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 sent them to a glade in the forest where he said they would be undisturbed.
The monks found their way there and settled down to meditate. But what they didn’t know was that this particular glade was inhabited by a gang of tree spirits who were really upset that the monks had come. And when tree spirits get upset 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. And it worked. The monks decided they couldn’t possibly meditate with so many disturbances, so they went back to the Buddha and begged him to let them go somewhere else.
But no. Instead, the Buddha taught them a meditation practice of loving kindness, or metta in Sanskrit, which develops loving kindness towards everyone, including yourself and your enemies. And then he sent the monks back to the forest. His famous words were: This is the only protection you will need.
Thinking the Buddha must be mad, the monks reluctantly went back to the glade, sat down and began practicing metta. And the tree spirits, who at first were not at all pleased to see them returning, no longer had any affect on them. For all their antics, the monks just kept sitting there, beaming out kindness. Eventually the spirits were won over by the waves of love and compassion emanating from these robed ones and, far from than chasing them away, the same nastys that had been so ferocious now became disciples.
The question is, who are the tree spirits? Realistically, they are everything that goes on in our own minds—all the doubts, fears, anger, insecurities, and negative thoughts—that constantly undermine our basic goodness, which is innate in all of us. And the point the Buddha was making is that loving kindness—metta–has the capacity to overcome all manner of inner monsters and ghouls and lead us to a true heart opening. Metta is the act of extending our love, kindness and friendship equally towards all beings, proving that love is more powerful than any negative force. Rather than trying to deal with negativity, we cultivate the opposite; seeing and knowing pain, we bring caring and kindness.
We know this sounds so easy: just be kind and loving, how great, what a cool idea. But in practice it’s not always so simple, such as when someone says or does something that is personally critical, derogatory or hurtful. Can metta still flow when the ego-mind is upset? By focusing on loving kindness as a way of living, it shows us all those places that are bound in ego and selfishness; it brings us up against our limitations and boundaries. Where do we meet our edge? Where is our capacity to step over the edge into greater kindness? How genuine is our ability to be altruistic in a difficult situation?
We remember talking with our friend Ram Dass at the time of the Clinton/Dole election. He told us how he had a picture of Bob Dole on his meditation altar as: “Dole needs the most love and compassion as he is the one being so vilified.”
In that act, Ram Dass was practicing true metta. It was an important reminder not to cast anyone out of our hearts, for in the process we are casting out ourselves. If we feel affected by someone being dismissive, critical or hurtful, it is invariably because there is a hook in us for that negativity to grab hold of, a place where it can land and trigger all our hidden feelings of unworthiness, insecurity, and self-doubt.
However, when we extend metta toward someone we are having a hard time with, an extraordinary thing happens: the landing place, or the hook within, begins to dissolve. Then the negativity has no place to go. Metta asks that we stay caring, that we keep our heart open to the situation we are struggling with and all the accompanying annoyance and anger, and hold ourselves with gentle tenderness. Then amazing change is possible.
5 Minute Loving Kindness Meditation
Begin by breathing into the area of your heart, softening and relaxing with the in-breath, letting go of tension on the out-breath. Hold your name or an image of yourself in your heart and silently repeat: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be filled with loving kindness.
Next, wish all beings be well, wish all beings be happy. If at work you can spend a few moments repeating the names of people you work with and wishing them happiness and joy. On your way home from work reflect on your day and generate loving thoughts to those you meet. At night, think of your family and friends and wish them wellness and happiness: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be filled with loving kindness.
Finish by taking a few deep breaths and slowly opening your eyes, and have a smile on your face!