Monks, if someone were to give away a hundred pots of food as charity in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, and if someone else were to develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow’s udder, either in the morning, at noon, or in the evening, this would be more fruitful than the former. Therefore, monks, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving-kindness, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.’ Thus should you train yourselves. (SN 20:4, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Generosity is often considered the first, most basic training for releasing clinging. And yet here’s the Buddha saying that there’s a much more powerful way to move towards freedom from greed, hatred, and confusion.
What does it mean to develop “a mind of loving-kindness”? How do we know when we’re doing it and not doing it? Giving a gift is a specific, usually physical, action; developing loving-kindness (mettā) is internal and invisible.
James Baraz, a Dharma friend and mentor to me, once said that when he was conducting student interviews, his starting point was simply to dwell in loving-kindness with the interviewee. Regardless of what was going on with the person in front of him, she or he would benefit from an uncritical, freely given warmth. For me, being with a person in hospice care is much the same. Whatever they are experiencing at the moment, the best thing I can bring to the situation is unbounded kindness and open attention.
Does it take a special situation for us to bring this part of ourselves to the fore? We all have the capacity to fully let go into a period of boundless kindness, and it is a pleasant mindstate to be in. What habits of our minds get in the way of this? Sometimes we think others should behave or react differently from how they are, but we can’t know their histories and sensitivities. It may make boundless kindness easier to practice if we relax into the understanding that there is a lot we don’t know and can’t ever know about other people.
Many times in the suttas, the Buddha recommends “dwell pervading one quarter [of the world] with loving-kindess” and then spreading it to all quarters, plus above and below, expanding the care in all directions without limit. There don’t seem to be any more specific instructions than this about HOW to develop loving-kindness. Perhaps we could start in situations that make it easy for us to open our hearts, for example, gratitude to another person or group of people. It is a matter for us to consider and experiment with. When does loving-kindness, a desire for the well-being of others that asks nothing in return, come up naturally for us? Can we tap into that and develop it?