assisi. "The deeper lesson came from seeing God in all things." The Buddha's gentle admonition is that we are to develop loving-kindness for all beings with no exclusion, "omitting none."

No matter what catapults metta practice to a new level. It can mean surrendering deeply-held assumptions about right and wrong. It can mean forgiving the ways we, or those we most love, have been wounded or harmed. It moves beyond conditioned beliefs, convictions, and judgments about ourselves and others, clan and loyalty. It challenges gut reactions and sometimes, even, cherished ethics.

In my own practice, I don't go there lightly. "Ordinary" metta is meant as training, so I can approach it in any state of mind. But I chose to invoke no matter what only when I can reside in the emotional truth of it, when my heart is open enough to inhabit this radical, unconditional embrace. I do not take the phrase lightly. I do not want to diminish it. I honor it as contract, commitment, vow. When I am lucky enough to stumble into this oasis I allow myself to drink from its rich tap, but I have not yet found that it can be willed into being. I do not want to dilute or taint such prized waters.

As such, "no matter what" is a hard practice. There are very few people in my life for whom I genuinely feel in my heart, sustained over time, "I offer you loving-kindness no matter what." Still, I believe in this possibility and aspire to expand it. I hold open the possibility, remote as it sometimes feels, that one day I may be able to carry the no matter what in my heart universally, unconditionally. Not to condone what is morally repugnant, but to unearth the possibility of a deeper loving-kindness, non-exclusive and radical, that encompasses, embraces, and undergirds all that is.

Buddhism, it is often said, is built on a paradox: The cultivation of wisdom on the one hand, and loving-kindness on the other. Wisdom teaches that all things are impermanent and that the separate self is a delusion. Loving-kindness offers instead, "don't worry about all that" - whatever this reality is, we're in it together, so play nice. These two grand concepts are sometimes at odds with one another, but together they are considered like the two wings of a bird.

Expanding my capacity for "no matter what" metta is one of the most tender reasons why I meditate. Without this wing, the dove of liberation - mine, and that of humanity - may never be able to fly.

(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog explores how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).