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Individual and Universal Metta

 

Question

I like sending metta to all people and all beings. Why do we start with sending it only to ourselves and one spiritual friend? Wouldn’t it be better to share it with all?

 

Answer

The awakened mind is equally aware of individual beings nearby and the broad field of beings everywhere. So both individual and universal metta are important. This practice starts with an individual to help the loving kindness become grounded in a particular person. As the mind relaxes and expands, it moves naturally to concern for all. If you expand too quickly, meditation can become spacey and lose power and depth. But with a little patience, it opens to a very broad metta sooner than we might expect.

 

Elaboration

Charlie Brown famously said, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” It gets a laugh because it resonates with a place inside that can love the human race as a whole and get irritated at an eccentric uncle, grumpy co-worker, or moody teenager. We like the idea of universal love and exclude the driver that just cut us off.

Furthermore, we may find it easy to love others but not ourselves. Western childrearing practices leave a residue of self-hatred that surprises many Eastern masters when they first teach in the West.

The first stage on the Buddha’s path is characterized by joy – a burst of wellbeing that can be intense. It comes from the release of old tensions and holdings. The relief can leave us grinning. It’s fine to savor it – let it seep into the bones, as it were. Given the themes of abuse, neglect, or self-hatred in many of us, this joy can be healing.

However, eventually joy becomes boring. When we’ve absorbed all we need for inner balance, we notice, “This bliss is getting tedious.”

We observe how we’ve been quietly holding onto the joy. This attachment is not a problem. When it feels like “just more of the same old rapture,” our grip on it gracefully releases. With this, the more refined pervasive joy of equanimity becomes prominent. It arises by itself with no prompting from us.

The healing of equanimity takes up where the healing of joy left off. As it settles in, there are two meditative exercises to be engaged: "Removing the Barriers," and "Indiscriminate Metta." They are described in chapter 15 of Buddha’s Map . They provide a bridge from individual to universal metta. They give confidence that we’re ready for the expanded practice. It is best not to take these up until equanimity is deeply established on it’s own.

Before then, we stay with sending metta to ourselves and/or a single spiritual friend. If we do this, the rest will unfold by itself when the time is ripe. That time may come sooner than we imagine. But patience does help.