One of the most common ways that we limit our concern for others is with “comparing mind”. Whether we consider others better than, worse than, or the same as ourselves, the mental act of comparing “me vs. her” or “us vs. them” creates a sharp boundary and distances us from others. In the Buddha’s language, any comparing of self to others is in the category of “conceit” in the sense of conceiving of self or others as this or that. The activity of conceiving interferes with our ability to respond to others.
So here’s the question: who is more important, who gets first servings of kindness – me or you? Well, if your mind is crabby and depressed, you’re not in the best condition for ladling out the love. But on the other hand if you keep it for yourself, and you fuss over every twinge in your own mind, then that feels like narcissism.
It’s a trick question, because the practice is holistic: to others as to oneself. The way it works is that you see where development can occur and widen it from there. You keep expanding and deepening the sphere of kindness in all directions. — from the book Pāramī by Ajahn Sucitto
Mettā is one of the four boundless or sublime states. The others are karunā, muditā and upekkhā, or compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. When the Buddha calls these states of mind boundless, he’s not talking in relative terms, he literally means with no discernible boundary. There’s no slightly better or slightly worse, no my needs trumping yours, even a little bit. To fully experience one of these states requires the absence of ill-will and of self-view. This seems impossible if we think it must be permanent, but the sublime states, like all mental states, come and go. We try to steer ourselves in their direction, but inevitably we sometimes can’t.
What we can do is recognize when one of these boundless mental states is present and simply rest in it, explore it, let it be as it is. We can establish practices that remind us that we want to be kind to everyone, ourselves included, as much of the time as possible. This could take the form of bringing one of the traditional mettā phrases to mind throughout the day, for example, “May I be well, happy and peaceful. As I wish to be well, happy, and peaceful, may all beings be well, happy and peaceful.” If other words work better for you, then they are the best ones to use. We can create the conditions for orienting ourselves towards our potential for freedom.