Metta sutta chant-along

One way to internalize teachings of all sorts is to memorize them. Most of us learned the alphabet this way, singing the letters out loud to a simple tune, probably in a group.

In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, chanting is generally done in a restricted melodic range (three or four notes), both to keep things simple and to prevent the chanting of sacred texts from being perceived as entertainment.

I invite you to listen to the audio file linked below. It is a version of the Karaniya Mettā Sutta that was translated from Pali to English by a group of monks and nuns affiliated with the Ajahn Chah lineage. It is chanted regularly in monasteries all over the world, and it’s one of my personal favorites.

The words are below, in case you’re inspired to chant-along (or even memorize) this uplifting sutta.

Sn 1.8, Karaniya Mettā Sutta, translated by the Amaravati Sangha:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful,
Not proud or demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born —
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

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More on mettā

For those of you new to the idea, the previous post may have been a bit confusing. Mettā (Pali word) is often translated as loving-kindness, friendliness, good will, benevolence, or similar words. An essential quality of mettā is boundlessness.

Shakespeare wrote, in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

In the same way, mettā is a joy for those who give (radiate) it and for those who encounter it. It cannot be rationed in the same way that rain can’t be – it falls on both the worthy and the unworthy. Mettā can’t be given to some and withheld from others; it is unconditional.

Mettā is the first of the four brahmāvihāras, or sublime (mental) states, also called the boundless states. The other three are karunā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy), and upekkhā (equipoise). All four share the characteristic of having no boundaries, of being a specific form of unconditional love, and all four can be developed by all of us. For some people, they are the foundation of the path to awakening. They are an essential ingredient for progress on the path and can help us balance our sometimes overactive minds.

We could think of mettā as unconditional care for ourselves and all others, karunā as unconditional care for those who are suffering, muditā as unreserved pleasure in the joy or good fortune of others, and upekkhā as a steady mental state, being at peace with all that is.

Most of us have some experience of each of these states; they occur naturally. We might also feel more inclined to one of them than the others, compassion for instance. We might also feel that we are lacking in one area and could give attention to it with the intention of developing it. For example, if we committed ourselves to an attempt to respond to others’ good fortune with sympathetic joy rather than envy or “sour grapes”, we might (gradually) find our mind a pleasanter place to abide.

Mettā is said to be, and is, always an appropriate state of mind. We can’t design a situation in which mettā is out of place.

In the full speech quoted above, the quality of mercy is connected with forgiveness, a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays. Similarly, to embody the sublime states, we have to give up any grudges, any withholding of our acceptance; the barriers have to come down.

For more on mettā, visit this site: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/buddharakkhita/wheel365.html

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Mettā practice

Mettā is not a superman’s love; it is the very ordinary ability just to be kind and not dwell in aversion towards something or someone.
– from The Practice of Mettā, a talk by Ajahn Sumedho

An important and much-misunderstood way of cultivating mindfulness is the practice of mettā. In recent decades, the practice has come to us (in the English-speaking world) almost as a mantra meditation; when we repeat certain phrases, our hearts are meant to automatically open. I confess that this approach has never worked for me. It often felt like more of a chore than a helpful exercise.

Earlier this year I was introduced to a new way of looking at mettā practice. Ven. Analayo said that when the hindrances (greed, aversion, agitation, sloth, and doubt) are in abeyance, then mettā is present. He recommended simply being aware of this calm mental state, which resonates throughout the body, and allowing it to radiate indiscriminately. No need to send it to a particular person or group; no need to send it at all, just allow it to radiate in all directions, unobstructed, at whatever strength you find it. Because we have a pleasant sensation when the hindrances are in abeyance, if we make space for the feeling and don’t interfere with it or judge it, it will naturally grow.

So how can we hold the hindrances at bay? Good question, and I only have partial answers. When we calm ourselves, we withhold nourishment from the hindrances. When we let go of clinging, in any form, the hindrances recede. If we start paying attention to whether or not the hindrances are present in our body/minds, we might notice that sometimes they are just naturally quiescent.

The disturbances created by the hindrances may be external forces (other people or situations) or internal (our own worries, concerns, self-criticisms, etc.). Recognizing these as impersonal, seeing that we don’t have to grab them and identify with them, allows us to let them go. It starts with observing the energetic state that our body and mind are in, right now.

Mettā can be practiced in any posture, but a relaxed and alert energy is recommended. Once we identify this specific way of feeling, the mental state of mettā, we can cultivate it in any place at any time.

