The biggest problem we Westerners have when we approach a Buddhist concept like metta, “loving-kindness”, is that we basically only have three concepts of “love”: (1) intense romantic love; (2) family love; or, alternately, if we are being very spiritual, (3) noble saintly love for all our fellow men and women—Jesus-type love, or Ghandi-type love, which of course we think is way out of reach for lowly mortals like us.

When my teacher taught the Brahma Viharas (the four meditations on love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity), there was almost always a question from a Western student asking how to meditate on love because “looove” is either an intensely personal emotion (which we don’t feel for everyone), or a highly spiritual emotion which not everyone thinks they can evoke.  My teacher was remarkably straightforward on this point.  He’d say, “You have got friends, haven’t you?  Well metta simply means friendliness.  And a slightly warm feeling.  When you hear metta, think ‘friendly and warm’.”

I’ve always found this extremely helpful.  It lowers the bar to where even people like me can get over it.  Warm and friendly?  I can do that.

And this should be the starting point, the bedrock, the foundation that all the other Brahma Viharas spring from (in fact where all your meditation should start from).  If you go to the Suttas (the talks the Buddha gave), the Buddha always emphasized loving-kindness. Over the years, I’ve come to use the word “warm-heartedness” as the best approximation for metta because it denotes the type of loving-kindness or “basic affection” (as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says) that not only can arise between people but also between people and animals, and can even be experienced by humans generally in nature or even when we are all alone.

So, forget trying to meditate on “looooove.” Try “warm-heartedness” or  “friendliness” instead.


2 thoughts on “Friendliness

  1. Thank you so much for this Derek; it’s a wonderful and yet simple explanation of metta . . . and I’m going to bring it to read to my sangha this week before we practice the final metta meditation! I’m all about keeping the teachings on a human level, or rather, on a level that helps us to understand and practice more deeply instead of causing us undue frustration.

    I also like the definition of metta as “unconditional friendliness,” since it means I can attempt (emphasis on “attempt”) to send this out to people/politicians etc., for whom I harbor resentment. It’s something to live up to and practice with, I think.

    1. Thanks Shell.

      I agree completely about making the teaching easier to understand and helping folks avoid frustration.

      I actually had a lot of difficulty when I started metta meditation, and it was frustrating to get the feeling that everyone else on retreat was ‘acing’ it, and i just couldn’t get it at all.

      The final breakthrough came when I actually disobeyed (gasp!) the teacher’s instruction that you had to generate metta for yourself first, before you could radiate it to others…. I had been blocked by this obstacle for the first 10 days of a 2 week Brahma Vihara retreat.
      On Day 11, I was sitting outside, with an adoring Black lab named ‘Princess’ at my feet; and I finally realized that I had been overlooking the wonderful feeling of warmth and kindness that I’d been receiving from this dog (duh)!
      And so I settled into that feeling, allowed it to fill me up, and THEN i felt that I had something to radiate to others….

      Slow learner… Oh well.

      Hope you have a wonderful class this week!

      (PS. In the teacher’s defense: I never went and reported my difficulty to him. I was too embarrassed.)

      PPS. Later on I learned that maitri actually comes from the same Sanskrit root as mitra, “friend”–so “friendliness” is actually a pretty good translation.

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