Self and Others
In the traditional form of Metta meditation we are encouraged to bring to mind four people: our self; a friend; a 'neutral' or little-known person; and an enemy (or difficult person). This simple formula allows us to explore our feelings about those we know well (self), those we know little (neutral) and those we naturally like or dislike (friend and enemy). By doing this we practice by putting specific people into the natural 'buckets' that we use in our everyday life.
But of course this is just the form. The realization that we get through actually practicing the form is that those 'buckets' - the ones we are encouraged to use - are artificial and mere constructions. The person who is unknown this week may become best friend or sworn enemy next week. Enemies become friends and vice versa.
When we start the practice it is tempting to think that what we are doing is trying to become as loving to 'bad' people as we are to 'good' - but that is not what we are doing. Instead we are learning the delusion of splitting the world up into known and unknown, liked and disliked.
Metta practice always starts with generating love and goodwill to our self. This is important for two reasons. Firstly because for many of us our ability to love others is limited by our ability to love our self. If we are full of self loathing or even simple insecurity we will find it hard to truly love others. So sometimes it is good to just practice generating goodwill and love to our self.
The second reason practicing Metta for our self is important is that we can use it as a benchmark for how we work with others. We know that we feel suffering and wish to be happy, and we can practice understanding that the same is true for all others too - even those we fail to like.
In our day-to-day life we take a very 'situational' view on how we judge people. An example I like to give is to imagine that you are driving down the freeway, and as you change lane you realize that you have just badly cut someone up. Your thoughts in that moment are probably initially of embarrassment, and then of rationalization - "I'm tired," "I was distracted by thoughts of work," "It was hard to see."
Of course, when we turn things around and someone cuts us up the judgement is usually much quicker - "They're an idiot and shouldn't be allowed on the road."
This is the situational thinking. If we were truly rational we would instead recognize that the same reasoning should be applied here. Instead of immediately assuming they are terrible drivers we could wonder if they are having a bad day - just like we sometimes do.
It is this kind of re-framing that the Metta meditation practice helps us to achieve. It isn't so that we can be some magnanimous being who can deign to love bad people. Instead its so that we can understand that deep down we share a common experience of suffering, that we all wish to be happy and free from that suffering.
I have linked below a fully guided meditation where we follow the traditional Metta Bhavana form with an emphasis on exploring this false duality of 'self' versus 'other.' If you are unfamiliar with the form then this would be a good one to practice to start. A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm on Sunday 21st March - you are welcome to join with us if you wish.