Later in the published talk referenced above, Ajahn Sumedho says:
Wisdom arises when we begin to accept all the different ‘beings’ both within ourselves and outside, rather than always trying to manipulate things so they are convenient and pleasant for us all the time, so that we do not have to be confronted with irritating and troublesome people and situations. Let’s face it, the world is an irritating place! …We can still be fully aware of imperfections and not dismiss them or be irresponsible; the practice of mettā means we don’t create problems round them by dwelling in aversion. We can allow ourselves to flow with life.

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Related trainings

What if establishing a regular sitting meditation practice seems impossible, or we have a mental condition that makes it inadvisable? What are some other methods for cultivating mindfulness?

The key is dailiness. There are any number of practices that can help us establish a better relationship with our minds, but they are not one-off exercises.

Some examples:

PRECEPTS
Memorize the precepts and recite them, preferably out loud, each day. It will take less than two minutes (after you know them), and reciting them daily will deepen your intention to act on your wholesome motivations and refrain from acting on unwholesome ones. Read about the precepts here: https://buddhasadvice.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/what-actions/

MANTRA MEDITATION
Spend two minutes a day repeating a mantra. You can do this while sitting, standing or walking (not while driving!). The most common mantra for Buddhists is “Budd-ho”, saying to oneself “Budd” on the in-breath and “ho” on the out-breath. This mantra practice can be done while waiting or during other activities that don’t require our minds to be actively engaged.

WALKING MEDITATION
Spend a few minutes each day walking mindfully. Choose a place where you can walk undisturbed by external events for several minutes; up and down a hallway is fine. During this period, do nothing beyond walking and being aware of what the body feels like while this walking is happening. Bring awareness to the breath, relaxed (or not) muscles, the pressure of the feet on the ground, the air temperature, posture, etc. No daydreaming, planning, or dodging obstacles.

In all of these practices, we are slowing down and taking a break from our normal modes of thinking – planning, worrying, hoping, regretting, etc. We purposefully try to quiet ourselves and turn our attention away from our thoughts and towards our direct, physical experience. In this way, gradually we learn that we are not our thoughts, that our thoughts don’t define us, and that we have some control over where our attention is placed.

Another helpful practice is metta, which I’ll address in the next post.

Keep on keepin’ on!

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Mindful methods

One reader commented on the previous post:

I am curious as to what you mean when you say “know the breath with the body” rather than the mind. Isn’t the mind involved in knowing at some point? Do you have some suggestions as to how to accomplish this?

When we sit down to meditate, we are not simply thinking, we are cultivating a different kind of attention. It’s not the furrowed-brow counting out of in-breaths and out-breaths, but a sort of gate-keeper attention that is noticing people (breaths) coming and going without accosting them. Relaxed and alert is what we’re after.

Daniel Kahnemann, in his excellent book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes two types of thought: System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
– from chapter 1 of Thinking Fast and Slow

It’s almost the same as “right brain” vs. “left brain” thinking. Left brain is more focused, more effortful, and targets getting a particular outcome. Right brain thinking is more stream-of-consciousness, more intuitive, more open.

In meditation, we need a balance of both types of thinking – System 2 to set our intention and to place and hold the awareness on a particular object, and System 1 to notice what’s happening without interfering and without building a story around every thought.

A relaxed and alert attitude is open to all the senses. Most of us favor our thoughts over our other senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). In meditation we can adjust our attention to be alert to all of the senses more equally and more immediately, one breath at time. If we stay in the present, there’s no time for internal storytelling because our senses are providing a continuously changing object of attention. As soon as we start reacting to our intimate sense-experience, we are caught up in reactions and we miss the next moment of direct experience.

If there’s too much System 2 thinking, we get tense and tired. If there’s too much System 1 thinking, our minds drift aimlessly. Learning to meditate is, at least in part, learning to balance these two types of attention.

Cultivating this balanced attention takes patience, which is why we call meditation a practice. It’s a never-ending practice because every moment’s experience is new. We never arrive at a fixed destination; our destination is the flow of direct experience.

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Establishing a meditation practice

A regular meditation practice is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal if we want to modify our attitudes and habits in the direction of abandoning the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome. Generosity and ethical behavior form an important foundation, but to alter the way our minds work, to see things in a new way, we need a quiet, introspective form of training. Lasting wisdom, and the contentment it can bring, grows stronger as we learn (gradually) how to calm and focus the mind.

