Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mettā Meditation: The Pebble Method

     In the past I have written a few posts on the rather important subject of love, compassion, and "heart," and sometimes people have posted comments asking about how to develop these invaluable treasures. Also, I have looked back on my posts for the past several months, and they seem to be predominantly negative in tone—pointing out how this or that is messed up, or reflecting upon death and destruction, or just indulging in nondescript cynicism. (In Dharma, tearing down samsaric systems is much more important than building them up, but still there can be too much of a good thing.) So, in this week's post I'd like to write about the uplifting and relatively non-negative subject of mettā meditation.
     Before getting any farther, though, I should admit here that I don't like practicing formal mettā meditation. My love and benevolence do not switch on and off like an electric light, and attempting to formalize them as a systematic practice feels too hokey and artificial. I've found that the best way to cultivate mettā is to interact closely with another being; then I'm not sitting back in a cave abstractly beaming love to "all beings," but am in a position where I can lower Pink Floyd's wall directly and feel the divinity in another being, another version of "me." I can feel, not just conceptualize, that that other being is just as important as I am, and just as much of a "me" as I am. And the more difficult the person, the more advanced the practice. So for me, the best mettā practice involves interacting with others and letting it develop more or less spontaneously, with a little volitional guidance, like reminding myself to be open and accepting, and sharing blessings. Mostly it's spontaneous. (This is one reason why living alone helps me to be cynical.)
     But there are all kinds of people in this world, and I have no doubt that many do derive much benefit from practicing some form of systematic mettā meditation. You might be one of them. If you do practice formal mettā meditation, I would just suggest that you make sure you're really radiating love, and not just pretending. The following example may illustrate what I'm getting at.
     I once knew a Burmese lady who boasted to me once about how every morning she practices mettā meditation and sends love to all beings in the Universe. This particular lady, though, bless her heart, is a real combatant, with an attitude and a flinty look in her eye like the Apache warrior Geronimo. If she weren't continually feuding with someone or other (and she's not very fussy about who it is) she'd be bored stiff. At this particular time she was at war with a fellow named U Toe about some old pagodas on her family's land which U Toe had restored, and then, in Burmese fashion, he had put up an advertisement/inscription with his name on it—on her pagodas. So they were battling over his right to put his name on her pagodas. And thus, at the time, he was her archenemy. Bearing this situation in mind, when she bragged to me about her mettā practice, I reminded her that when she sends mettā to all beings in the Universe, she's also sending it to good old U Toe. At this she suddenly flared up and exclaimed, angrily, "No! Not him!"
     So it is important not to deceive oneself; and if one is doing a systematic (and therefore somewhat artificial) practice of cultivating goodwill, it is important to be sure one is really, sincerely cultivating goodwill, and not just pretending with a kind of warm, sentimental feeling, or just words.
     Anyway, long ago I read a book by a famous Burmese sayadaw named U Uttamasāra, who lived in a remote mountain forest and was believed by many to have psychic powers. (He seems to have bragged a little about these powers, which may help to explain why so many people believed he had them.) In his book he included a really nice method for sending mettā to a difficult person, that is, one who is so difficult that it is hard to work up any actual mettā when thinking of them directly. Even though I don't do formal mettā practice, I feel intuitively that this method could be really effective. 
     Before explaining the method though, I will point out that feeling love for your enemies—or rather, feeling love for people who consider you to be their enemy, or who are otherwise hostile or obnoxious toward you—is at once a difficult, advanced, and very beneficial practice. The Theravadin tradition advises a mettā meditator to begin with someone neutral, who is neither beloved nor hated, and then to progress to loved ones and enemies after becoming more proficient. But the following method is specially designed for the difficult, obnoxious ones. Even if you're a beginner, it may be useful in an emergency.
     The method requires a clear glass tumbler or similar vessel, fresh water, and a pebble—ideally the cutest little round pebble you can find. Find that cute little pebble, and name it after the person who gives you trouble. Let's call it Zolnar. So what you do with this pebble is to honor it in place of the person you can't honor directly without cringing with distaste. Every day, mindfully fill the little glass with fresh water, and gently and carefully place the pebble into it. Then place the glass on a place of honor: if you have an altar, put it there, or otherwise place it on a high shelf, or some such (and not in the bathroom, or in a closet). Then, for just a few minutes every day, or more if you're really into it, beam love into that pebble. Think things like, "Just as Zolnar the little pebble is surrounded by fresh, clean, cool, clear water, so may the other Zolnar be surrounded by blessings, light, happiness, and love. May the gods ever smile upon his journey, just as I smile upon this pebble." Repeat this short ritual every day, keeping the water freshly changed, and the pebble honored. And don't let the words degenerate into a mere repeated formula, but come up with your blessings as spontaneously and sincerely as possible. That's all there is to it. Just love Zolnar indirectly, by way of a pebble representative.
     One reason why it is so difficult to love people who make trouble for us and make our life more difficult than it would be otherwise, is a natural primate instinct of justice, or maybe just revenge. We feel that a person who acts like a bitch or a colossal ass shouldn't be rewarded by returning their hostility with love. It just doesn't seem fair. Why should they be happy when they make others around them so unhappy?
     But here's the thing: As a general rule, only unhappy people are inclined to make trouble for others. Happy, smiling, contented people are quite willing to live and let live. In fact, if one is expanded, then one feels intuitively that hurting another actually hurts oneself also, and brings one down. A really happy person naturally recoils from it. Being hostile is a contracting, unhappifying experience, regardless of any animalistic, hooting laughter it may elicit. If a person is being deliberately or uncaringly obnoxious, it is usually because that person is hurting, and doesn't want to be the only hurting one, or the most hurting one. So by forgiving and loving them—and forgiveness and love have real power, and the method I just described also has real power if one isn't pretending—then they become less inclined to hurt others because they themselves are hurting less. They may even become loving themselves. There is one case in ven. Uttamasāra's book of a woman who practiced the pebble method with regard to her supervisor at work, who suddenly one day approached her and sincerely apologized for his past behavior, having experienced an inexplicable change of heart. The power of mettā, of loving acceptance and goodwill, really can uplift both people involved, both the giver and the receiver, even if the receiver has no conscious knowledge of the giver's pebble. Revenge, or closed-off alienation, doesn't really work.
     Now go out there and love somebody.   

Postscript (19 March '15): Ah, it just occurred to me that I do practice a formal mettā technique. When I live at the cave in Burma, sometimes people come to me and ask for "mettā water," that is, water that I have blessed by chanting over it. In such cases I open a bottle of water, drink a little of it, and then hold the open bottle to my heart and recite the Mettā Sutta, doing my best to follow along with the meaning of the Pali words, so that it isn't just meaningless noise I'm making. Then I do my best to hand it over to them with mindfulness and a loving heart, in an attempt to do justice to their simple-hearted faith in me, and in Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

     I've found that it is best to open all necessary bottles before starting the recitation, since sometimes the little plastic seals (for your protection) are hard to get off, occasionally resulting in frustration, sometimes even in a little cussing (in English) under my breath—which is not so good for the generation of mettā. I do the chanting inside the cave, not in front of people as some kind of entertainment show, so they don't even see me silently mouthing the cuss words.


  1. Thank you for this post. There has been someone in my life that I have been unable to come up with a way to forgive them, to love them, and to feel okay and neutral in my body when I think about them so I plan to do this practice until it seems like a good time to stop.