Valentine's Day Metta
This weekend is St. Valentine's Day, a rather awkward holiday celebrating Romantic Love, and of course like all good holidays now used as an excuse for companies to sell stuff. Your inbox is probably full of reasons why Valentine's day is the perfect time to buy X or subscribe to Y. And this year is no different even given the strange state of the world. A fun game to play right now is to count how many articles include the phrase "Love in the Time of COVID" somewhere in them (a quick internet search shows 911,000 articles including that exact phrase! And I guess I have just added one more).
Our core meditation practice, Metta Bhavana, is usually translated as "Cultivation of Lovingkindness," and in it we practice generating Metta - an unconditional form of love - for all beings. So it seems appropriate at this time of the year to step back and contemplate what we mean by 'love,' and how it fits into our practice.
In English we overload the word 'love' with a huge number of meanings. Things I love include my wife, my cat, Indian food, Twin Peaks, coffee, Radiohead, Terry Pratchett - you get the picture. So many different concepts rolled into one word.
On Valentine's Day the specific form of love being celebrated is Romantic Love, the form that is embedded so deeply in our culture. Where would music, novels, movies and other art-forms be without it? What would Ewan and Nicole sing about on that elephant? And of course this form of love is essential - we wouldn't survive as a species without it.
In Pali the word pema is used for affectionate love and is often described as the 'near-enemy' of metta. 'Near-enemy' here means the thing that can look like metta, but which is really the opposite. This kind of affectionate love has at its core a desired outcome or state for the person who is loving the other - in other words it is not a pure wish for the well-being of the person being loved.
And this is how we can distinguish between the different forms of love. When we have metta for another we are wishing for their well-being, without us gaining anything else from that. The great teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that rather than always using lovingkindness as the translation of metta we should instead use goodwill. I think that these are wise words, as it avoids the attachment and ambiguity that can be tied up with our western concepts of love.
So should we avoid romantic love? Of course not, we just need to understand that it is completely different from - and often the opposite of - true unconditional love.
And of course it keeps the arts - and the species - going!
I have linked below a fully-guided Metta meditation for Valentine's Day. A few of us will be pressing 'play' at 7pm PT on February 14th - you are welcome to join us or of course listen at any time.