Many respected teachers agree that the regularity of a sitting practice is more important than the duration. Sitting five minutes per day for seven days will be more beneficial than sitting once a week for thirty-five minutes.

From the many available “instant meditation instructions”, I’ve chosen the outline below. It was published as a sidebar to an article, “Dropping Distraction”, by Leo Babauta in the Summer 2015 issue of Tricycle. Mr. Babauta has a web site called Zen Habits which is long on forming healthy habits and short on Zen. But I find his instructions on establishing a meditation practice on point, inviting, and appropriately encouraging. The one thing I would add is that when Mr. Babauta says “follow your breath”, I would offer as an alternative: “know the breath with your body”. Paradoxically, we can disengage from our usual way of following or knowing, and experience the breath more through the sensory capabilities of the body than through the overworked mental faculty. These are not really two separate modes, but a subtle matter of emphasis; let the thinking mind relax a little.

If you don’t already have a regular sitting practice, please consider giving the directions below a chance. What have you got to lose?

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Meditation is perhaps the most important habit to maintain if you want to change other habits. It’s a pretty simple habit to form, but the doing is everything:

Commit to just two minutes a day.
If you want the habit to stick, start simply. All you’re committing to is two minutes each day. You can go up to five minutes if you’re feeling good about it, and increase it over time – slowly.

Pick a time and a trigger.
Not an exact time of day, but a general time, like right after you wake up or during your lunch hour. The trigger should be something you already do regularly, like drink your first cup of coffee, brush your teeth, have lunch, or arrive at home from work.

Find a quiet spot.
Sometimes early morning at home is best, before others in your house are awake and making noise. Or it could be a spot in a park or on the beach or some other soothing setting. It really doesn’t matter where as long as you can sit without being bothered for a few minutes.

Sit comfortably.
Don’t fuss too much about how you sit, what you wear, what you sit on, and so on. I like to sit on a pillow on the floor with my back leaning against a wall, because I’m very inflexible. Others use a meditation cushion or bench, but my opinion is that any cushion or pillow will do, and some people can sit on a bare floor comfortably. Don’t go out and buy things you don’t already have.

Focus on your breath.
As you breathe in, follow your breath in through your nostrils, then into your throat, then into your lungs and belly. As you breathe out, follow your breath out back into the world. If it helps, count: one breath in, two breath out, three breath in, four breath out. When you get to ten, start over. If you lose track, start over. If you find your mind wandering (and you will), bring it gently back to your breath. Repeat this process for the few minutes of your meditation.

That’s it. Practice for two minutes, every day, after the same trigger each day, and after a month you’ll have a daily meditation practice.

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Equilibrium

From an essay by Andrew Olendski, “The Non-pursuit of Happiness”:

A system’s health or well-being, which at the human scale we call happiness, might be simply defined as a state of equilibrium between inner and outer states.

Which brings us to the two strategies for achieving happiness: One is to change the external environment to meet the needs (or wants) of the organism; the other is to change the internal state of the organism to adapt itself to the environment. We can either change the world to satisfy our desires, or change our desires by adapting to the world. Both strategies aim at removing the agitation of desires, one by fulfilling them and the other by relinquishing them.

Because we are so imbued with the notion that happiness is something to be pursued by the continual transformation of the external, it can sound odd to hear the Buddha talk of uncovering happiness within. He acknowledged the inevitable presence of disequilibrium, which he called dukkha or suffering, but suggested we seek out its internal adjustments. According to the Buddha’s analysis, it is not the objective discrepancy between the internal and the external conditions that is the source of unhappiness; it is the desire for the external to change (or to not change, as the case may be), which is itself an internal state. Conditions in the world are notoriously unstable and subject to forces beyond our control, while internal desires are intimate and more accessible. It is simply more efficient to adapt to the world than to alter it.

Let’s try giving the world a rest from our restless need to transform it, and work a bit more on changing ourselves. I trust the Buddha’s promise that by doing so we will be happier in the long run.

This is a re-statement, in a different voice, of the point made in the previous post. My hope is that by examining our situation from different angles we can slowly adjust our default attitude from “It shouldn’t be like this” to “Perhaps I can reduce my desire for things to be other than as they are”.

In order to make that move, we have to become familiar enough with our minds to believe that they are malleable, that how we react to things is not immutable, but can be changed. This is a delicate and somewhat mysterious business. It may have to do with deliberately softening our attitudes, with examining the internal and external more closely, with replacing judgment with curiosity, and with other strategies we discover for ourselves.

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